After 8-year-old Bianca Cartagena was found dead in her bed, Candace Croff Cartagena had little to say that night about what might have happened to her daughter.
Now, a judge has ruled the statements the East Amherst mother did make to police – after she was found moaning and mumbling in the family’s backyard shed – can be used at her March murder trial.
In statements she made on her way to the hospital and eventually at the hospital, she described her and Bianca’s last afternoon together Nov. 29, 2010. She also talked about how she had tried to kill herself later that day by taking six different kinds of medication to escape from marital problems, unemployment and a house in foreclosure.
“I devoted everything to him, and he keeps leaving,” she said of her husband to Amherst Police Officer Mark Doldan and Detective Edward Solak at Erie County Medical Center.
After taking the pills, she said she went in and out of consciousness and did not recall much besides waking up on the couch in the living room. The couch was wet from her urine.
When asked how she ended up in the shed, where she was found the evening of Nov. 30, 2010, shortly after the discovery of Bianca’s body, she said, “I never go in there. I hate the shed. All my husband’s stuff is in there.”
She also told the officers that she had a mental illness that her family refused to acknowledge.
Solak asked Cartagena, who was 31 at the time, about children, and she mentioned Bianca, who had been living with Cartagena’s parents since Cartagena had been hospitalized at Bry-Lin in August 2010.
She said her mother had dropped off Bianca at Cartagena’s house after school Nov. 29, 2010. Bianca did her homework, after they argued about it, and they played Connect Four and Chutes and Ladders in bed. Then they ate popcorn and drank ginger ale.
She said her last contact with Bianca was at 5:15 p.m., when her mother picked her up and took her to gymnastics.
Cartagena “stated she loves Bianca to death,” Solak said.
Police did not consider Cartagena a suspect in her daughter’s death when she made the statements, Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk ruled, denying defense motions to suppress her statements.
Defense attorney John R. Nuchereno contended her statements should not be allowed at trial because she was in custody at the time. Police had not read her Miranda rights to her before the questioning.
But the judge ruled against the defense request.
“Even when she claimed that she had last seen her daughter at around 5:15 p.m. when her mother picked her up for gymnastics – a fact at odds with the presence of Bianca’s dead body in the defendant’s bedroom at 9:30 p.m. – neither Officer Doldan nor Detective Solak took her to task or confronted her in any way,” the judge said.
He also noted she made no admission of guilt while talking to the officers.
“While the court finds it hard to fathom that the Amherst police, having found a dead child in her mother’s home and the defendant, the only adult at the scene, secreted in a backyard shed in an apparent self-induced state of alleged overdose, were not entertaining the possibility that she might be responsible for her daughter’s death – a conclusion belied by their around-the-clock presence at her bedside – the fact that she may have been a suspect is not determinative” of whether she was in custody at the time, he said.
Neither the length of the police presence at the hospital nor the manner of questioning “created a custodial environment that would have led a reasonable, innocent person to believe that she was … subject to a de facto arrest,” Franczyk said.
He also found that despite having taken the medications, her responses to the questions were appropriate and that she understood the nature and content of her statements.
Less than five months later, Cartagena was more talkative about how her daughter might have died.
She speculated to a Monroe County sheriff’s deputy that Bianca had “suffocated herself” in a fit of crying when she saw her overdosed mother.
“She must have seen me on the living room floor, thought I was dead and cried so hard she suffocated herself,” Deputy Michael J. Favata quoted Cartagena as saying on April 26, 2011.
Favata had stopped Cartagena outside Rochester at 2:30 a.m. for driving a rental car beyond the rental agreement. He called the rental company and was instructed to call Amherst police, who told him she was a suspect in her daughter’s death. She was given an appearance ticket for driving a stolen vehicle, and the deputy then drove her to the motel where she was staying. During that drive, he asked her about Bianca’s death.
Franczyk ruled prosecutors can use Cartagena’s hospital statements to Amherst police at trial, but the judge said they can only cross-examine Cartagena on her statements to Favata if she testifies at trial.
Franczyk also ruled that prosecutors cannot use statements Cartagena made at ECMC to her doctor Dec. 1, 2010, that were overheard by Amherst Police Officer Laura Leahy.
Leahy overheard Cartagena say she had a fight with her husband and had started taking pills Nov. 29, 2010, after spending the afternoon with her daughter. She said she fell asleep on the couch, woke up all wet and moved to another couch. She then said she went to the shed to cool off.
She said she did not recall any interaction with her daughter after taking the pills. She said she did not leave a suicide note or tell anyone because she just wanted to die.
The judge said those comments to her doctor could not be used because she had not waived the doctor-patient privilege.