A mother and daughter from Franklin County appear likely to be tried together in a murder case from more than three years ago in Highgate, as talks over possible plea deals have broken down.
Erika Guttilla, 34, is charged with the first-degree murder of 35-year-old Troy Ford, whose body was found in the woods in May 2018. Her mother, Carmen Guttilla, 63, has been charged with aiding in the commission of first-degree murder.
Both have pleaded not guilty. They’ve been held in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, the state’s only women’s prison, since their arrest in May 2018, shortly after Ford’s body was found.
Attorneys for the two women had requested the joint trial, Judge Martin Maley said during separate video hearings in their cases Thursday from Franklin County Superior criminal court in St. Albans.
Mother and daughter appeared at their hearings via video from the women’s prison.
Deputy State’s Attorney John Lavoie, a prosecutor in the case, raised a concern during the hearings about a joint trial, particularly “our ability to use the individuals’ confessions in the individuals’ cases” during a joint trial.
“That is, we have statements from both Carmen and Erika Guittilla, and if the statements were used in the other’s case, there would ordinarily be hearsay problems,” he said.
Attorneys for the two women said their clients would be willing to waive that possible challenge.
“So we could use both statements,” Lavoie said. “If that’s true, we’re not going to object” to joining the cases in one trial.
Lavoie said a joint trial makes sense, since “the evidence would be the same from the state’s point of view in both cases.”
David Sleigh, Carmen Guttilla’s attorney, said after the hearings that joining cases is unusual, but warranted in this instance.
“I’ve never done this in Vermont before,” he said. “It’s not a situation where one is going to blame the other. That often happens with defendants in these kinds of cases.”
Police affidavits state that Carmen and her daughter Erika Guttilla decided Ford “had to go” because of his allegedly abusive behavior toward Erika and the whole family, to which he allegedly supplied heroin and crack cocaine. Their statements have not been corroborated.
Erika Guttilla told police she shot Ford, her ex-boyfriend, in the face as he slept in the family home in Highgate after a night of drinking, according to court filings. Prosecutors allege Carmen Guttilla helped her daughter wrap up Ford’s body in a carpet and store it in a garbage container on a back porch of the family home for weeks.
Corey Cassani, Erika’s boyfriend at the time, helped Erika and Carmen Guttilla move Ford’s body from the porch to an abandoned playground in nearby woods, according to the police affidavits. There, they left Ford’s body wrapped in a sheet and placed tree branches over it, the filings stated.
Cassani and Erika and Carmen Guttilla were all arrested in May 2018, shortly after neighbors walking in the woods found the body. Police said the fatal shooting had occurred “several months prior.”
Cassani reached a plea deal with prosecutors and was sentenced in November 2019 to three to seven years in prison on a felony charge of being an accessory after the fact, plus three misdemeanor counts of violating the conditions of his release in earlier cases.
At the hearing Friday, Manley, the judge, asked the attorneys about the status of any plea talks for Erika and Carmen Guttilla.
Lavoie, the prosecutor, said there had been some discussion, but no deals.
“At one point, we had Carmen’s case settled, but it fell apart at a substantial junction,” he said.
“It was essentially a cooperation agreement,” Lavoie added, “but the state needed some assurance that the defendant wouldn’t be changing her testimony after trial. That’s the point at which things fell apart.”
Robert Katims, Erika Guttilla’s attorney, said in court that he had talked to the prosecutor.
“I think that if there is a way to possibly resolve it, the two of us will do it, but it just may be a case that needs to be tried,” Katims said.
Lavoie said he wasn’t optimistic a plea deal would be reached.
“Frankly,” he told the judge, “in terms of what the state would be prepared to offer, the defendant really doesn’t have much to lose by going to trial.”
A trial isn’t expected to begin until at least next year.