Strange Cases: Wood Chips, Bone Fragments and a Clean Machine

mulch wood chips

It was in the middle of a severe snowstorm in November of 1986 that a snowplow driver clearing roads in Newtown, Connecticut had to make his way around a U-Haul box van. It had a wood chipper trailer attached to the back.  The truck and chipper were parked on a bridge over a narrow section of Lake Zoar, away from any wood source. The snowplow driver thought it doubly curious, since more than a foot of snow covered any branches on the ground, and the extreme conditions made sure that most people were inside their homes. On his return plow, he noticed that the box was open and wood chips were scattered around.  He thought nothing of it until later, when publicity about the disappearance of Helle Crafts was reaching a peak.

 

Nobody cleans a machine like that.

Ultimately, evidence in the form of a $900 rental charge on a credit card record led investigators to Darien Rental, where the husband of a missing woman had rented a commercial grade Asplungh Badger Bush Bandit 100 model wood chipper. This machine was not commonly rented by homeowners, especially in the middle of winter, so it was still parked in the rental lot when the police arrived. Investigators led by Dr. Harry Lee, director of one of Connecticut’s forensic crime laboratories, towed the machine back to the crime lab for inspection.

What they discovered — or rather what they did not discover — was any evidence that the old machine had been used recently at all.  It had been completely cleaned; evidence of extensive use of bleach was discovered, and no minute debris was present in any crevice or crack at all. The rental company told investigators that they had never seen any landscaping machine returned so spotless.

 

More bizarre than a Cohen brothers’ movie.

These two facts were intriguing enough for the Joel and Ethan Cohen to include them in one of their quirky movies. Fargo, a 1966 American crime film, starred Frances McDormand as a pregnant police chief in Minnesota, and William H. Macy as a struggling car salesman married to a rich man’s daughter who hires two kidnappers to hold his wife for ransom. Things go wrong, and the wife takes an unexpected trip through a wood chipper into a lake.

The film won Academy Award nominations and many other awards and was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress in 2006.

The Cohen Brothers, on the Special Edition DVD trivia track, discuss how the Helle Crafts murder case from Connecticut inspired the movie, although other Minnesota cases were thrown into the mix for additional story elements.

 

Deeper into the case file: nothing but the facts.

The husband, Richard Crafts, was a philanderer, a gun enthusiast, an airline pilot and a wanna-be cop. The wife, Elle Crafts, a beautiful mother of three had been a flight attendant when they met.  Gradually, their marriage became contentious over Richard’s affairs and he took to hurting her in retribution. Helle told friends in late 1986 that if anything happened to her, “don’t assume it was an accident”.

Later, prosecutors put the story together. Richard had killed his wife in their bedroom on November 19. He put her body in a freezer he had just purchased (and which later vanished), and cut the frozen parts up with a chain saw. That saw was found in Lake Zoar adjacent to where the truck and chipper had been parked, with its serial numbers filed off.

Richard told investigators, friends and family that his wife had disappeared via various means. In one account, he said she had gone to her sister’s home, since power was out at their house due to the storm. In another, he said she had gone back to visit her mother in Denmark. Other people, including police interrogators, eventually heard other variations. But without physical evidence, only suspicion was cast on the man.

 

Launching the career of Dr. Harry Lee.

Dr. Harry Lee, one of the nation’s foremost forensic Investigators and prolific as a writer, TV presenter and teacher was lead investigator on this case early in his career. His style of microscopic investigation yielded the only physical evidence found in the home and at the lake shore. Both investigations were hampered by the efforts of the murderer to clean the scene, but perseverance and a bit of intense scrutiny won out.

Under extreme conditions, Dr. Lee organized a search of the house and found four drops of blood in the bedroom, type O+, the same blood type as the wife. At the lake shore, they collected thousands of tiny bits of evidence, including bits of a letter addressed to Helle, blond hair and tissue fibers mixed in with wood debris, some teeth and 65 pieces of bone that had been “cut with a heavy-type cutting edge that produced a crushing and cutting force”.

The trial of Richard Crafts initially ended in a mistrial due to one hold out juror, but in the second trial, he was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life.  Do you wonder if he has had a chance to watch the Fargo movie?

 

Your Turn: Do you know of any similar crimes where the lack of evidence actually helped to confirm investigators’ suspicions? What do you think of the story that inspired the film, Fargo? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

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