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Notorious Crafts Murder Shook Newtown Ten Years Ago



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Date: Fri 22-Nov-1996

with photos: Notorious Crafts Murder Shook Newtown Ten Years Ago


It was 10 years ago this week that police believe former Newtown resident Richard Crafts murdered his wife then disposed of her body along the banks of Lake Zoar using a chain saw and a wood chipper.

One of the most notorious and bizarre crimes to have ever taken place in Newtown, the "Wood Chipper Murder" is still fresh in people's minds a decade later.

On November 18, 1986, Pan Am flight attendant Helle Crafts, 39, who lived at 5 Newfield Lane, was last seen alive. She wasn't reported missing until December 1.

More than a month later, State Police arrested Eastern Airlines pilot Richard Crafts, 49, at his home, charging him with the murder of his wife. He was held on $750,000 bond. His children, ages 8, 10 and 12 at the time, were removed from the home and put in the custody of Mr Crafts' sister, Karen Rogers, in Westport.

Major crime investigators literally combed the woods looking for evidence near the river about one mile north of the Silver Bridge on River Road in Southbury. There, amid a pile of wood chips, they found a 1-inch piece of a finger, several hundred strands of hair, a finger nail, a tooth, a toenail, bone fragments, flesh, and letters addressed to Mrs Crafts. Divers were also in on the investigation, actually locating a chain that was said to belong to the chainsaw Mr Crafts used in the crime. That was found in the water below the Silver Bridge.

The horrifying accounts of the murder stunned and shocked the community, known more for its quality of life than for gruesome deaths. Newtown suddenly became the focus of widespread media coverage.

Many curiosity seekers drove by the crime scene to see the large tent set up next to the Major Crime Squad van along the edge of River Road in Southbury, where police were sifting for evidence.

Mrs Crafts was trying to serve her husband with divorce papers before she disappeared. Suspecting he was having an affair, she apparently told her attorney that if she disappeared not to assume it was an accident. Her car was later found parked at Kennedy International Airport.

Mr Crafts worked as an auxiliary police officer for the Newtown police and had been employed as a part-time cop in Southbury at the time of his arrest.

Assisting in the state police investigation was renowned forensics expert Dr Henry Lee, who later went on to testify for the defense in the trial of OJ Simpson.

It took two trials to convict Mr Crafts. The first, held at Danbury Superior Court, ended in a mistrial in 1987. The second trial was moved to New London where a guilty verdict was rendered in November 1989. Mr Crafts was sentenced to 50 years in prison. He was the first man ever convicted of murder in Connecticut without the discovery of the victim's body.

Mr Crafts, who in 1984 was diagnosed with colon cancer and given a two percent chance of survival. Today, Richard Crafts, now 59, remains in prison at the MacDougall Correctional Institution, a newly constructed high security prison in Suffield. His release eligibility date is listed as 2022.

Piecing Together Evidence

The guilty verdict was based on key physical evidence and testimony given by several witnesses called by the prosecution: Dr Lee; the owner of Darien Rentals, where Mr Crafts rented the woodchipper; the Crafts' babysitter and a Southbury snow plow driver, who claimed he saw a woodchipper parked along River Road on the snowy night the murder was believed to have taken place.

Dawn Marie Thomas, the Crafts' live-in babysitter, testified that she was at work at MacDonald's in Danbury on the stormy night of November 18 and did not return home until around 2 am the following morning. A few hours later, she said Mr Crafts acted strangely, waking her early and taking her and the children to his sister's house in Westport, saying the power was out and it would get too cold to stay. Mr Crafts reportedly returned to Newtown for the rest of the day. When he picked them up later in the day and returned home, the babysitter recalled Mr Crafts saying Helle had to go off to Denmark unexpectedly to visit her sick mother.

A few days later, she said, she saw a large black spot on the carpet in the couple's bedroom, which Mr Crafts said was left after he spilled kerosene. The carpeting was removed a couple days later, according to the babysitter.

Mr Crafts reportedly played down the mysterious disappearance of his wife whenever friends called to inquire. He even took a trip to Florida with his kids during the holidays.

Also testifying was Southbury highway worker, Joseph Hine, who in the early morning hours of November 19, spotted a woodchipper and U-Haul truck along the side of River Road. He said a man standing alongside motioned him by.

Investigators believed that Mr Crafts hit his wife over the head with a police flashlight and may have then strangled her. From there, he is believed to have stored her body overnight in a large freezer in his garage. Eventually, police said, he took her body to a plot of land he owned off Currituck Road and cut her body into pieces, later to be put through the wood chipper.

The freezer has never been found.

Mr Crafts's conviction was upheld in an appeal to the State Supreme Court in July, 1993.

Police Investigation Questioned

Around the time of the arrest, questions began arising about the job done by Newtown Police Chief Louis Marchese and Det Michael DeJoseph in the days after Mrs Crafts was reported missing. Private investigator Keith Mayo, who had been hired by Mrs Crafts prior to her disappearance, requested investigations be conducted by the town. After much discussion and delays, the town's Police Commission voted against conducting any investigations of the local police in February 1994.

Mr Mayo figured prominently in a book written about the case by author Arthur Herzog, which painted a negative picture of the Newtown police and emphasized Mr Mayo's work in the investigation. Many believe the private investigator's work in the days after Mrs Crafts disappearance was key in breaking the case.

Mr Mayo declined to talk with The Bee about the case this week.

The Craft children, now ages 22, 20 and 18, were put in the custody of Karen Rogers of Westport, Richard Crafts' sister.

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