Bianca Cartagena’s family never wavered in their belief about who killed the 8-year-old girl.
From the day they found her cold, rigid body under covers in her mother’s bed, family members pointed the finger at her mother, Candace Croff Cartagena, and publicly wondered why she was never arrested.
Their more-than-two-year wait ended Wednesday when a grand jury indicted Cartagena for second-degree murder.
“This is not a whodunit,” Prosecutor Thomas M. Finnerty told Erie County Judge Michael L. D’Amico. “The defendant was found hiding in a nearby shed.”
Bianca’s body was discovered Nov. 30, 2010, in her mother’s home on Greengage Circle in East Amherst.
Informed that Bianca had missed school that day and worried something might be wrong, two family members showed up at Cartagena’s house and found the girl’s body in her mother’s bed.
Police later discovered Cartagena in a backyard shed, in a semiconscious state. She spent the next several weeks in the Erie County Medical Center’s psychiatric ward.
Finnerty said the prosecution will prove that Bianca died of “homicidal asphyxia” – Amherst police believe the girl was smothered – and that Cartagena went out of her way to try to cover up the murder.
Cartagena, her hands cuffed behind her back, said nothing and kept her head down through much of her arraignment. She faces up to life in prison if convicted.
“The defendant is a flight risk,” Finnerty told D’Amico. “The defendant doesn’t even live in Erie County. She lives in Monroe County.”
D’Amico declined Cartagena’s request for bail even though her attorney noted her repeated requests over the past two years to turn herself in to police. She now lives in Rochester.
“She has been looking over her shoulder, waiting to be charged,” said defense attorney John R. Nuchereno. “My client’s anything but a flight risk.”
There was no mention in court as to what happened at the Cartagena house the day Bianca died or what motive Cartagena may have had for killing her daughter.
She also faces a second charge, offering a false instrument for filing, that appears unrelated to the murder allegations.
Finnerty said the charge relates to Cartagena’s 2010 New York State tax return and allegations that she falsely claimed two children who are not her own as dependents.
There were times during the Cartagena case when family members called for her arrest and publicly criticized the pace of the investigation.
At one point, the family accused District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III’s top aides of characterizing the case as “political suicide,” a reference to the failed murder prosecutions of other mothers accused of killing their children.
A key aide later denied making the statement.
From the start, Sedita said he didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute Cartagena. What changed between then and now is unclear, though prosecutors alluded to new evidence Wednesday.
Sedita said in a statement: “It is more important to make sure the investigation is truly completed and to get the case right rather than to prematurely present it to the grand jury.”
Several family members were in the courtroom for Cartagena’s arraignment, but a family spokeswoman said they did not want to comment at this time.
Finnerty did preview for the judge what could be two key elements of the case – Cartagena’s use of text messages in and around the time Bianca’s body was discovered and her attempts at suicide.
He said Cartagena used those messages to reassure family members that Bianca was OK, when in fact police believe she was already dead, and then attempted to delete them to conceal her actions.
The prosecutor also referred to Cartagena’s “exaggerated” attempts at suicide and suggested those reports were part of a larger story concocted by the defendant.
Nuchereno entered a plea of not guilty on Cartagena’s behalf and afterward provided a glimpse into what his defense might be.
He made mention of Erie County’s initial medical examiner’s report, in which Dr. Dianne Vertes ruled the cause of death as asphyxiation by unknown means, possibly homicide or accidental.
“In the beginning, the chief Erie County medical examiner ruled this was not a homicide,” Nuchereno said Wednesday. “That’s a very competent individual.”
Nuchereno said it wasn’t until another pathology report came out, this one paid for by the family, that Sedita decided to investigate Bianca’s death.
The unexplained death of an 8-year-old girl and the absence of formal charges against anyone helped keep the spotlight on Cartagena.
Even more important, perhaps, it was her own family suggesting she was to blame.
“It is hard for us to spit out the words ‘Candace killed Bianca.’ Candace is our own flesh and blood,” Casie Croff, Cartagena’s sister, told The Buffalo News in February of this year. “All fingers point to Candace, and she is the only one who has not helped the police.”
News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org