Eight-year-old Bianca Cartagena ate popcorn and drank ginger ale. She played board games like Chutes & Ladders and Connect-4, and at one point she argued with her mother, Candace Croff Cartagena, about doing homework.
Those were among the few, spare details Candace Croff Cartagena, 34, provided to police the night of Nov. 30, 2010, when Bianca was found dead in her bed in Cartagena’s East Amherst home.
The new information came out Friday in a court hearing for what’s expected to be a dramatic trial for Cartagena, indicted by a grand jury in May and charged with second-degree murder.
Moments after Bianca’s body was found, police located a moaning and mumbling Cartagena in a backyard shed, and she was taken by ambulance to Erie County Medical Center.
Cartagena told authorities she had consumed a half-dozen prescription and over-the-counter medicines in an attempt to kill herself and ended up passing out on the couch.
She had little to say that night about what might have happened to her daughter – other than that she loved Bianca and would never hurt her, said police who interviewed Cartagena.
“She stated she loves Bianca to death,” said Amherst Detective Edward Solak.
Less than five months later, however, 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 unresponsive in the living room.
“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 for a traffic violation, and her rental car was impounded by authorities. The deputy was driving Cartagena to a hotel when she responded to his question about her daughter’s death.
“She was very polite, very talkative. It was just two people having a conversation,” said Favata, who had contacted Amherst police and was aware during the conversation that Cartagena was a suspect in the daughter’s death.
Favata was one of six law enforcement officials who testified during a two-hour hearing in front of Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk to determine whether prosecutors can use Cartagena’s statements at trial.
Defense attorney John R. Nuchereno’s line of questioning with the police officers tried to show that Cartegena’s statements either were not voluntarily given or were elicited in a way that makes them inadmissible for a jury to hear.
Franczyk is scheduled to rule in early November.
The statements revealed Friday were the first time the public has heard anything about Cartagena’s version of events, although Nuchereno has described his client as “a grieving mother who never would have harmed her daughter.”
Cartagena showed up in the courtroom in handcuffs, which were removed at Nuchereno’s request.
Amherst police recounted how they stayed with Cartagena for at least five hours at ECMC. She often kept her eyes closed as she answered their questions while lying in an emergency room bed, they said.
She revealed that she had a mental illness, had been treated at Bry-Lin and “was tired of everything.” She also said her home was in foreclosure and that she and her husband were in the midst of a divorce. She said she began taking ibuprofen, metformin, Claritin, Benadryl, Tylenol and the anti-depressant Celexa at about 5 or 6 p.m. Nov. 29, 2010 – the day Bianca was dropped off at her house for an overnight visit.
Bianca’s body was found at about 8:45 p.m. Nov. 30.
Amherst police continued to monitor Cartagena into the morning of Dec. 1 at ECMC, including stationing Officer Laura Leahy outside the door of her room.
Leahy testified Friday that she overheard a conversation between Cartegena and a doctor in which the defendant revealed that “after taking the pills, I do not remember any interaction with my daughter.”
Bianca’s family, including her father, Ruben Cartegena, who was separated from his wife in 2010, accused Candace Cartagena of smothering the girl soon after her death.
The Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office determined asphyxiation caused the child’s death but did not provide a manner of death. An independent autopsy, paid for by Bianca’s family, found that she was a victim of a homicide.
Cartagena had another encounter with police June 20, 2011, when her boyfriend called 911 to report that she was missing and needed a welfare check.
She was located at the Tops Market on Main Street in Amherst, and police determined that she was a potential threat to herself and others. She was taken by ambulance to ECMC.
Amherst Officer Samantha Humbert, who was along in the ambulance, asked Cartagena if she had taken any pills.
“She told me, ‘I did not take any pills. They did not work the last time,’ ” Humbert said.
Humbert testified that Cartagena also said she could no longer “go into the grocery store without people pointing at me.”
She also alluded to her divorce and “then the thing with my daughter happened.”
“I pretty much went off the deep end after that,” Humbert quoted Cartagena as saying.