I am sometimes surprised when I stumble upon a case I have never heard of before. And, I stumble across this one in a very strange way. I was going through my list of cases, looking for one to research next, and I was searching the perpetrator of another case. The perpetrator had the name Andrew Gustafson, which happens to be the name of the husband and father in this case who found his family murdered back in 1987. It did not take long to confirm they were two different people but this case seemed quite interesting on many levels.
First, you have the issue of the grisliness of the crime in which has put Daniel LaPlante in prison and has currently served over thirty years. Then there is the issue of his prior crime that while there seems to be a little bit of conflicting evidence since it is said his crimes have become urban legend, but it is just creepy in and of itself no matter which version you tell. Next from a legal standpoint became the issue that the Supreme Court addressed in 2013. They ruled that judges could not automatically sentence a perpetrator to life without the possibility of parole when the person was a minor at the time of the crime. This has caused some havoc in the legal system considering there are hundreds of prisons now seeking new sentencing around the country. But, I think there is even another issue that was not discussed a lot in my research and that was the mental health of Daniel LaPlante and the treatment (medically) of those who have mental illness. Let me be fair in saying that I do not believe mental illness to be an excuse for a crime because at some level I believe most criminals have some sort of mental illness. It is such common place that I believe it is totally dismissed and back in 1987, when Daniel LaPlante was committing his crimes it was taken even less seriously from criminals.
Normally I would start with the crime that landed Daniel in prison but I think to get a feel for him and his crimes you need to know his history and what he had done before he committed a crime so gruesome that it still brings fear in the New England area. Before I get too far, Daniel was born and his crimes were committed around the Townsend Massachusetts area. It has been said that Daniel LaPlante was all but betrayed by nearly every adult in his life. His father allegedly “tormented” him physically, emotionally and sexually for many years and on a regular basis. It is unclear what ever happened to Daniel's father but I can say that by 1987 his mother had remarried and Daniel was living with her. At an early age it was discovered that Daniel suffered from dyslexia and like many children with this disorder he suffered academically and socially throughout school. When he was in his early teens school officials recommended that he see a psychiatrist. They were seeing not just some strange (although not specified) behavior and also noticed not just a lack of persona care including hygiene and appearance but a reluctance for any sort of change. It was then alleged that the psychiatrist that he was sent to first began making sexual advances to him and then later sexually abused him for the next year. Now, I almost always use the word “alleged” when I discuss things like this and I was careful to make sure that I did that this time because to be fair I am unsure that those allegations are proven beyond the words of Daniel LaPlante himself. I heard nothing of any sort of criminal charges brought against his father or psychiatrist, nor did I hear any more mention of either of them at all. These allegations were presented in court papers at least at a re-sentencing hearing in 2017 and I cannot say if they were mentioned prior.
It was said that as a very early teen he was what they called a “small time thief” but by fifteen he was breaking into homes. By the sounds of things though this too was simply an admission made by Daniel at some later time as it does not appear that he was apparently caught at the time. There would be proof found later the collaborate this information but again, it does not seem that he was caught at the time. In 1986 he began calling the home of two teenage girls his age. Some information indicates there may have been another sister also in the home but she apparently was not in this age group. The one thing all the research I found agrees with is that the girls' mother had apparently died not long before they started receiving calls from this boy who claimed to go to another high school and was given their number by a friend. He of course gave a fake name. It seems that over time Daniel became obsessed with one of the girls in particular. When it came time to go out on a date the girl seemed surprised to find Daniel at her door. It is not exactly clear if she actually knew him but what she did know was that he was not the person he portrayed himself to be on the phone. Even still the two went to a local fair but the girl it seems never intended to see the boy again.
Sometime just after, what the girl considered failed date, the girl and her sister had a séance in attempts to reach their mother. Now, if you were a child of the 80's then you know this was a common thing that was “played” around with. The girls claimed that soon after they began to hear knocking through the walls of first their bedrooms and then later in other rooms of the house when no one else but one or both of them were home. At first the “spirit” seemed to simply communicate by knocking but later seemed to leave messages in places on walls in what looked like blood (it would later be discovered to be ketchup). The girls initially believed that the “spirit” was that of their mother but would later come to believe they had somehow called an evil spirit into their home. Sometimes the family would return home or get up in the morning and furniture or other items had been moved and were now in different places. After the first message that was found the girls ran to a neighbors home and their father was called home. He believed that the girls' were making things up and moving things themselves. It is unclear as if he was sympathetic to them seeing as he believed they were just have difficulty getting over their mother's death or if he was more firm as parents of that era tended to be. However, he sought counseling for the two girls.
There seems to be two stories as to what happened in December of 1986 and I am not completely sure which is more accurate. An article from 1987 states that the family came home and Daniel LaPlante was hiding in a closet. It stated that he had paint on his face and chased the family into a bedroom while carrying a hatchet. The article simply states that the father and his girls escaped through a bedroom window from the home and all but abandoned the home until LaPlante was found two days later, living inside the walls of the home. Other information I read indicated that once again the girls had seen a message and ran to a neighbor who called the father home again. When he entered the home and the bedroom in which the message had been written on the wall he was confronted by Daniel who had dressed himself in the clothing of the man's dead wife and was wearing a blonde wig and make up. In this story too he was brandishing a hatchet. Daniel and the father struggled for a bit and then it appeared that Daniel just vanished. Obviously now the father had to admit that either his daughters really had conjured up a spirit or there was someone real in his house, either way, it seems the girls were not making things up. Now, whether officers found Daniel living in the walls, he got there through a cupboard in one of the bedrooms built into the wall near the crawlspace, soon after or two days later as the other articles states is unclear, but both stories agree that he was found within the walls of the home on December 8, 1986. After he was caught and arrested he was placed in a juvenile facility until he was released on October 9, 1987. At that point he was technically released to the juvenile courts and his mother was able to pay a $10,000 cash bail for his release. He was apparently due in court for this issue on December 11th.
Upon his release he almost immediately went back to robbing homes. On October 14th, two .22 caliber guns, with their holsters were stolen from a nearby home. Three weeks later Daniels stepfather found one of the guns and holsters in a laundry basket that belonged to Daniel. He lied about where he obtained it and never told anyone of the second gun. On November 16th he apparently broke in the home of Andrew and Priscilla Gustafson. Several items were stolen just as things had been disappearing from homes all over the neighborhood. And, just as before he had been put in the juvenile facility it seems he was not caught by the police. His brother saw some of the items that had been taken from the Gustafson home and knew later where Daniel had put them.
It is unclear as to if Daniel ever returned to a home that he had previously broken into before December 1, 1987 when he returned to the Gustafson home. One can only assume that when he had been there previously he saw more things he would like to take which prompted his returned. Andrew Gustafson, an attorney in the Townsend area, was having a good day that day. In fact, he began calling home around 3:45 to tell his pregnant wife, Priscilla, to look for a babysitter for their two young children, seven year old Abigail and five year old William, so the couple could celebrate that night. He did not receive and answer then or the in the two more times that he called. He returned home from work at about five that evening.
It seems that Andrew was already obviously worried that he had been unable to reach his wife. The home seemed eerily quiet when he entered. He found his way to the master bedroom where he could immediately see that his fears were warranted. His thirty-three year old wife was face down on the bed with pillows that were covered in blood covering her head. Andrew immediately called the police. There were questions asked later as to why Andrew did not search for his children in the time either before he called the police or as he waited for them, but he stated he was sure that he would find them in some equally disturbing state and he simply could not have handled that. He was correct. The two children were found in separate bathrooms in the bathtubs.
Priscilla had been shot twice in the head and had been sexually assaulted. The pillows had apparently been used to muffle the sound of the gun shots. Most of the information that I found stated that the children had died by drowning. However, there were a few articles, especially at the time of the trial that stated that they had either “drowned or strangled” as if possibly the medical examiner was unsure. In a 1993 appeal it did say that the cause of death to the children was drowning but it did go on to say that seven year old Abigail also suffered from blunt trauma to the head and compression of her neck. So, maybe both “drowned or strangled” are correct.
It does not appear that Andrew was ever a suspect in the murders which even by standards in 1987 seems to be rather remarkable. In fact, the only time I saw anything that questioned Andrew or his behavior was dealing with the fact of not looking for his children. Thankfully for him officers seemed to believe him right away and he was never under scrutiny. He was not only able to grieve for his family but do so without a cloud of suspicion hanging over him. It seems that by the following day investigators were at Daniel LaPlante's home with a search warrant. A 2009 appeal stated that a “trail of evidence” was found including a footprint and a shirt found at the scene that had led to him. It is not clear as to whether Daniel was at the home the first time investigators arrived or if he left sometime after. It does appear that during the search not only was one of the two guns stolen in October from a home found but items that had been stolen from the Gustafson home in the previous robbery. Once investigators were certain this was who they were looking for Daniel had already taken off. A forty-eight hour manhunt for him ensued. During that time he had at least attempted a few more burglaries and even kidnapped a woman in her car at gun point. Eventually he was found hiding in a dumpster.
Of course the investigation continued right up until his trial commenced in October of 1988. Prosecutors were able to show that a friend of Daniels had given him some .22 caliber bullets. The friend had also given some to another friend who had not yet used them. Those bullets were compared to the bullets and casings found at the scene and determined to be a match. Considering that DNA was a thing of the future prosecutors were limited on the matches of other things they found and for the defense that only meant things like “consistent” or even “match” but that word did not really mean what it does today. It was determined that Priscilla Gustafson had been sexually assaulted and semen had been found on the bed in which her body lay. Forensics, at least what they were at the time, determined that the semen came from a “Type A Secretor” and Daniel was said to also be a type A secretor. For those unfamiliar with this term, eighty-five percent of the population basically emits their “blood type” through their bodily fluids be it semen, saliva or even urine. In 1987/1988 this is how they obtain compared matches as opposed the the DNA methods they use today. Obviously using the “secretor” method that was used at that time was not as reliable as DNA testing is as it could only say the blood type of the perpetrator. Keep in mind that approximately thirty-four person of the population has Type A blood. This is not me saying that I in anyway believe that Daniel LaPlante may have been innocent of the crime but it is my way of showing how “evidence” of trials during this period (and prior) was analyzed and determined to be facts. On top of this it was said that “a hair” “consistent” with Abigail Gustafson was found on Daniel's sock when he was apprehended and “fibers” “consistent” to the home were found.
While Daniel was tried as an adult for his crime the death penalty was never an option in Massachusetts. Their last executions took place in 1947 but they officially abolished the practice in 1984. You may remember that the Boston Marathon Bomber was sentenced to death in 2015 but that was through a federal court, not state. In 2005 the United States Supreme Court made it illegal for any state to execute someone who had committed a crime while under the age of eighteen. Although to be fair, if he had qualified for the death penalty in Massachusetts in 1988 he may have been executed before that ruling came down. But in 1988 there were no real rules on juveniles and sentencing. When one was tried as an adult they were given adult sentences. On October 25, 1988, after five hours of deliberations that lasted over two days the jury returned with a verdict of guilty on three counts of first degree murder. State law required that Daniel be sentenced to life without parole. However, it was up to the judge whether he made those sentenced concurrent, meaning all served at one time, or consecutive, meaning he served them one after another. Of course the defense argued for concurrent while the prosecution argued for consecutive. The judge agreed with the prosecution and sentenced Daniel to the consecutive life terms in prison.
Over the years Daniel, through his attorney's filed appeals but none were successful. They were all mainly based on two issues, attempting to have the initial search of the home declared illegal and the standby ineffective counsel. The attempt to attack the search warrant was based on the issue of the description of the home. But, as I said all of his appeals failed. It was also said that between 1988 and 2014 Daniel had attempted to sue the courts for various reasons. Whether this was with or without the assistance of counsel is unclear. However, it was the description of one of these lawsuits through the media that would later raise a bit of anger for me. The lawsuit was filed in 2013 and alleged that he was not free to practice his religion. Now, articles about this lawsuit stated that he was suing for the right to practice “satanism.” This was actually mentioned again in a 2017 hearing that was held, one in which I will get into soon about. Well, I found the lawsuit and the word “satanism” was not used once. In fact, the religion in which Daniel argued he was at freedom to practice was the Wiccan religion. Back in the late 1980's and early 1990's, especially in the south there was a lot of talk about satanism and devil worshiping, especially by teenagers. I touched a bit on this when I discussed the séance that the girls performed in 1986 to “reach” their mother. This was also an era of trenchcoats and black clothing that would later be described at “Goth” and the “devil music,” much like what was described in the mid 1950's through the 1960's in the emerging era of Rock and Roll. There was a lot of talk about the Wiccan religion back then and there was also a lot of misconception. However, I would have thought that by 2013 when the lawsuit was filed and definitely by 2017 when it was again discussed that the word “Satanism” would have been eliminated from any discussion that revolved around the Wiccan religion. I am not going to go into great detail about the religion but if you do not know about the religion and want to know more there is an abundance of information available. What the lawsuit claimed was that he was unable to get many of the oils, herbs and other none lethal items used within the religion.
In 2013 the United States Supreme Court decided that mandatory life without parole sentences should not been or continue to be given to defendants who were minors when their crimes were committed. This has caused already overcrowded court dockets to be bombarded with filings from years past, including one by attorney's representing Daniel LaPlante. But the attorney's also had another uphill battle to fight. Had Daniel been given a concurrent sentence he would have already been eligible for parole, having served thirty years in 2017. But, because his sentence had been consecutive even his attorney knew it was a long shot but tried anyway. It was there that the defense again argued that he had been an abused child but claimed he was now a model prisoner. The prosecution obviously argued differently and the family of his victims argued he should never be released. The defense argued that it was one act, with one crime, and considering that all three murders occurred at that time it should not be considered as three different acts of violence as there was no proof there there was any “cooling off” period in between. The judge disagreed with this argument calling it three distinctive acts saying that after committing one murder (that of Priscilla) he moved on and killed one child and then moved on and killed the other. With this being said the judge formally re-sentenced Daniel to the maximum possible which was three consecutive life sentences with parole eligibility after forty-five years “from the date of conviction.” I put this last part in quotes because I found that very interesting. In general any time spent behind bars, even prior to a conviction, especially when one is never released after initial arrest and before a trial is calculated against their sentence. With that being said it looks like Daniel is not eligible for parole until the year 2032 when he will be sixty-two years old.
At the 2017 hearing it was said that Daniel had expressed remorse for his actions in 1987 but many, including a psychiatrist that testified for the state, alleged that remorselessness that he showed may not have been genuine and only an act for the courts. I suppose only Daniel LaPlante can say if he is remorseful. I was surprised that I found little information on any kind of diagnoses or treatment of any sort of mental issue Daniel may have or even had back in 1987. As I stated earlier there was a lot of talk about the abuse that he allegedly suffered from that I honestly cannot confirm but I do believe that the actions shown indicate that there were some issues going on. The fact that it was said he was all but “living” in the walls of a home in 1986 should have pointed to something. The only real information I read from any professional seemed to come from the state psychiatrist in 2017 who appeared to say little other than he did not feel that Daniel was reformed. Well of course he said that, he was being employed at the time by the state. In every court case the attorney's for each side put people on the stand that support their side and position. They would not have put someone on the stand who would have pointed out any mental illness, especially if they felt he had recovered or was doing well and deserved to be granted parole.
I wanted to point out something a bit more uplifting in this story. So often these blogs are full of gruesome details of murders and mayhem that you do not often hear of good things. Both Andrew and Priscilla Gustafson were apparently very active in their church prior to the murders and it was something that Andrew continued after. The couple had been close to another couple in their church. In 1984 the man had died of cancer. Then of course in 1987 Andrew lost his entire immediate family. Over time Andrew and the other woman, named Carol became close and he credited her with helping him through the trauma. They decided to marry on January 1, 1989. At their wedding they included family members of their previous spouses. Carol's former father in law even gave her away. The couple even continued to wear their wedding rings from their first marriage on their right hands while their new bands adorned their left hands. It was said that they had two daughters (to be fair I am unsure if they were biological or adopted) and they were married twenty-five years until Andrews death in 2014. They had both learned to move on with their lives without having to completely let go of their previous life. According to findagrave.com Priscilla and the children had been cremated and their ashes “given to friend or family.” While there is no picture of a tombstone it does say that Andrew is buried in a very old cemetery in Townsend. The website stated that at least prior to Andrews death the cemetery consisted of three tombstones that were deteriorating. They belonged to a couple and two of their children, who all died between 1816 and 1870, with the last name of Bell, hence the cemetery is called Bell Cemetery.