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Altar Boy's Murder Re-Examined

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Danny Croteau and his teenage friends thought the parish priest was "cool." He let them thumb through the Playboy magazines he kept under the driver's seat of his convertible and always made sure there was enough leftover Communion wine for them to share.

But Danny's friends also told police investigating the boy's murder that the priest had his dark side and could become violent when crossed.

Their statements were among more than 2,000 pages of investigative and court records released Wednesday in the unsolved 1972 killing of the 13-year-old altar boy. Defrocked priest Richard Lavigne, who served 10 years probation for molesting two other altar boys in 1992, remains the only publicly identified suspect.

An attorney for 24 people who Lavigne sexually abused them had sued to see the documents, and the state's highest court last week ordered them released, saying that after more than 30 years there was no longer a good reason to keep them sealed.

Danny's parents, Carl and Bernice Croteau, hope the release will generate new leads or prompt someone to come forward. They had not yet seen the documents as of Wednesday night but were aware of the contents.

"It's frustrating, it's difficult, but we realize in order to get this thing moving we've got to have the publicity, too," Carl Croteau said. "The more actively it's put out there, the better chances of this being solved, no question about it."

Most of the information had leaked out over the years. But some details were new, including that police had checked the tires on Lavigne's car against tracks near the murder scene. They were not a match.

A call to Lavigne's attorney, Max Stern, was not immediately returned late Wednesday afternoon. Lavigne, of Chicopee, has steadfastly maintained his innocence in Danny's murder.

In a statement included with a police affidavit, Stephen Burnett said he had been Danny's best friend when they were in parochial school and had served Mass for Lavigne with Danny for about a year.

When they served funeral masses, Lavigne would take them out of school and afterward, Burnett said, "Danny and I would share one chalice of wine."

"We thought Father Lavigne was a cool guy. He didn't act like a priest ... very carefree and never serious outside of church," Burnett told police. "We would cruise with him in a car which was a convertible ... I do remember that there were Playboy magazines in the convertible, under the driver's seat. Father Lavigne gave them to us to look at and in fact encouraged it."

Yet, Burnett said there were also many occasions when the boys were playing street hockey and "all of a sudden I would see Danny crying." Then, he recalled, he would look up the street to see Lavigne waiting for Danny in a car parked at a discreet distance.

Following last week's ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, the district attorney's office released an autopsy report showing Croteau had a blood alcohol level of .18 - more than twice the legal limit for driving - when he died from a blow to the head on April 15, 1972. His body was found on the bank of the Chicopee River.

The autopsy report listed no physical evidence of sexual abuse.

The government reopened the case last year to pursue more sophisticated DNA testing, but revealed last week that no tests had connected Lavigne to the crime.

Lavigne was not publicly identified as a suspect until the 1990s. But the former priest, who came to the morgue with Carl Croteau to identify Danny's body, had become an early suspect, according to the released documents.

Danny's brother, Carl Croteau Jr., told police he believed he recognized Lavigne's voice in an anonymous call made to the family's home two days after the body was discovered. The caller said "We're very sorry what happened to Danny. He saw something ... he shouldn't have seen. It was an accident."

Shortly after the killing Lavigne asked investigators "If a stone was used and thrown in the river, would the blood still be on it? In such a popular hangout with so many cars and footprints, how can the prints you have be of any help?"

Still, investigators said they failed to find enough evidence to charge Lavigne.

By Trudy Tynan