Victims: Priscilla Jeanne Morgan Gustafson, 33, and her children: Abigail Gustafson, seven; William Gustafson, five; and her unborn baby
Age at time of murder: 17
Crime location: Townsend
Crime date: December 1, 1987
Crimes: Home invasion, rape, kidnapping, child murder, & triple murder
Weapons: .22 caliber firearm & bathtub for drowning
Murder method: Priscilla– two shots to the head; Abigail & William-drowning
Sentence: Life without parole (LWOP) later reduced to 45 years to life
Incarceration status: Incarcerated at the MCI Norfolk Prison
Summary of the crime
Laplante invaded the Gustafson home, raped Priscilla and shot her to death, and then drowned both children in bathtubs.
Laplante broke into the victims’ home and murdered them when they returned. Laplante first tied Priscilla to her bed and raped her. He then shot the pregnant nursery school teacher twice in the head, killing her and her unborn baby. Next, Laplante murdered the children, drowning William in a bathtub in the upstairs bedroom and drowning Abigail in the downstairs bathtub. Little Abigail also suffered blunt trauma to the head and compression of the neck. The rapist and child-killer was sentenced to LWOP. However, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that LWOP was unconstitutional for anyone under 18. Any offenders serving LWOP for crimes committed as juveniles became eligible for parole after 15 years. Laplante was re-sentenced to three consecutive 15-life terms, allowing him to be released after 45 years. The killer appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which upheld his sentences.
At approximately 5 P.M. on December 1, 1987, Andrew Gustafson discovered the body of his wife, Priscilla Gustafson, on the bed in the master bedroom of the family’s home in Townsend. She died as a result of two shots at close range with a .22 caliber firearm. The shots were fired through a pillow which lay on top of the victim’s head. Gustafson telephoned the police immediately, who, on arrival, discovered the bodies of Gustafson’s two children, William, five years old, and Abigail, almost eight years old. The police found William’s body face down in the tub in the upstairs bathroom. The police discovered Abigail’s body face down in the tub in the downstairs bathroom. The cause of death of both children was drowning. Additionally, Abigail suffered blunt trauma to the head and compression of the neck.
Karolyn LeClaire, a chemist with the Department of Public Safety, found semen and sperm cells near one corner of the bedspread, and a portion of a condom on the floor beside the bed. In the bedroom closet, LeClaire found a knotted brown sock dampened with saliva, consistent with having been used as a gag. She also found seven “ligatures” — a necktie, a sock, stockings, and pantyhose which had been knotted and cut. In the bedroom, police found a nearly full bottle of beer, that apparently had been taken from the Gustafson refrigerator. In the kitchen wastebasket, police found several pieces of paper which were torn from the pages of a pornographic magazine.
The defendant lived with his family in October, 1987. The evidence showed that the defendant engaged in a series of daytime burglaries in the neighborhood, including a burglary of the Gustafson home in November, 1987. On October 14, 1987, between 12 P.M. and 2:15 P.M., someone broke into 38 Elm Street, the home of Raymond Pindell and his family. [Note 1] Two Ruger .22 caliber guns and their holsters were stolen, as was a sizable amount of cash. Approximately three weeks later, the defendant’s stepfather discovered one of Pindell’s stolen guns and its holster in the defendant’s laundry basket. When confronted by his parents, the defendant claimed he had obtained the gun a year earlier from Westminster. The second of the two firearms stolen from the Pindell house later proved to be the weapon used to kill Priscilla Gustafson. During this same time period, the defendant’s brother, Stephen LaPlante, and Michael Polowski both saw the defendant with a few hundred dollars in cash, although the defendant was unemployed at the time.
On November 16, 1987, between 11:30 A.M. and 3:30 P.M., someone broke into the Gustafson home. Among other things, the thief took a cordless telephone, two cable television boxes, a cable television remote control device, and some coins from a Liberty silver dollar collection. The defendant placed the Gustafsons’ cordless telephone and a cable box in his brother’s tool cabinet. The defendant told his brother that he was putting them there to prevent his parents from seeing them. At that time, the defendant’s brother also saw the defendant with some silver coins similar to those re-ported missing from the Gustafson home, including a Statue of Liberty coin in a box.
During this period, the defendant asked both his brother and Polowski for bullets. The defendant told them he wanted to make a large bullet and sell it. Toward the end of November, Polowski gave the de-fendant a number of .22 caliber bullets from a carton he owned. Polowski gave the remaining bullets to a coworker. Subsequent ballistics tests and laboratory analysis of the remaining bullets revealed that they were the same brand, caliber class, and casing composition of the ones used in the murder of Priscilla Gustafson.
The Commonwealth also linked the defendant to the murders through physical evidence. Laboratory analysis of the defendant’s blood revealed that he is a “Type A secretor” — the same status of the semen stain discovered on the bedspread where Priscilla Gustafson’s body was found. Laboratory analysis also revealed that fibers, bearing the same microscopic and optical characteristics as a fiber sample taken from a shirt located in the woods were found (1) on the clothing worn by the defendant on the day of the murders; (2) on the socks found in his bedroom; (3) on the belt found with the murder weapon; and (4) in three places at the murder scene. In addition, fiber samples taken from the sock believed to be used to gag Priscilla Gustafson matched samples found on the gray shirt worn by the defendant on the day of the murders.
The Commonwealth offered evidence of consciousness of guilt. The defendant left his home on the evening of December 2, 1987, after State police arrived and asked to speak with him. The next afternoon, the defendant unlawfully entered two homes in Pepperell, stole a .32 caliber revolver, and unsuccessfully tried to gain admittance into a third home. At the home of Pamela Makela in Pepperell, the defendant ordered Makela at gunpoint to drive him in her van to Fitchburg. Makela jumped out of the van, and the defendant continued on in her van. The defendant was arrested in an Ayer industrial park dumpster. At police barracks, while searching the defendant, police found a loaded .32 caliber revolver hid-den in the defendant’s underwear, and a .32 caliber bullet inside his right sneaker.
TOWNSEND, Mass. —
A Massachusetts man who as a teenager was convicted of raping and murdering a pregnant woman and drowning her two young children in a bathtub asked the state’s highest court through a lawyer on Tuesday for a shot at earlier parole.
Daniel LaPlante is serving three consecutive life sentences for the 1987 killings in Townsend. Since each of the sentences include the possibility of parole after 15 years, LaPlante could not seek early release until serving at least 45 years, when he would be 62.
In arguments before the seven-member court, Merritt Schnipper said his client’s current sentence conflicts with previous court rulings which say defendants convicted of murder as juveniles should be given a “meaningful” opportunity to re-engage with society.
“Is 45 years too much to serve for a juvenile homicidal defendant before you are pushing up against the functional equivalent of life without parole?” Schnipper asked the justices. He called for a resentencing that would allow for parole eligibility after 30 to 35 years, offering LaPlante a chance to make a case for release immediately or within a few years.
Crystal Lyons, a prosecutor with the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, urged the court to reject any change in LaPlante’s sentence, citing the brutality of the crimes.
“This sentence, 45 years before parole eligibility for the separate murders of a pregnant mother and her two young children does not violate proportionality,” Lyons said.
Legal experts have said the SJC’s ruling, which could come within 130 days, will likely set a precedent for other juvenile offenders, particularly those serving consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences for multiple homicides.
At his trial, prosecutors said Laplante, a neighbor of the victims, broke into Priscilla Gustafson’s home intending to burglarize it. When the 33-year-old woman returned home and encountered LaPlante, prosecutors say he tied her to a bed, raped and shot her, then drowned the children, 7-year-old Abigail and 5-year-old William, in a bathtub.
Andrew Gustafson discovered the bodies of his wife and children when he returned home from work.
LaPlante was originally sentenced to life in prison without parole. In 2013, the SJC ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life sentences without parole eligibility, prompting bids for resentencing from dozens of people who committed murders before they were 18.
In 2017, a Superior Court judge turned down a bid to shorten the time before LaPlante was eligible for parole, ruling he committed “three distinct and brutal murders.” While LaPlante had made progress in prison, the judge said he continued to display an anti-social personality disorder and lacked empathy.
Relatives of the Gustafson family, some of whom attended Tuesday’s hearing, have argued LaPlante should never be allowed to go free.
The defense attorney noted making someone eligible for parole is no guarantee of eventual freedom.
“We may need to keep him here until he fully serves his sentence but that is a decision under the law that should be made by the parole board.” said Schnipper.
Daniel LaPlante, convicted of a triple murder more than 30 years ago, appeared in Supreme Judicial Court Tuesday to argue his sentence is unconstitutional.
Laplante hoped for a chance at parole. According to his sentence, he needs to serve 45 years before he’s eligible, WCVB reported.
When the murders occurred in 1987, LaPlante was 17. He was charged with the deaths of Priscilla Gustafson, a pregnant nursery school teachers, and her two children, 7-year-old Abigail and 5-year-old William, in Townsend.
LaPlante’s argument, according to the television station, relies on updates to the juvenile judicial system, specifically a law adopted in 2014 that said the longest term juveniles convicted of murder must serve before they can go before the parole board is 30 years.
Life without parole for juveniles was overturned in 2013, but it’s not a retroactive law.
Two years ago, LaPlante unsuccessfully asked a judge in Middlesex Superior Court for a reduced sentence.
Court records show the Gustafson’s husband found the body of his 33-year-old wife on the bed inside the master bedroom.
She had been shot at close range twice. A pillow had been placed over her head. The bodies of Gustafson’s two children were discovered after police were called to the scene.
William was found dead in an upstairs bathroom tub. Abigail was found dead in a downstairs bathroom tub, court records show.
Both children died of drowning. Abigail also had blunt trauma to her head, records show.
Published June 6, 2019 • Updated on June 6, 2019 at 5:34 pm
The state’s highest court has upheld the sentence of a Massachusetts man who as a teenager was convicted of raping and murdering a woman and then drowning her two young children in a bathtub.
The Supreme Judicial Court’s unanimous ruling Thursday means Daniel LaPlante, who was 17 at the time of the 1987 killings in Townsend, Massachusetts, will most likely remain behind bars until he’s at least 62.
Legal experts have said the court’s decision could set a precedent for future juvenile defendants in Massachusetts who are convicted of multiple killings.
“The defendant’s sentence is proportional both to the crimes he committed and to his particular characteristics as an offender,” wrote Justice David Lowy. He added that LaPlante’s sentence gave proper weight “to the fact that he was a juvenile when he committed the crimes.”
LaPlante was originally sentenced to three life sentences without the possibility of parole for the killings of his neighbor, 33-year-old Priscilla Gustafson, her 7-year-old daughter, Abigail, and 5-year-old son, William.
Prosecutors said LaPlante entered the home intending to burglarize it. When Gustafson, who was pregnant at the time, returned home and encountered LaPlante, prosecutors say he tied her to a bed, raped and shot her, and then killed the two young children.
Andrew Gustafson discovered the bodies of his wife and children when he came home from work.
In 2013, the court ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life sentences without parole eligibility, prompting bids for resentencing from dozens of people who committed murders before they were 18.
LaPlante’s sentence was altered to make him eligible for parole 45 years into his sentence.
At a hearing before the court in March, LaPlante’s attorney, Merritt Schnipper, questioned whether the current sentence was “pushing up against the functional equivalent of life without parole.”
He called for a new sentence that would make his client eligible for parole after 30 or 35 years, offering LaPlante a chance to make his case for release immediately or within a few years.
Prosecutors opposed any change in the sentence, citing the brutality of the crimes.
The high court agreed in Thursday’s ruling, saying LaPlante’s current sentence does not violate constitutional prohibitions against cruel or unusual punishment.