Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Wood Chipper Murder Case

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Things happened very quickly over that next week. Investigators learned that the $900 charge on Crafts' Master Card at Darien Rentals was payment for a woodchipper. Crafts had rented and picked up a very large woodchipper, called a Brush Bandit, on November 19 and apparently used it to chip a quantity of wood. Detectives began to think the unthinkable. Then, on the afternoon of December 30, 1986, Detectives Patrick McCafferty and T.K. Brown, members of the Western District Major Crime Squad, located Joseph Hine, the utility man from Southbury, who was plowing snow on River Road during a storm. They listened to his story about observing a woodchipper and a U-Haul parked on the side of the road in the middle of the night. Detectives drove Hine over to the shores of the Housatonic River just outside of Southbury. Hine pointed out the exact spot where he observed the truck towing a woodchipper. It was an area of the river known as Lake Zoar.

Lake Zoar, an overlook view
Lake Zoar, an overlook view

Detectives saw piles of wood chips along the banks of the river. There seemed to be small pieces of a green plastic substance strewn about and intermingled with the chips. Det. Brown got down on his hands and knees and sifted through some of the material. There was a cold wind coming in off the river and the skies looked ready for more snow. The detective noticed some scraps of shredded paper partially covered by the debris. He managed to find a few pieces of mail. Through a little plastic cellophane window on an envelope, he could plainly read the name and address: "Miss Helle L. Crafts 5 Newfield Lane, Newtown, Connecticut." He shouted to his partner, "Something's definitely wrong here!" Within an hour, a search team from police headquarters descended upon the scene. They hastily set up a perimeter and performed an organized search of the potential crime scene. Every inch of the ground was gone over at least twice as the team photographed each bit of evidence that was removed from the site. Several additional envelopes bearing Helle's name were located within the hour. They found numerous strands of blonde hair, bone fragments, fabrics, cloth, plastic items, wood chips and many fragments of unidentified material. Every piece of material, no matter how small, would have to undergo scientific analysis at the state police forensic laboratory in Meriden. "As I knew from my past experience," writes Dr. Lee in Cracking Cases, "we would have to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that those remains were those of Helle Crafts and that she was murdered. Otherwise, there had been no homicide, and thus, Richard Crafts could not be charged."

Newtown Police Department shoulder patch
Newtown Police Department
shoulder patch

Soon, detectives responded to the rental agency in nearby Darien where Crafts rented the woodchipper machine. They secured copies of the agreement and luckily, the exact machine was in the rear parking lot of the rental shop. It was towed over to the state police forensic lab where it would be examined for additional evidence. In the meantime, the difficult work at Lake Zoar continued.

For days, detectives and police diving teams searched the crime scene area at least one mile in both directions form the site. The Housatonic River was extremely cold, too cold for divers to stay in for long. Police obtained permission to lower the water level by restricting flow at the power dam upriver. Divers located a Stihl chain embedded in the muddy bottom of the river. The serial number had been filed off but it seemed to have been in the water only for a short time. The discovery renewed the hopes of the police teams and they continued the backbreaking job of searching in the bitter cold for almost two weeks. Days later, their labors were rewarded once again. One detective discovered a piece of a human toe. And shortly afterwards, a fragment of a finger was found, then part of a tooth. Police sloughed through river mud that was knee deep, trembling from the cold and the icy waters of the Housatonic. But still, they pushed on.

In the end, Dr. Lee said, "Our team's efforts at Lake Zoar eventually led to the discovery of 2,660 strands of blond hair, 69 slivers of human bone, 5 droplets of human blood, 2 teeth, a truncated piece of human skull, 3 ounces of human tissue, a portion of human finger, 1 fingernail, and 1 portion of toe nail."

Helle Crafts had been found.
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