Helle Lorck Nielson

Helle Lorck Nielson, PAN AM hired she in Copenhagen, Denmark, trained at PAN AM’s Miami hub

Helle Crafts.jpg

 

Helle Crafts (born Helle Lorck Nielsen, July 4, 1947 – November 19, 1986) was a PAN AM flight attendant originally from Copenhagen, Denmark. She was murdered by her husband, Richard Crafts, an Eastern Airlines and special constable. Her body was never found.

Helle Lorck Nielson was an only child, born in Denmark on July 7, 1947. She spent her childhood in a small village north of Denmark. Helle was a vibrant, outgoing child who enjoyed school, one of the few students who actually liked attending class. With her happy disposition, she made friends easily and continued to be well liked into adulthood. Helle had an inborn ability to understand and learn languages quickly. During her teen years, she learned French and English and was also able to understand German, Norwegian and Swedish.

Helle attended college in England and later worked as an au pair in France. By the time she was 20, Helle was a beautiful young woman. Her high cheekbones, long blonde hair, trim figure and a warm, engaging smile turned the heads of men whenever she entered a room. While Helle was living in France she got a job as a stewardess with Capital Airways. She flew to Africa many times out of Brussels or Frankfurt and enjoyed the thrill of discovering new places.

When she heard that Pan Am World Airways was looking for stewardesses in the Copenhagen area, she applied for the job. Helle was one of eight candidates selected out of a group of 200 and was sent to Miami for her training courses. Since she had prior experience in the field, it was easy for her to finish first in her class. During the time she stayed in Miami she lived in a small motel near the airport. It was neat and comfortable, and usually populated by airline employees, stewardesses and pilots. Living under the same roof with male co-workers, stewardesses often had romantic liaisons. „She didn’t tell you intimate things about men she saw,“ said one friend, „She was far too cautious to have been promiscuous, but she had a few lovers.“ Single stewardesses liked the airline pilots both as future mates or just for a good time while they were on a layover.

On May 24, 1969, while Helle was waiting at the motel for a flight, she met Richard Crafts, who was 31 at the time, and her life would never be the same.

Richard Crafts, Eastern Airlines pilot sentences as murder of Helle

In the spring of 1969, Richard Crafts was a young, somewhat scruffy-looking airline pilot who wore his dark brown hair in an unkempt style that some women found appealing. Being rough around the edges, he did not fit the stereotypical image of a pilot. Standing just 5-foot-8 with a medium frame, he seemed rather ordinary. But there was a certain attractiveness about him, so Crafts, at 31, never seemed to be without a woman. He dated stewardesses almost exclusively and sometimes told extravagant stories about his past, which included an ill-defined role in the CIA and alleged combat in Indochina.

In the military, Richard gravitated toward aviation and became proficient at flying helicopters. He trained on fixed wing aircraft and quickly became certified as a pilot in the late 50s. In 1958, Richard was transferred to Korea and Japan. During his time there, he also flew planes for Air America, an organization that was a recognized branch of the CIA. Apparently, Crafts flew a number of clandestine missions in Southeast Asia, which included assignments in Laos and Vietnam. Though it is difficult to state with any certainty his activities during this time, Dr. Henry C. Lee writes in his book, Cracking Cases, that Crafts was wounded during a flying mission over Laos. He remained in the Far East for a number of years flying for Air America and eventually returned to the United States in 1966.

As a pilot, he had little trouble finding work for the next few years; he flew for a variety of outfits until he finally secured a pilot’s job in 1968 with Eastern, then one of America’s largest and busiest airlines. For the first time in his life, Crafts was making a comfortable salary. Though he had a busy schedule, Crafts still found time for the social scene. When he met Helle in 1969, he was already engaged to someone else. But Helle didn’t seem to mind. She continued to see him, despite his relationships with other women. They maintained an on again off again relationship for the next few years. They frequently fought, sometimes in public, but somehow they always wound up together. Helle’s friends were suspicious of Crafts and some showed open hostility toward him. Most of her friends could not understand Helle’s attraction to Crafts when it was so obvious that she could have nearly any man she wanted.

In 1975, Helle became pregnant with Crafts‘ child and, in November of that year, they married in New Hampshire.

there was already trouble in the marriage aside from Richard’s fascination with guns. Helle appeared in public several times with bruises on her face. One of her friends later told the police that Helle was physically abused by her husband. This same friend also said that Helle was deeply hurt by the way Richard treated her during her first pregnancy and „she would never forgive Richard for what he put her through.“ After the children were born, Richard would disappear for days at a time and never say where he was. He would simply pack his bags and leave. Several days later, he would return. Helle never knew if he was away on business, at a gun show or somewhere else. Since he controlled all the money in the family, he made Helle pay for all the house expenses while he spent money on anything he pleased. He bought a variety of landscaping equipment, tractors, mowers and a $25,000 backhoe, which he never used. His front yard was a mish-mash of rusting, broken machines and considered an eyesore by his neighbors. It always seemed like the Crafts‘ house either needed work or repairs were being done.

In 1982, despite his responsibilities with Eastern and his house seemingly in need of constant repair, Crafts became an auxiliary police officer in Newtown. Although he was not paid for his time with the police department, he took his job very seriously. Crafts would frequently hang around the police station, even when he was off duty and sometimes responded to police calls without authorization. In 1986, he was hired as a police officer in the nearby town of Southbury. His salary was seven dollars an hour, far beneath his pay as an airline pilot. He paid his own way for expensive training seminars that gave instructions on police procedures. Crafts performed his police duties with a strange fervor and even purchased a 1985 Ford Crown Victoria, the same type of car the Connecticut State Police used. He outfitted it, at his own cost, with multiple radios, antennas, police lights and a siren.

During all this time, from the year he was married right until 1986, Richard continued to see other women. Helle was aware of his infidelity but tolerated it, perhaps for the sake of the children or maybe to keep up appearances. But their marriage was in trouble and she knew it. Helle openly spoke about divorce with several of her friends. In the summer of 1986, she retained a divorce attorney and later hired a private detective named Keith Mayo, a former Connecticut cop, to gather evidence against Richard.

There was something odd about a professional airline pilot who liked to play cop part time, who rode around in a phony police car and took jobs as a security guard for a few dollars an hour. Detectives also listened to Helle’s friends who called constantly demanding to know the progress of the investigation. Statements from Dawn Thomas, Johansen and others cast serious doubt on Crafts‘ story of his wife’s disappearance. Crafts‘ behavior since November 19 had been, at the very least, questionable and unusual. But there was no direct evidence that anything criminal had happened to Helle. She had simply vanished.

A Verdict Arrives

The mistrial was a bitter disappointment, not only for the family of Helle Crafts but also for the team of police investigators and forensic scientists who had worked diligently on the case since December 1986. „We worked for the first three months, day and night,“ Dr. Lee told reporters, „and subsequently off and on for almost a year and a half.“ However, a new trial was quickly agreed upon. Again, due to an avalanche of publicity concerning the gruesome details of the case, the venue was changed to Norwalk, Connecticut. On September 7, 1989, the second trial of Richard Crafts opened under a cloud of uncertainty. Prosecutors were well aware that a conviction in any criminal case, no matter how persuasive the evidence may be, is never guaranteed.

The second trial was a virtual replay of the first. The same witnesses testified, the same damning evidence implicated Richard Crafts as he sat at the defense table, seemingly unmoved by the proceedings. Crafts always maintained a detached air about him, as if he was preoccupied with other matters. The forensic odontologists testified to the recovered dental items, the witnesses testified to Richard Crafts‘ behavior, both before and after Helle’s disappearance and the unflappable Dr. Lee returned to explain the remaining evidence to an appreciative jury.

When the case finally went to the jury on November 20, it took only eight hours to reach a unanimous verdict. Crafts was found guilty of murder beyond any question. Eleven men and one woman felt the evidence easily supported a guilty verdict. „Richard Crafts could not have asked for a more fair jury,“ said one juror. „It’s corny, but the system works.“ As usual, Crafts showed no emotion when the verdict was announced. „The totality of the evidence was overwhelming,“ another juror told the Danbury News-Times. The verdict was announced on November 21, 1989, almost three years to the day when Helle was murdered. In January 1990, Richard Crafts, unrepentant and defiant as always, received a sentence of 99 years in state prison.

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