Rhonda Pattelena was the mermaid in her family. She loved the sand between her toes and considered the beaches in York, Maine, her favorite place, both as a child and as the mother of three boys.
“We used to go there every summer, every summer,” Rhonda’s sister, Jessica Pattelena, said Monday. “She was a mermaid. She loved the beach. She always had her toes in the sand. She loved the waves.”
Pattelena, 35, was at Short Sands Beach in York Friday afternoon intent on sharing her joy with Jeffrey Buchannan, the father of her 2-year-old son who had recently reentered her life. Shortly before 4 p.m., in the view of other beachgoers, Buchannan allegedly killed Pattelena behind a large rock, authorities said, on a sandy strip she had long considered a safe haven.
“She just really loved him,” Melissa Matranga, a close friend who grew up with Pattelena, said of Buchannan. “She saw good in him when there really was no good in him. She just wanted to believe that he was her soulmate.”
The cause of death was blunt force injury to the head, police said. Buchannan, 33, was taken into custody without incident and charged with murder. He is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in York County Superior Court in Alfred, Maine, authorities said.
It was at least the second time Buchannan had physically attacked her, officials said. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to assaulting her and kidnapping her and her two sons from earlier relationships, court records show. Buchannan was sentenced to two years behind bars. The case began when Pattelena alerted a State Police trooper at Logan Airport that Buchannan had assaulted her and would not let her children leave her Lawrence home, according to the Essex district attorney’s office.
Matranga, who has launched a GoFundMe page for Pattelana, said she did not know when Pattelena and Buchannan reunited. She did not approve of their relationship because of his previous violence, she said.
Despite her misgivings, she did what she could do to support her friend. Her support came with a requirement: the two women agreed on a code word that Pattelena could use if she were in trouble. Pattelena chose the word ostrich.
Matranga said she is sure the attack happened suddenly and that Pattelena never knew the danger she was in.
“I don’t believe for one minute she would have just sat there and not done anything,” Matranga said. “I believe in my heart, she would have texted me.”
Pattelena was a deeply kind, generous person, her sister and friend said, and a devoted mother to her sons, ages 17, 14, and 2.
“She was an amazing mother and she was raising some amazing kids. She always did her best for them,” Jessica Pattelena said. “She had the most beautiful soul you could ever meet. All she ever wanted to do was to help people.”
Pattelena and her boys had moved to Bedford about three months ago. Pattelena, who had worked as a health care aide, was taking online classes to become a licensed practical nurse.
“She wanted to better their lives and she loved the school system there,” Jessica Pattelena said.
Matranga said she learned of Pattelena’s death about four hours after she was killed when Pattelena’s mother called to say that she had not picked up her 2-year-old from day care. Matranga tried to contact Pattelena and when she didn’t get a reply, Pattelena’s mother called the police, who told her what had happened.
Matranga said her goal, one shared by Pattelena’s family and her wide circle of friends, is to focus on the happiness she brought to others and to pay tribute to her love of York. A candlelight vigil is planned for Friday in Maine and Pattelena’s loved ones hope to install a memorial bench in the town’s Ellis Park.
“For her it was a peaceful place, calm and relaxing,” Matranga said. “I just want people to focus on the kind of person she was, and to keep her memory alive.”