By Tom Benton, St. Albans Messenger staff writer
ST. ALBANS — Police transported Erika Guttilla, who allegedly murdered her Highgate family’s drug dealer, and Swanton resident Corey Cassani, her boyfriend accused of helping her get rid of the remains, to Franklin County Superior Court Tuesday afternoon, May 8.
Public defenders Steve Dunham and Rory Malone invoked a legal right known as “the 24-hour rule” on Guttilla’s behalf.
That legally allows her 24 hours before entering a plea.
Guttilla was due back in court Wednesday, May 9, for her arraignment.
Judge Martin A. Maley ordered her held without bail.
Guttilla faces two charges: first-degree murder, punishable with life in prison or a minimum term of 35 years, and obstruction of justice, punishable by no more than five years and/or a $5,000 fine.
Defense attorney Karen Shingler entered a plea of not guilty on Cassani’s behalf to three charges: accessory after the fact, punishable by no more than seven years and/or a $1,000 fine; unauthorized burial or removal of a dead body, punishable by no more than five years and/or a $1,000 fine; and obstruction of justice, with the same potential sentence but a possible $5,000 fine.
Maley ordered Cassani held on $50,000 bail.
Cassani entered the courtroom in shackles with the hood of his black Carhartt sweatshirt over his head. Shingler tugged the hood off before the judge entered the courtroom.
Cassani didn’t speak in court and he didn’t speak to police, according to Vermont State Police (VSP) Det. Sgt. Angela Baker’s affidavit.
Shelburne and South Burlington police officers and federal agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Marshals Service arrested the couple on Route 7 in South Burlington, just above the Shelburne town line, around 1 a.m. Tuesday morning.
Baker said in her affidavit the VSP received “several tips and information concerning the possible whereabouts of Guttilla and Cassani” during the law enforcement search for the couple, beginning Monday.
A VSP trooper “located a vehicle associated” with Guttilla and Cassani driving Route 7, in Shelburne, late Monday.
The vehicle turned into the North Star Motel, on Shelburne Road.
Per Baker’s affidavit, VSP detectives watched Guttilla and Cassani go in and out of Room 37 multiple times.
Just past 1 a.m., the couple and Laura Martell — whom the St. Albans Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit arrested after a high-speed chase ending in Swanton this past April — got into a Mitsubishi Lancer and left.
Police took all three, Guttilla, Cassani and Martell, into custody without incident.
Cassini refused to waive his Miranda rights. Police fingerprinted and photographed him, then took him to the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.
Guttilla waived her rights. She spoke to Baker and fellow VSP detective James Vooris in the polygraph room at the Williston state police barracks.
When police interviewed Guttilla’s mother, Carmen, Sunday evening, she said the murder victim, 35-year-old Troy Ford, had been Guttilla’s crack and meth dealer.
Guttilla told police her sister Melissa brought Ford, better known as “Don,” into the Guttilla family home in Highgate, according to Baker’s affidavit.
Guttilla told the detectives she went to Florida to take care of her grandmother. When she returned, Ford was living in the family’s house.
That was an unbearable situation that rapidly got worse, Guttilla told the detectives.
She said she couldn’t take a shower without Ford peering through the curtain.
She told the detectives she put a deadbolt on her bedroom door because she didn’t feel safe with Ford in the house.
Guttilla said when she and Ford fought, her parents took his side and threatened to kick her out of the house.
Ford manipulated her family by supplying them with drugs, Guttilla said.
She told detectives Ford turned her father into a “trained dog” through his drug supply.
Guttilla said Ford was a constant drinker who “trashed their house.”
A month before Guttilla killed him, she told detectives, Ford raped her in the bathroom.
That lead to a physical fight that ended when Ford hit her on the back of the head with a full and unopened bottle of Hennessey cognac, Guttilla said.
Ford “had created so many problems for her that she started having dreams about what she could do to cause harm” to him, Guttilla told the detectives, “specifically clubbing him in the head.”
The day of the murder, Guttilla and Carmen’s return home woke Ford, which Guttilla compared to “starting a war.”
“She advised [Ford]’s actions toward her kept making the decision to kill him easier and easier for her,” Baker wrote. “Erika said, ‘It was inevitable what was going to happen,’ referring to the decision to kill [Ford].”
Guttilla shot Ford in early December, she told detectives, just before his birthday: Dec. 6.
Guttilla said she’d used the gun with which she shot Ford at least once before.
She drove out to the field behind her family’s home, on Circle Lane, and fired into the field, “so she would know how it felt.
“She said she was inexperienced with guns.”
The morning of “the incident,” after the war-like confrontation between Ford and Guttilla and Carmen, Guttilla began pacing around the house.
She told detectives she went in and out of Ford’s bedroom, formerly Guttilla’s own, about 15 times.
Her decision to shoot Ford was a “month-long decision,” she told detectives.
Guttilla corroborated Carmen’s statement that that decision became final when Carmen set a small black pistol she brought
with her to work — operating Swanton’s North Side Beverage — on her dresser.
Guttilla “advised she finally just went into [Ford]’s bedroom and shot him while he was sleeping face-up in his bed,” Baker wrote.
Guttilla told detectives she held the gun right next to Ford’s face.
She remembered one bizarre detail: that Ford’s blood ran down the side of the mattress, to the laminate flooring, which Guttilla told detectives “clicks together.”
The blood “likely seeped through and caused the flooring to buckle and lift,” Guttilla recalled, per Baker’s affidavit.
Guttilla also corroborated her mother’s story about disposing of Ford’s remains, sort of.
They wrapped him in a rug and put him, facedown, in a six-foot garbage bin on the back porch.
The body stayed there until January, when Guttilla told then-boyfriend Edward Bennett about the murder.
Bennett ultimately relayed Guttilla’s statements to a VSP detective while incarcerated in early April, but they didn’t connect to a full-on investigation until walkers discovered Ford’s remains this Saturday, May 5.
Guttilla told detectives she’d hoped Bennett would help her move the body.
Instead, it was Guttilla and her current boyfriend, Cassani, who moved the body, she told detectives, loading it into the back of the family’s 2012 Chevy van with her mother at the wheel.
They dragged Ford’s remains on a tarp through the snow to an overgrown, abandoned playground on Darlene Drive, snapping branches from nearby trees and placing them over the body to conceal it.
That’s where the walkers found it last Saturday.
Guttilla said she sold the gun to a man known as “J” for $350. He took it to New York City to sell it.
Guttilla said she also sold Ford’s cell phone, an iPhone 6.
She told police Cassani helped her clean the bedroom where she shot Ford on several occasions.
In court yesterday, Guttilla seemed alert and composed.
Two of Ford’s relatives drove up from New York and were in the courtroom.
One told reporters she wasn’t ready to speak, but said she couldn’t believe Cassani and Guttilla’s composure in the courtroom, given the nature of the allegations.
Both Guttilla and Cassani have misdemeanor charges on their records.
A Chittenden County court arraigned Carmen Monday on a first-degree murder charge. She pleaded not guilty.