Monday, May 4, 2015

Dick the Chipper

Dr. Lee

At our New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, we have monthly dinner meetings, many of which feature guest speakers with special expertise. Years ago, when the story I am about to tell was recent history, our lecturer was Dr. Henry Chang-yu Lee, then Chief Forensic Pathologist for the State of Connecticut, now a renowned consultant and superhero in his field.  Dr. Lee’s presentation was unforgettable, and not just because he described a gory crime while were finishing our dessert of vanilla ice cream with blood-red raspberry sauce.  What sticks in my mind is the brilliance of how Dr. Lee developed his evidence, and the fact that he had us laughing out loud as he told us about it.

The case is generally known as the Wood-chipper murder.  My husband David came along to that meeting, interested because he had spent part of his childhood in Connecticut, not far from the scene of this crime.  David nicknamed the perpetrator “Dick the Chipper,” and so I have always thought of him since.

Here is the case Dr. Lee solved and proved, even though no body was ever found.

Richard Crafts was an airline pilot married to a Danish-born former flight attendant—Helle Crafts, nee’ Lorck Nielsen.   They had three children.  Richard served as a volunteer special constable on the local police force in Newtown, Connecticut where they lived.  In the fall of 1986, when Helle had it up to her neck with Richard’s extramarital affairs and overbearing control of her and the children, she hired a private detective and told her husband that she was going to sue him for divorce.

Helle disappeared on November 19th of that year.

Richard variously told people that she had gone to Denmark to visit her family or that she was vacationing in the Canary Islands with a friend.  Her close friends didn’t buy it.  They knew she had been unhappy, as did the PI.  Richard’s own sister told the police how devoted Helle was to her children and that she doubted Helle would have abandoned them.  On top of which, Helle had said to her closest friend, “If something happens to me, don’t think it was an accident.”  They all, including the PI, entreated the police to investigate, but as usual with missing persons cases, the cops waited a while.

It wasn’t until December 25th that the police got a search warrant and went into the Crafts’ house.  They found many clues.  Pieces of the carpet were missing from the master bedroom, including from a spot where the nanny testified she had seen a grapefruit-sized blood stain.  Richard’s credit card statements, recovered from the premises showed that, at the time his wife disappeared, he had bought new bed sheets and a comforter, a freezer that was nowhere on the property, and had paid $900 to rent a wood-chipper. The PI found the receipt for a chain saw among Helle’s papers.

The ensuing investigation turned up more damning evidence.  There had been a terrible snow and sleet storm the night of Helle’s disappearance.  Yet during that blizzard, a rented truck pulling a wood-chipper was seen beside a local road overlooking a river and again a little later that night, near the shore of a local lake.  The lake, according to Dr. Lee’s presentation to MWA-NY, was a favorite place for the county’s criminals to stash evidence.   Police dragged the lake and found the chainsaw.  Dr. Lee explained to us how they identified it as Richard Crafts’.  The receipt had the serial number, which had been filed off the saw itself.  But the FBI was able to retrieve the number with their advanced imaging methods.  Near the place where the chipper was seen, they found human remains: a tooth that belonged to Helle and also blonde hairs and fingernails that matched her blood-type.  A toenail was covered in pink nail polished that matched what she had used.

But they still had no actual corpse.

A first trial ended with a deadlocked jury, thanks to one hold out.  The defense could claim that any of the pieces of Helle that had been recovered could have been removed from her person and still have left her alive.

Dr. Lee and his team went back to work on the physical evidence.  As I recall, he told us there were more than 100,000 tiny bits.  And then EUREKA!  One miniscule bone fragment, seen under a microscope, was identifiable as coming from the inside of a human skull.  He showed a slide of it and pointed out the telltale markings.  One could not remove such a part from a living person.  Bingo!

The state issued a death certificate based on this evidence and retried Richard Crafts.  He was found guilty of first-degree murder.  During sentencing, his sister asked the court to give him the maximum punishment.  He was sentenced to 50 years in state prison.

He’s still there.

The movie "Fargo" was inspired by the Wood-chipper murder.

Annamaria - Monday


  1. That's what I love about you AmA, your always charming personality, your witty conversation, and your chipper attitude...

    1. And what I love about you, EvKa, is that in the face of such a dire story, you can make me laugh!

  2. Weirdly, I was talking about this murder just the other day. I recall seeing a very good documentary about it. I'm sure at some point in the programme an expert said that a wood chipper was a good way to get rid of a body, and if the body is deep frozen before hand, there will be a very reduced chance of leaving DNA on the teeth of the chipper. How true that is with today's techniques I do not know, but the case as described above is a marvellous example of true forensic detection. Thank you for letting me revisit it with the man who was actually there. I feel rather honoured.

    1. Your posts of the past inspired me in this one, Caro. We do have a gruesome tale or two around here. But unlike you and Dr. Lee, I can't tell them with your wit and verve. You and Dr. Lee have that in common--you can make people laugh in situation where they need it most!

    2. I also just watched that documentary - I was riveted to the screen. Amazing case. Thanks for reminding me of it, Annamaria.

    3. Stan, I didn't know about the documentary. I will go straight to Netflix and get it, if I can. I did some research for this blog, but I remember Dr. Lee's talk very vividly. When are you coming to the Western Hemisphere?

  3. I'm about to disappear for a few months, and I left my chainsaw in the foyer. There is a freezer in the dirt floor basement that hasn't been opened in a decade. And there are strange screeching sounds at night...

    I wonder if anyone will miss me?

  4. Charming story, and here I thought the Coen brothers invented it all. Good to read about Dr. Lee, and the smart people working for us.