Bianca Cartagena’s grandfather Monday described finding the lifeless 8-year-old girl in her mother’s East Amherst home more than 3½ years ago.
“I checked her wrist for a pulse,” Bryan Sweeney testified, before pausing a few seconds. “She was rigid and cold.”
Sweeney said he found Bianca lying on her back in her mother’s bed, with one arm up around her head and her other arm on her stomach.
“I knew she was dead,” he said.
The North Tonawanda man, called to testify at the second-degree murder trial of his stepdaughter, Candace Croff Cartagena, said he found Bianca around 8:40 p.m. Nov. 30, 2010.
He said his other stepdaughter had texted him to arrange meeting her at Cartagena’s home on Greengage Circle because she could not reach Candace Cartagena, who had spent the previous evening with Bianca at her home and had promised to take her to school the next day.
But Bianca did not show up at school. Nor did the girl return to her grandparents’ home, where she had been living since August 2010 as her mother struggled with marital and financial problems.
After finding his granddaughter, Sweeney said, he searched the house for Candace Cartagena.
“I was thinking I hope I don’t find another body,” he told Assistant District Attorney Thomas M. Finnerty.
Sweeney also testified about the conditions inside the locked house. No lights were on. Dog feces covered parts of the floor. The kitchen looked gutted – without appliances, cabinets or counters.
As he searched the rest of the house, Sweeney said, he noticed that other bedrooms had no furniture.
Prosecutors say the unemployed Cartagena sold most of the home’s contents to get money, Her husband, Ruben Cartagena, had moved out. The house was in foreclosure.
Cartagena, 35, is standing trial before Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk.
Cartagena intentionally asphyxiated her daughter in a jealous rage after Bianca spent Thanksgiving with Ruben Cartagena and his girlfriend – not her, Assistant District Attorney Kristin A. St. Mary said in her opening statement.
In his opening statement, defense lawyer Joseph J. Terranova said Bianca died of natural causes. He said a medical expert will testify the girl had an enlarged heart.
In addition to spending Thanksgiving with Ruben Cartagena and his girlfriend, Bianca also planned on accompanying the two to Disney World, St. Mary said.
“The defendant was home alone because Bianca had chosen to spend Thanksgiving with him,” St. Mary said. “She was jealous, frustrated and angry.”
Cartagena called her mother after Thanksgiving and told her she wanted to see Bianca before the Disney World trip. 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.
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, the defendant takes it out on her daughter and asphyxiates her,” St. Mary said.
Cartagena then texted her mother and told her not to pick up Bianca because she was taking the girl and a friend out for dinner, then letting her spend the night, St. Mary said. The next morning, Cartagena texted her mother that she would take her daughter to school, the prosecutor said.
But when Bianca didn’t show up for school and didn’t 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 to keep her family from discovering her at home with Bianca’s body in her bedroom, St. Mary said.
The prosecutor said Cartagena spent 24 hours in the home with the body before Sweeney and his stepdaughter found the body.
After examining the bedroom, 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 that she had taken numerous pills in an attempt to kill herself because she was distraught over her ongoing divorce, St. Mary said.
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 that Bianca was dead, Cartagena did not respond, St. Mary said. “There were no screams and no tears,” she said.
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 corners of the bottom fitted sheet were 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 that it had been accidental. But she later ruled that it was homicide.
Terranova said the medical examiner had changed her mind about the manner of death under pressure from the victim’s family and others. He said he will call a pediatric forensic pathologist who examined the autopsy results and determined that Bianca died of natural causes.
The autopsy indicated that her heart was overweight, he said, and his expert found that 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. “Unfortunately, she died at my client’s home.”