Springfield murderer not guilty by reason of insanity

Cruz will be sent to hospitals instead of jail

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION - In a tense courtroom Tuesday morning distraught family members of fatal stabbing victim Betty Rodriguez of Springfield hissed and muttered in Spanish as the murder charges against her long-time fiancé Arnoldo Cruz were dropped by reason of insanity.

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    “It doesn’t mean case closed, it means this becomes a mental health case,” Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill noted after the proceeding concluded with Cruz, 54, being led back out the door to jail while he awaits what will eventually be a “hospitalization hearing” to commit him to the custody of the Commissioner of Mental Health rather than the Vermont Department of Corrections.

    No one is questioning whether Cruz killed Rodriguez, who was 58 when she died less than two hours after being stabbed in the neck on the afternoon of March 20, 2017 in the dining room of an apartment on Union Street where one of her sisters was residing.

Arnaldo Cruz, 54, is led into the courtroom on Tuesday afternoon for his hearing

    The couple had been involved in an angry argument and Cruz had consumed two large “tall boy” beers and resented being told he was too drunk to walk down to the welfare office where he had wanted to go for some reason, witnesses told police on the afternoon of the stabbing.

    There had been worse arguments in the past and Cruz had a long history of making extravagant threats so, despite his record of convictions for violent outbursts and attacks over the years, it still came as a shock to family members when Cruz suddenly pulled a four-inch knife and “punched” it into Rodriguez’s neck right in front of her sister Grace Bensley and other horrified family members.

    In the year-and-a-half since Rodriguez was killed Cruz has been examined by psychiatrists hired by both the defense and the prosecution and, in a rare alignment of opinions that hasn’t happened in Vermont in more than a decade, this time both side’s experts agreed that Cruz was insane at the time of the stabbing.

Cruz a year-and-a-half ago in court the day after the stabbing (Valley News Pool Photo Geoffrey Hansen)

    Cahill explained that under Vermont law there are several aspects to any sanity determination and that in Cruz’s case “The state’s expert did find that at the time of the stabbing he knew what he was doing, as in literally he was aware of the fact that he was stabbing Betty Rodriguez and he was aware it was a violation of the law and that it was the wrong thing to do the stabbing,” but, the expert concluded that “even though (Cruz) knew he was doing the stabbing and he knew it was wrong, he was unable to prevent himself from doing the stabbing.”

    Cahill said that Cruz suffers from several mental illnesses including schizophrenia and that “The experts agreed the basis for (the finding of insanity) were long-term psychotic delusions that were present even on the day of the stabbing which included mistaken beliefs about reality, in that he believed that certain circumstances were occurring that were not occurring.”

    Speaking after the hearing Tuesday, one of Rodriguez’s sisters, Anita Maria Castro, said that on-and-off for a period of years Cruz had accused her and others of being involved in an incestuous relationship with her siblings and she said that perverse but pervasive delusion of Cruz’s had resurfaced in the days just before last year’s stabbing.

    “He made this own world” in his mind about “me and my sister having an affair,” Casto explained.  She said when Cruz began making threats of violence based on his warped worldview she’d had enough and ordered him to move out of her residence which was where he’d been staying at the time.  

    “Before I threw him out of my house he went like this to both of us,” Castro said, drawing her finger across her throat in a cutting motion, “and four days later he killed her.”

    Betty Rodriguez was more than just one of the older sisters among twelve siblings in the large Puerto Rican family from New Jersey, Castro explained, “We lost our mother when I was 13 and Betty became our mother.”

    Her brother Marcus Castro, who travelled up from New Jersey for Tuesday’s hearing, echoed that assessment.  

    “When mom passed away in 1980 Betty was the rock in the family,” he explained.  “She was the one that raised us.  She helped us through a lot of things.” 

    And then, around 15 years ago, Betty became engaged to Arnaldo and, although the couple never formally married and Arnaldo spent several stints in prison in the intervening years, they were close enough throughout that time that they often referred to each other as husband and wife.

    “You don’t chose who you fall in love with,” Marcus Castro said Tuesday.  “She tried to help him and she had a lot of love for him and it cost her her life.”

    “What happened to my sister was she tried in her heart to take care of him and we tried to tell her to stay away from him but you don’t make somebody’s choice for them as to who they love,” Castro said, noting, “She died a horrific death.”

    The youngest of Rodriguez’s four children, Iris Hernandez, also travelled up to the courthouse in White River Junction on Tuesday and recalled Cruz as a terrifying addition to her childhood.

    “He wanted to stab us.  He had a machete knife,” Hernandez said. “I recorded the whole thing and I sent it to the police department in Jersey City.  I put him in jail but he got out so quick.”

    Most of all on Tuesday Hernandez had wanted a chance to tell the court about her mother and what Cruz had done to the family but the relatives’ chance to speak will now have to wait until the final hearing on Cruz’s hospitalization plans.

    “He couldn’t even look us in the eyes today,” Hernandez said. “He came in with his head down and he doesn’t want to look at us because he knows he did something wrong.”

    “I don’t think he’s actually insane,” she continued.  “He knows the system so well and he’s been in it all his life so he knows what to do and say to get out of things.  He basically can manipulate anybody into believe anything.  He knows how to work his way out of anything.  He’s just a total act.  He shouldn’t even be taking medication.  Medications are what make him go crazy.  He just wants to get high basically and if he’s not high he’s mad and if someone is angry they’re going to harm people.”

Sgt. Phil Call of the Windsor County Sheriff's kept a close eye on the courtroom audience as emotions ran high

    State’s Attorney Cahill said the psychiatrists who examined Cruz were on the lookout for deception.

    “I would note that both of the experts administered tests to check for ‘malingering’ - to test whether the person is faking their report - and Mr. Cruz did not appear to be malingering according to either expert,” Cahill said before adding, “It may be true nonetheless that in the past he has used mental illness as a crutch to manipulate others in his life and the criminal justice system: It just happens to be that he is also factually insane.”

    Cahill also said he agreed with the central concern expressed by the dozen family members of Rodriguez who were in court - that by being placed in the mental health system Cruz stands a much better chance of finding himself back in the community in the years ahead.

    Mental health commitments in Vermont, no matter what the underlying circumstances, are reviewed every 90-to-180 days.  Normally that means that if someone were to show a marked improvement in their mental health after six months of treatment they might well find themselves being moved out to the “least restrictive environment” that their condition will allow.

    “That is one of the weaknesses of our mental health system as it is applied to public safety,” Cahill said.  “It’s not really designed for people who pose such a great danger to public safety like Mr. Cruz or any other murderer who is insane.  The law really does not provide for long-term commitment because the presumption is always that we are considering release.  My worry, and the family’s worry, is that some day, years from now when this case is long out of the headlines, a doctor with a god complex will deem him cured when he’s not.”

    That prospect was exactly what had members of Rodriguez’s family terrified following Tuesday’s hearing.

    Standing on the lawn outside the courthouse with a picture of her murdered sister on her t-shirt Anita Maria Castro said between sobs “He’s cold.  He’s evil.  He’s an evil man.  He’s going to kill us.  I know he is.”

    “They are going to ‘cure’ him and let him out.  They are not giving us a definite sentence.  They are going to let him out!,” Casto warned.  “He said to me that he will kill me.”

    When her brother tried to reassure her by saying “He’s never coming out,” Anita replied “Yes, he is.  He’s done it before.”

    “He stabbed (Betty’s) landlord in New Jersey because he wasn’t on his medication.  Every time he gets off because he says he wasn’t on his medication,” Anita Castro continued, “Who’s to say he’s not going to kill me or somebody else if he doesn’t take his medication?  He said it to my face that he’s going to cut me up in pieces.  I feel like I have a death sentence on me.”

Read the original story with crime scene photos at the link below:

Springfield fatal stabbing suspect has a history of violence

A Spanish speaking interpreter (left) was at Cruz's side throughout the proceeding

Vermont News can be contacted at vermontnews802@gmail.com

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