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WOMAN, 2 CHILDREN FOUND DEAD IN HOME
December 2, 1987
Author: Robert L. Ward, Globe Staff
Estimated printed pages: 1
TOWNSEND -- State and local police are investigating a triple homicide in the deaths of a Townsend woman and her two children.
Thomas Riley, first assistant district attorney for Middlesex County, said last night the bodies of the victims, Priscilla Gustafson, 33, and her children, Abigail, 7, and William, 5, were found in their home on Saunders Road.
Priscilla Gustafson had been shot, and the children strangled and possibly drowned in the family bathtub, according to neighbors. Police would not confirm the information.
Police Chief William May said the bodies were discovered by Andrew Gustafson, Priscilla's husband, when he returned from work between 3:30 and 4 p.m.
The Gustafson home is on a short, dead-end street in a wooded, residential section of Townsend.
Andrew Gustafson works as legal counsel for local businessman, Ernest Koch. His wife was a pre-school teacher at Townsend Congregational Church.
Neighbors reported that the Gustafson house was burglarized last month, but nothing was stolen.
"We don't have a suspect, and I have no other comments," May said late last night.
POLICE SEEKING 17-YEAR-OLD SUSPECT FOR SLAYINGS OF THREE IN TOWNSEND
December 3, 1987
Author: Diego Ribadeneira and Doris Sue Wong, Globe Staff
Estimated printed pages: 4
TOWNSEND -- Police last night were searching for a 17-year-old for the slayings of a mother and her two small children on Tuesday in this hamlet near the New Hampshire border, authorities said.
Following an intensive day-long manhunt, a warrant was issued last night for the arrest of Daniel LaPlant of 22 Elm St., Townsend, said Margaret Reynolds, a spokesperson for Middlesex County District Attorney Scott Harshbarger.
Reynolds said authorities were distributing a police sketch of LaPlant, who she said may be armed and should be considered dangerous.
LaPlant was described as 5 feet 8 inches tall, 135 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes. Police said the suspect lives about two miles from the scene of the slayings.
The victim, Priscilla Gustafson, 33, her daughter, Abigail, 7, and her son, William, 5, were found slain inside their home at 3 Saunders Road about 2 miles from the town center. The bodies were discovered by Priscilla's husband, Andrew R. Gustafson, 34, at about 5:20 p.m. when he returned home from his law office on Main Street here, police said.
Priscilla Gustafson had been shot to death and was found inside a second- floor bedroom of the two-story Cape Cod-style home. Authorities said they believe the two children, who were found in separate bathtubs, had been drowned.
"This is not supposed to happen in this kind of town," said Julia Stockwell, executive secretary for the Board of Selectman. "People are crushed, scared and trying to figure out a way to deal with it."
A preliminary autopsy was performed yesterday afternoon at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester.
Authorities believe the slayings occurred between 3:30 p.m. and 5:20 p.m., when the woman's husband returned home. According to witnesses, Priscilla and William were last seen alive at 1 p.m. when the mother returned home from picking up her son at a baby sitter's. Abigail was last seen alive at about 3:30 p.m. when she walked home from a school bus that had brought her from the Spaulding Memorial School, where she was a second grader, to the end of Saunders Road.
The investigation into the triple slaying, the worst homicide in this town's recent history, is being conducted by the local police, State Police, the Middlesex district attorney's office and the FBI.
The slayings left residents of the town, located about 60 miles northwest of Boston, distraught and frightened. The last murder here occurred in 1972 when a woman was stabbed to death inside her home, also on Saunders Road, authorities said.
Authorities announced in a late evening press conference that they had one suspect, LaPlant, but appealed to the public for further information. Reynolds declined to say what circumstances lead police to name LaPlant as their suspect.
A roadblock was set up by State Police near the murder scene, and motorists were stopped and asked if they had travelled along Route 119 during the time authorities believe the slayings occurred.
Saunders Road is a dead end street off Route 119 on the west side of Townsend. Elm Street, where police believe LaPlant resides, is about two miles north of Saunders Road.
"We're asking people to think back about the events of Tuesday afternoon and comb their memories for anything remotely suspicious they may have seen," said Middlesex County District Attorney Scott Harshbarger during a previous news conference at the Town Hall yesterday morning. "At this point any information we we can get is crucial."
Authorities said they were investigating burglary as a possible motive. Townsend Police Chief William May said that the Gustafson's home had been burglarized on Nov. 16. But May said nothing appeared to be missing from the home, and there were no signs of a forced entry. May added that the number of house burglaries in Townsend had increased significantly in the last six months.
May said about 50 state troopers were brought in to bolster his 13-member force and increase security in this town of 8,200.
Police dogs and helicopters searched the woods surrounding the slaying scene yesterday for clues. A dozen police cruisers were parked near the home, and the long dirt driveway leading to the home was blocked.
Neighbors and friends described the family as quiet, affable and "pillars of the community" who were active in the Townsend Congregational Church and the Town Couples' club, a social and charitable organization. The family had moved to this rural, bedroom community from nearby Ashby about five years ago, neighbors and relatives said.
"They were a very happy, very close family," said a relative who asked not to be identified.
The relative, who lives in upstate New York, said she had seen the Gustafsons in May when they had vacationed at her home. "They were very excited about the couples' club, and said they had made many good friends," said the relative in a telephone interview. "It seemed that they had found a niche and were well-adjusted. This is stunning."
Neal Lund, minister of the Congregational Church, said, "They weren't your average nice people. They were role models. That's what makes this so hard."
Yesterday after returning from a visit with Andrew Gustafson, Rev. Lund said Gustafson was finding support from friends.
"He's really shook up," Rev. Lund said. "He lost his whole family. But he's a man of deep faith. He's doing tremendously . . .
Abigail was planning to host a slumber party tomorrow at her home to celebrate her eighth birthday, which was to have been next Tuesday, neighbors said.
Teachers and staff at the Spaulding Memorial School, met early yesterday to decide how to help the 700 children cope with the tragedy, said principal Anthony Luzzetti. Some of the children sought counseling and others did not understand what had happened, Luzzetti said. The impact will probably not hit for a few says, he added.
Priscilla was the daughter of Congregational ministers, and studied to be a teacher. She was the head teacher at the Townsend Cooperative Play School, and her son also was a student there.
"She was a very bubbly, soft-spoken person," said Linda Balise, a seller at the White Knight Pharmacy where Priscilla had worked two years ago. "I've never heard her raise her voice, not even at her kids."
Virginia Adams, who lives at the end of Saunders Road, said she feels vulnerable even though, she said, "Here everybody looks out for everybody because it's so isolated." All the windows and doors, including the screen door, were locked yesterday, something she said she had never done.
Adams said she had driven down the road at about 4 p.m. Tuesday and returned about 5:30 and notice no unfamiliar cars or people in the neighborhood.
Authorities said residents should not panic but urged them to use caution and lock their doors.
"You have to look at it like this," May said during the news conference. "There's been a very serious crime committed here. And there's someone out there loose who did it."
Priscilla Gustafson leaves her husband of 12 years, Andrew R.; a brother, William Morgan of Great Barrington; two sisters, Beth Williams of Lebanon Springs, N.Y. and Christine D. DiBenedicitis of Salem; and her parents-in-law, Leonard and Shirley Gustafson of West Brookfield.
Abigail and William were born in Leominster.
A funeral service for all three victims is scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m. in the Townsend Congregational Church. Cremation will follow.
Index Terms: TOWNSEND; MURDER; PROBE; NAME-GUSTAFSON
Copyright 1987, 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
Record Number: 00073063
LAPLANTE IS INDICTED FOR TOWNSEND KILLINGS
January 13, 1988
Author: Peter Howe and Paul Hirshson, Globe Staff
Estimated printed pages: 2
CAMBRIDGE -- A Middlesex County grand jury yesterday handed up 28 indictments against 17-year-old Daniel J. LaPlante, including charges that he murdered a Townsend preschool teacher and her two children last month.
LaPlante, of West Elm Street in Townsend, was also indicted on charges related to two housebreaks and a December 1986 allegation that he dressed up in girls' clothing and Indian warpaint and, brandishing a hatchet, terrorized a Pepperell family.
Although investigators have said there was evidence that Priscilla Gustafson, 33, was raped before being shot in the head in her Townsend home on Dec. 1, no sexual assault charges were included in the indictments.
On Dec. 8, prosecutors asked a judge to order that LaPlante submit samples of body hair to see if his hairs match a pubic hair found at the murder scene. The first assistant district attorney, Thomas F. Reilly, said the hair samples were being sought because "there is evidence she was sexually assaulted."
Last Friday, Ayer District Judge Joseph T. Travaline said he would agree to the motion, provided the hairs were extracted under medical supervision and with defense attorneys present. Prosecutors said they are awaiting a written ruling from the judge.
Middlesex County District Attorney L. Scott Harshbarger declined comment on the case beyond a perfunctory description of the indictments.
LaPlante was expected to be arraigned Thursday in Middlesex Superior Court in Lowell before Judge Robert A. Barton. The youth, who has undergone six weeks of psychiatric tests at Bridgewater State Hospital, is being held without bail in the East Cambridge jail. LaPlante allegedly committed the murders while out on $10,000 bail awaiting trial on charges relating to the Pepperell home invasion and a sexual assault on a 14-year-old girl.
The indictments returned yesterday include:
- Three charges of murdering Priscilla Gustafson, who was in the first weeks of pregnancy, her daughter, Abigail, 7, and son, William, 5. The two children were discovered drowned in separate bathtubs. One indictment charges LaPlante with breaking and entering the Gustafson home.
- Ten indictments in connection with the Pepperell home invasion in December 1986, including charges of armed burglary, assault with a dangerous weapon and kidnapping.
- Three charges of receiving stolen goods and two indictments for breaking and entering related to alleged housebreaks in Townsend in October and November. The murder weapon, a .22 caliber handgun, is believed to have been stolen from a Townsend house on Oct. 14. The indictment did not specify whether those charges relate to the murder weapon.
- The remaining nine indictments charge LaPlante with breaking and entering, two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, assault in a dwelling house, kidnapping, a firearm violation, larceny of a motor vehicle and two counts of larceny.
These charges all derive from a Dec. 3 chase at the end of an intense police dragnet in Ayer and Pepperell during which LaPlante allegedly broke into a house, stole a gun, kidnapped a woman and stole her car, before he was seen in Ayer and ultimately arrested while hiding under a lumberyard dumpster.
Index Terms: TOWNSEND; MURDER; COURT; NAME-LAPLANTE
Copyright 1988, 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
Record Number: 00002595
LAPLANTE CONVICTED, GETS LIFE IN 3 KILLINGS
October 26, 1988
Author: Paul Langner, Globe Staff
Estimated printed pages: 5
LOWELL -- Daniel J. LaPlante was convicted yesterday of murdering a pregnant Townsend woman and her two children and was sentenced to three consecutive life terms with "no parole, no commutation, and no furloughs" by a judge who said some people feel LaPlante should die by hanging.
"There are some who would say that you should receive the same sentence that you imposed on the Gustafson family -- that is death by ligature or hanging," Judge Robert A. Barton thundered at the 18-year-old West Townsend youth, who smiled with apparent unconcern, "but we have no death penalty in Massachusetts.
Accordingly," the judge continued, "the sentence to be imposed is one that intends you spend the rest of your life behind bars with no parole, no commutation and no furloughs -- that is, three consecutive life sentences."
Minutes earlier, a jury had convicted LaPlante of shooting to death Priscilla Gustafson, 33, and drowning her two children, William, 5, and Abigail, 7, a crime that shattered the peace of the placid rural town of 8,000 about 50 miles northwest of Boston.
Andrew Gustafson, the husband and father, was in court to hear the verdict but left even before the jury was discharged. He sent word through Assistant District Attorney Thomas Reilly and state trooper Joseph Lawless, the principal investigator of the murders, that he did not want reporters to approach him.
Gustafson, a lawyer, had come into court only twice: the first time Oct. 8 to testify how he came home the evening of Dec. 1 after closing a real estate deal to find his wife sprawled face down on their bed with two bullet wounds to her head and how he had not dared to look further, fearing what he would find. The second time was yesterday.
Priscilla Gustafson's two sisters, who attended several trial sessions and who, unsuccessfully, have tried throughout the trial to stare into LaPlante's eyes in the courtroom, made brief statements after the sentencing. Christine DeBenedictis, with a voice hoarse from crying, said of the verdict, "It is not going to bring back Cilla and the kids."
Beth Williams, also fighting tears, said when asked if she thought justice had been done: "There can be no justice. The only justice would have been if it had never happened. Those were four people that were killed."
Priscilla Gustafson was three months pregnant when she died.
LaPlante, as he had occasionally during the three-week trial in Middlesex Superior Court here, smirked when he was brought in to face the verdict. When jury foreman James Fallon announced the first verdict of guilty of first- degree murder of Priscilla Gustafson, LaPlante sat at the counsel table, drumming his interlaced fingers on it.
Barton, noticing this breach of courtroom etiquette, bellowed at LaPlante, "Mr. LaPlante, you will stand and face your country." LaPlante complied, but his smirk broadened.
Barton's phrase refers to the legal language with which the court clerk addresses a jury at the outset of testimony, telling them after the indictments have been read that ". . . to these charges the defendant has pleaded that he is not guilty and for trial thereof has placed himself upon the country, which country you are."
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Reilly, asking Barton to impose three consecutive life sentences, even though life without parole is mandatory in first-degree murder, said: "Never in my experience have I seen such a heinous crime. The defendant has never shown the slightest bit of remorse for the people who died because they got in his way."
LaPlante's attorney, Robert Sheketoff, without apparent enthusiasm, asked Barton to give LaPlante concurrent sentences because "it does not matter if he is sentenced on and after." He asked Barton to consider LaPlante's age. He was 17 when he killed the family.
In an interview later, Sheketoff said he would appeal the conviction on several grounds, including what he called illegal search and seizure of LaPlante's home the day after the murders and because Barton had refused his request to tell the jurors that they ought to consider whether the perpetrator of the crimes was insane and therefore not guilty.
An appeal is automatic in first-degree murder.
LaPlante is formally sentenced to serve his terms in the Cedar Junction state prison in Walpole, but courthouse sources said the Department of Correction has decided to confine him in Concord State Prison, where his safety can be assured.
Lawless, the investigator, said that the crime was "the most gruesome, the most heinous crime, the most vicious crime I ever saw, and I hope never to see another one."
The verdict, Lawless said, "takes a load off my shoulders because he is off the streets. I just think he is an evil person."
The jury, which was empaneled in Springfield on Oct. 3 and 4 because attorneys and the judge feared that the intense publicity would make it difficult to find an impartial jury in Middlesex County, had not been told of LaPlante's previous arrests and convictions.
He has several juvenile convictions, including one for rape, and when he committed the murders, he was out on $10,000 cash bail after being charged with invading the home of his former girlfriend and menacing her, her father and a friend with a hatchet.
Two jurors, who were designated the jury's spokesmen to the press, said that they had not considered any other possible offense in their deliberations. Testimony about his flight after the crime, during which he menaced three people with a gun, has given rise to charges of assault with a deadly weapon, which are pending, but juror Mark Weiner said, "We had enough to consider without speculating what else he might have been charged with."
Juror Renee Trench, a registered nurse from Agawam, said that the jurors fixed on no particular item of evidence, or even on any particular constellation of pieces of evidence. "We considered several objects and worked by the process of elimination," she said. Both said the jurors did not want to discuss their deliberations.
Both Trench and Weiner, a copier repair technician and call fireman in Longmeadow, said they did not feel any compassion for the young offender. "He had no compassion" at Saunders Road, Trench said.
LaPlante's mother and stepfather were in court and, as they had done throughout the trial, showed no emotion. The mother, Elaine Moore, asked whether she still thought her son was innocent, said, "Yes."
Testimony has shown that the LaPlante home on West Elm Street, separated , from the Gustafson home by a half-mile of woods, was disorderly and dirty.
There were no bedsteads, only mattresses on the floor, witnesses said, and one witness testified that searchers found hard-core pornographic pictures in LaPlante's room and in the bedrooms of his parents and his 12-year-old brother.
Crumpled pornographic pictures were found at the murder scene.
Sheketoff had tried to show, through his questioning of prosecution witnesses, that LaPlante was not loved by the family and that the family had turned on him.
Other testimony showed that a revolver and the semi-automatic gun believed to be the murder weapon had been stolen from a LaPlante neighbor.
No motive has been established. Investigators have said LaPlante seems to have been inside the house when Priscilla Gustafson came home with her son from her job as a day-school teacher.
Evidence showed that LaPlante ripped her shirt and bra from her, removed her pants and underpants and tied her to the bed with nylons and her husband's ties.
She was raped, investigators say. Reilly, in his closing argument, said she was executed. A pillow was put over her head before she was shot and the shots fired through it.
It is not known whether William died before or after his mother, but Abigail seems to have died last. She was dropped off about 3:35 p.m., and shortly thereafter a neighbor who had gotten off the school bus with her heard a scream.
Pool photos / As Daniel J. LaPlante (above) is found guilty in the murders of Priscilla Gustafson and her two children, Gustafson's husband, Andrew, and her two sisters, Christine DeBenedictis (center) and Beth Williams, listen to the jury in Middlesex Superior Court in Lowell.
Index Terms: NAME-LAPLANTE; MURDER; VERDICT; TRIAL; NAME-GUSTAFSON
Copyright 1988, 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
Record Number: 00064212