When Susan A. McCartney launched her grass-roots political campaign this fall, one of her most energetic workers was Margaret Valdez, a friendly, cheery woman who always seemed to be smiling and was popular among the other volunteers.
Few knew Valdez's troubling secret.
She was being abused by a boyfriend, she told friends, a man who would threaten her, hit her, sit outside her house for hours, refuse to give her any space.
On Oct. 20, she went to the police. She told detectives that Allen E. Taylor, 39, had punched her in the head and threatened to kill her.
"You should get measured for a casket," she said he told her.
A month later, she was dead. She had been stabbed 29 times.
Her friends couldn't help her. A law could not shield her. And a judge's order of protection didn't protect her.
Valdez, a youthful-looking 42, had moved to her West Side neighborhood only six months before. She lived in a brick apartment building on York Street, a few blocks west of Richmond Avenue near Grover Cleveland High School.
It's where she met McCartney, who lives on nearby Ketchum Place, and the rest of the neighborhood volunteers who went to work on her campaign.
Valdez's friends always wondered how she ever hooked up with Taylor.
She was always so carefree; he was moody. She was gentle; he looked like he had lived a hard life. He had a long scar on the left side of his head, which he kept shaved. He was missing four front teeth.
No one seemed to know much about Taylor. Neighbors thought he worked a construction job or as a handyman in an apartment building.
In fact, until his arrest, most didn't even know his real name. They knew him only as "Cheese." It turned out to be a tag hung on him as a kid in Lackawanna because he was always eating cheese puffs.
Taylor started appearing more and more frequently at Valdez's apartment, but even then, neighbors didn't know whether he was living with her.
One thing they were sure of: Taylor never had a key to her apartment. He'd stand outside her window and yell at her to let him in. There were times when he didn't get in.
"She didn't want to give him a door key," said a friend who asked not to be identified. "He'd stand out there and yell, 'Margaret, Margaret.' "
Neighbors didn't know much about Valdez's past, either. She
never talked much about herself.
Her mother, Georgia, said her daughter went to the former East High School and had worked taking care of children at various day care centers. She had been unemployed in recent months, devoting most of her time to McCartney's campaign.
Until her funeral, when McCartney delivered a eulogy, Valdez's friends didn't know she had a child and was a grandmother.
They were surprised to learn more about Valdez. They were startled at what they learned about Taylor.
Taylor, his brother, a cousin and another man were arrested in March 1991, charged in the fatal shooting of a Buffalo man in Lackawanna.
Warren Griffin was killed when he and two friends were trapped in a car by a group of men firing a shotgun and an AK-47 assault rifle. A prosecutor called it a massacre.
A jury convicted Taylor's brother, his cousin and the third man, and they are now serving life prison terms. But Taylor, who was seen running from the scene, was acquitted.
Six years later, in October 1996, Taylor was back on trial again.
This time, he was accused of setting fire to his Massachusetts Avenue apartment, endangering the lives of the two children of his then-girlfriend.
Taylor testified in his own defense, said he was drunk at the time, and said one of his girlfriend's acquaintances probably started the fire by dropping a crack pipe on a bed.
Jailed for 11 months before his trial, Taylor was acquitted again.
Sue McCartney relied on more-seasoned political campaigners to help with finances and advertising for her Niagara District Council run, but she turned to Valdez and others in the neighborhood to help with everything else.
"Whenever we needed help, they were there," McCartney said. "When we had big picnics, they did all the cooking. During the primary and the election, they were there at 6 a.m. in my house. We were all seeing one another every day."
Valdez quickly became McCartney's favorite and one of her hardest workers.
"We had a big party on Columbus Day and Margaret did all the cooking," McCartney said.
On Election Day, Valdez stood outside a polling place all day in the pouring rain and urged people to vote for McCartney.
When McCartney narrowly lost, Valdez took the defeat harder than McCartney or her family.
"She was such a gentle person," McCartney said. "Of all of us, she was the most popular person in that group."
Order of protection
Annie Jones is a nurse's aide who lives across the street from Valdez. She and McCartney knew that Valdez had gone to court to get an order of protection against Taylor, but said she never talked much about the problems she was having with him.
"He was possessive. He didn't want anyone to talk to her or nothing," Jones said.
"We all knew him," McCartney said. "He came to my house on election night."
Another friend said Valdez told her Taylor had beaten her that night, because she had spent too much time at McCartney's house for his liking.
Valdez already had sworn out the warrant against Taylor, and her order of protection against him came two days later, on Nov. 4, after he appeared before Murphy in court.
Friends, however, said Taylor continued to show up in the neighborhood, despite Murphy's orders that he stay away from Valdez.
Valdez could have had him arrested for violating the order -- in fact, prosecutors insist that victims notify them or police -- but friends said it didn't seem to be her nature.
She also could have been given a body alarm or a cellular phone to alert police or prosecutors, or could have been put up in a shelter, if she felt she was in danger. But she never made the call.
Valdez, however, left no doubt in the neighborhood that she had broken off the relationship with Taylor.
A friend asked one day about a huge pile of trash in front of her apartment.
"Don't tell Cheese," she said. "They're all his clothes."
Few knew how obsessed Taylor was about Valdez.
"If I can't have her, nobody can," Taylor told one of Valdez's friends one day. "I'll cut her throat if I can't have her."
Annie Jones saw Valdez the afternoon of Nov. 19 and asked if she wanted to play cards later.
"I had some beer on the table. She came over and we got the cards. We played a hand of double solitaire."
"That dude Cheese," she said, "he knocked on the door, 'Can I use the phone?' He was talking about some business with a house. Five minutes later he came back. He said: 'Margaret, I want to talk to you. Get your coat.' She said, 'I don't need my coat.' They argued, but she went."
Valdez didn't come back, and Jones started worrying about her. After she was gone for an hour or so, Jones walked across the street to check on her.
"I went to her door, I'm knocking, I can't hear anything. I put my ear to the door. I heard moaning.
"I went out front, I saw this dude Tony. I said, 'Margaret's back there moaning.' Tonyknocked the door in."
What Jones saw next has stayed with her since. It keeps her awake at night. It makes her want to move.
"She was sitting there. She had her head back but her eyes weren't moving. All this blood was gushing out. I said, 'Call the police.'
When he was put in the back of the patrol car, Taylor reportedly told officers: "We had an argument and she came at me with a knife."
Where's the knife? an officer asked him.
"I took the knife and used it on her," Taylor replied, according to police. "I don't have no knife."
When told what Taylor said, Jones scoffed at the idea that Valdez would attack the well-built, muscular Taylor.
"He said she attacked him? She wasn't any bigger than a nickel."
Joseph J. Terranova, an attorney appointed to represent Taylor, declined to comment.
A shock wave
Valdez's murder sent shock waves through the group of people who work with domestic-violence victims.
Valdez did what they are always telling people they should do: go to the police, agree to file charges, go to court and get an order of protection.
"These are the cases that judges dread," Chief City Judge Thomas P. Amodeo said.
Amodeo said he was speaking for Judge Murphy, who he said was prevented by law from commenting on a case that had come before her.
"You had a first offender coming in with a violation charge," he said of Taylor, whose previous acquittals are not part of his criminal record. "She gave an order of protection."
It was Taylor's treatment of that order -- wadding it up while still in court -- that concerns those who prosecute domestic violence cases.
"I was a little concerned about the way he treated the order of protection," District Attorney Frank J. Clark said. "It certainly did not instill an air of confidence this was an order he would obey.
"Domestic violence cases are not like other cases," Clark said. "It's why we have a domestic violence court. They cannot be treated like other cases. We have to consider the fact the defendant remains a threat to the victim."
The Erie County district attorney's office has five prosecutors who handle only domestic violence cases, along with two social workers and an investigator. They take calls day and night from those who fear for their lives.
And those charged in Buffalo are brought before a special Domestic Violence part of City Court that was created last year. Margaret Anderson was its judge until her recent retirement. Murphy has replaced her.
When Taylor appeared before Murphy on the harassment charge, the judge arraigned Taylor, issued the order of protection, and told him to return to court the following month for trial.
After Taylor was seen by a courtroom deputy wadding up Murphy's order of protection and sticking it in a coat pocket, Murphy ordered Taylor to come back before her.
She admonished him, warning him that he faced a year in jail if he violated the order of protection.
Lt. David F Mann Jr., whose squad at the Buffalo Police Department sends 90 percent of the cases to Murphy's court, said he also was concerned about the way the order of protection was treated.
"A tremendous amount of effort has been expended by the community justice system and the community to make an order of protection worth more than the piece of paper it's printed on," Mann said. "This effort has been directed at preventing homicides. If one part of the system fails, it sends the opposite message."
Amodeo said Murphy's response was proper. Had she decided to set bail because of Taylor's disrespect for her order, he would have been released in five days, Amodeo said. And if found guilty, he would have received another five days.
But those familiar with the law say there was another option. If Murphy felt Taylor showed contempt for the court and her order, she could have cited him for civil contempt and jailed him immediately. Or she could have directed the district attorney to cite Taylor for criminal contempt, a charge that carries a year's sentence.
Prosecutors say Taylor's treatment of Murphy's order, as well as the threat Valdez said he made against her, will be part of the murder case against him.
One of the county's top prosecutors, Deputy District Attorney Lawrence M. Schwegler, will try Taylor.
"As homicides go, it was a pretty vicious attack, with 29 stab wounds," Schwegler said. "Obviously this lady suffered. We're going to see what we can do to see that justice is done."
Annie Jones, who thinks of Margaret Valdez every time she walks out her front door, still can't believe she died such a violent death.
"She was very nice," she said. "The girl never bothered anybody."