Woodchipper murder case from 30 years ago was pivotal for forensic scientists

Helle Crafts's body found in pieces in Lake Zoar back in 1986. (WFSB photo)

Thirty years ago this week, a murder took place in Connecticut that would launch modern forensic science.

In 1986, airline stewardess Helle Crafts of Newtown disappeared.

Her husband, airline pilot Richard Crafts, was charged, tried and sentenced in what would become known as "The Woodchipper" murder case.

New London Superior Court was packed for both trials.

They were the first murder trials in Connecticut during which cameras were allowed.

“We had to first establish the fact a death, and to establish the fact of death we relied 95 percent on forensics," said Walter Flanagan, a now-retired Danbury state's attorney.

Flanagan had to prove to juries of two trials that Helle Crafts did not disappear like her husband claimed. He was out to prove she was murdered.

Renowned forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee showed jurors fragments of bone, hair and other evidence. He ultimately proved the victim was murdered, despite her body never being found.

"This case actually revolutionized the investigation technology," Lee said.

Late on the night of Nov. 19 a Southbury town snow plow driver spotted a large wood chipper being operated in the middle of the night on the shore of Lake Zoar, during a freak snowstorm.

Lee headed up the forensics team that Christmas week to thaw the ground and filter everything for shreds of human evidence.

"The turning point was on Lake Zoar. We decide to melt the snow inch-by-inch," Lee said.

Lee would testify that Richard Crafts beat his wife with a blunt object, cut her up with a powerful chainsaw, then froze her body parts in a new freezer he bought that was never found.

Connecticut State Police divers would recover the chainsaw in Lake Zoar along with hair, pieces of bone and tissue, a human fingernail and crowns to the victim's teeth.

"When I took the chainsaw back to the laboratory we had no connection, no knowledge this chainsaw was linked to Craft," Lee said.

Forensic scientists said if the woodchipper case happened today, they'd be able to use alternative light sources to identify evidence.

"Some of these light sources are capable of revealing bone fragments, which obviously was important in a case like that. Being able to fluoresce some of those biological items which would have made it easier for searching," said John Brunetti, a forensic science examiner.

Today it's also easier to identify someone's DNA. All that's needed now are 20 skin cells to profile a person.

"Today, the advances that we have, we're just looking for things that may be skin cells. That people may have touched, worn or left behind. Just the unseen that we also have to keep in mind,” said Lucinda Lope-Phelan, deputy director of Identification.

"We're able to provide investigative leads that people would not have been able to dream of not that long ago,” said Carll Ladd, a forensic DNA expert.

As for 79-year-old Richard Crafts, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the murder of Helle Crafts.

He won't be eligible for parole until 2022.

Lee, noted for his work on the Jon Benet Ramsey and O.J. Simpson cases, told Eyewitness News at the time that Helle Crafts' murder trial was pivotal case for forensics scientists.

It was one in which science helped prove a murder took place and that evidence could be anything.

Copyright 2016 WFSB (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.


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