A friend who can't forgetBy Alan Wirzbicki and Marshall Sloane
As children in the early 1970s, Stephen Burnett and Danny Croteau both served as altar boys at a Springfield church for Father Richard R. Lavigne, a notorious child abuser who would later be convicted of molesting boys across Western Massachusetts.
Burnett is alive, Croteau is not.
But Burnett still has vivid memories of Croteau, his childhood friend, who was murdered in 1972 at age 13. Croteau’s body was found April 25 under a bridge in Chicopee. The murder weapon was a rock. Although Lavigne has never been charged in the killing and has always maintained his innocence, the now-defrocked priest is the only publicly identified suspect in the unsolved murder.
AdvertisementContinue reading below
In his first media interview, Burnett recalls a long-gone era of big, close-knit families in their Springfield neighborhood of Sixteen Acres. It was a place where no one stayed inside watching TV, where kids played hockey in the streets and baseball in the backyards all day long.
“He was a very true, loyal friend. . . . I think he would have done anything that I asked of him if I needed anything. That type of kid. Big smile. Huge smile. Good kid. Good friend,” Burnett says.
At first, being an altar boy at St. Catherine’s seemed like a great privilege for the boys, Burnett remembers. More than once, he uses the words “big deal” to describe how the convertible-driving priest made them feel.
“He used to come and get us in his car at the school, and he would take us to funerals and things and get us out of school. That was a big deal,” Burnett says. “Father Lavigne would take us for ice cream. He had Playboys under the seats. He used to show them to us and all that stuff. That was a big deal back then.
“But then, the more I think about it — again I was young, I didn’t know what was going on — but he would watch us get changed, he would offer us wine. . . . Things like that at that age were just wrong.”
Burnett’s father moved the family to Mississippi before Croteau’s death, but Burnett remembers learning about the news from Massachusetts. He wonders how he would have reacted if he still lived in Springfield then.
“I don’t know what I would have done, but I probably would have done the wrong thing and got in trouble. But living so far away, it wasn’t the same.”
Years after the case, Hampden County prosecutors would face allegations that the district attorney at the time, Matthew J. Ryan Jr., soft-peddled the investigation when it became clear a priest was the main suspect. Looking back, Burnett thinks it was too hard for many of his neighbors at the time to even consider the possibility that a priest could endanger a child.
“I can’t remember hearing anything about a priest doing anything bad back then. I don’t know. I wasn’t old enough to comprehend and understand everything.”
It’s been 44 years. Lavigne, now a registered sex offender, still lives in Chicopee.
Burnett says he still wants justice done in the murder.
“It’s for Danny that I want this solved, not for me. You know what I mean? He deserves it.”
Produced by Elaina Natario, Laura Colarusso, Heather Hopp-Bruce, Alex Kingsbury, Jeremy D. Goodwin, and Mary Creane
Lead image by Alejo Porras