BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – There was more powerful testimony Thursday, as the trial continues for an Amherst mother accused of killing her own daughter.
Candace Cartagena is accused of taking 8-year-old Bianca Cartagena’s life.
Testimony resumed Thursday morning with prosecutors questioning Avery Ray. He testified he met Candace while both were patients at Erie County Medical Center. He says they developed a friendship during group therapy sessions they attended together.
“She needed somebody to talk to, and I was that person,” Ray said.
He entered the courtroom in shackles. Ray, who also goes by the name Omar, is in custody for unrelated federal charges. He also has prior convictions for a variety of offenses.
Ray testified that after he and Candace were both released from ECMC, they developed a sexual relationship and he said she moved in with him for a time. He said they rarely discussed Bianca, but described visiting Bianca’s grave with Candace.
“She cried numerous times. Sometimes I would snap her out (of it) and tell her it would be all right.”
Defense Attorney Joseph Terranova revealed Ray met Candace while he was being treated for psychiatric issues.
Ray says he and Candace eventually broke up because he had a bad feeling about things. She was depressed, and he admitted he had an addiction problem.
“I believe things weighed on Candace. She was lost. I couldn’t find her.”
The prosecution’s next witness was Jim Banas, a high school classmate of Candace’s.
He says he reconnected with her in the fall of 2010 online. He testified their friendship grew and they contemplated having a more serious relationship but nothing developed.
He says he received a call from Amherst Police Department in mid-December 2010 alerting him to the death of Bianca. He was told to come in for a meeting with detectives. He testified he subsequently gave police a statement in April 2011.
Banas testified he reached out to Candace in spring 2011 on Facebook to express his sympathy. He also testified he asked Candace what happened to Bianca. Her response was that she and Bianca had come home, and she laid down Bianca for a nap and then went to the kitchen to cook dinner.
Banas testified that Candace returned to the room and found Bianca dead in bed. She told Banas she went outside to the shed and took pills to try to kill herself.
Next, prosecutors called Torian Henley to the stand. She’s a longtime friend of Candace. She testified Candace was a “great mother,” who never said anything bad about Bianca.
Henley has known Candace and her family for more than 20 years. She attended Bianca’s funeral. She testified she didn’t have an opinion about what happened to Bianca.
She voluntarily cooperated with police because, like everyone, else she “wanted to figure out what happened to this little girl.” At one point Henley said she asked Candace why she took pills when Bianca returned to home. Henley called it a “selfish decision” on Candace’s part.
Candace’s sister, Casie Lamarca, also testified in the murder trial that they were living together when Bianca was born. This living situation continued until Bianca was 2-years-old. Lamarca says she continued to help care for the child.
She testified Candace dropped Bianca off on Labor Day weekend 2010 and that strained their familial relationship.
Casie testified that Candace was going to be allowed to spend time with Bianca the day before Thanksgiving. Candace requested that Bianca came see her before going to her family’s house with her dad. They gave Bianca the option and Casie testified Bianca declined.
She detailed trying to reach the defendant on November 30, 2011. When she never heard back, she went to her home and unlocked the front door.
“First thing I saw was her pink coat sitting on the banister. The dogs had come down the stairs and met us there. We walked up the stairs. The house was in shambles. I said, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ We turned to go down the hallway to the bedrooms. Doors were closed. No lights in the bathroom. It was gutted. We checked Bianca’s room. There’s nothing. No lights. No bed. We go into Candace’s room. It was still set up. The bed looked like it hadn’t been made. It didn’t look like anything was there. Dad went like this and his flashlight caught something on the floor.”
Sobbing she said, “He pulled the blankets back and it was Bianca and I saw her and screamed. I said, ‘Oh my God, please do something.’ He said, ‘Go call 911,’ and I left him there with her.”
“I told them she was dead, and we needed help. I went out onto the front porch. I went out, and they called me back and told me to stay on the phone. I didn’t know where Candace was or where my dad was,” Lamarca explained.
She also testified about a conversation she had with her sister. She had tape recorded a conversation she had with Candace after Bianca’s death, and was surprised to hear Candace says she was “relieved” that initial autopsy reports had found no definitive signs that a murder had been committed.
Lamarca said her sister said she was “so relieved, no marks on her, no bruises.” She said she didn’t mention anything else about Bianca’s death.
Prosecutors say Candace suffocated her daughter as the mother’s marriage and her relationship with her daughter were deteriorating. During opening statements on Monday, prosecutor Kristen St. Mary told presiding Erie County Judge Thomas Franczyk, “She is in a rage and she takes it all out on Bianca, silencing her, intentionally asphyxiating her, depriving her of any air until she dies.”
Raison Holt, the brother of one of Candace’s former boyfriends, testified that Candace said to him suddenly, “I didn’t mean to hurt Bianca.” Prosecutors contend that is the closest Candace came to an admission of guilt.
Terrenova says the brother has given conflicting statements to authorities. He told reporters outside the courtroom, “I don’t know whether much credence at all should be given to his testimony.”
Candace’s attorney said his client will not testify on the stand. He said that’s because she has made multiple assertions that she doesn’t know what happened and tried to kill herself with an overdose of pills.
On Wednesday, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Bianca testified. She denies heart disease had anything to do with Bianca’s death, but the defense says they will prove that’s what happened.
Thursday will be the last day of testimony until June 30, when a pediatric pathologist will testify.