Ten Years Ago, The Crafts Murder Case Was A Pivotal Experience For Many
Date: Fri 31-Jul-1998
Ten Years Ago, The Crafts Murder Case Was A Pivotal Experience For Many
BY LISA PETERSON
There are allegations of police misconduct and planting evidence. A novelist takes notes from the sidelines. A brilliant scientist produces clues for a winning case out of almost nothing. This is not a Hollywood script but the highlights of a 10-year-old murder trial that haunts a few and is remembered by many.
It was Friday, July 15, 1988, the 71st day of the trial, the 17th day of jury deliberations, and by lunchtime, the jury had spent 72 hours deciding Richard Crafts' fate.
Members of the press, trying to stay cool in the summer heat, were waiting for closure, waiting for a verdict, hoping to end five months of solitary confinement to writing about one topic.
Juror Warren Maskell sat alone for lunch that day. Rumors of an 11-1 guilty verdict were flying. Then at 4:35 pm the note came. The jury "had reached a strong majority but were at an impasse." Judge Barry Schaller instructed the jury once more for the minority to take a serious look at the thoughts of the majority.
The jury had already broken the longest state deliberations record and were on their way — using the most complex forensic evidence ever compiled by the Connecticut State Police and chief forensic scientist Dr Henry C. Lee — to the first murder conviction ever without a body.
All hope came to a screeching halt at 9:24 pm when Mr Maskell refused to deliberate any longer, stating in a note that deliberations were becoming "abusive and coercive" and he could "no longer continue with an open mind." By 9:27 pm the judge declared a mistrial. There was no verdict, conviction or closure.
Danbury State's Attorney Walter Flanagan was visibly angry, calling Mr Maskell a coward in front of the press corps. Mr Flanagan paid for those comments later with an undisclosed out-of-court settlement to Mr Maskell as a result of a slander lawsuit. But by November 1989, after a second trial in Norwalk, a jury found Mr Crafts guilty after only four days of deliberations, the day before Thanksgiving. He is serving a 50-year sentence, and in 1993 Mr Crafts' appeal was denied.
While closure took many years, in the scope of this case, nothing matched the antics and accusations during the first trial with more than 100 witnesses and hundreds of pieces of grisly evidence.
New York-based novelist Arthur Herzog, famous for writing such thrillers as Orca and The Swarm, was writing a book based on private detective Keith Mayo's involvement in the case.
Mr Mayo, hired by Helle Crafts to follow Richard on his trips to see a New Jersey girlfriend to gather ammunition for her divorce case, came into the national spotlight as the man who tried to solve a murder and get police to take him seriously.
Early in the trial, he testified about digging up a carpet in the Canterbury landfill that he believed was from the Crafts' bedroom, stained with blood from the murder. Dr Lee proved him wrong. Mr Mayo spoke of how he went to file a missing person report at the Newtown Police Department. He charged publicly the department moved too slow and was incompetent. He called for an independent investigation. Others claimed Newtown did not want to work with the state police on this case. Mr Flanagan eventually removed the case from Newtown's jurisdiction and handed the investigation over to the Connecticut State Police.
Alleged Police Misconduct
During the trial Newtown police officers testified about their investigations, which proved thorough and professional. However, the community was reeling from the alleged mishandling of the case, and the officers involved begged for an investigation to clear their work. It took the Newtown Police Commission seven years to decide not to investigate the department.
"The investigation should have been done when we asked for it originally. The time to do it would have been then," Michael DeJoseph, who was then a lieutenant in charge of the local detective division, said from his Washington, D.C., office this week.
"In the course of events, there was no mishandling of the investigation," Detective Robert Tvardzik said. Still a member of the Newtown force, he reflected on the events of ten years ago. "Today, because that investigation was never held, it doesn't really matter."
In hindsight he was right. Michael DeJoseph became police chief despite the allegations. Other officers were promoted as well. Mr DeJoseph eventually retired from the force. Today as director of planning and development for police operations for the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, he said he is enjoying life.
"I think more about Regina Brown than I do about Helle Crafts," Mr DeJoseph said. "I'd like to know why the same vigor wasn't placed on her case than was on Helle Crafts. After all these years that bothers me."
Regina Brown was another flight attendant who disappeared around the same time as Helle Crafts, who had three children, and whose husband was also a pilot.
There was never an arrest in that case.
"Every time a body is found or an unsolved missing person case is opened, I think about Crafts and the Regina Brown case," Det Tvardzik echoed.
"Many things remind me of this case," said Detective Sergeant Henry Stormer, who was then a junior patrolman and now heads the detective division once under fire. "Where we went wrong then has made me a better cop today."
Det Sgt Stormer felt this case was a catalyst. "Once [DeJoseph] became chief, the department was cleaned up. We began cooperation with other agencies. Today, we have very good relationships with the Major Crime Squad and the state police," he said.
"My only regret is that I didn't do more to bring attention to the lack of progress that was being made on the case," Det Sgt Stormer said. "But there was belief from the top that we were looking for a living person. We weren't allowed to continue."
"We didn't have the proper resources and the lack of cooperation didn't help. The state police spent half a million dollars investigating this case which was more than our whole budget for the fiscal year back then," Det Sgt Stormer recalled.
Claims Of Tampering
Defense Attorney Daniel Sagarin felt a budget restrained him as well, and if he had the money at the time, he would have hired substantial expert witnesses to help his claims of evidence tampering.
"The evidence had no integrity," Mr Sagarin claimed. "You can't tell me that there wasn't evidence tampering going on. For Helle's return address labels to show up at a place where body parts were found, after a search of the house. I will go to my grave thinking that evidence was planted."
"I have the most difficult time with the chainsaw," Mr Sagarin said. "It was dropped."
An article in The Newtown Bee on January 8, 1987 detailed state police dives for evidence under the silver bridge between Newtown and Southbury in the Housatonic River. Then Sgt Daniel Lewis of the CSP said that an "unidentified source" had alerted them to "something in the river." Lt Edward Daily said at the site that police had been "tipped off." Police found a chainsaw, and later in court, both denied that a source helped police find it.
"People weren't ready to believe that the police did things like that back then. But since that time, especially with the OJ trial, people think differently now. There are still many open questions," Mr Sagarin said from his office in Milford, where he still runs his practice. "There is much to be revisited."
Aside from the abundance of circumstantial evidence, the forensic science broke new ground. Dr Lee spent five days testifying about 48 bone fragments including parts of a tibia, thumb and skull, 2,600 strands of hair, a fingernail, skin and toenail. This evidence provided the forensic field with many scientific advances.
"The industry has adopted bone grouping by blood type which was never done before. We did a lot of research on that," said Dr Lee in a phone interview last week. Dr Lee was recently appointed Commissioner of Public Safety.
Other new procedures developed during the investigation that are now standard procedure include tissue typing by blood group, hair root and cut analysis, and the way in which scientists look at wood.
"It was the first time that we used wood as a clue," Dr Lee said. "In the early days, for example, in the Lindberg kidnapping, you had the ladder and analysis of wood grain. But we developed a whole area of analysis on wood chips."
This case was also the first in the country to have a conviction without a body, according to Dr Lee. Similar cases in Delaware, Texas and again in Connecticut look to precedents set by the Crafts trial.
"I have even investigated wood-chipper copycat murders in other states," Dr Lee said. While he claims to prefer keeping a low profile, since the Crafts case, Dr Lee has worked on the Waco cult fire, the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Today he is the lead forensic scientist on the Vince Foster suicide, the Jon Benet Ramsey murder, and even the John F. Kennedy assassination profile.
Crafts: Where Is He Now?
And the most likely candidate to play a starring role, Richard Crafts, had only a small walk-on part in this courtroom drama. Since his arrest in 1987 he has called numerous correctional institutes his home at a cost to taxpayers of approximately $23,000 per year.
His current address is the McDougall Correctional Institute in Suffield where he writes civil litigation from family matters to class action suits against wardens. According to Mr Crafts, the last time he was interviewed in 1993, he said, "I have enough civil litigation to keep me busy until the turn of the century."
His earliest release date is 2022.
(Lisa Peterson, a freelance reporter, was a staff member of The Newtown Bee when she reported on the Crafts trials a decade ago.)