SALEM — Yulyia Galperina’s grown daughter had planned to come to Massachusetts in May 2009 to help her mother prepare for the arrival of a new baby.
She delayed her trip by a few days, however, so she could be with her boyfriend during a memorial service for his grandfather.
Now, prosecutor Jean Curran said, she lives with the question of “what if?” Could she have prevented Peter Ronchi from killing her mother and the new baby brother she was planning to help care for in the days after his birth?
“She feels terrible she wasn’t here,” Curran said of Yevgenya Nepomnyashchaya, who is now 26. Instead, when she called her mother as she was boarding a train to travel to Massachusetts, a police officer answered the phone.
Nepomnyashchaya was not present in Salem Superior Court yesterday to see a jury convict Ronchi, 48, of the first-degree murders of her mother, Galperina, 42, and the baby she had already named David. As it turns out, she is still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated her New Jersey community.
Ronchi, of Marblehead, was found guilty under the theories that he premeditated the May 16, 2009, deaths of both Galperina and the baby, due five days later, and that he acted with extreme atrocity or cruelty in killing Galperina, who was stabbed 14 times in the back, chest and neck.
Ronchi had hoped a jury would find that he “lost it” in a moment of rage that he said was provoked when Galperina told him the baby was not his. He showed no reaction as the verdicts were read. He and his lawyer had hoped for a verdict of manslaughter.
In the moments before Judge David Lowy imposed back-to-back life sentences without parole, Ronchi turned back toward his brother, Emil Ronchi, in the front row of the gallery and nodded, then mouthed what looked like the words “thank you.”
His lead defense attorney, John Swomley, looked up at the ceiling as the jury forewoman read the verdicts. Later, he expressed disappointment in the outcome but declined further comment. An appeal is automatic in all first-degree murder convictions.
Swomley argued that imposing the consecutive terms “achieves nothing,”
“He will spend the rest of his natural life in prison knowing what he has done,” Swomley said.
But Curran urged the judge to impose the back-to-back life sentences, recalling testimony that the fetus would have been viable outside of his mother’s womb but never had a chance to survive as his mother lay dying.
“He never took one breath, yet he was days away from coming into the world,” Curran said.
Lowy granted the prosecutor’s request, saying it was a “recognition of that life taken.”
Besides her grown daughter, Galperina left two other children, a boy named Mark, who was 8 at the time, and a little girl named Marina, just 2 at the time. Mark now lives with his father, Galperina’s ex-husband, in Florida.
“This has taken a toll on him,” the prosecutor said of the boy, who is now 12.
Marina, who is autistic, was adopted by “a very loving family” willing to take on the challenges of a special-needs child, the prosecutor said.
The children were the ones who found their mother in a pool of blood in the living room of their Salem Heights apartment that morning. They wandered the hallways looking for help, until spotting a young man who was getting off the elevator.
By then, Ronchi had fled, leaving a pair of bloody pants behind in the bathroom of the apartment and other bloody clothing and sneakers in his Marblehead home. He packed a duffel bag, then began driving south. He told jurors he planned to take some pain pills and then jump off the Tobin Bridge, but changed his mind as he thought of his own two children, who were spending the night with their mother in Essex.
Instead, he drove to Norwalk, Conn., abandoned his minivan, bought a bike and supplies with the cash he had on him, and began pedaling toward upstate New York, where his family owned a farm.
He acknowledged that he wanted to get away after the killings. And Swomley acknowledged it, as well. The defense argued to jurors that while Ronchi was capable of making decisions both before and after the stabbing, in the moment he committed the crime, he was not.
The defense had called in an expert to tell jurors that Ronchi suffered from anxiety, depression, Asperger’s syndrome and a series of other conditions, as well as a cyst on his brain’s frontal lobes that may have impaired his ability to control his impulses in that moment.
Ronchi told jurors that he and Galperina had been arguing over the new baby’s immunizations and about being able to introduce him to Ronchi’s older children when he announced he was leaving her, but would send money. He says she told him, “Don’t bother, it’s not yours.”
But Curran had laid out a case that showed Ronchi may have had it in mind to kill Galperina before he went to her apartment that Saturday night, after spending the earlier part of the evening with another woman, Susan Slowick.
Slowick testified that while their relationship was platonic, Ronchi had never mentioned having a girlfriend, never mind a girlfriend who was pregnant and about to give birth. DNA tests confirmed later that the baby was, in fact, his.
And there were the wills, one torn up, one tucked into a drawer, that indicated that Ronchi would not include the baby in a family trust fund worth at least $1 million. Instead, he would allocate one-quarter of his other assets to the baby “if and when” he was born. The wills had been written two days before the slaying. So had two postdated checks, one for the following year’s tuition for his children at Cape Ann Waldorf School and the other for $10,000 to his ex-wife.
And, Curran had reminded jurors, there was the hunting knife, which Ronchi claimed he always brought to the Salem Heights complex when he visited Galperina, usually late at night. Curran pointed out that he’d washed in Galperina’s bathroom and remembered to take it with him and then leave it in the abandoned minivan in Connecticut.
The verdict came just after 2 p.m., on the second day of deliberations, following a monthlong trial. Earlier in the day yesterday, one juror had to be replaced after other jurors complained that she was not taking part in the deliberations. After hearing from a court officer about other instances of erratic or inappropriate behavior by the juror, Lowy dismissed her and put one of the alternate jurors on the panel.
The jurors, who left the courthouse in a group, declined to comment on the decision yesterday.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.