Former Priest Suspected in Killing Altar Boy in 1972 Dies Hours Before His Arrest

The Hampden County DA says Danny Croteau (left) was likely murdered by Richard Lavigne (right).
Danny Croteau (left) / Rev. Richard R. Lavigne (right)

Danny Croteau was the youngest of five brothers, who all served as altar boys at Saint Catherine's in Springfield, where Lavigne was a priest.

After a decades-long investigation, a Roman Catholic priest wound up as the suspect in a 1972 cold case killing of a young altar boy in Massachusetts, but he died hours before investigators planned to arrest him, prosecutors said this week.

Richard Lavigne has long been the suspect in the crime where 13-year-old Danny Croteau was found dead along the banks of the Chicopee River just a few miles from his home in Springfield nearly fifty years ago.

But, in a tragic ending with only little closure, Lavigne died Friday at the age of 80 in a hospital facility in Greenfield, Massachusetts, prosecutors said.

Hampden District Attorney Anthon Gulluni said that his office was preparing to prosecute Lavigne for the murder of Danny Croteau but he had died before they could arrest him.

Lavigne had made incriminating statements during several interviews this year with an investigator claiming that he brought Croteau to a riverbank, assaulted him, and left him there only to return later to find the boy floating in the water.

The entire recording was nearly 11 hours long.

Investigators played reporters a portion of the recorded interview where Lavigne said, "I just remember being heartbroken when I saw his body going down the river knowing I was responsible for giving him a good shove."

“Through all the interviews, Lavigne refused to affirmatively admit that he killed Danny Croteau. Lavigne at times was cagey and evasive, continuing his long-running attempts to mislead and distract investigators," prosecutors said.

"He made several statements to indicate that he was the last person to see Danny Croteau alive," prosecutors said. "He stated further that he neither attempted to rescue him nor alert Danny's parents or police of Danny's whereabouts or condition."

Danny's bludgeoned body was found on April 15, 1972. An autopsy revealed he was killed with a rock. He was still dressed in his clothes from the previous day at school.

At the time of the boy's death, Lavigne had already known Croteau's family, who he met in 1967. Danny Croteau was the youngest of five brothers, who all served as altar boys at Saint Catherine's in Springfield, where Lavigne was a priest.

The boys would often stay at Lavigne's home, where he hosted overnight visits.

Shortly after Danny was found dead, Lavigne reportedly called one of the victim's older brothers and said, "we're very sorry what happened to Danny. He saw something behind the Circle he shouldn't have. It was an accident."

Lavigne had also reportedly made a remark to investigators, asking "if  a stone was used and thrown in the river, would the blood still be on it?" 

Lavigne quickly became a person of interest in the crime during the early stages of the investigation but a lack of evidence left the case drawn out for 49 years.

In the years following, speculation grew around Lavigne after sex abuse allegations surfaced against the priest.

In 1992, Lavigne pleaded guilty to molesting young parishioners and was sentenced to 10 years of probation and seven months of mandatory sex-offender counseling.

Due to Lavigne's untimely death, "there will be no prosecution or trial. But, due to the credible and significant evidence that has been assembled in the last year that incriminates Richard Lavigne, I am announcing today that the investigation into the murder of Danny Croteau is now officially closed," prosecutors announced, according to WCVB.

The Springfield diocese called the end of the investigation a "sad closure to a tragic event," in an email to CBS News.

"It is incredibly disheartening to learn that a priest, a person ordained to care for God's people, would have committed such an evil crime and then not taken responsibility for his actions."

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