It was the most unthinkable crime, committed by a boy on the cusp of adulthood. But what turned Daniel LaPlante into a violent murderer?
Nursery-school teacher Priscilla Gustafson, 33, was married to her childhood sweetheart Andrew and pregnant with their third child.
She taught Sunday school – and their kids, Abigail, 7, and William, 5, sang in the choir.
But on 1 December 1987, the Gustafson family was brutally ripped apart.
Andrew made a terrible discovery at their home in Townsend, Massachusetts.
Priscilla’s body – face down with a pillow over her head. She’d been raped and shot twice in the head. Distraught, Andrew called for help.
Police later found the bodies of their two young children – drowned in separate baths in the house.
Immediately, police had a suspect – Daniel LaPlante, 17.
A young local who, a year earlier, had been arrested after jumping out of a cupboard in someone’s home in a nearby town, Pepperell.
Dressed as a Native American, face covered in war paint, he’d wielded a hatchet and held four family members hostage before they’d managed to escape.
When caught after that crime, LaPlante had been held in a youth detention centre for nine months before his mother posted bail and he was released, awaiting trial.
Freed…to kill Priscilla and her children.
Now, police eventually caught up with him.
In October 1988, he went on trial at Middlesex Superior Court, accused of the murders.
By then, he was 18. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and given three consecutive life terms without parole.
There was mass outcry that a boy so young could be capable of such brutal, sadistic murders.
So what had turned LaPlante into such a monster?
Little is known of LaPlante’s early life. But according to his defence, he suffered ‘extreme psychological abuse’ from his father, was sexually abused by a psychiatrist, and struggled with dyslexia and hyperactivity disorder.
His parents had separated and, at the time of the murders, LaPlante was living in Townsend with his mother and stepfather.
His peers, students at North Middlesex High School, described him as ‘weird’.
LaPlante had a history of breaking into homes, moving objects, leaving some items behind. Playing mind games.
When first approached by police for questioning the day after Priscilla was found dead, LaPlante was being tutored in the Townsend Library.
‘Hey, I’m not a bad guy,’ he said to the officers.
Awaiting the verdict, LaPlante showed no remorse, smiling and talking to his lawyer.
As the verdict was read, he remained emotionless.
The First Assistant District Attorney called him ‘a danger to the public until the day he dies’. A psychiatrist said he ‘disregards the rights of others, lacks remorse’.
‘He’s evil,’ the Assistant District Attorney said. ‘You can’t cure evil. There is no program, no rehabilitation for that.’
LaPlante’s behaviour in prison also provides a window into his psyche…
In 2000, he was put in segregation as he had concerns for his safety. He sued for being denied access to the prison law library. He complained his rights were restricted because adult porn sent to him had been seized by prison officials.
In 2002, the court awarded LaPlante a small sum for being deprived of his rights, and his lawyers $99,981 (around £80,000) for fees.
But possibly the biggest glimpse into his motivations comes from the lawsuit he filed against the prison services in 2013.
He claimed that his religious rights were being violated. Previously having expressed an interest in Satan worship, now he followed the pagan faith Wicca.
He claimed the prison denied him items required to practise Wicca – essential oils and herbs, robes, carrot cake for rituals…
Seemingly manipulative, LaPlante was concerned for his rights, indifferent as to what his actions had taken from others.
This March, LaPlante, now 47, was in court again, to appeal for a reduced sentence.
‘Words cannot fully capture what I have done,’ he said. ‘I murdered three innocent people. Because of me, a 5-year-old boy will never turn 6. There’s a 7-year-old girl that will never turn 8.’
‘Because of me, a woman will never be able to give birth to her third child. I robbed an unborn child of its first breath.’
He went on to say, ‘I do not have the words to fully express my profound sorrow. But I am truly sorry for the harm I have caused. From the very essence of who I am, from the depth of my soul, I am sorry.’
Thirty years after the murders, had LaPlante finally found a conscience – or was he just desperate to be freed?
The judge rejected his appeal, ordering him to spend three life sentences behind bars.
Andrew Gustafson had died in 2014, so he wasn’t in court to hear his family’s killer sent back to jail.
Carole, his second wife, appeared on his behalf, and told how the evil committed by LaPlante had plagued Andrew his whole life.
Even on his death bed, Andrew Gustafson could not forgive Daniel LaPlante, Carole said, and added, ‘Do not let this man out. He should rot in prison.’