Last week, we saw how Charles Stuart shot and killed his wife and invented a carjacking to cover his tracks. This week’s case, also in the northeast, involves an unusual attempt to hide a murder. In 1986, her airline pilot husband killed flight attendant Helle Crafts. He then took some truly bizarre stops to hide his crime. It was also the first Connecticut case where the state obtained a murder conviction without a body.
Helle Crafts was born Helle Lorck Nielsen in Charlottenlund Denmark in 1947. She married Richard Crafts, a pilot for Eastern Airlines in 1979. They lived in Newtown, Connecticut. Richard continued to fly for Eastern and Helle was a flight attendant for Pan Am.
By 1986, the couple had three children and a troubled marriage. Learning that Richard had had several affairs, Helle consulted a divorce attorney. She also hired private investigator Keith Mayo to get evidence of Richard’s infidelity.
Helle Crafts Disappears
On November 16, 1986, Helle worked a long flight from Frankfurt, West Germany (East and West Germany did not reunify until 1990). Friends dropped her off at the home she shared with Richard in Connecticut. They never saw her again.
Richard Crafts gave different versions of where his wife was. He told her friends she was in Denmark visiting her mother. At other times he said she was traveling in the Canary Islands with a friend. Then there were the times he said he simply didn’t know where she was. Helle’s friends weren’t buying it. They knew Richard had a volatile temper. And Helle told some of them, “If something happens to me, don’t think it was an accident.”
Where is Helle Crafts?
Private investigator Keith Mayo became convinced that Richard Crafts had something to do with Helle’s disappearance. But Crafts had been a volunteer constable in Newtown and was also a part-time officer in neighboring Sudbury. Therefore, the police were reluctant to investigate him for murder. Local authorities turned the case over to the Connecticut State Police on December 26.
While Richard vacationed with his children in Florida, troopers searched his Newtown home. They found blood stains on the side of a mattress and missing sections of carpet. Credit card records showed that about the time Helle went missing, Crafts had purchased bed sheets and a comforter. He had also bought a chainsaw and rented a woodchipper. Police later found the chainsaw in nearby Lake Zoar. On the saw, investigators found hair and blood that matched Helle’s DNA. Though someone had filed off the serial number, investigators were able to recover enough of it to be readable. It was the same saw Crafts purchased.
After police searched the Crafts home, a snowplow driver reported something he had seen on the night of November 18. He said he’d seen a rental truck with a woodchipper attached parked near Lake Zoar. He led detectives to the site. There they found human tissue, two teeth, a tooth crown, a fingernail covered in pink nail polish, and a toenail. They also found 2,660 bleached blonde human hairs.
Prosecuting Richard Crafts
To present a case for homicide, there must be proof of death. Normally, identification of the dead body serves this purpose. But in this case, there was no body. However, a forensic dentist was able to match the tooth crown found near Lake Zoar to Helle Crafts’ dental records. With that evidence, the Connecticut State Medical Examiner’s office issued a death certificate and Richard Crafts went to trial.
The trial began in May 1988 in New London. The defense won a change of venue because of extensive pretrial publicity. That trial ended in July with a hung jury. A solitary juror held out for acquittal before walking out of deliberations and refusing to return. A second trial in Norwalk ended in a guilty verdict on November 21, 1989. It was almost exactly three years since Helle’s murder.
Richard Crafts received a sentence of 50 years in prison on January 8, 1990. He was released after serving only 32 years. This was because the law—since changed—gave prisoners credit for good behavior and having a prison job. He was released to the custody of a Bridgeport, Connecticut transitional house for homeless veterans.
What Happened to Helle Crafts?
The Crafts apparently fought after Helle arrived home from Frankfurt. Evidence suggests Richard killed Helle by striking her with a blunt object at least twice. He then placed her body in the large freezer he bought. Later, he removed the frozen body, then used the chainsaw to cut it in to manageable pieces. Afterwards, he used the woodchipper to destroy the body. However, the snowplow driver directed police to the site where he used the chipper. Forensic science did the rest.
In prison, Richard Crafts’ fellow convicts called him “Mister Chips.”
The Cohen brothers move, Fargo, includes a scene where a woodchipper is used to get rid of a body.
You can read more about this case in The Woodchipper Murder by Arthur Herzog. Also, the inaugural episode of Forensic Files featured the Helle Crafts case.
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