The Lady Vanishes, and a Woodchipper Leaves Just a Shred of Evidence
Perhaps Helle Crafts should not have gone home on that wintry November night in 1986. A flight attendant with Pan American World Airways, Helle, 39, had flown in from Frankfurt and was bone-weary as she car-pooled with two other flight attendants from New York’s Kennedy Airport to her home in rural Newtown, Conn. During the one-hour journey, storm clouds gathered that would blanket the area with five inches of snow overnight. It was about 6:30 p.m. when they pulled up in front of the four-bedroom ranch house Helle shared with her husband, Richard, then 48, an $85,000-a-year pilot for Eastern Airlines, and their three children. Helle noticed a light at the front door and, as she turned to go, said matter-of-factly, “Oh, Richard’s home.” Her friends never saw her again.
Over the next few days, when Helle failed to turn up for work and could not be located by anxious friends, word of her disappearance spread quickly. So too did whispers of suspicion. A native of Denmark, with delicate features and pale blue eyes, Helle had a spotless 17-year record with Pan Am and was a devoted mother. Those who knew her well could not imagine her simply walking out on her job and family. They suspected foul play, and in their minds there was only one logical suspect.
Helle’s friends had always viewed Richard Crafts as a strangely aloof and secretive man, and they knew that a marital breakup had been imminent. After discovering that Crafts was having an affair with another flight attendant, Helle had resolved to divorce him and claim custody of Andrew, then 10, Thomas, 6, and Kristina, 4. She wanted Richard out of the house, she had told friends, and out of her life for good.
During the three-day storm that swept into Newtown the night Helle arrived home for the last time, a local highway worker named Joe Hine came across a baffling sight while putting in long hours at the wheel of a snowplow. Late at night, on a narrow country road, Hine found his path blocked by a woodchipper hitched to a U-Haul truck. A man in an orange poncho stepped out from beside the woodchipper and, gesturing like a traffic cop, waved the snowplow past. Why would anyone be out in a storm using a woodchipper? Hine asked himself; it didn’t make any sense at all.
Six weeks later, state police decided that maybe it did. Finally, this spring, during a 15-week trial that dragged on through the first month of summer, Connecticut prosecutors would portray Richard Crafts as the most callous of killers. Faced with the destruction of his comfortable life, they argued, Crafts coldly planned to eliminate his wife of 11 years, disposing of her body so that it would be virtually impossible for anyone to prove he had murdered her. According to the prosecution, Crafts dismembered and probably froze Helle’s body before feeding it through a powerful woodchipper. Helle’s only mortal remains were minute fragments of bone, hair and tissue weighing just two-thirds of an ounce. “[Richard Crafts] accepted the challenge of the perfect crime,” argued State’s Attorney Walter Flanagan. “And he came within two-thirds of an ounce of committing it.”
The case was the first murder trial in Connecticut history with such scant evidence of a corpse. Indeed the defense did not concede that Helle Crafts was dead. “A woman who speaks several languages and has extensive travel experiences,” argued Crafts’s attorney Daniel Sagarin, “is certainly in a position to make herself disappear.” Eleven jurors disagreed. But after 17 days of deliberation, a record in Connecticut, Warren Maskell, Jr., a 47-year-old carpenter, forced a mistrial when he abruptly walked out of the jury room and refused to continue. Maskell had visited a nearby church every day at lunchtime, seeking divine guidance, and his belief in Crafts’s innocence was unshaken to the end. “A woman who was sick of trying to change a guy could just take off and say the hell with it,” he explained. “I think Helle Crafts might still be alive.”
When Helle met with attorney Dianne Andersen in September 1986, Helle was convinced Richard was unfaithful to her, and she wanted a divorce. To Andersen, the case seemed routine. But Helle hinted that Richard could be dangerous; he had an arsenal of rifles, machine guns, even grenade launchers in their basement. “If something happens to me,” said Helle, “please don’t assume it was an accident.”
When it came to guns, Richard Crafts was no mere collector. In the early ’60s, after a stint as a Marine aviator, he joined Air America, Inc., an airline operated by the CIA, and had spent five years flying risky, covert missions in Laos. Later, he kept himself combat ready; as recently as June 1986, he’d taken a course at the Lethal Force Institute in Concord, N.H., where civilians are taught to shoot to kill in simulated conditions of danger.
Despite Crafts’s cloak-and-dagger background, his extramarital love life was easily unveiled. At Andersen’s suggestion Helle hired Keith Mayo, a private investigator, who photographed Crafts kissing Nancy Dodd, a tall, blond Eastern Airlines flight attendant, after they had spent the night together at her New Jersey home. After seeing Mayo’s pictures, Helle confided in Rita Buonanno, a Pan Am flight attendant who lived nearby. “If Richard ever found out what I’ve been doing, he would kill me,” she said.
Finally, early in October, Helle got up the courage to tell Richard she wanted a divorce. To her surprise, he seemed undisturbed by the news. “Helle said he put his hand on her head and said, ‘Anything you want, dear,’ ” Buonnano would testify at his trial.
A few weeks later, Crafts went on a curious shopping spree. On Nov. 13 he ordered a new freezer chest. The dealer would testify that Crafts refused to give his name or address and insisted on paying cash and picking up the 200-pound unit himself on Nov. 17. Crafts also made several telephone inquiries about renting a woodchipper, ostensibly to clear some downed tree branches from his property. Shunning local equipment suppliers, Crafts contracted with a dealer an hour’s drive from his home for a three-day rental beginning Nov. 18. He chose the largest model available, a 4,220-pound Brush Bandit capable of shredding logs 12 inches in diameter.
On Nov. 14 the Craftses’ live-in nanny, Dawn Marie Thomas, then 19, overheard an angry shouting match between Richard and Helle. When the couple emerged from the bedroom several hours later, Helle was inconsolable. “Richard tried to put his arm around her,” Dawn Marie testified, “but she just walked away.”
Helle described the blowup two days later during a layover dinner in Frankfurt with Buonanno and another flight attendant, Gertrude Horvath. “I know he’s up to something,” Helle said. “I just don’t know what.”
After Helle returned home on Nov. 18, the storm swirled over western Connecticut and downed power lines, causing a blackout in Newtown. At 6 the next morning, Crafts woke the nanny, telling her that since the heat and electricity were off, they would all have to go to the home of his sister Karen Rodgers, in Westport, 30 miles away. According to the nanny’s testimony, Crafts explained that Helle had already gone on ahead. Yet when they reached his sister’s home, there was no sign of Helle. Showing little concern, Richard calmly fixed pancakes for the kids.
Crafts drove back alone to Newtown after breakfast. Power was restored by 10:30 a.m., but he didn’t retrieve his children and the nanny until evening, and driving them home he fell asleep at the wheel. Within the next few days, Dawn Marie Thomas noticed a grapefruit-size, brownish stain on the master-bedroom carpet. Crafts, who said he had spilled some kerosene from a portable heater, promptly ripped up the entire carpet and hauled it to a garbage dump. It was never recovered.
When Buonanno called during the next few days to inquire about her friend’s whereabouts, Crafts had surprising news. Helle had left for Denmark, he said, because her 81-year-old mother, Elisabeth Nielsen, had been hospitalized. A few days later Buonanno was dismayed to learn that Helle had not requested emergency leave from Pan Am and faced automatic dismissal. She tried to phone Helle in Denmark only to find that the number Richard had given her was wrong. Alarmed, Buonanno discussed the situation with other flight attendants. When one of them finally reached Helle’s mother, Elisabeth Nielsen said she was well and had not heard from Helle in weeks.
Almost at once attorney Andersen began receiving frantic calls from several people who believed something terrible had happened to Helle Crafts. In a way it was Helle who had raised the alarm. She had told at least five friends what she had told Andersen: “If anything happens to me, don’t assume it was an accident.”
At Andersen’s request, private investigator Mayo tried to get the local police to take immediate action. But Crafts had been an auxiliary policeman in Newtown for four years and was then a part-time cop in neighboring Southbury. The Newtown police saw no reason to question Crafts’s word. “They were totally indifferent,” says Mayo. “They believed Helle was a stray dog who would come home when she was good and ready.” On Dec. 26 State’s Attorney Walter Flanagan, disturbed by lack of progress in the case, officially turned the investigation over to the state police.
While Crafts and his children celebrated Christmas in Florida with relatives, investigators searched their Newtown home. The house was in complete disarray, with furniture piled everywhere, and the mattress in the master bedroom was dotted with human blood—though it couldn’t be proved to be Helle’s. If Crafts had killed his wife in the bedroom, as police suspected, there was no weapon and no proof.
Then Joe Hine reported his strange encounter during the storm. He took two detectives to the shores of Lake Zoar, where he had seen the mysterious woodchipper, and there, in a pile of frozen woodchips and debris, police found several address stickers and a torn envelope bearing Helle Crafts’s name. They were struck by a grisly suspicion. A few months earlier, a man in the area had been convicted of cruelty to animals after throwing a neighbor’s noisy dog into a woodchipper. Crafts could have heard about that. Was it conceivable that he had used the same method to dispose of his wife’s body? “We all tried to suppress the thought,” says State Police Inspector Tony Dalessio. “It was just too much to believe someone could do something so inhuman.”
On Jan. 6 state police called Crafts in for questioning. He denied any knowledge of Helle’s whereabouts and cried as he described his children’s concern over her disappearance. Later he joked about his extramarital dalliances. “In the airlines business there are numerous opportunities presented to you,” he said. “I’m not sexually overactive. I don’t think I’m a pervert. But if the opportunity presents itself, I would not turn it down.” He admitted to a long-term relationship with Nancy Dodd and revealed he also had a second mistress, another Eastern flight attendant.
While Crafts bantered with detectives, police divers were searching for evidence in the murky waters of Lake Zoar. Braving freezing temperatures for four days, they brought up a chain saw, which was subsequently traced to Richard Crafts. On it, forensics experts would discover human tissue and strands of blond hair. Meanwhile investigators combed the shoreline inch by inch, using kerosene heaters to thaw the ground. They succeeded in recovering human fragments, including parts of a thumb, a big toe and a minute chip from a skull. The remains could not be positively identified as those of the suspected victim, but police also found two teeth. After comparing them with dental X rays, forensic odontologists would testify that Helle Crafts was no longer missing.
On Jan. 13, 1987, Helle Crafts was declared legally dead. Police arrested Richard Crafts and booked him for murder. Unable to raise $750,000 bail, Crafts remained in jail for 16 months while prosecutors prepared a complex circumstantial case against him.
At the trial, prosecutor Flanagan depicted Crafts as a man with “nerves of steel and ice in his veins. What other kind of person,” he asked, “could do something like this to their spouse and the mother of their children? Most of us couldn’t even do it to a rat.” In an attempt to prove that Helle Crafts was dead, the prosecution presented the results of exhaustive forensics experiments. But the critical identification of the two teeth found at Lake Zoar was disputed by experts called by the defense, and when Crafts took the stand, he was extraordinarily calm, almost nonchalant. He admitted he had been unfaithful to Helle, but suggested his wife was no saint and had lured him into marriage by getting pregnant. On the night she disappeared, Helle had left without offering any explanation, he maintained. “She was all right the last time I saw her,” he said.
Throughout the prolonged jury deliberations, Warren Maskell was the lone juror voting for acquittal. For Maskell, the seeds of doubt were planted early when Helle’s mother, Elisabeth Nielsen, appeared as a witness for the prosecution. “When she was asked to identify Crafts, she pointed to him and smiled,” says Maskell. “That would not have been the reaction of my own mother-in-law if I had been accused of killing her daughter and putting her through a woodchipper.” Maskell believes some unknown person could have planted the evidence found at the lake. “I think Crafts might have been framed,” he says.
Eight days into the deliberations, Maskell crashed his truck into a telephone pole on his way home and was hospitalized with head injuries and two cracked ribs. But after three days’ rest, he insisted he could continue. “When we asked him what had caused the crash, he said, ‘I thought I saw Helle driving by,’ ” says juror Elizabeth Farbotka. “We all laughed, and he played it up as a joke. But I think he actually meant it.” Finally, after nine more days of haggling with his fellow jurors, Maskell decided to walk out. “I kept looking at the door handle, and it started looking bigger and more inviting,” he says. “And as soon as I walked out the door, it was like jumping into a cool pool.” When Maskell—risking jail for contempt of court—defied Judge Barry Schaller’s order to continue deliberating, the judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial.
Prosecutor Flanagan described the trial’s outcome as “a terrible disappointment” and vowed to press for a retrial. Defense attorney Sagarin said he planned to file for reduction of Crafts’s bail. For now, Crafts’s children are in the custody of his sister Karen Rodgers, who testified for the prosecution that Crafts showed little concern after Helle’s disappearance. The children have visited Crafts in jail on several occasions. “If they want to continue seeing their father, we will allow it,” says Karen’s husband, David. “If they don’t, we won’t.” As for the once and presumably future defendant, Crafts says he wants nothing more than to be reunited with what remains of his family. “Clearly we’re deeply disappointed” by the mistrial, said Sagarin. “Richard wanted to go home to his kids.”
—Additional reporting by Arthur Herzog and Patrick O’Neil in New London