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Kevin Cullen

A boy's death revisited

Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / January 17, 2008

SPRINGFIELD - Danny Croteau has been dead these 36 years, dead almost three times as long as he was alive.

He was 13 years old, an altar boy, when they fished his body out of the Chicopee River, his head bashed in.

From the very beginning, the chief suspect was a local priest, Richard Lavigne. But it was a time and a place when few would believe a priest could molest, much less kill, a child. Whether it was incompetence, conspiracy, or a lack of evidence, no one was ever charged with Danny Croteau's death, even though it seemed as if just about every police officer who worked on a case that has spanned four decades believes the killer was Richard Lavigne.

Lavigne was coddled by his superiors in the Springfield Diocese for 20 years, shipped from parish to parish, where he molested children throughout Western Massachusetts, killing souls just as surely as some believe he killed Danny Croteau.

While Lavigne was convicted of sexually abusing children and defrocked, the evidence against him in Danny Croteau's murder is almost entirely circumstantial. It is a case that William M. Bennett, the district attorney in Hampden County, has been unwilling to take to a grand jury to seek an indictment, even though Bennett made a point of reopening the case when he succeeded Matthew Ryan as DA 17 years ago.

Lavigne, who has always maintained his innocence, lives in his mother's house in Chicopee.

Carl Croteau and his wife, Bunny, sat in their living room here in Sixteen Acres the other day, as they do every day, glancing occasionally at the portrait of their son Danny that hangs on one wall, over the television set. There are withered palms from last Palm Sunday tucked behind the frame, dry and wispy, as fragile as the truth that has eluded them for 36 years.

The Croteaus remain faithful Roman Catholics. Carl Croteau goes to Mass every day, up the street, at St. Catherine of Siena, where he serves communion. If they never lost faith in a church whose bishops protected the man they believe murdered their son, they have lost confidence in those entrusted with finding who killed Danny. They don't want to pick a fight with the DA, but they don't know what else to do.

"We'd like to see a fresh pair of eyes take a look at this," Carl Croteau said. "All over the country, you see these cold cases, 30, 40 years old, they get solved because a new set of eyes took a look."

They want Attorney General Martha Coakley to step in. They think the FBI could look at it, too, because Danny's body was found under a bridge that is federal property.

The Croteaus could file a wrongful death suit. The burden of proof in a civil case, which requires a preponderance of evidence, is lower than in a criminal one, which demands proof beyond reasonable doubt. But they have resisted that option.

"Once you file a civil suit, it becomes about money," Carl Croteau said. "We don't want money. We want the truth. If it wasn't Lavigne, that's great. We can live with that. We want this to go to trial, or at least be told why it can't go to trial."

I called Bill Bennett yesterday. I expected him to be defensive, with so many people second-guessing him. But he said he had no objection to Coakley's office looking at the evidence. Same goes for the feds, he said.

"I have no reluctance to sharing the information we have with any other law enforcement agency," Bennett said.

For Carl and Bunny Croteau's sake - maybe even for Richard Lavigne's - there has to be a more definitive explanation.

If the AG does step in, she won't need to be reminded who Richard Lavigne is. After the whispers grew too loud in Springfield all those years ago, Lavigne's superiors transferred him up to North Adams. One parish over, in a parish named St. Joseph's, a schoolgirl named Martha Coakley sang in the choir.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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