By now, nearly everyone has either watched or heard about the sure-to-be block buster series, “Fargo” on FX, and by now people are asking if it’s really based on actual events. After all, it says it’s a true story at the very beginning, they might say. But, like the movie this series is based on (with the events supposedly occurring in 1987), Fargo is no more factual than it was when the Coen brothers first brought Paul Bunyon and Babe to the big screen.
There was, however, a similar murder in Newton, Connecticut.
Helle and Richard Crafts seemed the perfect couple, including a house in the suburbs, 3 kids, and exciting careers. Helle, petite and blond, could have been a poster child for stewardesses. She was perky, likeable, and had many friends. She was loved. Richard led a busy life as a pilot and member of the auxiliary police force. Life seemed a series of Kodak moments. Only those photos were figuratively retouched.
The Crafts murder was far from ideal. Marriage didn’t stop Richard from sleeping with other women, and marriage didn’t keep him from battering his wife. Friends and neighbors reported that Helle, a native of Denmark, was frequently seen sporting evidence of Richard’s abuse in the form of bruises and welts.
In the early morning hours of November 18, 1986, Richard woke the family nanny and explained that Helle had decided to pay a visit to her in-laws in Westport; an odd decision as far as the nanny was concerned, since a very bad winter storm was rolling through the area, making travel unwise at best. Richard packed up the kids and nanny, and also headed to his sister’s house, telling the nanny that Helle would meet them there. Of course, Helle was nowhere to be found, and was never seen from again.
It wasn’t until December 1, however, that Helle was reported missing, and that report was filed by her private investigator, concerned that he had not heard from his client. The private investigator had been hired by Helle to document her husband’s indiscretions. The police were already aware of Richard, of course; after all, he was an auxiliary officer. Although he was one of their own, it wasn’t long before he became their prime suspect.
Richard’s story often changed, as it tends to do with the guilty. He claimed Helle had gone to visit his sister that snowy morning, then explained that she had left him, had left her children, and returned to Denmark to be with her ailing mother, and once even claimed that Helle was spending time with her best friend in the Canary Islands. On questioning by police, Crafts said he was too ashamed to admit his wife had left him, and that’s why he told so many alternate stories of her whereabouts.
Despite no admission on questioning, and despite passing a polygraph test, the evidence was piling up. It was everywhere, yet the body could not be found. Helle herself had told friends that if something were to happen to her, not to assume it was an accident. Story after story was shared with the police; stories of bruises, stories of other women, and most damning of all, stories of replaced carpeting in the master bedroom, but despite all these stories, it was the private investigator who initially dug for the truth, literally.
Sure that his client had been killed by her husband, Keith Mayo, the private investigator, gathered a group of volunteers, who spent days digging through the local dump until some apparently blood-stained carpeting was found. Unfortunately, the stains turned out not to be blood, but the quest was not for naught. Mayo’s search of the dump caught the attention of local media, and the case busted wide open.
Circumstantial evidence led to a search warrant, and Richard Crafts vacationing in Florida led to the search, which led to a stockpile of weapons and the eerie glow of Luminol “hitting” on blood. The press reported the news, and the tips poured in.
Joseph Hine, a snowplow driver, had the most interesting story of all to tell. In the middle of that November night, as the fateful snow storm was blowing in, Hine observed a U-Haul pulling a wood chipper parked along the side of the road, over-looking the Housatonic River, and there along the banks of the river, mixed among the wood chips scattered around, were tiny bits of human bone, hair, fabric, and scraps of envelops bearing Helle’s name and address. Later, with a more intensive search, a piece of finger, a part of a toe, some tooth pieces, and a chainsaw hunkered down in the mud were found.
Credit card records would show that Richard Crafts spent $900 to dispose of his wife; $900 for the rental of the wood chipper which reduced a vibrant, intelligent, beautiful mother of 3 into fragments scattered along the banks of the Housatonic River.
While the exact details may never be known, it is speculated by prosecutors that Richard Crafts bought a large, chest-type freezer in anticipation of killing his wife. He approached Helle, probably from behind as cowards do, bludgeoned her, and hid her body in the newly-purchased freezer. He then drove his children and the nanny to his sister’s house so he could dispose of his wife in peace. By the time he returned home, Helle’s body was frozen, making her dismemberment with the chain saw that much easier, and cleaner. It was then that Richard put Helle’s body parts into trash bags, and drove them, along with the wood chipper, to the side of the road over-looking the river, and calmly and systematically fed the machine pieces of his wife.
Forensics played a major role in solving this case. Forensic odontologists were able to match tooth fragments to Helle’s dental records, and even the chainsaw recovered from the riverbed was able to tell a damning story. The serial number, which had been filed off, was restored by a team of experts and led back to a purchase made by Richard Crafts 5 years before the murder.
Richard Craft’s first trial ended in a mistrial. One lone jury member had trouble understanding the scores of expert witness and the 650 pieces of evidence, and eventually refused to continue to cooperate with deliberations. A second trial, however, just over 3 years after Helle’s death, ended in a guilty verdict after only 8 hours of deliberation.
Richard Crafts was sentenced to 50 years in the state prison. Prisoner #152724 is housed in the MacDougall-Walker facility. His maximum release date is 2023. He’ll be 86 years old.