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The Elm Street Nightmare

 A true horror tale of haunting, homicides and the hunt for triple-murderer, Daniel Laplante - and some hope for the future

By

Lt. Thomas Lane (Ret.) and Off. Steven Bezanson (Ret.)

Daniel Laplante - cold, calm, clever, calculating menace


When evil and cleverness reside in the same mind, the stage is often set for true horror. Such was the case with triple-murderer, Daniel Laplante. After 34 years, the legend lives on. Time to set it straight from the cops that were there. The major point here is that when the court system failed, and dumped this murderer back into the community, that same community joined forces with the police, and the resulting partnership (hopefully) guaranteed this man will die in prison.

Elm Street surfaces on three occasions in the Laplante saga:
1.) He resided on Elm Street in Townsend, Massachusetts
2.) He kidnapped a woman at gunpoint on Elm Street, Pepperell, Massachusetts
3.) He was tried and convicted of the murders at Superior Court, corner of Elm Street and Gorham Street, Lowell, Massachusetts

The haunting

The Bowen house - scene of a real life haunting

Frank Bowen didn't believe his daughters. Their stories were simply too outrageous. Strange noises in the house - items mysteriously moved - milk consumed by an unseen presence - TV channels changed - all when the daughters would leave a room and then return. 

Then came the call to police on December 8, 1986 of an intruder holding people hostage at the Bowen residence located at 93 Lawrence Street, Pepperell, Massachusetts. When officers arrived at the residence, they found that Bowen, his two daughters, and their young friend had not been harmed, and the intruder had either left the scene or was secreted somewhere, either in the house or in the area. A search of the home by officers and a State Police K9 came up negative.

Bowen indicated that he and the three girls had returned home to find someone had used the toilet and items were out of place. He searched the house and found the intruder hiding in a closet. The man had dark spiked hair, a painted face and was wearing a hairy jacket (not the dress of the deceased mom, as many stories indicate). The man had a hatchet in one hand and a steel wrench in the other. Bowen said the intruder ordered all four into a bedroom in a "very calm" manner. One of the daughters was able to escape from the room and run next door, from which a call was made to police.

The Bowen family temporarily evacuated their home soon after this incident. However, on December 10, two days later, Pepperell Police received a call to go to that same residence. Officer Steven Bezanson arrived at 93 Lawrence Street and was met by Frank Bowen, who told Bezanson that he (Bowen) had returned to the home to get some belongings and had seen a face in his front window - the same face of the man that took his family hostage two days prior.

Off. Bezanson: "I could tell as I drove up. He (Bowen) was very upset. I could tell as I drove up. he's pointing at the house. I said to myself, here we go. He's going to say he saw the guy at the window."

Bezanson got the key from Bowen, checked the snow on the ground for fresh tracks, and then entered the home. Still slightly unsure if Bowen's information was true, Steve's entry into the home brought him back to reality!

Off. Bezanson: "When I opened the door, on the right hand wall, I saw a knife sticking out of the wall. And I see it's through a picture - a family picture - written on it in magic marker  'I'M STILL HERE. . COME FIND ME'." Now the hair goes up on the back of my head. On another wall, I saw another picture saying I'M GOING TO KILL YOU ALL with a knife through it."

Steve called for backup, and Chief David Young and Sgt. Jim Scott came to the location. All three officers searched the house once again with negative results. That changed quickly.

Off. Bezanson: "That bastard is still here. We're missing something!"

"Oh, that's a wall to hide pipes. I'm thinking, son of a bitch, there's enough room back there. I have one hand on the butt of my pistol. I saw what looked like a pile of clothes. He was totally covered with the clothes. I said, that's him. I pulled my pistol and said, I got the son of a bitch right here. But he didn't move. I told him, let me see your hands.or I will splatter your brains all over that wall. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dave Young run out of the room. He left."

"This is when I saw Laplante was really bad. He was not afraid. He looked out of the corner of his eye. He wasn't afraid to have a gun stuck next to his head."

Bezanson's take on Daniel not being afraid of having a gun to his head meshes well with Bowen's statement that Laplante had a "calm manner" when kidnapping his family. This was clearly a cold, calm, clever, calculating menace capable of horrendous acts.

For the curious wanting to know more about Laplante's hiding spot, he secreted himself in a triangular space in a corner, bounded on two sides by the concrete foundation and by a wall on the third (outfacing) side. The space allowed just enough room for him to sit in a crouched position, and even sleep in that mode. It was the minuscule entry to the space that fooled observers into thinking there was no apparent way for a human of any size to squeeze through. But obviously, there was a way. 

I was at the District Attorney's office at Ayer (MA) District Court when I received the phone call of Daniel's arrest. Euphoria does not begin to describe my feelings. I headed back to the police station where Laplante was being booked. His home address of 22 Elm Street, Townsend, MA was the first-of-three Elm Street connections in the Daniel Laplante saga.

Eschewing the usual practice of taking two booking photos - I took six of Danny. My strong feeling was that they would be used in the future. There was simply something far more sinister with this 16-year-old than I had ever encountered in the past. My thinking proved to be prophetic.

I transported Laplante to Ayer District Court with a second juvenile facing charges unrelated to Daniel's offenses. Prior to Laplante's trial, that same individual told me that Danny had related to him that he (Danny) did certain things within the Bowen home to confuse them and make them fight among themselves. Daniel became more specific, relating that he would change the channel on the TV set or drink a glass of milk when no one was in the room. Laplante had also told the juvenile that he had "taken them hostage" - "them" being the Bowen family..

Officer Bezanson never got the individual recognition he deserved. His training as a cop and instincts and awareness as a seasoned hunter allowed him to find Daniel's well-planned hiding place. It was clearly a case of predator-becomes-prey, and that scenario was to be repeated in "The hunt" portion of this article.

Officer Steve Bezanson (Ret.) on the hunt

The homicides

Daniel was held for a period of time in a juvenile facility and released on $10,000.00 bail by a judge that apparently either didn't view him as law enforcement did, or perhaps just didn't abide by the following guidelines:
  • the risk of the defendant fleeing,
  • the type of crime alleged,
  • the "dangerousness" of defendants, and
  • the safety of the community.
What was Judge Joseph Travaline thinking? His poorly-based decision contributed to the death of three individuals and may potentially have cost many more. 

On December 1, 1987, Daniel Laplante broke into the home of Andrew and Priscilla Gustafson in Townsend. Andrew was at his place of business, but his wife returned to the house with her young son and was raped and murdered by Laplante. She suffered two gunshot wounds to her head. Daniel drowned her son in one bathtub and did the same to the daughter in another bathtub when she came home from school. A brief encapsulation of events surrounding the triple-homicide follows (Commonwealth versus Daniel J. Laplante, 482 Mass. 399):

"[The defendant] carefully planned [two] intrusions into the Gustafson[s'] home; first breaking in on November 16, 1987, and stealing items. While he could have stopped there, he decided to return. He obtained a gun and lied to his brother's friend in order to get bullets. He practiced loading and unloading the guns. On December 1, 1987, [the defendant] broke into the Gustafson[s'] house for the second time, carrying the loaded weapon. When he heard Priscilla Gustafson and her [five year old] son William entering the house, he said that his first thought was to jump out the window. But he decided not to. He confronted them with the gun, brought them to the bedroom, put William in the closet and tied Priscilla to the bed. [The defendant] said that after he tied Priscilla to the bed, his plan was to leave. But once again he decided not to. Instead, he made the decision to rape her. After raping her, he acknowledged that he could have left. Instead, he decided he would kill her. After he killed Priscilla, [the defendant] made the decision to take William into the bathroom and drown him. As he was leaving, he encountered [seven year old] Abigail. He lured her into the bathroom and made the decision to drown her as well. . . . After fleeing the scene, [the defendant] went home, ate and then attended his niece's birthday party as if nothing had happened."

Acting "as if nothing had happened" shows once again the calm, cold nature of Laplante. Acting normal after committing such heinous acts? Unimaginable to me. But Daniel pulled it off.

The hunt

I was once again at Ayer District Court when I heard of the December 1st murder of three members of the Gustason family in Townsend. My immediate verbal reaction to the news, despite having no facts on the case, was, "I wonder what Danny Laplante is up to lately?" Such was my near-certainty that this evil individual was merely practicing for more-horrendous acts in the Bowen household.

A warrant was in fact issued for Laplante for the triple murder of Priscilla Gustafson and her two young children. On December 3, 1987, for the first-and-last time in my police career, I donned my bulletproof vest and organized a search for Laplante in the north-west corner of Pepperell, realizing that Daniel may head to an area he knew well.

My hunch proved correct, and the sightings began almost immediately. I was now using, and distributing, the numerous photos I had taken of Danny a year prior. Residents in that area started calling in about seeing a suspicious man in the area. Originally somewhat skeptical that our search and reports of sightings were valid, State Police and other law enforcement personnel eventually joined in the search in the north-west portion of Pepperell. 

Trying to maintain a perimeter around a wooded area where Laplante was suspected to be, I pulled into a driveway at 124 Jewett Street  and the occupant, Lynne McGovern, came from the exterior of the house to my cruiser. She told he she had just returned home and asked if I would enter her house with here.

Realizing this may negatively affect our perimeter containment, I could not refuse her request. Honestly, my concern was that this seemed like merely an "allay-the-fears" detour from our containment mission, but in reality, it was far more than that. Mrs. McGovern's request, and my compliance with it, saved her life and avoided what may have been a successful escape by the fugitive. 

While Officer Beers remained at the cruiser, I walked into the home with Mrs. McGovern. Things happened quickly after that. We had no idea that Laplante was inside the home - had armed himself with three guns owned by the McGoverns - and most-likely had designs on killing me and forcing Mrs. McGovern to drive him away from the search area.

A loud noise upstairs alerted me, and I drew my sidearm and started climbing the stairs. Oddly, although I was mentally riveted on getting to the source of the noise, my mind asked the question, "Did I clean this gun lately?"  Funny how your mind works under stress. At the top landing was a 16-gauge shotgun lying flat on the floor. Mrs. McGovern started loudly screaming when I announced my find. While covering the top of the landing with my Beretta, I firmly informed Mrs. McGovern, "You have to talk to me, ma'm!" I descended the stairs and called for backup.

My instincts tell me that LaPlante's plan went awry when my cruiser arrived. I truly believe my partner's presence at the cruiser forced Danny to abandon thoughts of trying to kill me - and chose instead to flee. He was able to jump out of the second floor window onto the garage roof and run into the woods before we could surround the house. 

Later in the day, the second-of-three Elm Street connections surfaced. Several reports of a suspicious person took me to Elm Street, in a section close to the Town Hall. I had already started to head in that easterly direction since it appeared Daniel was heading that way - and also due to the annoying presence of members of the media in the western part of town .It was dark by this time, and as I was checking the exterior of an Elm Street home, I heard a woman screaming. It was loud, and it was close.

The screaming was coming from the home of Edward Gillogly, located on Elm Street. I arrived at the home in seconds - bailed out - and called out, "Ed, is he in there?" Mr. Gillogly shouted, "No, but get in here quick."

Pam Makela, the source of the screaming, was inside. She had returned home to 17 Elm Street and found a man with a gun inside. She knew it was Daniel LaPlante, and he told Ms. Makela that she was going to drive him out of the area.

When the phone rang, Laplante told Pam to pick it up, which she did. The call ironically was from a relative warning Pamela of the search for Laplante. Danny then had Ms. Makela drive out onto Elm Street - and more irony - she noticed that Ed Gillogly was talking to someone in a vehicle. That "someone" was me, and the "vehicle" was my cruiser. Because it was nighttime, she could not tell it was a marked police car.

Pamela almost-certainly saved her life by jumping out of the vehicle at the Town Hall. She was quickly assisted by a passing motorist who took her to the Gillogly house. Ms. Makela was masterful in the way she was able to give me vital information so quickly after such a horrendous encounter. As I broadcasted the information on the fugitive, the vehicle and direction of travel, Chief David Young, who had earlier transmitted an erroneous report of a supposed Laplante sighting, questioned the validity of my transmission. I curtly requested silence and finished my broadcast.

Distinctive getaway vehicle commandeered by Laplante - Sun photo: Dave Gregory

Laplante was finally spotted driving the getaway vehicle in Ayer, Massachusetts by Registry of Motor Vehicles Inspector, Charlie Nelson.and, as always, ran away. I went to that location and informed Littleton Officers Scott Comeau and Paul Baratta that Danny could hide absolutely anywhere.  They found him hiding in a trash dumpster (per Officer Baratta):

"I saw him when he stuck his head out (of a dumpster), but by then there was nowhere to go."


Dumpster where Laplante was hiding - Sun Photo: Dave Gregory

When forced to strip at State Police Headquarters, Laplante finally had to admit that he had a gun (stolen from the McGovern home) hidden in the crotch of his underwear. His cold, calm, clever, calculating mindset seemed to be always in effect.

Heavily armed police during manhunt - Sun photo: Dave Gregory

It needs to be said that members of the media were an obstacle for law enforcement all day long - first in Pepperell - and later at the lumber yard in Ayer. The scene in Ayer was utter chaos, and there was no way to stop it. Massive numbers of cops, media and citizens crowded the area of the lumber yard. My fear was that someone was going to be taken hostage by the fugitive. Fortunately, that never happened.

Laplante finally captured - Sun photo: Mike Pigeon

After receiving information that the McGovern's found they were missing an ammunition belt and 16-gauge shotgun ammo, I went back to Jewett Street and searched the wooded area behind their house, working my way east - in the same direction as Daniel's flight path. I quickly found the ammo belt, carefully rolled up and laid on the ground. It contained 15 rounds of 16-gauge ammunition.

My find of the ammo belt confirmed my notion that Daniel originally planned to take to the woods with the revolver and shotgun and wearing the ammunition belt. That changed with the arrival of Lynne McGovern. He most-likely was waiting to take her hostage, that is, until my cruiser pulled into the driveway. He finally chose to bolt from the house with only the handgun, and he disposed of the now-useless ammo belt once clear of the house. As he did with the three murders, Danny continually altered his plans as circumstances changed.

Frank Bowen's stress levels did not totally dissipate following Laplante's capture. He retained fears that Danny would once again walk the streets and prey on his family (per Patricia Montminy, Sun staff):

"If Laplante does not get convicted and gets out again, I will personally kill him!" --
Frank Bowen following Laplante's capture 

"He (Bowen) said that after news of the murders, he was inundated with telephone calls. 'We literally ran out of the house. I got the kids and we went into seclusion' ".

"He (Laplante) is a clever boy. He is no dummy." -- Frank Bowen

"Clever", in part, defines this "boy". In his mid-teens, Danny was able to elude the Bowen family and the police until his cockiness prodded him into bolder acts, including kidnapping, rape and murder.


The Sun (Lowell, MA) article - December 4, 1987

Prior to Daniel's trial on the murder charges, while on patrol, I received a radio call from Dispatch that Laplante was on the phone and was asking to talk to me. I went immediately to the police station, but Danny had hung up or been cut off. To this day, I have no idea the purpose of his call to me, and he never called again. When I broached the call to Asst DA Reilly, he told me to definitely talk to Laplante should he call again.


The horror


Lt. Tom Lane (Ret.)

I have found that people are fascinated by the facts, real or distorted, concerning the goings-on in the Bowen household. The circumstances played out like a true horror movie - except it was real, and the Bowen's suffered tremendous anxiety and turmoil going through it. 

What started out as a seemingly-harmless date with Danny going to the movies with young Tina Bowen, transitioned into Laplante having a sick fascination with the young lady - taunting and threatening the family while hiding in the wall of the home for extended periods - and finally, and boldly, taking the family hostage. Such mental trauma has to persist for a lifetime.

The reality is that, had Officer Bezanson not found Laplante's well-concealed hiding place, Daniel eventually may have killed all three, Exhibit A being the knife-impaled family photo with the threat:

I'M GOING TO KILL YOU ALL

Andrew Gustafson, now deceased, found his wife, Priscilla in their bedroom, shot twice in the head through a pillow to muffle the sound. In court,  Assistant District Attorney, Tom Reilly, asked Gustafson why he did not search for his children after finding his wife dead. (per Lowell Sun's Lisa Redmond):

“It was so quiet in that courtroom, you could hear a pin drop,” (Judge Robert) Barton recalled.

All eyes were on (Andrew) Gustafson.

Gustafson began to cry. He told the jury he was afraid he would find his children dead.

“In all my years as a judge, I have never forgotten that moment,” (Judge Robert) Barton said.

Barton speculating if Massachusetts had the death penalty: “I, personally, could pull the switch” 

The third, and last, Elm Street connection surfaced at the Lowell Superior Court located at the corner of Elm Street and Gorham Street, where Laplante was tried, convicted and sentenced for the three murders..

In my mind, I still hear the screams of Lynne McGovern and Pam Makela, two smart women whose decisions saved their lives. I truly believe the presence of my partner, Officer Ken Beers outside the McGovern home, and the flight of a cowardly fugitive faced with armed cops, saved me from taking a blast from a 16-gauge shotgun. As Tom Reilly indicated to the jury:

"Laplante was fine killing a mother and her two little children. But what does he do when he runs into someone with a gun (me). He runs."

It is interesting to note that, despite being armed for much of the manhunt, Danny never fired a shot. Starting with his arrest at gunpoint at the Bowen house - to my armed confrontation with him at the McGovern home - to Inspector Nelson stopping him in Ayer - to the Littleton officers forcing him from the dumpster and finally, to the State Police being informed by Danny that he had a handgun hidden in his underwear - when confronted by armed law enforcement officers, Laplante either ran or surrendered

Law enforcement kept Danny on the run that day - a day that cops live for, or unfortunately, occasionally die for. It was a terrific pairing of police and community to achieve a necessary goal - the capture of a psychopathic killer that should die in prison.

Tom Reilly and his staff did a brilliant job in prosecuting the case against Laplante, but let me also state that the Massachusetts court system failed society miserably in the original chapter of this saga, the haunting and kidnapping of the Bowen family.. A year passed, and Laplante was still not tried on the kidnapping charges, despite my pleas to get it done. Add to that the release of a subject, deemed by every law enforcement officer acquainted with him, to be bent on destruction. What part of "I'M GOING TO KILL YOU ALL" did Judge Travaline not quite understand? 

During Laplante's arraignment, when First Asst. District Attorney, Tom Reilly, asked me to sit next to him, should questions arise on the manhunt, Travaline quickly asked the court officer to move me to a distant location. The alleged reason? The judge did not want someone with a gun so close to Laplante. The real reason? My Chief of Police was very vocal about Travaline's release of the (now) killer. Hardly the professional behavior expected of the presiding justice of the Ayer District Court. 

I was not aware of the term, Consciousness of Guilt, until Reilly explained it to me. It means:

"... a powerful and highly incriminating inference that a judge or jury may draw from the statements or conduct of a defendant (accused) after a crime has been committed suggesting that the defendant knows he or she is guilty of the charged crime."

Very simply, it means that fleeing from prosecution - breaking into a home - stealing guns - plotting to kill a police lieutenant (me) and take the female occupant hostage - and finally taking a second woman hostage at gunpoint - may not appear to be the actions of an innocent man. Forgive the sarcasm. It abounds in police work.


Photo credit: Shawn Kelly and Joe Turner

The hope

Amid the current civil unrest in our country and the discord between law enforcement and the public, I will use the Laplante manhunt, referred to at the time, as the largest manhunt in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the preceding 20 years, as an example of a workable, and successful, partnership between police and the community. I hope I live long enough to see that partnership re-emerge

It wasn't just the cops that finally corralled this evil monster. Many citizens of the town of Pepperell helped immensely, several of whom could have lost their lives. Their names follow, with my deep apologies to anyone whose name is missing. 

Lynne and Paul McGovern, Pam Makela, Ronald Perry, John Leger, Edward Gillogly, Jonathan Lang, Timothy Hoegen

My wife, Linda Lane, administrated the New England Community Policing Partnership (NECP2) for a number of years until it was forced to disband. Community policing works and needs to be practiced. My daughter, Lisa Lane McCarty, is the Director of the Police Academy at Fitchburg (MA) State University. She trains future police officers to do things the right way. Bad cops may be law enforcement's major enemy. I am hopeful for the future

How it could have gone

The turning point in the manhunt for the triple-murderer took place at the McGovern residence on Jewett Street. Had Lynne McGovern, now sadly deceased, not hailed me and ask that I re-enter her home with her, everything would have changed.


This is not pure speculation. I can firmly state that Daniel would have taken her hostage, now armed with a. .32 caliber handgun, 16-gauge shotgun and .22-250 high-powered rifle. He would have taken all three guns with him and forced Mrs. McGovern to drive him out of the area.

The McGovern vehicle would have been less distinct than Pam Makela's orange VW van, thus more undetectable by law enforcement. When a safe distance from the Townsend/Pepperell area, Laplante would have killed Mrs. McGovern and taken over operation of the car.

If eventually confronted by a single law enforcement officer, that officer would almost-certainly have been out-gunned by Daniel, unless the killer took his usual path of running away from police. The taking of other hostages would have been highly-probable. His eventual capture was a surety, but the potential death toll may have risen significantly from the three members of the Gustafson family to a higher number. As it was, the outcome on December 3, 1987 was a satisfactory conclusion.









Comments

  1. This was an amazing article and truly shows how police work should be in our communities, don't get rid of police....choose those who are a solid example of "serve & protect "!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. As I said in the article, bad cps may be law enforcement's major enemy.

      Delete
  2. Tom, beautifully written, and so pertinent to today's societal problems. In all my years dispatching, this was the most frightening case I encountered. Daniel LaPlante was (is) a true monster, and the Pepperell Police handled the case masterfully.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I remember this. I was 7 years old, scared, locked down in my house with my family and a killer on the loose. I'll never forget that.

    ReplyDelete

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