Gay spouse murder case puts focus on long-hidden problem
Around 8 a.m. on March 29, 2010, Annamarie Cochrane Rintala punched out of her overnight shift as a paramedic in Springfield. That evening, police found her wife, Cara Lee Rintala, crying and cradling Annamarie’s lifeless body in the basement of the Granby home they shared with their 2-year-old daughter, Brianna.
In October, following a 19-month investigation, Cara was charged with first-degree murder in the strangulation death of Annamarie, 37, making it the first murder case in Massachusetts in which the victim and suspect are same-sex spouses. Cara, a 45-year-old Ludlow firefighter, has pleaded not guilty.
The case has shaken rural Granby, population 6,400. Residents of the Western Massachusetts town say they can’t recall the last murder.
“This is just a horrible tragedy, and I think it shocked us all,’’ said Police Chief Alan Wishart.
Eight years after gays celebrated the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, the Rintala case is shining a light on domestic violence among gay couples, a subject that gay advocates say has festered in the shadows. Physical and psychological aggression among gay couples occurs at the same rate as heterosexual couples but is less likely to be discussed and reported, domestic violence specialists say.
“It’s still very much under-recognized in the community,’’ said Beth Leventhal, executive director of The Network/La Red, a nonprofit working to end domestic violence in the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities. “There’s still a stigma. For so long, we’ve been the victims of violence from outside the community, but it doesn’t mean we don’t also face violence from inside.’’
According to Jane Doe Inc., a statewide advocacy group that tracks domestic violence deaths, a second homicide involving a married gay couple in Massachusetts occurred a year after the Rintala case. Michael Losee, 41, of Malden, was charged in the March 2011 stabbing death of his husband, Brian Bergeron, 55.
A 2010 survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control found that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been the victim of severe physical violence with an intimate partner. Although the national study did not differentiate between straight and gay couples, both The Network/La Red and Jane Doe both say they believe it happens at the same rate.
In heterosexual relationships, women are the victims more than 90 percent of the time. But they can also be abusers.
“What we see in lesbian relationships,’’ said Toni Troop, spokeswoman for Jane Doe, “is the same dynamic that occurs in heterosexual relationships, in terms of one person trying to exert power and control over the other person.’’
A rocky relationship
The Rintalas had a rocky relationship. They moved in together in 2004 and married in Provincetown in August 2007. Shortly before they were married, they adopted a baby girl, Brianna.
A year later Annamarie told Granby police that Cara had struck her with a spatula and a closed fist. When Cara was arrested, she said that Annamarie had hit her. In the two years preceding Annamarie’s death, each had taken out two restraining orders against the other, and both had filed for divorce.
Financial strain may have contributed to the tension. Each woman had racked up debt. At the time of her death, Annamarie owed $33,510 on credit cards; Cara was $35,000 in debt.
“Annamarie was a spendaholic by all accounts,’’ said First Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steve Gagne, who is prosecuting the case. “She had opened a line of credit under Cara’s name without Cara’s knowledge.’’
Co-workers saw bruises on Annamarie over the years, said Gagne, but she would always attribute them to bumping into things, and the women would recant their allegations of abuse against each other.
In 2009, the couple filed separately for divorce but never followed through. Annamarie briefly moved into her own apartment in South Hadley, but they reconciled that November. In early 2010 they took their daughter on a Caribbean cruise for a new start.
“They were all aglow after they returned,’’ said the Rev. Lori Souder of the First Congregational Church of South Hadley. The Rintalas had started attending services that fall and were embraced by the church, which has other gay members. “They were seeking meaning for their own lives, their own relationship. I think they were seeking help on how to regain balance in their relationship.’’
On the night of March 28, 2010, a telephone argument erupted between the couple, according to the prosecution. A friend of Cara’s had gone to the house, and when Annamarie called home from work, she overheard his voice. “He’d come over without Annamarie knowing,’’ said Gagne, “and she felt that was sneaky.’’
The incident prompted a flurry of calls and text messages, with Annamarie telling Cara that the visit was disrespectful - that, as a married couple, they should be telling each other such things. Around midnight, she sent a text: “I HATE OUR RELATIONSHIP.’’
Cara told police that the next morning she took Brianna for a drive to let Annamarie get some sleep after she arrived home from work. At 5 p.m., surveillance cameras showed Cara throwing a rag in a trashcan in the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant in Holyoke. Testing revealed traces of Annamarie’s DNA, Gagne said.
Cara told police that when she returned home around 7 p.m., she saw the basement door open, glimpsed Annamarie’s feet, and ran to a neighbor, who called 911. She then returned home, where police found Cara cradling her wife’s body, which was covered in wet, pink ceiling paint. Annamarie had three scalp wounds; one to the back of the head, one on each side.
“It’s odd behavior,’’ Gagne said. He adds that “someone went to great lengths to make it look as if there was a break-in.’’ Gagne theorizes that the paint was used to cover up blood; nearby was an overturned 5-gallon can.
Two weeks later, Cara filed for Annamarie’s $512,000 life insurance benefits, which have yet to be paid. Annamarie had named Cara as her prime beneficiary and her brother Charles Cochrane as the contingent beneficiary. Cochrane, who lives in Springfield, contested the claim, saying Cara could not collect because she caused Annamarie’s death.
Lawyers for the Prudential Insurance Company of America have asked the court to decide whether it should pay the claim to her. That case, in US District Court in Springfield, won’t be decided until after the criminal case is over.
After Annamarie’s death, Cara took a leave of absence from her job, and she and Brianna moved in with her mother and stepfather in Narragansett, R.I. She was “psychologically unable to return to the house’’ that the couple had shared in Granby, her attorney said in a bail hearing.
Six months later, Cara sold the house but returned to work at the Ludlow Fire Department. She stayed with friends in Springfield, commuting to Rhode Island to be with her parents and Brianna when she was off duty. In April 2011, she quit and moved full time to Narragansett.
In Rhode Island, Cara worked as a paramedic for the Westerly Ambulance Corps. On Oct. 19, 2011, at 4:30 p.m., shortly after being indicted, she was arrested while driving, with Brianna, in Narragansett.
Cara is being held at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee. Brianna, now 4, remains with Cara’s parents and has visited her mother in prison.
Since Annamarie’s death, Cara and her parents have refused to let Annamarie’s parents see Brianna, Gagne said. A Rhode Island judge recently granted supervised visitation rights to Annamarie’s parents, Lucyann and William Cochrane, who live in Springfield and often baby-sat Brianna.
Neither the Cochranes nor Cara’s mother and stepfather, Sandra and Carl Montagna, would speak to the Globe.
A date for Cara’s murder trial in Hampshire Superior Court has not been set. Cara spends her time in prison “reading ferociously’’ and volunteering in the prison library, said Souder, who visits her.
In Gagne’s office, a grid of yellow Post-it notes papers one wall, laying out the chronology of the case. Directly across from his desk, Cara’s booking photo stares solemnly at him.
“She and I look face-to-face every day,’’ Gagne said. “My own interpretation of it is her saying, ‘Well, the jig is up.’ ’’
Cara’s attorney, David Hoose, said his client “adamantly denies’’ she had any involvement in Annamarie’s death. He questions why it took so long to charge her.
“She continued to work,’’ Hoose said. “She moved back to Rhode Island to be closer to her family. After 19 months, this hit her like a lightning bolt. The most difficult part of this is that she has been separated from her daughter, who has obviously lost one parent and now has lost the other.’’
Gagne said the case was delayed because of logistics, not lack of evidence. A newly elected Northwestern district attorney, David Sullivan, took office in January 2011; Gagne joined his staff soon after. At the time, the high-profile Phoebe Prince bullying investigation was underway, and it wasn’t until summer of 2011, Gagne said, that he was able to turn his full attention to the Rintala case.
Two years after Granby was rocked by Annamarie’s killing, residents still seem surprised and saddened by the events.
“They were both great employees, they did everything we asked of them,’’ said Granby Fire Chief Russell Anderson, who employed both women as on-call paramedics. “On the one hand, you want Ann’s attacker to be brought to justice, but you don’t like thinking it was her partner. You hope for the best, but there is no best in any of this.’’