If the notorious expression Woodchipper Murder is familiar to you, don’t be surprised. Helle Crafts was a fine woman who was murdered by her psychopathological husband, who then disposed of her body via a woodchipper. Fortunately Richard Crafts wasn’t able to get away with such a vile crime and ironically it would be the woodchipper that led to his arrest and conviction. The movie Fargo featured a scene where an assassin tried to dispose of his partner’s body in the same manner. This channeled the Woodchipper Murder of Helle Crafts.
Helle Lorck Nielsen was a Danish airline stewardess, who was married to Richard Crafts, an airline pilot and special constable (I’ll say he was special). The Crafts had a tumultuous marriage Helle discovered that Crafts was having a 20-year relationship with another woman. Crafts usually had relationships with other women over the long term. Accordingly she began divorce proceedings against him. Helle was frequently depressed about her husband’s infidelity and the impending divorce. Her lawyer, Diane Anderson, advised Helle to hire a private investigator to document Craft’s affairs. Anderson contracted an investigator named Keith Mayo. Mayo agreed and followed Crafts. He produced photographic evidence of Crafts’ activities and gave them to Helle, who was devastated to have her fears confirmed.
On the night of November 19, 1986, a friend of Helle’s dropped her off at home in Newtown Connecticut. It was Thanksgiving and she was excited about celebrating the holiday with her family. An uncharacteristic snowstorm for that season suddenly began. There was a power outage. This was the last day anyone would see Helle alive.
On November 22, flight attendant Trudy Horvath contacted Crafts to ask about his wife’s whereabouts. He said that Helle had gone to visit her mother in Denmark because the latter was sick. He told her Helle’s car was parked in the usual spot at the airport. But when the car remained in the spot for 3 days, friends panicked. Helle’s friend Lina Johanssen followed up on Crafts’ story and contacted Helle’s mother who had no idea of her daughter’s whereabouts. Other friends contacted Crafts. He told others that she had left him, and he did not know of her whereabouts. Richard also stated that she was in the Canary Islands with a friend.
Friends grew more suspicious. They had never liked Crafts and they knew Helle would never leave her children. They were very 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.” Friends filed a missing persons report and recounted what Helle told the to police. Police questioned Crafts about Helle and demanded to know where Helle could be found. Crafts insisted that Helle had simply left. Crafts agreed to take a polygraph test which he passed with no deception. Crafts was cleared as a suspect.
A forensic investigation was led by renowned forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee. Investigators conducted extensive interviews with friends, family and neighbours. They reviewed Helle’s credit cards and telephone calling cards. There was no activity for Helle’s cards. As time passed, police became more concerned about Helle’s whereabouts. Finally the family’s nanny, Dawn Marie Thomas, 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. Investigators searched a local dump site and found the carpet from the Crafts’ bedroom. However Lee informed police there was nothing on the carpet to suggest foul play.
By December 25, the police had obtained a search warrant for the Crafts’ premises. They uncovered a few clues: several pieces of carpet from the Crafts’ bedroom were removed from the floor. A blood smear was also uncovered on the side of the Crafts’ bed. Police found among Craft’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, Mayo found in papers provided to him by Helle a receipt for a chainsaw. In an eerie irony, while still alive Helle had given Mayo proof of a piece of equipment her husband would use to help dispose of her body.
A snowplough driver who knew Crafts 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 and Lee focused their search around that area for many days in the frigid cold, 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, half a toenail covered in pink nail polish,56 bone chips, 2,660 bleached, 2,260 damaged blonde human hairs, fingernails, and O bloodblood. Lee determined the remains were the same type as Helle Crafts’.
Lee and investigators began sifting through the bone chips and realized that an ordinary instrument couldn’t produce chips this size and shape. Analysis led the police to conclude the remains had gone through a woodchipper. Moreover, police divers found a chainsaw at the bottom of Lake Zoar.
Prosecutors believed that Crafts first struck Helle in the head with something blunt (like a police flashlight) at least twice, which explained blood stains found on the Crafts’ mattress, then carried her body to the freezer where Crafts 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.
However, 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. When investigators arrived at Crafts’ residence he wouldn’t leave the house. His three young children were in the residence with him. It was critical to avoid a confrontation. Eventually he left the house and was taken into custody in January 1987.
Media descended on Connecticut from around the world – something that was unusual in this day when there were no television programs covering major crime, such as CNN. The trial then began in May 1988, in which forensic evidence was key. The atmosphere was that of a circus. However, on July 15, 1988, a mistrial was declared when the jury became deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction when one juror walked out of 17 days of deliberations, the longest in the state, after refusing to vote to convict. He commented to the media, “I’m done. I’m not going back in there. They’ll have to carry me in.”
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 of First Degree Murder, on November 21, 1989, three years and two days after Helle was last seen alive. This was the first case in the history of Connecticut where a conviction for murder was made without a body. In January 1990, Richard Crafts was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. He will be eligible for parole in 2021.
Pop Culture References to Woodchipper Murder
A parody of the Woodchipper Murder called the Woodchipper Massacre was released in 1988. Forensic Files documented Helle’s murder in its pilot episode, during season one. Howard Stern did a thoughtless parody of the murder on his radio show. A biographical account of the marriage and murder of the Crafts entitled The Woodchipper Murder was published in 2015. Another account by the same name was published in 1989 as a first edition then again in 2001.