Solemn chants could be heard in front of the Southampton Town Hall Tuesday in support of the family of Lilia Aucapina, the Sagaponack woman whose body was found hanging from a tree near her home last month after she had been missing for more than six weeks.
Close to 100 community members and religious leaders alike gathered in the cold to demand justice for Ms. Aucapina, who was known as “Esperanza,” a beloved mother of two, a sister and a daughter.
They demanded that the police investigation into Ms. Aucapina’s death be reopened, charging that detectives prematurely declared her death a suicide without conducting a full and proper investigation.
In Spanish, periodically, some chanted, “What do we want?”
The rest of the crowd responded, “Justice!”
Ms. Aucapina’s mother, Raquel Parra, who traveled from Ecuador once she heard her daughter was missing, had tears in her eyes as she stood quietly next to her husband at the vigil, holding a sign that read, in Spanish, “Justice for Esperanza and family.”
Ms. Aucapina’s niece, Maria Duchi, told the crowd in Spanish that the amount of time it took to locate Ms. Aucapina’s body—found just several hundred feet from her home, in the woods—was unacceptable. It was only “four minutes” in walking distance from her home on Toppings Path, Ms. Duchi said, yet it took 41 days to find her.
Ms. Aucapina’s body was ultimately found on November 21 by a hunter, who immediately called Southampton Town Police.
Cristina Banados, the director of advocacy at The Retreat, a nonprofit based in East Hampton that offers domestic violence services and education to families, attended the vigil and translated Ms. Duchi’s speech into English for the media, as most of the crowd was from the Latino community.
“We knew they had investigated that area and didn’t find anything,” Ms. Duchi said. “We are in limbo. We don’t know anything from anybody.” She added that the only piece of concrete information that the police have provided the family is that the case is now closed.
On Monday, Southampton Town Police Lieutenant Susan Ralph confirmed that the department is finished with its investigation, concluding that Ms. Aucapina committed suicide, although both her family and Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said Tuesday they are still waiting for the official results of the autopsy.
Nevertheless, many of the people who knew Ms. Aucapina said she was not the type of woman who would commit suicide and leave her children.
Maria Elena Ruiz, a friend of Ms. Aucapina from her church in Southampton, Ministerio Restauracion A Las Naciones, said in Spanish on Monday that Ms. Aucapina was a woman of good conduct, humble, and a mother who always fought for her kids. “She would have never made a decision like this,” Ms. Ruiz said.
At Tuesday’s vigil, Ms. Duchi echoed that sentiment, stating that the Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad should have been brought in to investigate Ms. Aucapina’s case from the beginning.
Ms. Banados said the same: “Lilia needed our support. She had it, but that wasn’t enough.”
She added that the community must work together to protect “our mothers, protect our daughters and our sisters, any women,” she said.
Women should know that they have rights and that domestic violence, or any violence against them at all, is not the norm, Ms. Banados told the crowd.
Carlos Aucapina, Ms. Aucapina’s husband, said Tuesday morning that his wife’s family did not want him to be present at the vigil. Mr. Aucapina, who was served with an order of protection by his wife just days before she went missing, said he would respect their wishes. “Obviously, this makes me look bad on my side because of this position,” he said.
Mr. Aucapina’s sister, Blanca Aucapina, was in attendance, however.
In an interview last month, Mr. Aucapina said he was not involved at all in the disappearance of his wife. Ms. Aucapina requested the order of protection, he said, only because she needed “space” from him. Mr. Aucapina supplied police with financial statements and phone records, and even took a lie detector test to prove that he was not a suspect in her disappearance, although those results have not yet been made public.
On October 10, Ms. Aucapina was reported missing by her 21-year-old son, Ronald Aucapina, 12 hours after she was last seen in the parking lot at the Meeting House Lane Medical Practice in Wainscott.
Southampton Town Police said that her husband had confronted her and a male friend there that morning, which was a violation of an order of protection that Ms. Aucapina had obtained against him days earlier. Mr. Aucapina had confronted the two and accused the man of having an affair with his wife.
Foster Maer, an attorney for LatinoJustice, a New York-based civil rights organization that is looking into Ms. Aucapina’s case and how it was handled, held up photographs for the crowd to see on Tuesday. They depicted the woods where Ms. Aucapina was found. “There is absolutely no sense whatsoever as to the cause of death,” he said. “No one knows for sure what happened.”
Statements from police using the foliage as an excuse for the delay in finding Ms. Aucapina’s body was not acceptable, Mr. Maer said, reiterating the same about a K-9 unit that did not find her because he did not pick up a scent. “You can tell it’s not thickly wooded,” he continued, adding that deer eat everything that is up to 5 to 6 feet above the ground, which is where Ms. Aucapina was found hanging.
He added that the quick conclusions made by detectives are unacceptable, especially when Mr. Maier contended that Ms. Aucapina was a victim of domestic violence. “That should lead to a fuller investigation,” he demanded.
Before the vigil, Mr. Maer said he read the order of protection that Ms. Aucapina had filed against her husband. “It is quite disturbing,” he said, but would not specify on the details of it.
Ms. Aucapina’s sister, Martha Parra, who also traveled here from Ecuador when Ms. Aucapina first went missing, said in Spanish after the vigil that she does not want to accuse anyone of murdering her sister. Still, she thinks that police should continue to investigate everyone, especially those who were the last to see her.
She, too, said that Ms. Aucapina had been the victim of domestic violence for many years, but did not cite specific examples.
No evidence of domestic violence involving Ms. Aucapina has been made public.
Mr. Maer connected the case of Ms. Aucapina to that of Gabriela Armijos, the Ecuadorian woman who was found hanging in the woods in Springs last year. Ms. Armijos had a boyfriend whom “she rejected” at the time, Mr. Maer said, but East Hampton Town Police automatically ruled her death a suicide as well.
“You said you couldn’t find her,” Mr. Maer said, indirectly addressing detectives who had been searching for Ms. Aucapina. “It makes us believe the body was hung up after the search in a staged suicide.”
At Tuesday’s Town Board Meeting, Ms. Duchi, speaking on behalf of her family, pleaded with board members, asking them to lean on detectives and reopen the case. “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.
Ms. Throne-Holst said the Town Police have taken Ms. Aucapina’s case seriously. “I have met and spoken with the chief of police and with the lead investigator,” she said. “I have been ensured the town conducted a thorough and thoughtful investigation.”
She added, “Ms. Aucapina’s death was a tragedy.”
The family, community members and clergy who attended the vigil said they will not rest until they get a proper investigation into their loved one’s death.
“I just wanted to let everybody know who has given us support, friends and family members, that we want to keep going with this,” Ms. Duchi said. “We need to find answers.”
For five minutes, the crowd stood in silence, listening to only the noise from passing cars. Family members and friends stared at the ground while they held their signs up high—one last silent plea asking the police for help.