Cornelia Maria Arnold
My mom, Cornelia (Connie) Maria Arnold, was a robust woman with salt and pepper hair and sage green eyes. She had tough freckled skin from spending most of her days working in the garden. When you walked toward her, she always had a sparkling smile on her face and would wave at you as if you were long lost friends. She spent most of her evenings relaxing with pets curled up around her and a good book.
My mom had also lived a difficult life, both physically and mentally, and she was severely depressed. She grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania and never wanted to raise a family there due to her family history. She had been sexually, mentally, and physically abused as a child and struggled with anxiety and depression throughout her adult life. She kept her illness a secret from everyone around her. While Mom attended George Washington University in Washington D.C., she attempted suicide and was hospitalized for a short time. For her safety, her mom had her move back to Erie, where she met Gerry in 1977. When he was offered a job out in Pueblo, Colorado, they jumped in their car and moved out West.
After a few short years, Mom decided to leave Gerry and do her own thing. During this time, she had two daughters, my older sister Sarah and me, but she grew more depressed until Gerry reached out to her again. They got back together in 1998 when Gerry was working in Singapore as a mechanical engineer. They got married, and we spent two years living overseas. When his contract ended, we moved back to Colorado, where he adopted Sarah and me. After months of endless searching, Gerry couldn’t find a job, so he started searching for others around the country. He landed one in Washington D.C., and we packed up and moved to Northern Virginia, where we stayed until 2010.
Things began getting more difficult throughout 2009. Mom cut ties with many of her longtime friends and even some family members. Her personality and attitude were changing in some disturbing ways that none of us understood at the time. For instance, she would pick fights over simple things and lose her temper at the drop of a hat. At one point, she even decided to shave her head. At first, we believed it was just menopause although we found out later that this wasn’t the reason for her erratic behavior. She kept many secrets from the people who cared most about her, including her own husband and children.
In the summer of 2009, Mom picked a fight with Sarah and started throwing anything she could get her hands on at her. I watched in horror as she destroyed their relationship, and I hoped she wouldn’t turn on me. Three weeks later when we got into an argument over gas money, I decided to leave the house and stay with a friend for the night. After Mom made several threatening phone calls saying she would call the police and tell them I stole her car, I reluctantly returned to the house. As soon as I walked in the door, she began screaming at me.
“I can’t believe what a self-centered, disgraceful daughter you are!” she shouted.
“What are you talking about?” I asked between tears.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about you ungrateful little brat!” she yelled.
She backed me into a corner, grabbed me by my hair, and threw my head against the wall. As I screamed for Dad and kicked at her, she told me that he wouldn’t come and didn’t care about me. Dad had no idea what was going on because he had fallen asleep in the basement without his hearing aids. When I finally got free from her grasp, I ran outside and called the police.
I still had the police on the phone when she came rushing toward me and grabbed the phone out of my hands and hung up the phone. When the dispatcher called back, Mom answered the phone like nothing was wrong. The police arrived, took one look at me, and asked if I need an ambulance. I had welts on the sides of my head, a scratched cornea, and two fat lips. One officer stayed with me and the other went to speak to Mom.
After about 15 minutes, the officer returned and asked if I would like to press charges. I declined. My mother had told the officer that if I pressed charges, she would do the same because I fought back. The next thing I knew, she had three trash bags full of my belongings outside of the house and told me that I was no longer welcome in her home. The police drove me to the station to wait for Sarah to pick me up. The next day, Mom had Dad bring more of my stuff over to Sarah’s house. Mom had told him that we “had a little argument.” When he saw my face, he realized how bad the argument had been.
I keep replaying the events of that night, wondering how it got to that point. I remember honestly thinking she could have killed me right then and there. Sitting in the corner with blurry vision and scrambling limbs, I was scared for my life. I kept thinking, maybe Dad will hear me screaming and come to my rescue. No such rescue came. The only thing that saved me that night was my will to live. I knew I had to do whatever it took to make it out of there.
After three months of us not speaking to each other, Mom tried doing small things in the way of reaching out — post cards, apologies, things like that. After a while, I slowly began speaking to her again. I know some of you might be wondering how I could let someone back into my life after something like that, but she was my mom. Before this incident, she and I were extremely close. I couldn’t just pretend that we didn’t have that relationship, and I thought she probably needed me in her life. Never again would things be the same, but it was worth a try.
Over the next several months, Mom slowly started weeding through her things and getting rid of them. If anyone complimented an object, she would tell them to take it, that she had no need for it. She also began paying off as many bills as she could with Dad and settling all of their debts. At some point, she stopped talking to almost everyone in her life. Her friends would call, but she would never respond. She spent most of her days locked in her room, sleeping or reading her books.
One July morning, I awoke to a note taped to the microwave. The note said,
Please know that I love you and tell your sister that I love her too and that I’m sorry. Tell Gerry to please take care of the dogs and I will leave the car in a safe place.
Love always, Mom.”
As soon as I read this note, I panicked. I picked up the phone and dialed her number, but it went straight to voicemail. Not knowing what else to do, I called Sarah and explained what happened. She told me to keep trying to call her and that she was on her way over. She asked that I not tell Dad what was going on until he got home. After several more attempts to get a hold of her, she finally answered.
“Mom, are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m so sorry Emma, I’m coming home now, I promise. I’m so sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay. Please don’t come home if you’re not ready. I love you, Mom,” I said, trying to hold back my tears.
“I’m sorry. I’ll be home in a few hours,” she said, and then she hung up the phone.
When my dad arrived home and I told him about what happened, the first thing he asked me was if Mom had said she loved him. All of a sudden, it dawned on me how much love he had for my mom. He had spent the majority of his adult life dedicated to this woman. He had reached out to her after many years to ask for her hand in marriage and be willing to adopt two girls and call them his own.
Sarah had finally reached the house about a half hour later, but Mom still hadn’t arrived. She didn’t know if Mom would be happy to see her or not, so she left a note saying she was there for her if Mom needed her and that she was ready to talk if she wanted to. She left it up to Mom to try to reconcile their relationship.
Four days later, I went to Hershey Park with my friend to have some fun before she left for fall semester. When I got home that night, around midnight, Mom was missing. Dad told me that she had been gone for a few hours, but he didn’t want to worry me and cause an accident on my way home. This time, she didn’t take her cell phone. All we could do was wait and see if she would come home. The next morning, Mom called from a hotel in West Virginia. Once again, she apologized and headed home.
On Monday, August 23rd, Dad took the day off to work on his resume for a job he was applying for. When he woke up that morning, Mom was still sleeping, and he decided to go work on the computer in the basement. When I woke up a few hours later, Dad asked me if I had seen Mom. We both figured she was out working in the garden, but she was nowhere to be found. We began to wonder where she could have wandered off to, but we had no idea how far she could have gotten without her wallet or the car.
At about 4 p.m., when we still hadn’t found her, we called my sister. Sarah decided to call the police to see about filing a missing person report. She was informed that because she didn’t live in the home and wasn’t the spouse, she wasn’t permitted to file the report, so she called us back with the news. Dad and I decided it was time to start searching for Mom. We walked around the neighborhood, and I suggested we walk “the loop,” a mile walk through the woods and fields next to our house we would take the dogs on. He decided that one of us should stay at the house to be there if she came back.
When Dad left the house, I went back inside to wait for any sign that Mom was coming home. As I sat at the kitchen table and stared out the window, I heard the sound of sirens. I ran out the front door and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw three fire engines. The driver of the last engine asked if I was the person who called 911. All I could do was shake my head and wait for something to happen. Suddenly, all three turned and hurried down the road my father had just walked down. I scrambled for my phone and dialed my dad. All I got was the busy signal. I called over and over, praying he would pick up, but he didn’t. I followed the trucks and was startled to see that several police officers and an ambulance followed after me. I asked an officer what was going on, but he refused to speak to me. I kept trying to walk farther down the road, but they wouldn’t let me through.
I sat down on an old wooden bench and called Sarah. Crying, I told her she needed to come to the house immediately, that something had happened and I couldn’t get through to Dad. She said she was on her way and to not freak out, that she would be there soon. I hung up the phone and realized how badly I was shaking. I took a few deep breaths and continued to try to call Dad. Finally, he answered. He told me he was okay and on his way back, but that there was a fire. When he said that, I knew it wasn’t just any fire. Something horrible had happened.
Later, Sarah arrived and I saw her walking across the yard toward me. I couldn’t even stand up, I was shaking so badly. She hugged me and sat down next to me on the bench. As I tried to explain to her what had happened, our neighbor Jennifer walked up behind us. She had been told by the officers that she couldn’t go to her home because the road was blocked. We asked if they had told her anything, and she said yes, they found a body.
The color drained from Sarah’s face. We ran screaming towards our house. I collapsed on the floor in the living room, unable to control my sobbing, shaking body anymore. I felt the floor vibrate as Sarah came rushing in after me. She looked at me with red-rimmed eyes and tears streaming down her face and fell to her knees, wrapping her arms around me. As we sat there trying to catch our breath, we heard a commotion outside. I looked out the window, got to my feet and saw Dad walking towards the house with an older man. Dad had his head hung low and was walking quickly. The man seemed to be struggling to keep up with him. As they walked up the driveway, Dad turned around and had a quick word with the man and then they stepped into the house.
After a few moments of silence, Dad cleared his throat and said, “This is the chaplain with the police. I asked him to be here with us when I tell you what happened. When I went looking for Connie, I found a building on fire. When I got closer, I could see that there was a corpse. I thought it was an animal, but upon closer inspection, I believe that it was Connie.”
None of this could be true, I thought to myself. Mom couldn’t really be dead. She was going to walk through the front door any minute now. Muffled voices brought me back to reality. I was sitting on the couch, holding my sister’s hand, and watching Dad stare blankly out the window. The house was cool and eerily quiet, with the occasional radio chatter coming from the belt of the police officer stationed in our doorway. There was a knock at the door, and Dad went to answer it. An officer stood silently, watching Sarah and me. At first, I thought he was there for our safety and protection, but when we asked him questions, he ignored us. I quickly realized he was there to make sure we couldn’t leave. The farthest we were allowed to move was to the bathroom. We were sitting in our own home and couldn’t even move about freely. Dad came back with a detective trailing him.
The detective spoke first: “I’m Detective Mark, and we’re going to take Gerry to the station for questioning. It shouldn’t take too long, and I will have him back here shortly. No need to worry.”
Before either of us could speak, Dad said, “Nothing to worry about. I’ll call you when we’re done. Just sit tight, girls.”
Hours passed, and we began to worry. What could be taking so long? Something wasn’t right. We were about to call him when two women walked in the door.
The first detective said, “I’m Detective Kelly and we would like to take you both to the station. We have some questions for you.”
Sarah hesitated, then said, “Where’s Dad? Why do you need to ask us anything?”
The second detective said, “They’ll be done with him shortly, and he’ll be here waiting for you when we get back. We just have a few questions.”
“Okay, but we’re going to stay together right?” Sarah asked.
“Of course,” Kelly stated.
We followed the detectives out to their car and sat silently wondering as we drove away from our home. As we pulled up to the Sheriff’s Office, we asked why we were here. They told us that because Dad was at the police station, they didn’t want any interferences. That’s when the first red flag went up. We walked up the steps and entered the front door when they stopped us.
Kelly said, “Emma, you’ll come with me, and Sarah, you’ll go with Detective Mary.”
“But you said we wouldn’t be separated,” Sarah said.
“It’s only a few questions,” Mary claimed.
We were sent to separate interrogation rooms where the pried into our lives, asking questions about our Dad and his relationship with our Mom. As the questions unfolded, their true motives surfaced. They believed that Dad murdered her and set the fire as a cover up. Shocked that they could come to such a conclusion, I was suddenly unsure if I should continue talking or shut my mouth and wait. When I had no more answers to give, Kelly let me go sit in the lobby to wait for Sarah. They finished with her soon after. We exchanged horrified glances before we loaded back into the car to go back to the house.
When we got home, more police cars and news crews were surrounding the house. We rushed inside before they could ask us anything about Mom. We decided it would be best to go stay at Sarah’s house for a few days. Dad had still not returned home, and no one could tell us when he would arrive. Someone said that an officer would escort him to Sarah’s when they were finished. We began packing the essentials when Kelly informed us we could only take the bare minimum and only take Sarah’s car. All three of our cars were included on the search warrant of our home. As we drove off I watched as a swarm of investigators descended upon the house.
Dad was finally released hours later. Of course, he was angered by the accusations made by the detectives. That he could commit such a horrendous act was absurd. Nevertheless, we were placed under constant surveillance until they could identify the body. We tried to go back to the house, but the news crews bombarded us with questions. So-called friends plastered slanderous lies and threats across social media networks. One of Mom’s former friends even posted this for her Facebook status: “It’s a beautiful day; a beautiful day to catch a killer. You hear that Gerry? The walls are closing in on you.” The combination of comments like these and the police cars sitting outside our homes forced us to become hermits as we awaited any news on the investigation.
After days of waiting, we got a call from the Coroner’s Office confirming that the body was, indeed, Mom’s. They had identified it by the serial numbers on her knee replacements. Not 10 minutes after receiving this news, we got a call from Detective Kelly. We had one hour until they were holding a press conference identifying the victim. One hour to tell our family that she was gone. As we collectively made the calls, it was devastation all over again. Every person we called brought on a new wave of tears.
Once we were able to return to the house without being photographed, we discovered what the investigators had left. They took our computers, notes, IDs, medications, and other personal items. They left our house a disaster. Papers strewn across the floors, closets in disarray, and chairs overturned. It looked as if we had been burglarized. These people ripped apart our lives and left it in shambles. We were harassed by the detectives on a daily basis. They visited our jobs, spoke to our neighbors, and even called distant relatives trying to dig up dirty little secrets on our family. They placed a portable surveillance camera across the street from our home and had police drive by every few hours. There was no escaping this nightmare, no moving on or trying to find closure.
Over a month went by before the news crews stopped looking in our windows. They removed the camera and released some of our property back to us. We all went back to work and tried to piece together our lives. Once they released the remains into our custody, we had to decide what to do with them. Due to the amount of fire damage to Mom’s body, we decided to have her cremated. We held two separate services for her, one in Colorado and one in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, we gathered with her side of the family and mourned her passing. In Colorado, it was a different story. It was a celebration of her life. Everyone who came had beautiful, happy memories of her to share.
Six months later, we decided to attempt to escape the horrible memory of her death by moving to Colorado and keeping the happy memories at the forefront of our minds. It wasn’t until over a year later that we had any sort of closure with the investigation. The Medical Examiner declared her death undetermined and released the autopsy report to us. We learned many of the grueling details that surrounded her case, including that the accelerant used to start the fire matched what detectives found in our garage.
It has now been a little over three years since my mom died. She was a deeply depressed woman who saw no other way of overcoming the agony she felt. The detectives on her case chose to neglect the information that was given about her depression. They judged my dad and our family before they knew all the facts and jumped to a conclusion that was incredibly incorrect, all the while destroying my family’s image. The media and some members of the community are no better. The news crews chose to use her death as their way of getting a story. They didn’t seem to care that they were telling slanderous tales about a distraught and mourning family. So-called friends painted pictures of a jealous monster who brutally murdered his wife. These disgusting accusations were dropped when there was no evidence proving otherwise, but some judging eyes never stopped staring. We moved to Colorado to escape the whispers, the watchful gazes, and the endless questions. We wanted to go to a place where the simple mention of our last name didn’t change the way someone looked at us. Since our move in 2011, we have been able to move on with our lives and try to put this behind us.
I wrote this mostly for those who knew the truth about my mom’s life and death and for those who have struggled with loved ones with depression. It’s easy to feel isolated, confused, helpless, and unprepared in such situations, and there are often no simple answers or remedies under that type of pressure. Hiding the issue out of embarrassment or denial is the wrong thing to do. I’m also writing this to those who should have understood the truth but didn’t and, in the process, needlessly hurt a family struggling through a terrible time. My mom was an amazing person who stood up for those in need and always put others before herself. I believe that in the end, she did what she thought was best for those around her, as wrong as that decision was. I also believe that after three years, it was time for someone to tell her story.