Murder of Helle Crafts
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Helle Lorck Nielsen
July 7, 1947
|Died||November 19, 1986 (aged 39)|
|Known for||Murder victim|
Helle Crafts (English: / / (listen); born Helle Lorck Nielsen; July 7, 1947 – November 19, 1986) was a Danish flight attendant who was murdered by her husband, Eastern Air Lines pilot Richard Crafts. Her death led to the state of Connecticut's first murder conviction without the victim's body.
This section relies largely or entirely on a single source. (June 2020)
Helle Nielsen married Richard Crafts in 1979 and settled with him in Newtown, Connecticut, United States. Helle continued working as a flight attendant while raising their three children. By 1985, she had learned that Richard had engaged in several affairs. In September 1986, Helle met with a divorce attorney and hired a private investigator, Keith Mayo, who snapped photos of Richard kissing another flight attendant outside her New Jersey home.
On November 18, 1986, friends dropped Helle off at the couple's Newtown residence after she had worked a long flight from Frankfurt, West Germany. She was never seen again. That night, a snowstorm hit the area. The next morning, Richard said he was taking Helle and their children to his sister's house in Westport. When he arrived, Helle was not with him. Over the next few weeks, Richard gave Helle's friends a variety of stories as to why they were unable to reach her: that she was visiting her mother in Denmark, that she was visiting the Canary Islands with a friend, or that he simply did not know her whereabouts. Helle's friends were aware that Richard had a volatile temper and grew concerned; Helle had told some of them, "If something happens to me, don't think it was an accident." She was not reported missing until December 1.
Mayo became convinced that Richard Crafts was involved in Helle Crafts' disappearance. Richard had been a volunteer constable in Newtown and was a part-time police officer in neighboring Southbury, and Mayo was unable to persuade local police to investigate him for murder. The county prosecutor eventually referred the case to the Connecticut State Police. On December 26, while Richard was vacationing with his children in Florida, troopers searched his home. Inside, they found pieces of carpet taken from the master bedroom floor. The family's nanny recalled that a dark, grapefruit-sized stain had appeared in an area of the carpet, which was later missing. There was also a blood smear on the side of the bed. The forensic investigation was led by Henry Lee, who at the time was an investigator for the state police.
Richard's credit card records showed several unusual purchases around the time Helle vanished, including a freezer that was not found in the house, bed sheets, and a comforter, as well as the rental of a woodchipper. Among papers provided to a private investigator by Richard was a receipt for a chainsaw, which was later found in Lake Zoar covered in hair and blood which matched Helle's DNA. The key piece of evidence was provided by Joseph Hine, a local man who worked for the town of Southbury and drove a town snowplow in the winter. On the night of November 18, hours after Helle had been last seen, Hine was plowing the roads during the snowstorm when he noticed a rental truck, with a woodchipper attached, parked close to the shore of Lake Zoar.
It was only after the search of the Crafts' house that Hine reported what he had seen. He led detectives to the location, where they examined the water's edge and found many small pieces of metal and some 3 ounces (85 g) of human tissue, including the crown of a tooth, a fingernail covered in pink nail polish, bone chips, 2,660 bleached-blonde human hairs, and O type blood, which was the same type as that of Helle Crafts. This led the police to conclude the remains had likely been fed through the woodchipper Richard had been seen towing. Additionally, a chainsaw that contained traces of blonde human hair was found under water. Though the serial code marking on the chainsaw was scrubbed away, investigators were able to recover the outline of the serial code by applying a type of forensic acid, and the code matched that on the receipt previously found by investigators, confirming that Richard was the owner of the chainsaw. Investigators concluded that Richard struck Helle in the head with something blunt at least twice, staining the carpet with blood, then kept her body in the freezer for hours until she was frozen solid. He then cut her apart with the chainsaw, and then put the pieces through the woodchipper, probably projecting her fragmented remains into the truck and then shoveling them out onto the shore.
A prosecution for homicide requires an official determination of the death of the alleged victim; typically this is done by identification of a body – which was not available in this case. With the help of a forensic dentist, the tooth crown found on the water's edge was positively matched to Helle's dental records. On this evidence, the Connecticut State Medical Examiner's Office issued a death certificate on January 13, 1987; Richard was immediately arrested. In preparation for trial, state medical examiner H. Wayne Carver obtained a pig carcass that was fed through a woodchipper. The shape of, and marks on, the pig's bone chips after this process were similar to the shape of Helle's bone fragments, strengthening the hypothesis that Richard had used a woodchipper to dispose of his wife's body.
Richard Crafts' murder trial began in May 1988 in New London, where it was moved due to extensive local publicity, and ended in July with a hung jury when a single juror voted in favor of acquittal before walking out of deliberations and refusing to return. A second trial in Norwalk ended in a guilty verdict on November 21, 1989. Richard was sentenced to serve 50 years in prison. Richard, as of January 2020, has been released from prison and is at a halfway house in New Haven.
In popular culture
The special edition DVD of the 1996 film Fargo contains a statement that the film was inspired by the Crafts case, particularly the very end of the film where a character is killed and their body is put through a woodchipper.
In "The Good Doctor", an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the investigation into the missing wife of a plastic surgeon leads to a successful conviction without a corpse, under the theory that the body was dissolved in sulfuric acid in the bathtub, and the bones dumped out of the husband's single-engine aircraft.
- The Woodchipper Wife Killer. Crime Stories. 2008.
- Ravo, Nick; Times, Special To the New York (1988-05-15). "Everything but a Body in Murder Trial". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-08-05.
- Gado, Mark. The Woodchipper Murder Case Chapter 13 – A Verdict Arrives. truTV Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods. Time Warner. Archived from the original on 2013-03-10. Retrieved 2010-03-11.
- Altimari, Dave (May 23, 2013). "Chief State Medical Examiner Carver Retires". Hartford Courant. Retrieved July 14, 2018.
- "Sentence". The New York Times. 1990-01-09. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
- Gado, Mark (1986-11-18). "All about the Woodchipper Murder Case". Crimelibrary.com. Archived from the original on 2008-05-12. Retrieved 2010-02-28.
- "The Disappearance of Helle Crafts" – via www.imdb.com.
- The Woodchipper Murder by Arthur Herzog