Courage, love and a fierce determination brought together Lilia Esperanza Aucapina’s family, friends and about a crowd of 100 supporters at a vigil Tuesday to demand the re-opening of the police investigation into her tragic death.
They called attention to the circumstances surrounding Aucapina’s death, stating that many facts had been overlooked or not properly examined, as well as demanded a full accounting of the investigation so far.
Aucapina, an Ecuadorean woman whose body was found late November hanging from a tree near her home in the small village of Sagaponack, had first been reported missing on Oct. 21. Southampton Town police, said her niece Maria Duchi, has erroneously and prematurely declared her death as a suicide.
“We don’t understand how it can be declared a suicide if the autopsy results have not even been released yet and the Suffolk County Homicide Unit wasn’t even called in to investigate in the first place,” said Duchi.
Foster Maer, an attorney for Latino Justice, a New York City-based organization committed to protecting Latino civil rights, represents the family of Aucapina.
Maer, who has consulted with retired Colorado Police Chief Dan Montgomery [a consultant for Latino Justice], said in an interview with Long Island Wins, that there are many questions surrounding Aucapina’s disappearance and the way her body was found that raise the possibility of criminality.
Documented history of domestic violence to the amount of time it took to find her, as well as the location and state of the body, are some of the concerns why people believe that a fuller investigation should have taken place.
“Either the police conducted an incredibly bad search because they looked at that very spot [where she was found], it’s not that thickly wooded, or it raises the possibility that somebody planted the body,” Maer said.
The body was found in an area several hundred feet away from her home on Toppings Path.
“It’s four minutes away walking, yet the police couldn’t find her in 41 days of her being missing,” Duchi said.
Aucapina had been granted an order of protection against her husband, Carlos Aucapina, just a few days before her disappearance.
Duchi said this wasn’t the first time her aunt had sought protection from her husband, something she said, he had repeatedly violated.
“It was 22 years of ongoing abuse. He was extremely jealous,” said Maria Parra, Aucapina’s sister in law.
Parra added that her family is not looking to cause problems or to accuse anybody without the proper investigation, but that they needed answers.
The Southampton Press reported that Carlos Aucapina -who was not present at the vigil at the request of Lilia Esperanza’s family- had said in an interview last month that he was not involved in the disappearance of his wife.
Mr. Aucapina, who submitted phone records and financial statements to the police, also took a lie detector test, but the results have yet not been released.
Duchi said that the police told them that Mr. Aucapina had an alibi.
“Is it credible? We don’t know because they haven’t given us any information,” she said.
A friend of Aucapina, Maria Elena Ruiz, who also attended the same church as her, Ministerio Restauracion A Las Naciones in Southampton, said that the week before she vanished, Aucapina had stood before her fellow congregants and given testimony on her story of domestic violence and how her faith was helping her overcome it.
“She was so happy to share her story so others could get inspired,” Ruiz said.
Family and friends describe Aucapina as a devoted mother of two, with a strong sense of faith and community. Maer said that, according to the people who knew her, she showed no indications of depression or other psychological or emotional warning signs that would lead to a suicide.
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst set up a meeting Monday with Aucapina’s family, Foster Maer from Latino Justice and other advocates, as well as the lead detective on the case Detective Sergeant Lisa Costa, and an attorney for the Town, Carl Benincasa. The purpose of the meeting, Maer said, was to bring all parties together and get some answers, but Maer and Aucapina’s family walked away “even more upset.”
“The only thing we have heard is that the case is closed. How is that possible with so many questions?” Duchi said.
Maer linked Aucapina’s case to that of 21-year old Gabriela Armijos, whose body was also found hanging from a tree last year. Armijo, said Maer, had also “rejected a boyfriend” but her case was quickly ruled out as a suicide.
“No proper investigation was ever made. We demand that her case be re-opened as well,” Maer said.
Armijos’ sister, Alexandra Ramon Armijos, was in attendance at the vigil this week and spoke to the crowd that had gathered. Her voice breaking and with tears in her eyes, she recounted in Spanish the story of her sister and how she felt that East Hampton Town police had dismissed her sister’s death.
“We [minorities] are people. We have feelings. Our lives are valuable too,” she said.
Armijos said that she feels very disheartened because she sees her sister’s case repeating all over again with Aucapina.
This sentiment was echoed by many at the vigil, who looked at both cases as examples of a systemic issue within the police departments and local governments regarding the overall approach in dealing with Latinos on the East End.
“Even though a life has been lost, a greater injustice is taking place. No matter what language you speak, what you look like, your life matters, and that is not what we’re seeing here,” said Jason Starr, Long Island Chapter Interim Director for New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and a representative of Long Island United for Police Reform (LIPR).
“Nobody really knows what happened to either of these women, but they deserve a proper investigation and their families deserve answers,” said Maer, who added “there’s a pretty strong record of ignoring these investigations and ruling them out as suicides.”
Cristina Banados, the Director of Advocacy at The Retreat, an East Hampton-based nonprofit organization that offers domestic violence help, had known Aucapina personally for 15 years.
“Esperanza had our help, she had an order of protection, but that wasn’t enough,” she said.
After the vigil, which ended with five minutes of silence, several of the attendees stayed to participate at Tuesday’s Town Board Meeting.
Duchi, visibly nervous, but determined, spoke on behalf of her family and asked board members to re-open the case of her aunt.
“We would like a full report of actions taken in the investigation and a full report, including the search for and discovery of her body and all of the relevant evidence considered by police,” she said.
Supervisor Throne-Holst issued a statement in both Spanish and English explaining that she had spoken “at length with the chief of police and they had assured her they had conducted a thorough investigation.” She also said that she had requested a full report with all steps taken, which they’ll share once it’s completed. She ended by saying that her thoughts were with the family of Aucapina.
“I hope they do the right thing,” said Duchi while she embraced Lilia Esperanza Aucapina’s mother and father, an elderly couple who had stood solemnly throughout the vigil holding a tattered sign with the picture of their daughter and a few words on it, “Justice for Esperanza.”