The Wood Chipper Murder: The Horrific True Crime That Inspired Fargo's Most Notorious Scene

This is a true story. The events depicted in this article took place in Connecticut in 1986. Out of respect for the dead, this story is told exactly as it occurred.

On a cold November evening in 1986, flight attendant Helle Crafts returned home after a European flight assignment. Having recently discovered her husband was having an affair, work had been a retreat. Their relationship had been a distant one for quite some time, and Helle had recently filed for divorce after a private investigator provided proof of her husband Richard’s infidelity. Crafts had been very vocal with friends and family about her unhappiness, and was very concerned Richard’s aggressive nature would escalate. “If something happens to me, don’t think it was an accident,” she told those closest to her. After being dropped off at home by her best friend on the night of November 19th, Crafts mysteriously went missing.

The grizzly events that follow the disappearance of Helle Crafts have all the makings of an urban legend. The brutal details that unfold seem too outrageous to believe, like an exaggerated scary story told around a camp fire. Unfortunately for Crafts, and sadly her three children, the events that lead to her disappearance are shockingly true.

When Crafts failed to show up for her next flight assignment co-workers and friends became concerned and inquired about her whereabouts. Helle’s husband Richard explained that she had rushed off to Denmark to look after her mother who had recently fallen ill. The story seemed believable, especially considering Helle’s Danish heritage and the fact she often took European flight assignments so she could visit family and friends. Yet as the weeks passed, so did Richard’s story. Next he explained Helle was visiting a friend in the Canary Islands. This story caused suspicions to arise. With Christmas fast approaching, no one close to Crafts believed she would abandoned her children around the holidays.

A warrant was issued to search Crafts’ home. Investigators discovered a piece of carpet suspiciously missing at the foot of the bed in the master bedroom. While interviewing the family nanny, the woman recalled seeing a dark grapefruit sized stain in the area of the now missing carpet. Further investigation revealed a blood smear on the side of the bed. These discoveries were certainly cause for concern, yet without a body, there was no evidence a death had occurred. In the weeks that followed, investigators discovered Richard had made several unusual purchases before and after Helle’s disappearance. Credit card records revealed the purchase of new bed sheets, a comforter, and a freezer that investigators could not find at the Crafts’ home. The most disturbing discovery was receipts for a new chainsaw and the rental of a wood chipper. Following the paper trail revealed a series of sinister events had occurred. A crime so outrageous, one could only imagine it happening in the movies. A lucky break happened when a snowplow driver came forward and revealed he had seen a man using a wood chipper late at night during a recent snowstorm near the bank of the Housatonic River. Newport Police enlisted the help of famed forensic investigator Dr. Henry Lee to lead the investigation.

A team was set up to search the Housatonic River for the remains of Helle Crafts. The cold waters offered little in the form of evidence. Investigators managed to find part of a pink painted toe nail, 3 oz of human tissue, a handful of bone fragments, 2000 strands of blonde hair, and one tooth with unique dental work. Near a bridge that crossed the river, divers also found a chainsaw that had its serial numbers etched off. After dental records confirmed the tooth belonged to Helle Crafts, the Connecticut State Medical Examiner's Office issued a death certificate. Richard Crafts was arrested in January of 1987, over a month after his wife’s disappearance.

Putting it all together it is believed on the night of November 19th, 1986 Richard struck Helle in the head at least twice with a blunt object in their bedroom. The attack left behind the blood evidence investigators initially found at the scene. Afterwords he placed Helle’s body in the freezer he had recently purchased. A day or two later Richard rented a woodchipper and drove to the Housatonic River during the midnight hours. There he cut up his frozen wife using a chainsaw and fed the pieces through the wood chipper, shooting her remains into the river. What Richard didn’t anticipate was the snow storm that had moved in, providing a chance opportunity for a plow driver to be an eyewitness to the crime. Investigators believed the money Richard was in position to lose in the divorce was the motive for Helle Crafts’ murder.

Richard’s first trial in 1988 ended with a hung jury. It wasn’t until November 21, 1989, at the end of his second trial, that he was finally found guilty for the murder of Helle Crafts. It was the first case in the state of Connecticut where a murder conviction was obtained without a body.

The 1996 Fargo collector’s edition widescreen VHS included a snow globe of the film’s now infamous wood chipper scene where snow and blood swirl about when shaken, and the 2003 Special Edition DVD contains a statement that reveals the murder of Helle Crafts helped inspired the film. The film’s climactic wood chipper scene remains one of the most shocking in the Coen Brothers’ film catalog. 

Today, the wood chipper used in the film is on display at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitor Center in Fargo, North Dakota. The wood chipper is so popular, it even has it’s own Facebook page - The Woodchipper In Fargo. The visitor center includes a number of memorabilia items from the film, but the wood chipper is the star attraction, providing visitors with fun photo opportunities. The available props include “Fargo” style hats, and fake limbs visitors can use to reenact the notorious scene. It is a strange attraction, especially considering the inspiration for the scene was based on actual events. Yet it has that unusual factor that makes most road side attractions so popular. As bizarre as the wood chipper fandom has become, the murder that helped inspire the film is a grim reminder that real life is more gruesome than anything fiction can concoct.

Lee L. Lind