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Halloween was difficult, Thanksgiving and Christmas will be too, but Bianca Cartagena's father has hope that Amherst police are closer than ever to arresting the killer of his 8-year-old daughter.

Ruben Cartagena's hopes are based on recent findings by an Albany-area pathologist who, after reviewing local autopsy results, determined the child was murdered.

The Erie County medical examiner's autopsy listed asphyxiation as the cause of Bianca's death last Nov. 30, but failed to conclude how the Dodge Elementary school girl's air supply was cut off.

Cartagena says he knows who did it: Candace Croff Cartagena, his estranged wife and the mother of their child.

"She was the only person in a locked house with my daughter. I think she used a pillow to smother her. Bianca was found in Candace's bed with the blankets completely covering her. It's a no-brainer," Ruben Cartagena said late last week. "I don't know why they haven't charged her yet."

An allegation of homicide against Bianca's mother could not be further from the truth, according to John R. Nuchereno, the attorney representing Croff Cartagena. He has repeatedly described her as a grieving mother.

Nuchereno questions why "we can't rely upon the chief medical examiner for the County of Erie" and points out that Bianca's family paid for "the out-of-county examiner."

So why is Ruben Cartagena so convinced the woman he lived with for more than a decade killed their only child?

>No control

He offers a glimpse into a deteriorating world that neither he nor Bianca had control over.

The two-story house the family shared in happier times on Greengage Circle in northeast Amherst possessed all the trappings of middle class, suburban life. A swing set, a new white vinyl fence and a recently constructed oversized backyard shed were part of the landscape on their wide, corner lot.

Inside, the kitchen had just been remodeled and there were three bathrooms and more than enough living space for the family of three. But as money problems and mental health issues occurred, the Cartagenas' marriage unraveled and Ruben Cartagena moved out.

Croff Cartagena, he said, took several leaves of absence from her job as an insurance claims adjuster and was often under the care of a psychiatrist.

He adds that he tried to get joint custody of his daughter, but the court ruled in favor of his wife.

On visits to the house in the months leading up to the fateful night of Nov. 30, Ruben Cartagena says he was taken aback by what he saw.

"The main bathroom on the second floor had been gutted of its vanity, lighting fixture and toilet. She sold the kitchen appliances and cupboards and all the furniture in the house. The only thing that was left was Candace's bed. It looked like a tornado went through the house."

Outside, the $4,500 swing set that had been purchased by Ruben Cartagena's father, a physician, was also sold.

"She even sold the vinyl fence that had cost us $10,000. How do you sell a fence?" Ruben asked.

Neighbors confirmed to The Buffalo News that there had been a fence and a swing set that was removed from the property.

By the beginning of September 2010, with the new school year about to start, Bianca was taken from her mother, the father said.

"Candace had dropped Bianca off at her mother's for the weekend before school started and then never showed up to bring her home and prepare her for school, and that's when enough was enough. The grandmother took Bianca in, and I didn't have a problem with that."

Fast forward a few months.

Kathleen Sweeney, the maternal grandmother who opened her North Tonawanda home to Bianca, let the child visit her mother Nov. 29. The next evening, two of Sweeney's relatives went to the Greengage Circle home in search of the child and called police when they found her dead.

Police were summoned at about 8:45 p.m. and located Croff Cartagena in a semiconscious state inside the backyard shed with apparently self-inflicted injuries.

The local medical examiner determined that Bianca had been dead at least 12 hours before she was found.

Toxicology tests came back positive for the date rape drug known as GHB in Bianca's system, but authorities said it did not appear to have contributed to her death.

Ruben Cartagena says Croff Cartagena used Bianca to get money out of him and other relatives.

"She'd say she needed money for Bianca. She used Bianca as a pawn. She'd withhold Bianca from her grandmother and me," he said.

Ultimately as her control over Bianca diminished, Ruben Cartagena said, Croff Cartagena decided to end the child's life.

>Heartbroken

Following Bianca's death, Croff Cartagena had extended stays in Erie County Medical Center's psychiatric unit. She then relocated to Buffalo and later to Rochester. Ruben Cartagena says he thinks he knows why she moved.

"She's trying to get away," he said.

Nuchereno says she moved there for "legitimate reasons," though he declines to state what they are.

Sweeney on Friday refused to discuss her granddaughter's death, but there is no question that the grandmother remains heartbroken. On Monday, she purchased an "In Memoriam" in The News to pay tribute to the child's life on the day she would have turned 9.

How the Rensselaer County medical examiner, Dr. Michael Sikirica, reached his conclusion that Bianca was slain has not yet been released, but Amherst police and the Erie County medical examiner have copies of the report.

>Keeping an open mind

Dr. Dianne R. Vertes, Erie County's chief medical examiner, is approaching Sikirica's findings with an open mind, according to her staff.

"She has been in touch with Dr. Sikirica and has received his formal report and will be reviewing his findings," said Erie County Health Department spokesman Kevin Montgomery.

When the review is completed, more discussions between the two pathologists are expected, he added.

Citing confidentiality for ongoing investigations, police and prosecutors say they are limited in what they can divulge, though they make it clear they would like nothing better than to solve the case.

Capt. Enzio G. Villalta, chief of Amherst detectives, has repeatedly said detectives are pursuing all leads in the case.

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III also confirms that the investigation remains open.

"I completely understand Mr. Cartagena's anxiousness, but we do not comment on ongoing criminal investigations," Sedita said.

In the meantime, Ruben Cartagena goes through more holidays without his daughter.

"Halloween was tough," he said. "When we lived on Greengage Circle, there were so many kids. The fire truck would come through the neighborhood blowing the horn and volunteers would give candy to the kids. We'd sit around the fire pit."

Now as Thanksgiving and the one-year anniversary of Bianca's death approaches, the father says memories of the good times with his daughter "are just killing me."

email: lmichel@buffnews.com