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It has been more than two years since 8-year-old Bianca Cartagena was found smothered in her mother's bed in East Amherst.

It has been more than a year since police wrapped up their investigation and prepared to make an arrest.

Still, no charges have been filed.

Now the grandmother and aunt of Bianca are crying out for justice.

Charge our daughter and sister – Candace Croff Cartagena – with killing Bianca, they say.

“It is hard for us to spit out the words Candace killed Bianca. Candace is our own flesh and blood,” said Casie Croff, Cartagena's sister. “All fingers point to Candace, and she is the only one who has not helped the police.”

Police believe the girl was smothered, concluded no one except Candace had seen the child in the hours before her body was discovered and say Candace was sending texts that her daughter was safe and with her hours after Bianca died.

“We've done our investigation and we've presented our case to the District Attorney's Office for prosecution, and there it sits,” Amherst Police Capt. Enzio G. Villalta said.

So why won't District Attorney Frank Sedita III bring charges?

The family says Sedita's top lieutenants told them that it would be “political suicide” for him to take the case, given past failed prosecutions in which

mothers were accused of killing their own children.

Just look at the Casey Anthony debacle, they were told.

Sedita says he is pursuing a “homicide investigation” but doesn't believe he yet has enough evidence to bring a successful prosecution.

“When I have enough proof to prove it is a homicide, and to prove who killed this little girl in a court of law, I intend to present that evidence to a grand jury,” said Sedita, who was a homicide prosecutor for two decades before being elected district attorney.

Though hesitant to discuss details of the investigation, Sedita confirmed that conflicting medical opinions is one of the reasons the case has not yet gone to a grand jury.

Three medical examiners all agree Bianca was the victim of a homicide, but how the child's air supply was cut off – smothering or strangulation – remains a point of debate.

The maternal relatives of Bianca contacted The Buffalo News to speak out for the first time about Bianca's death after a recent story about the frustrations of area law enforcement officials who criticized Sedita for shying away from difficult criminal cases.

Opening home to Bianca

Kathy Sweeney opened her home in North Tonawanda to her granddaughter Bianca while her own daughter, Candace, was going through a divorce. The informal arrangement was for Bianca to stay at Sweeney's home until Candace became more settled and emotionally stable, although Candace saw Bianca frequently.

Candace was having difficulty coping and being a single parent while she was going through the divorce.

Originally, Bianca was to stay with her mother for a couple of hours the afternoon of Nov. 29, 2010.

Sweeney picked the child up at Dodge Elementary School in Amherst and then dropped her off at Candace's home on Greengage Circle. The plan was for Bianca to be picked up later to attend her gymnastics class that evening.

But Candace soon changed that plan, texting Sweeney that her girlfriend wanted to take her and Bianca out to dinner that night to belatedly celebrate Bianca's eighth birthday, which had occurred three weeks earlier.

Candace promised to have Bianca back to her mother's North Tonawanda home by 8:30 p.m.

Later, though, Candace again changed the plan, sending another text message that Bianca had “passed out” and they were now going back to her Greengage Circle home and the child would spend the night there.

Candace said her friend had given Bianca a birthday present of a new set of clothes so she would have a fresh outfit to wear to school the next morning. She also stated that she had food for the child's lunch.

The next morning, Candace's sister, Casie Croff, drove by the Greengage Circle home at 7 a.m. to eyeball the house and see if all was in order. She did not stop and go inside because she was on her way to work as a teacher.

Sweeney also texted Candace that morning and asked to have Bianca call her, but Sweeney did not get a response.

At noon, Kathy Sweeney texted her daughter again, asking if all had gone well getting Bianca off to school.

“Fine,” Candace texted back.

But at 3 p.m. that afternoon, Sweeney received a text message from Ruben Cartagena, Bianca's father and Candace's estranged husband. He informed Sweeney that he had gone to the school to pick up his daughter and found out from school officials she was absent that day.

“Where's Bianca? She didn't go to school today,” the father asked Sweeney.

Sweeney said she then texted her daughter, asking why Bianca had not attended school.

“We spent the day together at the Strong Museum. On our way back now,” Candace texted back, referring to the children's museum in Rochester.

That response was received at 5:50 p.m.

Casie, who was living with her mother and stepfather in their North Tonawanda home at the time, said they estimated that Candace and Bianca would arrive home by about 7:30 p.m.

But Candace failed to alert the family when she supposedly arrived home from the Rochester outing.

Discovering the body

Fearing something was wrong, Casie Croff called Ruben Cartagena and asked him to drive over to her sister's house and check on his daughter, because he lived nearby with his relatives.

“Five minutes later, Ruben called to say his garage door opener did not open the door but that he could hear the two dogs inside,” Casie said. “I said, 'I'm on my way over. I have a key to get in.' I called my [stepfather] at work and told him to meet me there. I sensed I should not go alone.”

Shortly before 8:45 p.m., she and Bryan Sweeney went to the front entrance of the home and discovered that the outer storm door was locked from the inside.

Bryan Sweeney said he popped the door open and then they unlocked the inner front door.

Inside the house, they were greeted by darkness, two barking dogs and Bianca's pink coat draped over a bannister leading to the upper floor of the split-level residence. Bryan had a flashlight to help guide them in their search for Bianca.

Stepping around piles of dog feces, they searched the bedrooms, which like the kitchen, bathroom and living room, had been stripped of new fixtures that had replaced ones damaged in a house fire about two years earlier. Candace was selling the furnishings over the Internet to make money because she was unemployed, authorities say.

When Bryan and Casie reached the master bedroom, they spotted a bed, television and a couple of smaller pieces of furniture.

At first, as Bryan panned the room with the flashlight, nothing seemed out of order, except that the bed appeared unmade.

“We were going to leave the room when I thought I saw something on the floor, and as dad turned to look, he looked at the bed again,” Casie said.

That's where Bryan picked up the story.

“Initially, it just looked like the bed was unmade, but now it looked like a small outline of a body was under the blanket,” he recalled. “I said, 'I think we have something here' and I pulled the blanket back, and we both saw Bianca.”

Casie screamed.

“Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I'm calling 911,” Casie said.

Bryan checked for a pulse. Nothing.

“Bianca was cold and rigid,” he said.

Police said they received the 911 call about 8:45 p.m. and arrived to find Casie Croff screaming in front of the house, “She killed her, she killed her.”

Police later discovered Candace in a backyard shed, rolled up in old carpeting, and in a semi-conscious state. She was taken to Erie County Medical Center's psychiatric ward, where she spent the next month.

Later, it would be determined that Candace had faked an attempted overdose of pills and had pretended to be partially unconscious, family and authorities said.

The police investigation

Capt. Villalta described the death of Bianca as a classic murder mystery.

“Two people are in a room locked from the inside and one is murdered and the other is not talking. Common sense may tell you what happened, but you still have to prove it,” the chief of Amherst detectives said.

Police combed the house for physical evidence. Detectives talked to Kathy and Bryan Sweeney, Casie Croff and dozens of other people who knew the Cartagenas and the Sweeneys.

There is one person they haven't talked to.

“(Candace) Croff Cartagena is the only one left who is not talking to us,” Villalta said. “Who doesn't cooperate in the investigation of the murder of a child?”

But police did have the autopsy results and the text messages between Candace and her mother, and the messages are incriminating.

“We believe that the child was dead at the time the messages were being sent that indicated Bianca was still alive,” Villalta said.

Additionally, the evidence shows all of the text messages Candace sent to her mother originated from Greengage Circle, police said.

Plus, Candace had no personal transportation to travel back and forth to Rochester, as Candace had claimed in the text message, Villalta said.

After a year, police believed all other suspects had been eliminated.

“There is no evidence to prove the child was out of her company during those two days,” Villalta said.

But why would Candace want to kill her own daughter?

The Sweeneys and Casie Croff cited Ruben Cartagena's belief that Candace was no longer able to use Bianca as a pawn to obtain money from him. So Candace took out her frustration on Bianca, her mother and sister believe, smothering the child with a pillow or blanket in the bed.

Police do not dispute this scenario.

Dr. Dianne R. Vertes, Erie County's chief medical examiner, had initially ruled the cause of death as asphyxiation by unknown means, possibly homicide or accidental.

But as the police investigation advanced and more evidence was gathered, she eliminated the possibility of accidental asphyxiation, ruling the death a homicide.

And though police have not been able to talk to Candace about the death of Bianca, authorities did ask Candace why she tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills.

“Because my husband left me,” she responded.

Amherst police wrapped up their investigation about a year after Bianca's death, and they say they have been ready to bring charges. Police believe their case is solid and that their record of investigations speaks for itself.

Since 2005, there have been eight homicide cases in the town. Five ended in arrests and convictions, one was a murder-suicide and two, including Bianca, they say, are being held up by the DA's office.

Other opinions

Police say that they were told by different assistant district attorneys that they were confident a conviction could be obtained.

The family says it was told that more evidence was required.

“Assistant DA [Christopher] Belling told us the district attorney won't take the case unless he has an eyewitness, a confession or a murder weapon,” Kathy Sweeney said.

A law enforcement official close to the case said there is good reason to believe a conviction would result if the case were taken to trial.

“There was overwhelming circumstantial evidence, which in many cases is even better than direct evidence. Direct evidence is, for example, someone saying I saw him kill her.

“But with circumstantial evidence, it doesn't change, while a person's statement could change or the person could have reason to lie,” the official said, requesting anonymity for fear of repercussions from Sedita.

Kathy Sweeney and Casie also say Belling told them Sedita is afraid to take the case.

“We were told at a meeting by Belling that 'Frank believes this case would be political suicide,' ” Casie said. “When we asked Belling what he meant, he said it was too much like the Casey Anthony case and the Lynn DeJac case. It's all circumstantial evidence.”

Casey Anthony was acquitted of murdering her daughter in Florida, although many have remained suspicious because of changes in the mother's account of what happened to the child.

And locally, Lynn M. DeJac Peters was convicted of killing her daughter in 1994 but was later exonerated and recently awarded $2.7 million from New York State for her wrongful imprisonment of 14 years.

Sedita says that both those cases offer a lesson to all prosecutors that they need “all their ducks in a row” with evidence before moving ahead with prosecution.

“This office is diligently working on this case,” Sedita said. “But for me to publicly discuss the weaknesses of this case and the inadequacies of the police investigation would weaken our eventual case, if we get enough evidence to get it. I am not going to get into a public dispute with any police agency or with any family members of a crime victim. That's not how we do business.”

Yet the “political suicide” argument doesn't sit well with Bianca's family.

“So they are telling us that Mr. Sedita's political career is more important than an 8-year-old innocent little girl's life that has been taken,” Casie said.

Twice last year, Sedita had appeared to be moving forward with the case but then abruptly stopped the process, the family said.

At a meeting at Amherst Police Headquarters last summer, Kathy Sweeney said, Assistant District Attorney Belling and another assistant district attorney interviewed her and other relatives and then gave them subpoenas to appear before a grand jury Aug. 16. Then, it was postponed to Sept. 13.

When the grand jury proceedings were again canceled in September, no reason was given.

“We're not going away,” Casie Croff said. “If there is no justice for an innocent 8-year-old girl who was murdered, who will there be justice for?”

Last meeting

And where is Candace now? After staying at ECMC's psychiatric ward for about four weeks following Bianca's death, she temporarily lived on the West Side, her relatives and police say, and then moved to the Rochester area, where she currently resides. Candace and Ruben are now divorced.

Her attorney, John R. Nuchereno, says she is unavailable for interviews.

Her mother and sister say they have only seen Candace, now 33, once since Bianca's death.

It was Christmas Eve 2011. They accidentally met at Bianca's grave in the Garden of Perfection at Elmlawn Cemetery in the Town of Tonawanda.

No words were exchanged.



email: lmichel@buffnews.com