(AP) — A prosecutor said Monday that investigators were preparing to seek an arrest warrant for a defrocked Roman Catholic
priest who had long been suspected of murdering a western Massachusetts altar boy in 1972, just before his death
According to Hampden District Attorney
Anthony Gulluni, incriminating admissions made by Richard Lavigne
in a series of recent interviews while in a medical facility have further implicated the longtime suspect in Danny Croteau's death.
Gulluni said his office was ready to charge Lavigne with Croteau's murder, but he died on Friday at the age of 80 before he could be arrested.
Lavigne told investigators this year that he brought Croteau to the riverbank, assaulted him, left him there, and later returned to find the boy floating in the river, according to Gulluni.
“I just remember being heartbroken when I saw his body
floating down the river knowing I was responsible for giving him a good shove,” Lavigne said in one of the interviews shown to reporters.
Gulluni authorized investigators to present the evidence to a magistrate judge on Friday, before learning about Lavigne's death, according to the prosecutor.
“Based on the evidence, and particularly those admissions, I believe that as a prosecutor I was fulfilling my ethical duties by moving
toward the charge of murder against Richard Lavigne... and I believe we could prove it,” Gulluni said.
According to Gulluni, Lavigne, who has always maintained his innocence, never admitted to killing the boy in those interviews.
Danny Croteau's brother, Joe Croteau, expressed disappointment that Lavigne will not be prosecuted, but believes "there is a higher power and he will face that higher power now."
The Croteau family's parish priest, Lavigne, was the only named suspect in the death of the boy found dead in Chicopee, miles from the family's Springfield
home, but a lack of evidence left the case unsolved for decades.
Lavigne had a close relationship with Croteau's family and frequently hosted the boy for overnight visits. Days after Croteau's body was discovered, Lavigne asked authorities, "Would the blood still be on a stone thrown in the river?"
One of Croteau's other brothers told authorities that shortly after Danny's death, a man called and apologized for what happened, saying "it was an accident" and that the boy had seen "something" he shouldn't have. The caller refused to identify himself and hung up, but Croteau's brother said he recognized the voice as Lavigne's.
After sex abuse allegations against the priest surfaced years after Croteau's death, speculation about Lavigne's involvement increased.
In 1992, the priest pleaded guilty to molesting young male parishioners and was sentenced to ten years probation and seven months of mandatory sex offender counseling before being defrocked in 2003.
Croteau was last seen alive on April
14, 1972, and his bludgeoned body was discovered the next day on the banks of the Chicopee River, miles from his family's home in Springfield. An autopsy determined that the boy was killed with a rock.
Croteau's family claimed the priest abused their son and killed him to prevent him from reporting the abuse.
Gulluni's announcement, according to Springfield Diocese Bishop William Byrne, "brings sad closure to a tragic event" that has hung over the community for decades, he said in an emailed statement.
“It is extremely disheartening to learn that a priest, a person ordained to care for God’s people
, would commit such a heinous crime
and then refuse to accept responsibility for his actions,” he said.
The district attorney's surname is spelled Gulluni, not Gullini, as previously stated in this story.