Finally, there may be justice. Finally, Candace Cartagena stands accused. Finally, there may be peace for little Bianca Cartagena – and peace of mind for the father who loved her.
Candace Croff Cartagena was charged Wednesday with killing her 8-year-old daughter. The news was as welcome as it was overdue. The girl was found, asphyxiated, in November 2010 under a blanket in the bedroom of the Amherst house where her mother lived alone. Cartagena was discovered in the backyard garden shed, semiconscious and supposedly suicidal.
The finger of suspicion always had pointed at Cartagena. There was no other obvious explanation for the healthy girl’s death while in her care. It took risk-averse District Attorney Frank Sedita III too long to make the case. But the wheels of justice have finally turned.
Buffalo now has its own version of Casey Anthony. The details of the cases are different, but they are similar at the core: Irresponsible young mother is accused of killing her daughter, based on largely circumstantial evidence.
What looks to me like the probable narrative is as simple as it is sad: A mentally unhinged woman was losing control of her life, and of the people in it. In a moment of desperation, Cartagena – in a final display of fading power and control – killed the daughter who was becoming increasingly distant from her.
The details sketch the bigger picture. Cartagena’s husband, Ruben Cartagena, had left her. Their daughter, Bianca, had months earlier left to live with her maternal grandparents after his ex-wife failed to pick her up after a weekend at the grandparents’ house, according to Ruben Cartagena. Living alone in the two-story house in Amherst, Candace Cartagena – who no longer worked due to “stress” – had taken to selling off parts of the house and property. Everything from the backyard fence to a toilet was bartered to cover bills and what the ex-husband called her “upscale” lifestyle.
Defense attorney John Nuchereno on Wednesday proclaimed his client’s innocence. Among those not buying it is Ruben Cartagena – Bianca’s father.
“She obviously killed Bianca,” the ex-husband told me. “I believe that; her own family believes that. We thought she should have been charged immediately.”
Better late than never.
I’m not sure what prompted Sedita to finally take this to a grand jury. Plenty of cops criticize the district attorney, with some justification, for failing to bring charges in homicide cases that are not sure things. He often seems unwilling, presumably for political reasons, to risk lowering his conviction “batting average” by going to court without overwhelming evidence.
Sedita objects to that notion. While not speaking specifically about this case, he said he brings charges any time he feels he has enough evidence. “I don’t need everything wrapped in a bow, or whatever pithy colloquialism people use to criticize me,” he said. “What you may think or believe is irrelevant; all that matters is what you can prove in court.”
Whatever the case, Sedita finally is swinging for the fences on this one. It’s nice to see him step up on a case whose outcome is anything but certain.
For all of the neon signs flashing “Candace,” convincing 12 jurors that a mother could kill her own child is no slam dunk. Look no further than Anthony, the Florida woman who – against all logic – beat a murder rap in her daughter’s death.
In this case, there is no independent witness, no confession, and the county medical examiner did not definitively call the girl’s death a homicide.
It was no surprise, then, to see the prosecutorial “A-team” of Thomas Finnerty and Kristin St. Mary in court Wednesday. Clearly, Sedita is not taking anything for granted.
Although there is no “smoking gun” – or, in this case, no smothering pillow – the case against Candace Cartagena has plenty of backing from both sides of the family. Ruben Cartagena believes that a deadly meltdown by his ex-wife was triggered by the girl’s planned trip with him and her cousins to Disney World the next day.
“I think it enraged Candace, that she would not be the first to take [Bianca] to Disney,” Ruben Cartagena told me. “We all went a year earlier, but Candace wouldn’t let [Bianca] go.”
It may have been the final push, for a woman who was losing her grip.
This case was begging to be tried. Bianca Cartagena did not have much of a chance in life. Now, from beyond the grave, she will finally get a chance at justice.