Out of prison, fiancée in kayak case says, ‘I’m not heartless’

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Angelika Graswald remembered having a late start on a Sunday afternoon in ...
Angelika Graswald, recently freed from prison, at her lawyer’s office in White Plains on Feb. 16, 2018.
Angelika Graswald, recently freed from prison, at her lawyer’s office in White Plains on Feb. 16, 2018.

WHITE PLAINS — Angelika Graswald remembered having a late start on a Sunday afternoon in 2015. She and her fiancé, Vincent Viafore, had partied the night before. They were “a little hung over,” she recalled, “a lot hung over.” Still, they stuck to their plans for an afternoon kayaking trip, venturing into the Hudson River to paddle to Pollepel Island and its Bannerman Castle ruins.

On the way back the river churned with whipping winds and waves, jostling their kayaks and sending Viafore into the frigid April water. He disappeared.

In a recording of a 911 call, Graswald could be heard pleading for help and shouting, “Hold on baby!” But days later, at the end of an hourslong interrogation, she told investigators that “I wanted him dead and now he’s gone and I’m OK with it.” Authorities said she had tampered with his kayak, removing a drain plug, and pulled a paddle away as he struggled. She was arrested and charged with his murder. She ultimately pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminally negligent homicide.

In recent weeks, after her release from prison in December and nearly three years after her arrest, Graswald has started speaking publicly about the case for the first time, granting interviews to the television newsmagazine “20/20,” as well as Dr. Oz and The New York Times. She said she wanted to confront the way she has been portrayed and share what she has been “bundling up inside.”

“I’m not cold and I’m not heartless,” a soft-spoken Graswald said, sitting in a conference room in her lawyer’s office here Friday afternoon. “I’m a person with feelings. I love people. I love Vince. I love his family. I love my friends and his friends. I didn’t just go out and coldheartedly let him die. I tried to help him. I tried to paddle toward him. It’s just not fair how they’re portraying me as a coldblooded murderer or killer.”

Suspicion over Graswald started growing not long after Viafore disappeared, driven in part by behavior that some saw as strange, like posting a video of herself doing a cartwheel on Facebook and singing “Hotel California” in a bar. (“That’s how I dealt with it,” she later said.) For Viafore’s family, the doubts about Graswald have not ebbed.

Laura Rice, Viafore’s sister, said the details of what preceded her brother’s drowning remain unclear. “At the end of the day, nobody knows what happened,” she said in a telephone interview Saturday night. But she described Graswald’s admissions to detectives and guilty plea as fuel for her misgivings.

“She definitely did something, otherwise she would have fought it,” Rice said. “She still took a plea. An innocent person doesn’t take a plea.”

Graswald, 37, was taken into custody 10 days after Viafore’s disappearance, after encountering investigators near Bannerman Castle as she left a wreath of faux flowers attached to a life-preserver as a tribute. (Viafore’s body was recovered in May.)

She went into an interrogation that stretched over 11 hours. Authorities said she made conflicting statements implicating herself. Graswald told investigators that it “felt good knowing he was going to die.” She also said that his drowning had brought her “relief.” She was recorded in the interview room doing yoga poses and hopscotching.

In the Friday interview she defended her behavior. She said she was hungry, thirsty and tired. “I was just being cooperative,” Graswald said. “I also felt like I couldn’t leave, that I couldn’t walk away at any time.”

Prosecutors said she knew she was the beneficiary of life insurance policies belonging to Viafore worth about $250,000. She had also said that Viafore had pressured her to do sexual acts that she did not want to do, which authorities also contended could have been a motivation to kill him.

But she disputed that.

“I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, bottom line,” Graswald said, noting the rough conditions the couple ran into on the water. “I was in danger, too, just as much as he was. I just happened to survive, and now I’m guilty?”

Graswald was about to stand trial this summer on second-degree murder when prosecutors approached her lawyer with an offer of a reduced charge. With the trial looming, both sides acknowledged growing uncertainty.

Prosecutors noted that there was “little direct precedent, if any” of a conviction for removing a plug from a kayak. Tests had found that removing the plug from the kayak was not enough in itself to cause the kayak the capsize, prosecutors said, and Viafore was not wearing a life jacket or wet suit and the couple had alcohol with them on the trip. And in a case that would have largely turned on Graswald’s vacillating statements, prosecutors also said that her admissions did not add up to a direct confession.

(Prosecutors declined to address the case last week. “The case is over and as such we have no further comment,” said Christopher P. Borek, chief assistant district attorney.)

Graswald maintained her innocence, but she said she had “no faith in the system whatsoever.” Over the summer, she weighed the prospect of life in prison if she were convicted against being released by the end of the year, if she pleaded guilty. (By pleading guilty to criminally negligent homicide, she acknowledged that she knew of the missing plug, rough weather conditions and his lack of safety gear, but that she did not intend for him to die.)

She left prison just days before Christmas after being detained for about 32 months.

Graswald, a native of Latvia, came to the United States after finding a job as a nanny in Greenwich, Connecticut. She was a university student studying English and German, hoping to become a teacher or translator, and taking some time off. But she ended up staying.

She met Viafore in 2013. He was outgoing, and their interests overlapped: They liked hiking and shooting pool. They both led active social lives. They became engaged in February 2014. His proposal was spontaneous, she said; they were at a hibachi steakhouse, and the ring was a slice of onion from the grill.

The two of them fought over the sexual acts she felt pressured to do. When she told investigators she felt relieved, she said, she was not referring to his death. “No,” she said, “I felt relief that the pressure was over.” She said they were looking forward to their wedding, set for Aug. 15, 2015 — exactly 15 years after she came to the United States.

Rice, Viafore’s sister, said she knew the couple fought. She said she did not know the details of their sex life, but added that there were other sources of friction in their relationship and that Graswald had a temper. Rice said that Viafore was frustrated that Graswald was not working and that he had to support her. He had called off the engagement but continued supporting Graswald, Rice said. She believed her brother was close to ending the relationship.

Rice also said that the family believes Graswald should have spent more time in prison, but ultimately, she supported the agreement because of the toll the case has taken. Still, it is not over: The family has sought to keep Graswald from receiving the life insurance money. (Graswald said the money, if she gets it, would pay for her legal expenses.)

“We have to keep going through this,” Rice said.

Graswald declined to say where she was living after her release. But she described her life as being in a “hibernating state.” She goes to church and visits with friends, she said, and does little else. She is on parole and her immigration status is unclear, meaning she could be deported.

“I’m kind of just living day by day for now,” Graswald said. “I don’t know what to expect. I almost just want to go to Europe and leave it all behind. I don’t want any of that to follow me. I want to leave it all behind, but it’s not so simple.”

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