Candace Croff Cartagena started taking pills, then laid down in her bed with her 8-year-old daughter because she wanted “to end her life with the only person she loved,” Cartagena’s boyfriend testified Thursday at her murder trial.
When Cartagena awoke the next day, she found Bianca dead in the bed next to her and she took some more pills, then awoke and took some more and continued doing so, Jonathan Arena said.
That evening, her family found Bianca’s body alone in her mother’s bed in their East Amherst home and called police, who later found Cartagena apparently semiconscious in a backyard shed.
She was accused 2½ years later of suffocating her daughter during a Nov. 29, 2010 visit at her home on Greengage Circle. Bianca was then living with her maternal grandparents in North Tonawanda because Cartagena could not take care of her.
The 35-year-old defendant went on trial this week before Erie County Court Judge Thomas P. Franczyk. The nonjury trial will resume June 30 when the defense calls a pathologist to testify about the cause of death. The prosecution is expected to call another witness July 1, before closing statements. A verdict is expected later that week or the following week.
Arena testified that he met Cartagena in spring 2011, and she moved in with him in Rochester. He said he has seen her every week since she was indicted in May 2013 and has talked to her two to five times a day while she is in custody.
He said that at one point, she told him what had happened Nov. 29 at her home:
Her mother dropped off Bianca after school, and Cartagena asked Bianca to spend the night because she wanted to see her before the child went on a trip to Disney World with Cartagena’s estranged husband and his girlfriend.
Bianca did her homework, and they watched television and played games. Cartagena became very depressed, took some pills and laid down in her bed with Bianca.
Cartagena was depressed over her marital and financial problems and wanted to end her life with Bianca at her side, the person who meant the most to her.
After waking up and finding Bianca dead, she repeatedly took pills and awoke. Eventually she found herself on the living room couch downstairs. After vomiting, she changed her clothes and found that Bianca had been dead for some time.
“Did you ask her why didn’t she call police?” Assistant District Attorney Kristin A. St. Mary asked Arena.
He said she told him she freaked out, didn’t know what to do and didn’t think anyone would believe her.
“Doesn’t it seem odd that her daughter died on the day she had her over and decided to end her own life?” St. Mary asked. “Yes, it does,” Arena said.
Arena admitted that he and Cartagena often argued over the phone about his talking to Amherst police about the case, because her attorney had advised her not to talk about it until she was charged and on trial.
St. Mary played recordings of some of the jailhouse phone conversations.
In one call on July 5, 2013, Cartagena told Arena: “You and me are the only two people that are gonna bury me, and you are doing a real good job of it by continuing to talk to them.”
Arena testified that Amherst police wanted to talk to him about the case and show him all the evidence they had against Cartagena. “They were trying to drive a wedge between us,” he said.
He said Amherst police went to his parents’ Rochester home and questioned them.
Defense attorney Joseph J. Terranova asked Arena why Amherst police were doing that.
Arena said their purpose was “to break me away from Candace.”
At one point, when he and Cartagena got into an argument in June 2011 outside an Amherst supermarket, he called 911 after she ran into the market and he couldn’t find her. He said Amherst Police Detective Herbert Leising told him he thought Cartagena was guilty and that he would pursue the case until she was convicted.
Earlier Thursday, Cartagena’s sister, Casie Lamarca, testified that Cartegena told her family she could not talk about what happened Nov. 29 because she didn’t remember and because her attorney had advised her not to talk about it.
Lamarca read from an email Cartagena sent her on March 26, 2011. The defendant said she would like to tell her family what happened but couldn’t because of her memory lapse after she took all the pills she could find in her house and because of her attorney’s advice.
“I replay it everyday” in my mind, Cartagena said in the email, “but I don’t remember what happened.
“I’ll never forgive myself for what happened,” she said, adding that she thinks of Bianca every day, sleeps with some of her things and visits her grave often.
“She was the most special girl in the world,” she said.
At that point, Lamarca paused in her reading of the email and cried.
The email was sent a few weeks after an autopsy was released listing the cause of the girl’s death as asphyxiation and the manner of death as undetermined. The manner of death was later changed to homicide.
In her email Cartagena said media reports about the autopsy had made her life difficult, noting that she barely leaves her house because of the looks and comments she receives when she goes out.
Lamarca couldn’t recall if she responded to the email, but she said she did agree to meet with Cartagena two months later at a restaurant – their first face-to-face meeting since Bianca’s death,
Lamarca said the defendant told her she was relieved to learn from the autopsy that no trauma or marks were found on her daughter. Because of that, Cartagena told her sister, she could begin the grieving process, knowing that she had done nothing to Bianca.
Lamarca testified that she brought a tape recorder to the meeting to record their conversation. She said she brought it for protection because she was meeting with a woman who faced the possibility of being accused of killing her daughter.
She said she didn’t tell her sister she was recording the conversation. She said she later gave the recording to the Amherst Police Department.
Lamarca also testified about finding Bianca’s body in Cartagena’s bed the evening of Nov. 30, after her mother, Kathy Sweeney, and stepfather, Bryan Sweeney, became alarmed because Bianca had not returned from her visit with Cartagena.
She said she called her stepfather, who was working, and met him at Cartagena’s home. She said he forced open the front storm door, which was locked, and she had a key for the other front door.
No lights were on, so her stepfather led the way into the house with a flashlight. They found Bianca’s body in her mother’s bed under blankets.
When Lamarca saw the body, she screamed and told her stepfather to do something. He told her to go into the hallway and call 911.
After police arrived, she said she noticed a commotion behind the house and saw a stretcher taking someone to an ambulance. She said police wouldn’t tell her who was on the stretcher.
”I had no clue what was going on,” she said amid tears. “I didn’t know if my sister was dead or alive. All I knew was that my niece was dead, and I didn’t see my sister.”
She said she called Erie County Medical Center the next morning to check if her sister was there and was told they couldn’t tell her. The family went to ECMC and asked to see Cartagena and were told that she was not accepting visitors.
Lamarca said they got a letter from Cartagena a few weeks later.