Candace Croff Cartagena intentionally asphyxiated her 8-year-old daughter nearly four years ago in her East Amherst home in a jealous rage after Bianca spent Thanksgiving with Cartagena’s estranged husband and his girlfriend, not her, a prosecutor said today during an opening statement at the defendant’s murder trial.
But Cartagena’s attorney said the daughter died of natural causes, citing evidence from a medical expert who will testify that she had an enlarged heart.
In her opening statement at the nonjury trial before Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk, Assistant District Attorney Kristin A. St. Mary said Cartagena, who was 31 at the time of the Nov. 29, 2010 murder, lived alone in the house on Greengage Circle. Her husband, Ruben Cartagena, moved out during a divorce and Bianca moved in with the defendant’s parents because she no longer could take care of her.
Besides the divorce, Candace Cartagena was unemployed and her house was in foreclosure.
After she twice disappointed her daughter by failing to follow through on promises to take her to school on the first day of class and to take her out for brunch on her eighth birthday in early November, she became angry when she learned that Bianca had decided to spend Thanksgiving with Ruben Cartagena and his girlfriend and that Bianca also was going on a trip to Disney World with them that week, the prosecutor said.
“The defendant was home alone because Bianca had chosen to spend Thanksgiving with him,” St. Mary said, while Cartagena sat in an empty home that she had gutted by selling her stove, furniture and other items because she needed money.
“She was jealous, frustrated and angry,” she added.
Cartagena called her mother after Thanksgiving and told her she wanted to see Bianca before she went to Disney World. Her mother dropped off Bianca for a visit after school Nov. 29, 2010, with the understanding her mother would pick her up for her gymnastics class at 5 p.m., the prosecutor said.
But shortly after 4 p.m., St. Mary said, Cartagena texted her mother and told her to pick up Bianca early because she had a bad attitude about doing her homework.
But then something happened, the prosecutor said. Bianca apparently said something to Cartagena about her Thanksgiving visit with her father and his girlfriend “that ignited the defendant’s frustration and jealousy,” she said.
St. Mary said Cartagena sent the girlfriend a nasty email. “In her rage, she takes it out on her daughter and asphyxiates her,” she said.
Cartagena then texted her mother and told her not to pick up Bianca because she was taking Bianca and a friend out for dinner, then having her spend the night, St. Mary said. The next morning, she texted her mother that she had rented a car and would take her daughter to school, she said.
But when Bianca didn’t show up for school and did not return home, Cartagena’s mother texted her, asking where Bianca was, St. Mary said. Cartagena told her they had spent the day at the Strong Museum in Rochester and were on their way home.
These were all lies designed to prevent her family from discovering her at home with Bianca’s body in her bedroom, the prosecutor said.
She said Cartagena spent 24 hours in the home with the body before Cartagena’s sister and her stepfather went to the locked home, broke in and found Bianca under the covers in her mother’s bed. They called police.
After examining the murder scene, police found Cartagena in the backyard shed, where, according to the prosecutor, she pretended to be semiconscious at first but then awoke and answered their questions.
The defendant claimed she had taken numerous pills in an attempt to kill herself because she was distraught over her ongoing divorce, St. Mary said.
She said she took the pills around 5 p.m. the day before and that her parents had picked up Bianca. When police asked her if anything had happened to Bianca, she said she didn’t know because she had taken the pills.
When police told her Bianca was dead, Cartagena did not respond, St. Mary said.
“There were no screams and no tears,” she said.
Cartagena was taken to the hospital and later released, During that time, the prosecutor said, she told friends different stories about what had happened to Bianca. She eventually was charged with murder in May 2013.
St. Mary said there were signs that Bianca had fought for her life that night in her mother’s bedroom. The bed was in severe disarray, the bottom fitted sheet was pulled off, pillows were strewn around the room, and a sheet was pulled over her body and scratched face.
St. Mary said the medical examiner ruled the cause of death as asphyxia but initially left the manner of death as undetermined, saying she could not exclude accidental asphyxia. But she later ruled that it was homicidal asphyxia.
An expert in pediatric forensics, who was retained to review the case, agreed, the prosecutor said.
Joseph J. Terranova, Cartagena’s attorney, said in his opening statement that the medical examiner had changed her mind about the manner of death because she was under pressure from the victim’s family and others.
He said he will call a pediatric forensics pathologist who examined the autopsy results and determined that Bianca died of natural causes.
He said the autopsy indicated her heart was overweight. The medical examiner ignored the finding, Terranova said. He said his expert found the heart was misshapen and that Bianca died of undiagnosed dilated cardiomyopathy because of the enlarged heart.
“She could have died at a skating lesson or gymnastics lesson,” he said, referring to her condition. “Unfortunately, she died at my client’s home.” He dismissed the prosecution’s claims about his client’s motives, lies and a struggle in the bedroom as irrelevant, saying they have nothing to do with the cause and manner of death.
He said 99 percent of the prosecution’s opening statement was for the benefit of the media and members of the public who have been following the case for the 3½ years since Bianca died and the controversy over why it took so long to charge Cartagena.
During the 2½ years between Bianca’s death and Cartagena’s indictment, some family members called for her arrest and publicly criticized the pace of the investigation.
After Cartagena was arraigned last year, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III issued a statement: “Every case and every investigation is different. 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.”
The trial is expected to run all this week, followed by a two-week break, because the defense medical expert cannot testify until June 30. It is expected to conclude that week.
The case is being prosecuted by St. Mary and Assistant District Attorneys Thomas Finnerty and Ashley M. Morgan.