The family of Lilia “Esperanza” Aucapina, the Hamptons mother who vanished—and who was found weeks later hanging on a tree near her home—is demanding police reopen her case, as activists claim cops wiped their hands of the investigation because the victim was Hispanic.
The 40-year-old housekeeper and native of Ecuador disappeared Oct. 10—mere days after a judge issued a restraining order against her husband, Carlos, as part of divorce proceedings.
Six weeks later, a hunter discovered Aucapina’s body hanging on a low-lying branch several hundred feet from her Sagaponack residence, in an area authorities claimed they swept multiple times with K-9 units, all-terrain vehicles, and police choppers.
Police called her death a suicide. But to date, relatives say they haven’t received answers from authorities, nor an autopsy report or certificate of death. They don’t believe the devoted mom and charity volunteer would have killed herself.
“We, as her family, are not even sure if it was Esperanza who we buried,” Maria Duchi, the victim’s niece, told The Daily Beast, adding that the family wasn’t allowed to see the decomposed body or autopsy results.
Southampton police and the town supervisor did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
Aucapina isn’t the first Latina woman whose suspicious death was quickly ruled a suicide by local police.
In an eerily similar case last year, Ecuadorian immigrant Andrea Gabriela Armijos was discovered hanging by her sweater in woods not far from her East Hampton home. Cops also ruled the 21-year-old’s death a suicide—though relatives aren’t convinced.
Watchdogs say this is all part of a disturbing pattern: town police in the wealthy East End allegedly shirking their duties when it comes to crimes against poorer Latino residents.
“It seems to be… a lack of concern or care to do a meaningful investigation. Is it straight racism or is it something else? We want to know why,” said Foster Maer, senior litigation counsel for LatinoJustice.
The families “know they have not been given an equal treatment here, and they’re determined to get that,” Maer told The Daily Beast.
For her part, Duchi said, “We don’t think they care about the Latino community.”
Lilia Aucapina’s family says her so-called suicide stands at odds with her claims of abuse by her estranged husband.
Indeed, Aucapina’s Sept. 4 petition seeking an order of protection against Carlos—which was reviewed by The Daily Beast—reveals shocking allegations of stalking, harassment, and sexual abuse.
“I have tried to keep Mr. Aucapina away from me, but he continues to break into my locked bedroom and sexually assault me,” Aucapina alleged in the petition filed in Suffolk County family court. “I am seeking an order of protection to keep him away from me and my home so I can feel safe sleeping at night.”
The document shows Carlos allegedly violated a previous order by coming to Aucapina’s house and bringing her flowers. In her petition, Aucapina wrote that she called police and Carlos was arrested. (The Daily Beast could not confirm this arrest with police.)
In the document, Aucapina said she woke at 5 a.m. on Sept. 1 to discover Carlos kneeling at her bed, even though she had locked her door.
“I asked him what he was doing there, and he said he was praying because he had had a bad dream about me,” Aucapina recalled. “I asked him how he entered my room because the door was locked and he refused to tell me.”
On Aug. 30, her pastor allegedly called her into his office when she arrived at her Southampton church. Soon after, Carlos entered the room. “He had given the pastor various photos that he took from my Facebook page and used them to accuse me of cheating on him,” Aucapina wrote in the petition.
The pastor allegedly asked Aucapina about the photos, which included one her son sent her of his leg to show off his tan. “Mr. Aucapina stated it was my ‘boyfriend,’” Lilia wrote.
Aucapina describes how, on another occasion, Carlos tried crawling into her bed at 1 a.m. “I moved to a separate bedroom in July and I always keep the door locked at night,” she wrote in her petition. “He had broken into the room by using something to open the lock. I told him to get out and he refused, he wanted to have sex with me but I did not want to.
“I had to push him away from me because he was trying to hug and kiss me. Finally he left,” she said.
In the document, the mother of two describes how Carlos would allegedly show up when Aucapina was out with her daughter, even though they didn’t disclose their plans. He also allegedly appeared at Aucapina’s brother’s home, where Aucapina would have dinner. During one July incident, Carlos allegedly took away her cellphone and car keys so she couldn’t attend church.
“Mr. Aucapina got a printout of all my calls on my cell phone and went through the numbers to try to prove I’ve been cheating on him,” Aucapina wrote.
Colin Astarita, an attorney for Carlos Aucapina, who owns a contracting firm in the Hamptons, didn’t return e-mails left by The Daily Beast on Thursday.
In November, Astarita said Carlos had offered to take a lie detector test after Lilia disappeared and wanted to assist police “in any way possible.”
“There was never any threats or any indications of any violence in family,” Astarita told The Daily Beast in November. “I don’t think he’s ever even had a traffic ticket.”
Regarding the order of protection, the attorney said Carlos “agreed to it. It wasn’t something he fought. He agreed to live next door.”
Carlos Aucapina did not respond to requests for comment on this article from The Daily Beast.
In November, Carlos Aucapina told the East Hampton Star he consented to his wife’s request for a protective order because she needed “more space.”
As The Daily Beast previously reported, Lilia Aucapina was last seen Oct. 10 at a medical practice parking lot in Wainscott.
That morning, Carlos Aucapina had confronted Lilia and a male friend in a heated encounter that prompted the friend to call police, authorities said. Aucapina had reportedly brought along Lilia’s brother, Carlos Parra, and both left before cops arrived, relatives confirmed.
Lilia’s college-aged son reported his mother missing that night after relatives were unable to reach her.
Southampton and East Hampton police separately arrested Carlos for violating the order of protection shortly after Lilia’s disappearance. It’s unclear what’s become of criminal contempt charges against him.
Meanwhile, Duchi told The Daily Beast that the day Lilia Aucapina got the protective order, “She was so happy. It was the best day of her life.”
On behalf of Aucapina’s family, advocacy group LatinoJustice sent a letter to Southampton’s town supervisor asking for the Aucapina case to be reopened by the Suffolk County Police Department, which—unlike local departments—has a dedicated homicide squad.
The Dec. 15 missive highlights what activists call a weak investigation, especially since Aucapina’s body was found in “plain view in this lightly wooded area,” 27east.com reported.
“Whatever their exact reasoning, the Town Police viewed the discovery of her body as confirmation that she had committed suicide and continued their refusal to expand the investigation or have trained homicide detectives take over,” the letter states.
The letter came one week after 100 people gathered outside Southampton’s town hall to demand justice for Lilia, holding poster boards with her photo, and signs that read, “40 days to find body that was 4 mins. from home. Incredible.”
“Even if [police] completely blew the search or this was a staged suicide, there’s evidence of criminality, or certainly they should have continued to look at it as a crime,” Maer said.
Maer told The Daily Beast that Aucapina’s family wanted to search for her but police warned against it.
And Duchi told the The Daily Beast, “We wanted to search around her house and in the area, and the detective kept telling us not to do it because we were going to get in trouble if we did, telling us that we could damage their investigation.
“And we all know that this was not a good investigation due to the fact that with cadaver dogs and so much help from different agencies, they couldn’t find her body,” she said.
When asked why cop canines didn’t find Lilia’s body, Southampton police Lieutenant Susan Ralph told 27east.com, “It can be the wind direction and if the wind is blowing the scent away from the dog, the dog wouldn’t pick it up.”
“It was heavily foliaged, plus the ground cover was high so it is thickets that you would have to be able to get into,” Ralph added. “With all those factors, she was missed.”
Astarita, Carlos Aucapina’s lawyer, also seized on the foliage explanation, telling 27east.com, “Police had searched the area, but in the last six weeks the leaves have dropped and the area has been more accessible.”
But advocates for Lilia Aucapina aren’t buying it.
“What stunned everybody here is that she is hanging in the woods a couple hundred feet from her house, a couple hundred feet from the street,” Maer told The Daily Beast. “Police said they did repeated searches throughout the area, that very same spot.
“At first we presumed, boy, they did a really bad job, unbelievably bad that they could leave body hanging at eye level,” he added.
But then LatinoJustice called police expert Dan Montgomery to independently evaluate Aucapina’s case.
LatinoJustice had previously used Montgomery, a retired Colorado police chief with 53 years’ experience, to analyze Gabriela Armijos’s death. Like the Aucapina clan, Armijos’s family is also calling for a new investigation by Suffolk County police instead of the Hamptons’ cops.
Armijos had left Ecuador for East Hampton in summer of 2014. In Sept. 27 of that year, she went to her job at a hair salon and never returned. Her family reported she often walked through a wooded area to get there.
They say they checked the supposed no-man’s land—which is littered with liquor bottles and broken lawn chairs and is reportedly a hangout for drinking and drugs—then called police, 27East.com reported.
The woman’s body was discovered there the next day by a family friend searching the area.
According to 27east.com, Armijos was seeking asylum in America after escaping an abusive childhood with her father.
Days before Armijos’s death, her family grew concerned when she came home late with her clothes mysteriously covered in dirt. Armijos told her sister she’d gotten lost on her way back from work.
In his September 2015 report for LatinoJustice, which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, Montgomery observed that “police unreasonably refused to go into the woods to search for Ms. Armijos because it was reportedly ‘too dangerous’ for them to do so” the night before her body was found.
Montgomery also questioned the East Hampton police work, saying investigators allegedly failed to secure the crime scene to protect potential evidence, among other alleged oversights.
Armijos’s brother-in-law told crime scene investigators he saw two sets of footprints about 30 feet from the woman’s body, according to Montgomery. Investigators allegedly never took photographs of the prints, nor they did examine an abandoned mattress nearby, Montgomery said in his report.
Investigators also failed to “thoroughly investigate and interview” an ex-boyfriend Armijos had broken up with before her death. The man met Armijos online before she moved to the United States, and she dumped him because he provided a false profile photo of himself, Montgomery wrote.
“This matter needs to be fully investigated by trained homicide investigators,” Montgomery concluded in his report. “There are simply what seasoned investigators call, too many ‘loose ends.’”
East Hampton police haven’t commented on Montgomery’s report, which became public in October.
Back then, police captain Chris Anderson told The Independent, “All I can say is after an investigation was conducted in conjunction with the Medical Examiner’s Office it was ruled a suicide and the case was closed.”
Armijos’s sister, Alexandra Pucha, told The Daily Beast that reports of Lilia Aucapina’s disappearance hit too close to home.
“For me, it was very difficult,” the 29-year-old said through a translator. “It was like seeing [my sister’s] case all over again.
“I’m not convinced by what police said happened to her,” Pucha said about her sister’s alleged suicide.
“Whenever I asked [police] questions they never answered them, and they didn’t really respond until the media got involved,” she added. “There simply wasn’t an investigation.”