Candace Cartagena says she did not kill her 8-year-old daughter, but acknowledges she may have accidentally caused the child’s death after taking dozens of pills in an attempt to end her own life.
In a jail interview last week, three weeks after she was convicted in a non-jury trial of killing Bianca, Cartagena said she should have gone against her lawyer’s advice and testified to explain what happened in her Amherst home on that November night in 2010 when her daughter died.
Cartagena said that she had been trying to commit suicide by a drug overdose, although she concedes she may have accidentally rolled on top of her napping daughter, triggering the girl’s asphyxiation and heart failure.
“It was supposed to be me, not Bianca,” Cartagena said during the two-hour interview.
As it was, Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk four weeks ago found the 35-year-old mother guilty of second-degree murder.
Now with her sentencing 10 days away, Cartagena hopes Franczyk will take into consideration her story – that she was incapable of intentionally suffocating her only child – and that the judge will show mercy.
But there is another obstacle: Cartagena’s own mother and other family members, who pushed authorities to charge her with murder after a long delay in the case. Convincing them of her innocence could prove difficult.
Casie Croff, Cartegena’s sister, has notified the court that she intends to speak on behalf of Bianca at the sentencing. Croff and Kathy Sweeney, mother of the two sisters and Bianca’s grandmother, spoke out more than a year ago, seeking justice for Bianca, even if it meant sending Cartagena to prison.
Cartagena says she loves her family, but is appalled that they believe she killed her own daughter.
“It’s very, very difficult for me to comprehend how my family could possibly think I could commit such a heinous and horrific crime. I’m dumbfounded they could think that could happen. If I’d done anything to her with the intent to hurt her, I would have taken a plea deal,” she said.
Though there were conflicting medical opinions raised at the non-jury trial, Franczyk accepted the prosecution’s contention that Cartagena, jealous because her daughter was going on a vacation to Disney World with her estranged husband and his girlfriend, suffocated Bianca in the master bedroom of their Greengage Circle home during a visit on Nov. 29, 2010.
After the child’s body was found by Bianca’s step-grandfather, who went to the house with Croff, police searched the property and discovered Cartagena in a backyard shed, fading in and out of consciousness from an overdose of pills.
Cartagena says she would gladly take a lie detector test to prove her innocence, but knows that it would be inadmissible in court.
“I’d absolutely take a lie detector test. Give me truth serum, whatever.”
Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita scoffed at the offer.
“She’d probably pass with flying colors. As the proof showed, she is not only a murderer but a pathological liar,” Sedita said.
When Cartagena goes before Franczyk Aug. 26, she could face as much as 25 years to life in prison. She hopes the explanations offered during this interview will prompt leniency as she prepares for an appeal of the conviction. Cartagena chose to share her story, she said, against the advice of her lawyer, Joseph J. Terranova, explaining it is the only recourse she had.
Descent into darkness
After her marriage to Ruben Cartagena ended, Cartagena said, she began behaving in ways that troubled her.
“I was lying, stealing and devious,” Cartagena said.
Her behavior, she explained, drove a wedge between her and her mother, Kathy Sweeney, and other relatives.
“I’d lost my family. We had no contact unless it was about Bianca. I’d stolen jewelry from my parents’ home,” she said, explaining that she was having financial difficulties related to her divorce.
Sweeney and her husband, Bryan, had opened their North Tonawanda home to Bianca, a third-grader at Dodge Road Elementary School in Amherst, in an effort to provide some relief to Cartagena.
Yet the lies continued.
“I told my family I was working but I had resigned from my job on Nov. 9,” she said.
And thoughts of suicide began to fill her head, Cartagena said.
On Nov. 29, 2010, she arranged for an after-school visit with her daughter.
Sweeney dropped her granddaughter off at Cartagena’s Greengage Circle home around 2:30 p.m., with the understanding that she would return in a couple hours to take the child to gymnastics class.
Cartagena later texted her mother saying a girlfriend was taking them out to dinner to belatedly celebrate Bianca’s Nov. 7th birthday. After dinner, Bianca would be brought to the Sweeneys’ home. But Kathy Sweeney received yet another text that evening from her daughter. Bianca was fast asleep and would spend the night.
The texts were all lies, Cartagena said. Bianca was dead.
Suicide and death
As Bianca settled into her afternoon visit, doing homework, eating popcorn, drinking ginger ale and playing a couple of board games with her mother, Cartagena wrestled between thoughts of calling her mother for help and killing herself, she said. She chose suicide.
“I hated myself,” she said.
According to Cartagena, at about 4:30 p.m. that afternoon, she said, “Why don’t we take a nap?” to her daughter.
“OK,” the child answered, Cartagena said.
Mother and daughter went to the bed in the master bedroom.
“She liked to cuddle. I called her my ‘warmer bug,’ ” Cartagena said.
“When Bianca fell asleep, I went into the bathroom and took 29 pills. Some were for diabetes, others depression and mood stabilizers and a few Valium,” Cartagena said.
Upon awaking at about 6:30 p.m., though she is not positive of the exact time, Cartagena said, she made a horrifying discovery. Her daughter was dead.
Bianca was on her side facing Cartagena. She said she was slightly on top of her daughter with a pillow that she had placed between them.
“When I was pregnant with Bianca, I started sleeping with a pillow against my chest,” she explained.
Might she have inadvertently smothered her 58-pound child with the pillow and her body?
“It’s a question I have always had. Could Bianca’s heart condition have been affected by my overlay? That was a question I asked the lawyers numerous times, and they never addressed it.”
Cartagena said she took her daughter into her arms.
“I was holding her and rocking her for about 30 minutes. Then I moved her into the position she was found, on her back. I kissed her on the forehead and covered her up with a sheet and blanket. She wasn’t cool but she wasn’t typical Bianca-warm-sleeping.”
She said she then left the bedroom, closing the door to keep out the two family dogs.
Afraid she would be accused of murder, Cartagena said she did not make a call for help.
“I was beyond scared, grief-stricken, terrified, not knowing what to do and not thinking my mother would believe me that I didn’t murder Bianca,” she said.
When asked about a cut police found on the child’s forehead, Cartagena said she had nothing to do with it. Fingernail clippings taken from her daughter revealed evidence of the child’s skin on the clippings and that might have accounted for the scratch, Cartagena said.
“I left the bedroom and went to the hallway linen closet, where I kept a bin of medicines, and grabbed it. I started taking liquid cold medicine, Tylenol and cold medicine pills. I was fumbling popping open the foil.”
She said she then went to the upstairs living room couch and went to sleep.
But she woke up and vomited.
“I was in and out of it. I started texting my mother. I was buying time to finish the job. My desire to die was even greater after I found Bianca dead. I was taking more pills. I didn’t understand why I was still alive, except for the throwing up.”
Reality closing in
The next morning, Cartagena received a text from her mother asking to have Bianca call her. At noon, after receiving no response, Sweeney again texted, asking if Bianca had gotten off to school.
Cartagena texted back, “OK.”
At 3 p.m., Sweeney received a text from Ruben Cartagena, stating that, when he went to the school to pick up Bianca, school officials said she had not attended class that day.
More texting followed between Sweeney and her daughter. Cartagena says she lied to her mother, claiming they had gone to the children’s museum in Rochester and they were on their way home.
“I was just making things up to buy more time. I was lying on the first-floor bathroom floor because I was sweating profusely and the ceramic tiles were cool. I was having horrible stomach pains.”
She said that in a daze, she grabbed a jacket and went into the backyard to cool off and ended up in the nearby storage shed.
“I honestly believe I went into the shed by mistake. I remember putting a blanket around me. I thought I was on the couch.”
With no word from Cartagena, Sweeney’s husband, Bryan, and her daughter, Casie, went to the Greengage Circle home, arriving shortly after 8:30 p.m. to check on Bianca.
Bryan Sweeney discovered Bianca’s body in the master bedroom. She was cold and rigid.
Police received a 911 call at 8:45 p.m., summoning them to the house. They were met by Croff, who was standing in front of the house screaming, “She killed her, she killed her.”
When police located Cartagena in the shed, she was semi-consciousness.
“My throat was parched, so dry and raw, and I couldn’t speak. I remember them screaming, ‘Open your eyes.’ I wasn’t faking it. I was having a hard time coming out of it,” she said of suspicions that she was faking her drug overdose.
Thoughts of Bianca, she added, were starting to come into her mind as well.
“I felt like I was in a nightmare. I was thinking, ‘No, no, no, she’s not really gone.’ I was in shock.”
At the Erie County Medical Center’s emergency room, as her condition improved, Cartagena said an Amherst police lieutenant informed her that Bianca was dead.
“ ‘Oh my God. This really did happen.’ That’s what I thought.”
Police have said that she showed no reaction.
She said she showed no outward reaction because she did not know what to think.
“I didn’t know how to react. There were police all around, and I didn’t say anything. I had a suspicion.”
In time, that “suspicion” proved accurate. She was the prime suspect in what police ruled a “suspicious” death.
She said she was admitted to ECMC’s psychiatric ward and that prevented her from attending her daughter’s funeral.
When she was discharged, she lived briefly with another former patient at his family’s West Side house, but said that was a mistake because they were ill-suited for each other.
Unable to find work because of the publicity surrounding her case, Cartagena said that in time she moved to Rochester, living off her 2010 state tax refund, but stayed in constant touch with her first attorney, John R. Nuchereno, who later left the case for health reasons.
When her money ran out, she advertised herself on Craigslist, working as a prostitute.
“I did it five times, and it was creepy and gross. It was hard to care about my life. I was existing.”
Thoughts of suicide returned, she said, but after going on an online dating site, she became involved with a boyfriend who, to this day, stands by her side and, she says, has given her a reason to live.
During the murder trial, prosecutors Thomas M. Finnerty, Kristin A. St. Mary and Ashley M. Morgan claimed that Cartagena was jealous of her estranged husband, his girlfriend and Bianca spending time together.
Cartagena said that is false.
“I wanted her to have a relationship with her father and his family,” she said.
Cartagena said she accepted Terranova’s advice that she not take the stand to testify on her own behalf. With an opinion from a pathologist, hired by the defense, that Bianca died from an enlarged heart, she said, Terranova was certain they would prove reasonable doubt and avoid a conviction on second-degree murder.
“I was constantly told ‘nothing but cause of death matters.’ There were three opinions on how Bianca died, and that was reasonable doubt in itself.”
When Terranova was contacted and told what his client said in her interview, he responded that ethical guidelines prohibited him from commenting.
But he did say his arguments defending her in court still stand – that different pathologists offered conflicting opinions as to how Bianca was asphyxiated. And, he said he plans to file an appeal on behalf of Cartagena.
Cartagena contends the police built a case based on selective evidence and did not consider positive comments made about her by neighbors and others that she appeared to be a devoted mother.
Amherst police declined to comment, but one police official said the prosecution made a strong case that the child did not have an enlarged heart or that Bianca could have died from an “accidental overlay,” meaning the mother rolled on top of her child while they were sleeping and smothered her.
Cartagena also blamed her family and the media for pressuring the district attorney to prosecute her. Cartagena’s family spoke out publicly criticizing Sedita early last year for not moving more quickly on the case.
“It was not until after my family humiliated him, reaching out to the media, that he sought out Dr. Collins,” Cartagena said of the outside expert the DA hired to testify at the trial.
Dr. Kim A. Collins, a forensic pathologist, testified that Dr. Jonathan Arden, the pathologist hired by the defense, was wrong in his assessment that the cause of Bianca’s death was an undiagnosed enlarged heart known as dilated cardiomyopathy.
Sedita said the process of finding an expert of Collins’ stature began long before any publicity.
“This case rested upon two pillars. The first was the circumstantial evidence, most notably the defendant’s behavior, the text messages. The second and necessary pillar was not available until before we indicted her, and that was the medical proof.
“The prosecution would not only be called upon to prove the cause and manner of Bianca’s death, but also be called upon to disprove any alternative theory of Bianca’s cause and manner of death and, guess what, that is exactly what happened at trial,” Sedita said. “I always thought she was guilty, but I needed to be able to prove that she was guilty.”
Ruben Cartagena said he was not surprised by his former-wife’s effort to throw herself at the mercy of the court, but he remains convinced she killed their daughter.
“She’s a very vindictive person, and I don’t believe she was on drugs when she killed Bianca,” Ruben Cartagena said. “I’m thinking she’s hoping for a downward sentence and obviously I’m hoping for the opposite. I believe she is a dangerous person.”