WEST HARTFORD — A 27-year-old Plainville woman charged with manslaughter in a fatal shooting Wednesday night on Prospect Avenue told police she shot her boyfriend in self-defense after he threatened to kill her and her family, according to court documents.
Angela Grasso-Cunha said Jose Mendez, 23, who she had been dating for a few weeks, accused her of cheating and repeatedly threatened her life and that of her family as they rode in his car, according to a West Hartford police report.
About 6:30 p.m. on Prospect Avenue, Grasso-Cunha told police, Mendez said he was going to stop at a Wendy's restaurant to get something to eat before continuing to her family's home. That's when she reached for the Glock 9 mm pistol in her handbag and fired a round into the side of Mendez' head, according to the report.
Mendez died at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center about an hour after the shooting.
West Hartford police, after interviewing Grasso-Cunha for several hours, charged her early Thursday with first-degree manslaughter with a firearm. They set her bail at $50,000, which she posted. Grasso-Cunha works as a bail bondsman with Capitol Bail Bonds of Hartford.
Because the case is considered domestic violence, Grasso-Cunha had to appear for arraignment Thursday morning in Superior Court in Hartford.
Judge Joan K. Alexander read the West Hartford police reports, noted the bail was not set by a judge and said she planned to immediately review it.
Prosecutor Mark Brodsky told the judge that in his experience the bail set by police was "much too low" and asked for $1 million.
Grass-Cunha's defense attorney, Walter Hussey, urged the judge to leave the bail at $50,000. Grasso-Cunha has no criminal record, he said, immediately called police, fully cooperated with police, was licensed to carry the handgun and had obtained it legally. Further, he said, "it's obviously a self-defense case." Mendez had repeatedly threatened the life of Grasso-Cunha, her children and others in her family, he said.
West Hartford police were able to substantiate some of what Grasso-Cunha said and continue to investigate, Hussey told the judge. A cellphone found in the car, he added, will yield threatening text messages Mendez sent to Grasso-Cunha and will further bolster her case, Hussey said.
"They believe there is a good possibility it was a self-defense claim," Hussey said, referring to West Hartford police.
Alexander called it an "imperfect" self-defense case and increased bail to $750,000, which Grasso-Cunha posted Thursday afternoon. While on release, she must remain in her home except for court appearances and medical emergencies. She also had an electronic monitor affixed to her ankle.
The judge noted that Mendez suffered a gunshot wound to the temple, that only one gun was recovered and that only one handgun was involved in the shooting. A person claiming self-defense must have a reasonable expectation that deadly force is about to be used against them, she said.
After the shooting, the car veered off the road and into a fence. As blood gushed from Mendez' head, Grasso-Cunha climbed from the car and called 911.
"My name is Angela and I just shot someone on Prospect Avenue," she told the Hartford 911 operator.
When police arrived moments later, Grasso-Cunha was out of the car. She told a Hartford sergeant an accident had occurred. When he looked in the car he told Grasso-Cuhna it didn't appear to be just an accident. She then responded, "I shot him."
"Angela admitted that in the moment prior to shooting Jose, there had been no immediate threat or danger posed to her by Jose, such as an assault or a weapon being displayed," according to a West Hartford police report. "However, Angela stated that when Jose turned to look at Wendy's, she saw this as her only opportunity to stop him from following through on his threats, which she believed were inevitable. Angela reported that she did not see any other way out of the situation at this time. Angela reported that she did not call the police or reach out for help in public because Jose claimed that he would easily bond out if arrested and would be able to find her because he knew where she lived."
Grasso-Cunha spoke to police after consulting with Hussey. She told them of her brief relationship with Mendez, an increasingly threatening argument that began Tuesday, and then Wednesday's events that ended in his death.
They had been to his sister's house in East Hartford and Mendez accused her wanting to be intimate with his sister, she told police, according to the report.
He called her Wednesday and threatened to kill her and her family unless she gave him $600. She tried to cash a check at a First Niagara Bank at Park Street and Sisson Avenue in Hartford, but the branch had closed by the time she got there, she told police.
She said she called Mendez and told him the bank had closed. She told police that Mendez told her to stay there and that he arrived about 30 minutes later. She said she then dropped her car off at Lena's pizza on Park Street, and got into Mendez' car.
As he drove, he accused her of cheating, of giving him a sexually transmitted disease and of wanting to be intimate with his sister, according to the police report. He grabbed the back of her head several times and pushed her face into the center console and into his lap.
Grasso-Cunha told police Mendez drove to a clinic in Bloomfield so they could be tested for STDs. He said that if she ran, he would get to her house before her and kill her children. The clinic was closed.
The drove back to Park Street and, Grasso-Cunha told police, as they drove past her car Mendez told her to look at it because it would the last time she saw it. Mendez said he was going to drive to her house so they could ask her family what they thought about Grasso-Cunha giving him an STD.
"Angela believed at this point that Jose was going to kill her and her family," the report says.
The shooting occurred just after they turned from Park Street onto Prospect Avenue.
Grasso-Cunha's colleagues at Capitol Bail Bonds described her as a good worker and good person and said Mendez had assaulted her in recent days.
Mendez' family attended the arraignment. His cousin Chelly Vazquez said the family was grateful that bail was increased to $750,000. "We felt it should've been at least a little higher but it's in the right direction for justice," she said.
She described Mendez as a good person. "He was a great uncle, a great brother, a great friend," she said.
Mendez has a variety of criminal convictions as well as several pending cases, according to judicial records.
His convictions include violation of a standing criminal protective order, for which he was sentenced to nine months in jail; second-degree threatening and third-degree assault, for which he served a year in jail; third-degree burglary, for which he served six months in jail; sale of narcotics, for which he served a year in jail; and driving under license suspension, for which he served 90 days in jail.
There were also several cases pending against him, including violation of probation, operating an unregistered vehicle, second-degree threatening and second-degree criminal mischief.
Courant staff writers Christine Dempsey and Kelly Glista contributed to this story.