Murder of Helle Crafts
|Born||Helle Lorck Nielsen
July 4, 1947
|Died||November 19, 1986
Newtown, Connecticut, U.S.
Helle Crafts (born Helle Lorck Nielsen, July 4, 1947 – November 19, 1986) was a Danish flight attendant who was murdered by her husband, Richard Crafts, an airline pilot and special constable. Her murder is sometimes called the "Woodchipper Murder" because of the method by which Richard Crafts disposed of her body. Her death brought about the first murder conviction in the state of Connecticut in which a body was never found.
Helle Crafts had known about her husband Richard's affairs with other women and had begun divorce proceedings against him. On the night of Wednesday, November 19, 1986, a friend of Helle's dropped her off at home in Newtown, Connecticut. This was the last time anyone but her husband saw her.
During the next few weeks, friends of Helle tried to contact her, but were told different stories by her husband. Richard told some that Helle had gone to visit her mother in Denmark. He told others that she had left, and he did not know where she was. Richard also stated that she was in the Canary Islands with a friend. Friends grew suspicious and concerned about Helle's safety because they already knew about Richard's aggression and fiery temper. Helle once said, "If something happens to me, don't think it was an accident."
By December 25, the police had obtained a search warrant for the Crafts' premises. They uncovered a few clues: several pieces of carpet from Richard and Helle's bedroom were removed from the floor. The family's nanny also came forward and told police of a dark, grapefruit-sized stain she had seen on the carpet of the bedroom, but that patch of carpet had apparently been removed. A blood smear was also uncovered on the side of the Crafts' bed. Police found among Richard's credit card records evidence that he had made several unusual purchases around the time his wife had vanished, including a new freezer that was not found in the house, new bed sheets, a comforter, and $900 for the rental of a woodchipper. Later, a private investigator, who had been hired by Helle Crafts, found in papers provided to him by Helle a receipt for a chainsaw. The chainsaw was later found in Lake Zoar in Newtown, Connecticut, and forensics experts would determine that it was covered in hair and blood that was matched by DNA to Helle.
A snowplow driver who knew Richard eventually came forward and said he had seen Richard using a woodchipper late at night near the shore of Lake Zoar, during a severe snowstorm. This was late on the night of November 19, the night Helle was last seen. With this new information, police focused their search around that area for many days, and even scanned the icy cold lake for clues. They found many pieces of metal, less than 3 ounces (85 g) of human remains, including a tooth with unique dental work, a toenail covered in pink nail polish, bone chips, 2,660 bleached, blonde human hairs, fingernails and O type blood, the same type as Helle Crafts'. Analysis led the police to conclude the remains had gone through a woodchipper. The forensic investigation was led by renowned forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee.
The police theory was that in their bedroom, Richard first knocked Helle unconscious with something blunt, which would explain the blood stains found, then carried her body to the freezer where he left it for some time. Police further postulated that Richard had taken Helle's body out of the freezer on the night he was seen at the river by the snowplow driver, chopped it into several large portions with the chainsaw, and then put them through the woodchipper. The police believed the dismembered pieces of Helle's body were then scattered into the river and the area around it.
But Crafts could not be tried for causing his wife's death until state agencies officially recorded her as deceased, and the absence of an identifiable body posed obstacles to that conclusion. After a forensic dentist confirmed that the found tooth was a match to Helle's dental records, the Connecticut State Medical Examiner's Office accepted this as admissible evidence and issued a death certificate for her and Richard Crafts was arrested for Helle's murder in January 1987. Due to extensive publicity, Crafts' trial was moved to New London, Connecticut. The trial then began in May 1988, in which forensic evidence was key. However on July 15, 1988, a mistrial was declared after the jury became deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction when one juror walked out of deliberations after refusing to vote to convict. Crafts was retried but the trial was moved to Norwalk, Connecticut, again due to the massive publicity surrounding the case and subsequent mistrial in New London. He was found guilty on November 21, 1989, three years and two days after Helle was last seen alive. In January 1990, Richard Crafts was sentenced to serve 50 years in state prison.
In popular culture
- In the 1989 film Woodchipper Massacre, children kill their aunt, freeze her corpse, dismember it, and then put it in a woodchipper.
- The case inspired filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen to write their 1996 Academy Award winning film, Fargo.
- The pilot episode of Forensic Files (1996) documents the investigation.
- In 1997, New Detectives outlined the events in an episode titled "Body of Evidence".
- In 1998, the case was featured on History Television's series, Crime Stories.
- In July 2012, Investigation Discovery revisited the investigation of the case in their Blood, Lies, and Alibis episode entitled "Woodchipper Killer," focusing particularly on Lee's forensic analyses.
- John George Haigh, another case in which murder was proven without a body
- The Woodchipper Wife Killer. Crime Stories. 2008.
- Gado, Mark. "The Woodchipper Murder Case Chapter 13 – A Verdict Arrives.". truTV Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods (Time Warner). Retrieved 2010-03-11.
- "Sentence". The New York Times. 1990-01-09. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
- P.Dowling "The Official Forensic Files Casebook", p.10-11 ISBN 0-7434-7949-1
- "The Woodchipper Wife-Killer — Crime Stories — History Television". History.ca. Retrieved 2010-09-06.