Legal tangle follows death

Woman’s family fighting husband over 2d autopsy

Joan Baruffaldi’ two brothers, Tom (left) and Robert, were in court in Woburn yesterday. Joan Baruffaldi’ two brothers, Tom (left) and Robert, were in court in Woburn yesterday. (Joanne Rathe/ Globe Staff)
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / November 24, 2009

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A family’s search for answers in the death of a Lynnfield woman may be decided by the courts in what has become a legal battle over her burial, a death examination, and even her last wishes.

It is a case that started in the US Virgin Islands, and in the last two weeks has bounced from courtroom to courtroom. Yesterday, a Middlesex Superior Court judge continued a hearing to Friday.

“As long as we proceed, that’s the whole issue,’’ said Donald McNamee, a lawyer representing the family of Joan Baruffaldi, a mother of two.

He said the case “needs to have some type of structure to determine what happened here. And that’s the ultimate goal of the family.’’

Baruffaldi, a 45-year-old veterinarian, was attending a conference at the island of St. John with her husband this month when she was found hanging by a bathrobe belt tied to a shower curtain rod in her hotel bathroom. She was taken to a hospital, where she later died.

The local medical examiner ruled the death a suicide after her husband, Robert Harris, told officials that he and his wife had been fighting after a day of drinking alcohol, and that she locked herself in the bathroom and apparently hanged herself. He told officials he heard a crash, but thought she had passed out.

When she did not respond minutes later, he called hotel security and found her in the bathroom.

But back in Massachusetts, the Baruffaldi family had doubts.

Relatives cited the couple’s abusive past: Married less than three years, Baruffaldi had told them about arguments at home, after she accused her husband of infidelity. Baruffaldi told Lynnfield police she feared her husband would poison her, McNamee said. Her 14-year-old son from a previous marriage wrote in court documents in October, in the filing of a restraining order, that he witnessed the abuse.

Relatives traveled to St. John, where they spoke with people who said the couple had been arguing.

“I just never had a good feeling about him,’’ Robert Baruffaldi, a younger brother, said outside the courthouse yesterday. “Deep down, I always felt it would end in a tragedy.’’

With authorities in the US Virgin Islands saying the death remains under investigation, the Baruffaldi family has called for a second autopsy, saying no decision should have been made on the first one. McNamee has succeeded in having the burial delayed until a decision is made.

But Baruffaldi left Harris in charge of her estate, her finances, and even her burial, leaving her family with little recourse in dictating whether an autopsy should be performed, said Harris’s lawyer, Kevin Reddington.

The only other person named in her will is co-executor Tamara Kolz, an attorney from Melrose who was friends with Baruffaldi. Reddington said Harris would yield to Kolz’s decisions. She could not be reached for comment yesterday.

But in asking for the court to dismiss the case, Reddington said the family had no standing in asking for a second autopsy. He implored the judge to avoid playing an “advocacy or mediator’’ role in facilitating the case.

He opposes any member of the Baruffaldi family having any control of the estate. “Clearly, they have a great animosity toward my client,’’ he said.

Superior Court Judge Garry V. Inge continued the hearing until Friday. But the delay gives McNamee time to petition the Essex County courts, where the hearings began, to name a member of the family a co-executor of the estate. That could be Joan’s father, Lawrence, or her sister, Mary.

The case is bound to have legal complications, an outside lawyer said. The family has filed a wrongful death suit against Harris, giving it the expectation to review evidence - including her body. But Reddington said that Baruffaldi’s will had set her last wishes.

“When a lawyer files a wrongful death lawsuit, it’s certainly reasonable to expect during the course of that case that they’re going to want to conduct their own independent investigation,’’ said David Frank, an attorney with Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. “But obviously, that doesn’t trump the criminal investigation, and how that intersects with the probate and family court. That’s the complicated question.’’

In spite of her family’s objections, Baruffaldi had continued her relationship with Harris, who told authorities they both wanted to make their second marriages work. Although she obtained a restraining order against him, she had it vacated. And even after her sister told her not to go to the Virgin Islands, she went anyway.

Now her family is looking for answers. “It’s finding the full facts of what happened down there. And the first step is having that autopsy done,’’ said her brother Robert.

Milton Valencia can be reached at