The Murder of Helle Crafts

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EARLY LIFE:

Helle Crafts was born on July 4, 1947 in Charlottenlund, Denmark. In 1969, while training to be a flight attendant for Pan American in Florida, she met her future husband, Richard, who was a pilot for Eastern Airlines, as well as a part time police officer and former Marine pilot. Prior to meeting Helle, he had been with Air American Inc., where he spent five years flying covert missions in Laos.

Richard and Helle got married in the mid-1970s and settled in Newtown, Connecticut, where they had three children: Andrew, Thomas and Kristina.

In 1984, Richard was diagnosed with late stage cancer and was given a low chance of surviving. However, after receiving treatment, he was told he was in remission.

It was known amongst their friends and colleagues that the pair had a rocky marriage. Helle had admitted that Richard would sometimes hit her, and her friends saw him as being aloof and secretive.

LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:

In the fall of 1986, Helle sought out a lawyer to discuss the possibility of divorcing Richard, as she suspected him of having an affair. She had noticed an unknown long distance phone number on their phone records and she felt her husband had been lying to her. She hired detective Keith Mayo to look into the matter and he was able to provide photographic evidence of the affair.

In October 1986, Helle officially filed for divorce and during the meeting with her lawyer said, “If anything ever happens to me, don’t think it was an accident,” as she was scared of how Richard would react upon her telling him the news. It was later discovered that he’d claimed his cancer had returned in order to try and get Helle to cancel the divorce, but she’d called his doctor and found out he was in perfect health.

DISAPPEARANCE:

Between 6:30pm and 7:00pm on November 18, 1986, Helle was dropped off at home by a friend upon returning from a flight from Frankfurt to New York City.

A few days later, Helle missed her next flight assignment and hadn’t called to let Pan American know she would be missing her shift. Richard was contacted and he told the company that she’d gone to Denmark to look after her mother, who had fallen ill. His story would later change to say Helle had gone on vacation with a friend.

INVESTIGATION & DISCOVERY:

Not long after Helle was last seen, Detective Mayo was contacted to look into the missing woman’s disappearance, as it was believed Richard was lying about her whereabouts. As the police were initially dismissive about the disappearance, Detective Mayo launched his own investigation.

During his investigation, Detective Mayo interviewed the family’s nanny, Dawn Marie Thomas, who told him she’d noticed a dark stain on bedroom carpet shortly after Helle went missing. The carpet was later ripped up without explanation. As well, Dawn noted that a large freezer, which had been relatively new, had gone missing from the garage.

Dawn also told Detective Mayo about Richard’s strange behaviour on November 19. She explained how he’d taken her and the children to his sister’s house, due to a power outage in the area, and had claimed Helle was already there. However, upon arriving, Helle was nowhere in sight and Richard didn’t seem too concerned about where his wife was.

Eventually, the police became involved in the investigation and Richard’s credit card history was looked into. It was discovered he’d rented a wood chipper shortly before his wife went missing, as well as a U-Haul truck.

A snowplow driver came forward and reported having seen a wood chipper on the bridge that ran over the Housatonic River, around 3:30am on the night after Helle was last seen. He claimed a man wearing an orange poncho had been standing near it, and that he’d seen the same wood chipper an hour later on River Road.

In order to find evidence, investigators took the driver to the exact location he’d seen the wood chipper and began looking in the surrounding area. During a search of the riverbank, they discovered wood chips, an envelope with Helle’s name on it, strands of blonde hair, small bone fragments, blue fibres, a piece of metal and a painted red nail.

Divers searched the depths of the Housatonic River and discovered pieces of a chainsaw, which had had its serial number scratched off. There were hairs and fibres stuck in the teeth that matched those found on the riverbank, and through some work, investigators were able to reveal the scratched-off serial number, which read “5921616”. The number matched the warranty card that had been sent in by Richard.

A search of the house was then conducted in order to connect the items found on the riverbank to the Crafts family. It was discovered that the nail polish on the nail matched that of a bottle found in the home and the hairs found matched those in Helle’s hairbrush. As well, dental x-rays would prove the piece of metal was actually a crown from one of Helle’s teeth, which would later be discovered in a subsequent search.

As the investigation drew on, the story made news across the United States and worldwide.

On December 26, 1986, while Richard and the children were in Florida visiting with relatives, the State Attorney turned over the investigation to the State Police, hoping more progress would be made.

The State Police brought in renowned forensic investigator Dr. Henry Lee to anaylze the evidence that had been collected. He was able to discover five tiny bloodstains on the mattress, which matched Helle’s blood type, and was able to surmise the missing woman had been struck by a blunt-force object, based on the trajectory of the bloodstains. He also discovered blood on bathroom towels taken from the home.

In order to prove the bones found were Helle’s and that her body had been put through the wood chipper, Dr. Lee conducted his own test, using a dead pig and the same wood chipper. He was able to show that the wood chipper produced a unique signature groove that matched those on the bone fragments found on the riverbank.

Tests were also conducted on tissue-like material found in the back of the U-Haul Richard had rented, which came back positive for human remains.

The missing freezer was never found.

On January 5, 1987, Richard was brought in for questioning and was subjected to a polygraph test, which he passed.

Helle Crafts was legally declared dead on January 13, 1987.

ARREST & SENTENCING:

On January 13, 1987, Richard was arrested and held on $750,000 bail.

Due to the publicity the case had received, prosecutors had to move the trial to New London, Connecticut. Their argument was that Richard had killed his wife because he hadn’t wanted a divorce. In order to prove their case, they laid out for jurors the chain of events.

On November 13, 1986, Richard had ordered a new freezer. The dealer was brought to testify in court and said Richard had refused to give his name or address, and insisted on paying in cash and picking up the freezer himself.

Dawn was also brought in to testify and told jurors that she’d heard Helle and Richard fighting on November 14, after which Helle had been noticeably upset.

According to prosecutors, on the night of her disappearance, Helle put the children to bed around 8:00pm, before changing into her nightshirt, which matched the blue fibres found on the riverbank, and checking the mail. Once in her room, Richard struck her head twice with his police flashlight, before wrapping her body in the bedsheets and stuffing it into the freezer in the garage. He then returned to the bedroom to try and clean up the bloodstain on the carper using the bathroom towels.

After dropping off Dawn and the children at his sister’s house, Richard returned home, where he took Helle’s body out of the freezer and transported it in the U-Haul to the Housatonic River, where he dismembered it with the chainsaw and ran it through the wood chipper. As the body was frozen, there was no blood splatter. Afterward, he took apart the chainsaw and threw it into the river.

Upon the prosecution resting its case, Richard took the stand in his own defence and denied he had killed his wife.

After a few days of jury deliberation, the trial was deemed a mistrial, as one of the jurors felt unable to convict Richard of the murder. A second trial was set for November 1989 and Richard was found guilty after eight hours of jury deliberation. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison by the judge overseeing the trial. He will be eligible for parole in 2022.

The trial was the first to allow cameras in the courtroom and was the first murder conviction in Connecticut without a body.

AFTERMATH:

Upon their father’s arrest, Helle and Richard’s children stayed with friends, with two launching a campaign to help raise money for the three. Richard’s sister, Karen Rodgers, eventually took the children in and raised them. She is of the belief her brother killed her sister-in-law.

In 1993, Richard appealed his conviction, citing the circumstantial evidence wasn’t enough to garner a conviction and that the publicity the crime had received ensured he hadn’t been able to get a fair trial. However, the State Supreme Court upheld the conviction. During the same year, Richard also requested access to Helle’s estate, but was denied.

The case was the inspiration for the 1996 Coen Brothers film, Fargo.

In 1999, Keith Mayo passed away due to injuries sustained in a car accident.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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