Slain Altar Boy's Father Given New Hope With Release of Records

The father of a 13-year-old altar boy who was murdered 36 years ago said Monday he has renewed hope that his son's killer will be brought to justice after a judge ordered the release of thousands of pages of investigative records.

The family's former parish priest, Richard Lavigne, has long been considered a suspect in the death of Danny Croteau, who died from a blow to the head on April 15, 1972. The boy's body was found on the banks of the Chicopee River. Lavigne has never been charged and has denied any involvement.

One of the documents includes a statement from a witness who claims she saw the boy's parish priest the night Danny was killed, but was threatened by the then-bishop and district attorney from coming forward, according to a ruling last week by Berkshire Superior Court Associate Justice John Agostini. The document has not yet been released, and the judge does not spell out in his ruling what the woman claims she saw.

"This statement alleges a grave abuse of authority by the district attorney in 1972, and raises concerns about law enforcement authorities relationships with the Diocese and their handling of evidence incriminating Lavigne," the judge wrote.

Lavigne's attorney, Patricia Garin, said the witness referred to in the judge's ruling claims to have witnessed the killing. Garin said the woman "is completely incredible."

"She claims to have had visions [of Lavigne] in a posthypnotic dream, and that's why her statement has not been given too much credit," Garin said.

The boy's father, Carl Croteau, said he has only seen about 20 pages of the investigative records so far, but said he hopes the expected release of the documents will reinvigorate the stalled investigation.

"We've been in the dark for years," he said. "We hope this leads to something."

The Croteau family and their attorney, John Stobierski, on Monday called for a federal investigation into the killing and how the district attorney's office handled the investigation in 1972.

Garin said the case has already been thoroughly investigated.

"It's been investigated for 36 years now. The evidence that's come forward completely establishes his innocence," she said.

The documents are expected to be released next week, unless the district attorney appeals the ruling. Hampden District Attorney William Bennett did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

In a statement released Monday, the diocese said allegations that diocesan officials knew about clergy sexual abuse in 1972 have already been investigated by law enforcement and have not been substantiated.

"In all such cases, insofar as we can determine, everything contained within these law enforcement files has been known previously to investigators and has been thoroughly reviewed and investigated," the diocese said in its statement.

Lavigne was considered a suspect in Croteau's killing from the beginning, but was not named publicly as a suspect until the 1990s. In 1992, Lavigne was convicted of molesting two altar boys, and served 10 years of probation. In 2004, he was removed from the priesthood by the Vatican.

Agostini's order to release the documents came in a lawsuit filed by the Springfield diocese against its insurance carriers in clergy sex abuse lawsuits. The judge rejected arguments by the state police and district attorney's office, who said that releasing the documents to the public could jeopardize the investigation into Croteau's death.

The judge ordered the release, within 15 days, of statements gathered from 38 witnesses in the Croteau murder, including several people who told police they were sexually abused by Lavigne.

In addition, several witnesses who were not victims of abuse reported seeing Lavigne on the night of the murder at the murder scene or where the body was found, but waited many years to come forward "after being dissuaded by others from making statements," according to the judge's ruling.

Agostini said releasing the documents "would likely give others with relevant information, if any existed, the encouragement to come forward."