In 1979 a Danish flight attendant named Helle Lorck Nielsen got married to a pilot she met on the job, Richard Crafts. The young couple bought a house in Newtown, Connecticut to start their lives together and eventually had three children. Both Helle and Richard continued working while raising their kids.
In 1985 Helle discovered Richard had wooed several other women during their marriage. He was also known to be an angry man with a short fuse. The following year Helle hired a divorce lawyer and a private investigator. By September 1986, the P.I. was able to take photos of Richard Crafts kissing another flight attendant.
On November 18, 1986 Helle Crafts got a ride home from work from friends. She was tired after working a flight from Europe. It was the last time anyone saw Helle Crafts. Helle previously told one friend, “If something happens to me, don’t think it was an accident.” She told her P.I. she thought Richard was going to murder her. When asked about Helle’s absence, Richard made excuses. He said Helle was visiting her family in her home country, Denmark, or that she was vacationing with friends. Finally on December 1, 1986 Helle Crafts was reported missing.
Like so many other murderers, Richard Crafts was a part-time cop. His buddies on the force did not consider him a person of interest in his wife’s murder. The private investigator Helle hired, Keith Mayo, petitioned Newtown police to investigate Richard for Helle’s murder but they declined. Finally Connecticut State Police took on the case and executed a search on the Crafts home on December 26. During the search, investigators found that sections of the carpet in the Crafts’ primary bedroom had been removed.
Further investigation found that the Crafts’ maid remembered cleaning a blood stain in the Crafts’ bedroom around the time Helle disappeared. She also told police that the sections of carpet that had been removed had been stained around that time. While looking into Richard’s banking activity, police found he purchased a chainsaw and a freezer and rented a woodchipper.
A local snowplow driver came forward and said that on November 19 he saw a woodchipper parked a nearby lake. When police searched the area where the woodchipper had been parked, they found a large amount of evidence that Helle Craft’s body had been forced through the woodchipper. This included blood, tooth and fingernail fragments, and hair. These fragments were all that was left of Helle’s body. Richard Crafts’ chainsaw was found in the lake with hair and blood embedded in the chain that matched Helle’s. It’s believed that Richard murdered his wife in their bedroom and then froze her body, used the chainsaw to dismember her and used woodchipper to dispose of her remains into the lake under the cover of heavy snowfall. The freezer he purchased was never found.
A medical examiner demonstrated that the frozen-body-through-the-woodchipper theory was plausible (and probable) by freezing the body of a pig, putting it through a woodchipper, and comparing the fragments to the evidence found at the lakeside crime scene.
The large amount of forensic evidence in this case was processed by Henry Lee, one of the most famous forensic scientists in the world and a former investigator for the Connecticut State Police. Lee was the host of Trace Evidence: The Case Files of Dr. Henry Lee on TruTv. Because of Lee’s work, the State of Connecticut was able to hold Richard Crafts accountable for his actions. Richard Crafts was the first person ever convicted of murder in Connecticut in a case where there was no body.
Helle Crafts’ murder was the subject of the very first episode of the prolific true crime series Forensic Files which interviews professionals involved in processing crime scenes and solving murder cases. The show was originally titled Medical Detectives.
The 1996 Coen Brothers’ Academy Award winning movie Fargo was written with Helle Crafts’ murder in mind. A major plot point involves a hit man feeding a woman’s body through a woodchipper. The film opens with a statement that it is based on a true story. When it was released some Minnesotans searched for a real briefcase full of cash buried on the side of the highway as is also portrayed in the film. However, the briefcase full of cash, along with most of the movie, is entirely fictional. The woodchipper scene is one of the only aspects of Fargo based on a real event.