Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Wood Chipper Murder Case

The Trial Begins

Due to the overwhelming amount of publicity on the case, the trial of Richard Crafts was moved to New London, Connecticut. Some newspapers dwelled on the sensational aspects of the killing, which was sure to affect the opinion of potential jurors in the Newtown area. One New York City paper, The Daily News, published a highly inflammatory front page on the day Crafts was arrested. CHOPPED TO PIECES! was the headline in big, bold print on January 14, 1987.

State's Attorney Walter F. Flanagan
State's Attorney Walter F.
Flanagan

The prosecution, led by State Attorney Walter Flanagan, put a virtual army of expert forensic witnesses on the stand. Dr. Henry Lee testified about the collection and analysis of thousands of pieces of evidence found in and around Lake Zoar. Although only minute quantities of bone and tissue were found, there was still a wealth of information to be gleaned from each item. Dr. Lee was able to determine that 65 pieces of bone were "cut with a heavy-type cutting edge that produced a crushing and cutting force." He said the bone, human tissue fibers and hair were all mixed together with wood chips and vegetative debris, but most importantly, the same machine cut it all.

New London courthouse
New London courthouse

One of the most damaging pieces of evidence offered at the trial, and there were many, was the chainsaw recovered at the bottom of the Housatonic River during the search of December 30, 1986. This item was a Stihl chainsaw with its serial number filed off. Technicians were able to find remnants of human tissue, blonde hair and a number of blue fibers in the teeth of the blade. The blue fibers matched the rug inside the Crafts home. The forensic lab at Meriden was able to restore the serial number even though it was heavily damaged. It matched a receipt belonging to Richard Crafts, indicating that he purchased the chainsaw on January 9, 1981, paying $644.95. But detectives didn't find the receipt during the search at his home. Keith Mayo gave that receipt to the police. When Helle Crafts first hired Mayo, she gave him a box of personal papers belonging to Richard. Ironically, the receipt was found with those papers.

However, it was the forensic odontology analysis that was able to prove conclusively that Helle Crafts' remains were found at Lake Zoar. During the search, two pieces of human teeth were retrieved from the water. One specimen was a tiny fragment of tooth with a piece of jawbone still attached. Dr. Constantine P. Karazulas, a forensic odontologist, testified that the tooth was removed from the mouth with "traumatic force that sheared it off and took the bone with it." Further, he said that if a dentist had removed the tooth, the base of the tooth would be clean and absent any jawbone residue. "In my opinion," Karazulas said, "this fracture occurred by a blunt force that fractured it to the center line and took the jaw with it."

The second tooth specimen was even more interesting, said Dr. Karazulas. It was only part of a tooth but it still had a metal crown attached. After the search, Karazulas took several hundred X-rays of the recovered tooth from all possible angles. Using a series of five sets of X-rays that were taken of Helle Crafts' teeth between 1980 and 1986, he performed a painstaking comparison between the evidence and the images of Helle's teeth. Karazulas said that the recovered tooth at Lake Zoar perfectly matched Helle's lower left bicuspid in the X-ray charts. He said that he was "medically absolutely certain" of the positive comparison.

The prosecution backed up Dr. Zarakulas' testimony with another odontologist, Dr. Lowell Levine. A forensic scientist from the New York State Police, Levine had helped identify the remains of Nazi Dr. Joseph Mengele in 1985 and also confirmed for the U. S. Congress that the body buried in the Washington, D.C., memorial was, in fact, President John F. Kennedy. Dr. Levine agreed with Dr. Zarakulas on the all-important tooth with the attached crown. "That tooth, the lower left second bicuspid", he said in dramatic tones, "belonged to Helle Crafts when she was alive." It was a crushing blow to the defense.

The case went to the jury on June 23. For the next two weeks, nine men and three women tried to reach a verdict. But one man, whose stubbornness and illogical interpretations of the evidence exasperated the rest of the jury, held out for a not guilty verdict. "It was like reasoning with a child," one juror later told reporters about the holdout. "He had real difficulty retaining." Another juror, Janis Rosseau, was even more blunt. "It wasn't chaos, it was hell!" she said to the press. Although other jurors tried in vain to convince the lone holdout, in the end, he simply refused to participate any further. On July 15, 1988, after 100 witnesses had testified and 650 exhibits were presented in an epic 53 day trial, a mistrial had to be declared.

Richard Crafts would have another chance at freedom.

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