In my 60 years at the Gazette, I've covered a lot of crime and justice cases -- but only one has touched my own family.
I think a tragic mistake occurred in Putnam County's controversial Joe Lavigne case. I think he was wrongly convicted of a hideous rape he didn't commit, then temporarily cleared after 15 years in prison, but now he's back in a cell. I think the case against him was so flimsy it never should have been filed.
Journalism ethics say I shouldn't write these things, because Lavigne is my son's brother-in-law, and I'm not supposed to discuss my relatives. But no other writer knows the story as personally -- so here goes:
On a February night in 1996, Lavigne's 5-year-old daughter Katie was taken from their Hurricane home and brutally raped on a church lawn across the street. The attacker took her clothing, which never was found. The little girl returned to the family bathroom and tried to cope with her bleeding. The father woke at dawn, found her, and yelled for his wife.
The child reportedly said a man "took me outside and hurt my bottom." She said the attacker "looked like Daddy" and his hair "was like Daddy's before he cut it." However, she also said it was
her father. This was the beginning of various contradictory, confusing, erratic statements. She said the assailant took her clothes and ran off in a direction away from the home -- yet Lavigne was inside when she returned. The father had no blood spatters, scratches, grass stains or other evidence of outdoor activity.
Lavigne frantically dialed 911 and told the dispatcher: "She says it was someone who looks like me. Actually, she says it was me."
That statement apparently doomed him, because Hurricane police hardly sought other suspects. They didn't take fingerprints from doorways where a rapist might have entered. They barely searched for a red pickup truck seen on the church parking lot during the night. They didn't secure the lot for evidence. They didn't question registered sex offenders living nearby.
At a hospital, five hours of surgery were required to repair Katie's damage. She told doctors the attacker "really looked like my Daddy." The hospital reportedly found wood scraps inside the child, but no semen testable for DNA.
Lavigne cooperated almost eagerly with state and local police -- which ended with his arrest. Sometimes Katie said the attacker was her dad, or said he "looked like" her father, or said she never had seen the man before. During a videotaped interview with Trooper Donna Ashcraft in the hospital two days after the assault, Katie shook her head no when asked if she knew her assailant. Another videotaped interrogation two months later with Hurricane officer Ron Smith included this:
Officer: Who did this to you?
Katie: I don't know what his name is.
Officer: Have you ever seen him before?
Defense attorneys later speculated that when the sleeping tot was carried outside, she may have drowsily thought the man was her dad. She was assaulted face-down and couldn't see him then.
During the trial, a prosecutor asked the little girl: "We need to know, really, who did this to you. Do you remember?"