A CEO with millions in the bank walks in to find his wife dead. It appears to be a suicide. But things aren't always what they seem.
It was a normal March night in 2014. Braulio Castillo had just taken four of his kids to dinner. But what happened next inside their multimillion-dollar home shattered this family forever.
Braulio Castillo may have had millions of dollars in the bank, but that money wasn't buying him happiness. His marriage was over and his wife was going to take him to the cleaners. The businessman wasn't going to let that happen.
A mother of five goes missing, only to be found dead in her mansion basement. But investigators believe there's more to this apparent suicide than meets the eye.
Don't let the image of their picture-perfect Colonial household in Virginia fool you: According to their oldest son, Nick, behind closed doors, Braulio and Michelle Castillo were struggling to save their marriage.
It wasn't always that way. Both Braulio and Michelle wanted a big family. They adopted their first two children, then had three of their own. Together they ran a highly successful information-technology business, and thanks to Braulio's status as a wounded veteran, they were first in line for lucrative government jobs. The money furnished a lavish lifestyle, but it couldn't buy happiness.
In April 2013, Michelle filed for divorce and secured a protective order against Braulio.
"Verbal abuse, emotional abuse, sure, yes of course I saw that," said Nicholas Castillo, the Castillos' eldest son. "Yelling, screaming, cursing directed at her, directed at me."
According to Deputy Commonwealth's Attorneys Alejandra Rueda and Nicole Wittmann, divorce papers allege disturbing behavior.
"He locked her in a closet once for a couple of hours, demanding that he have sex with her," said Wittmann.
"She was always scared of him and she told her friends repeatedly, 'If something happens to me, Braulio is the one that killed me,'" said Rueda.
The Castillos were married for nearly 18 years, but before the ink on his divorce papers was dry, Castillo had already moved on. He was dating a triathlete. He also moved right down the street from his estranged wife.
For her part, Michelle Castillo maintained an unbreakable bond with her kids and sought to re-build her battered self-esteem.
So what caused Michelle to fall into such sudden despair that she would take her own life?
March 19, 2014: Michelle and Braulio meet that afternoon to finalize terms of their divorce.
"I know that she was seeking somewhere in the neighborhood of $14- to $17,000 a month in child support," said Nicole Wittmann.
"His divorce attorney kept wanting to negotiate as part of the divorce settlement that she withdraw that protective order," said Alejandra Rueda. "She was adamant that that protective order stay in place, and in fact when he had visitation with the children, he was not allowed to pick them up or drop them off at her house. That's how dangerous she thought he was and that's how scared she was of him."
But the court's decision is delayed. Later that evening, Michelle picks up her children from a visit with Braulio.
"She was out with her friends celebrating the fact that she had just qualified for the Boston Marathon and had just days before completed running her first triathlon," said Wittmann.
Michelle put the kids down for the night, set the security alarm, and went to bed. According to Loudoun County Sheriff's lead investigator Detective Mark McCaffrey, the children woke the next morning, March 20, 2014, and called their father in a panic.
"They said 'Mom isn't here, we don't know,' and they were crying and they were upset and they were scared," said McCaffrey.
Because of his restraining order, Braulio asks a neighbor to search the house for Michelle while he takes his kids to school.
"So he left, and the neighbor thought that this was so odd that the neighbor actually called the police," said McCaffrey.
Word of Michelle's disappearance reaches oldest son Nick, who's away at college.
Cops arrive to search the home and make a gruesome discovery: Michelle is hanging from a shower head in the basement bathroom, an electrical cord wrapped around her neck.
"It looked at first blush, yes, as a suicide, there's a woman hanging from a shower," said Det. McCaffrey.
"The children had told me that they had searched the basement, but later on it was pretty apparent that they did not search the entire basement, and I think that's merciful that that didn't happen," said McCaffrey.
Detective McCaffrey has the solemn burden of calling Nick, who then had to tell his siblings.
But something about this suburban tragedy doesn't sit well with investigators.
"She was forward and her hair had been pulled in front of her face and the ligature was pulled around and on top of the hair, and been pulled," said Det. McCaffrey. "That's painful to begin with. People don't do that, and I've had lots of suicides. I've never seen anything like that."
"It looked like it was staged," said Nicole Whittmann. "It looked like something you would expect to see at some haunted house or something. It looked very surreal."
But who could've staged it? The house was locked all night and the alarm was set. Michelle Castillo had made certain that her estranged husband did not have the code.
Police may have never been able to solve this case if not for a surveillance camera at the neighbor's house that caught a man entering the Castillo home the night of the murder.
Michelle Castillo, a 43-year-old mother of five, was found hanging in a basement shower on March 20, 2014, apparently having taken her own life.
Michelle's estranged husband, Braulio, lives just a few blocks away, and Detective McCaffrey reaches his home in less than a minute.
"I see him at the top of the stairs, he's on his phone," said McCaffrey. "And then he comes down and he tells me he's on the phone with his lawyer and his lawyer has advised him not to speak to me.
"The other thing I noted about that, he had a black eye and a scratch running down his face," said McCaffrey. "He lawyered up right away, so there's not much of me asking him anything."
Braulio Castillo is now a prime suspect -- but cops first need to prove that Michelle's death was murder, not suicide.
"I went to the autopsy the next day and there were extensive injuries," said McCaffrey. "Facial injuries. There was bruising to her face, her neck obviously, but one of the most telling injuries, I saw, her shins, both her legs, badly bruised -- that's indicative of somebody thrashing around and kicking."
Prosecutor Nicole Wittmann shares Detective McCaffrey's suspicion.
"As soon as I walked in I could tell this wasn't the home of a mother who would have killed herself," said Wittmann. "I could see her that life was very similar to mine. She was a mother of children and they were obviously the central focus of her life. So it struck me almost immediately that this doesn't seem like somebody who would voluntarily leave her children alone."
Soon, forensic evidence begins to support that conclusion.
"What was interesting to me was when we dusted the shower stall there were no prints, nobody's prints," said McCaffrey. "No one's prints, and it looked like there was white marks, there was nothing there, it was wiped down. Now if somebody stepped in the shower their fingerprints would be on there -- there were no fingerprints on there."
Analysis of Michelle's clothing also reveals startling clues: patterned blood and spots on her shirt and on her sleeves. Interviews with Michelle's kids raise major questions too.
"One of the children had noted -- his attention to detail was pretty amazing for someone that young -- he had noted to us that the bed did not look right when he went in his mother's bedroom that morning looking for her, the bed was made but it was not made the way she did it," said McCaffrey. "So when the CSI folks, when they stripped the bed they found blood on a pillowcase."
But it will take two weeks for DNA tests to confirm whose blood.
"He wasn't in that house for a whole year, allegedly, so his blood shouldn't have been anywhere near there," said Det. McCaffrey.
Detective McCaffrey canvasses the neighborhood for surveillance footage from the night of the murder and scores a potential hit: video from a camera across the street. It shows Michelle arriving home at 8:19. But there is no sign of any intruder or possible suspect.
"I was looking at the time frame from midnight on and I didn't see any perpetrator going into the house, and I couldn't understand it because if it was after midnight, the alarm would've went off, those kids would've woke up, everybody would've woken up, so I couldn't understand it, and I'd lay there at night thinking in the initial stages, How did this happen?" said McCaffrey.
But thanks to some pillow talk, the detective catches a break.
"At one point I was laying there at night, I was just going to sleep, and my wife watches these crime shows, and she said 'Well maybe he got in before 12 o'clock, maybe he got in before Michelle got home,'" said McCaffrey. "I kind of dismissed it 'cause she claims I rolled my eyes and she got a little upset with me, but I didn't -- I thought it through and the next day I called up the CSI people and said 'Can we get video from 8 o'clock at night, 'cause that's the last known time Braulio was seen. And at 8:09 I see a figure that looks suspiciously like him, I couldn't identify him 100 percent, running down the street at 8:09 and enter that house. And at 8:19 I see the mother and the children go into the house. And then at 12:31 I see a figure run out of the house when we reviewed it."
McCaffrey thinks he's got his man, but he's about to be dealt a shocking blow that could destroy the entire case.
The noose was tightening around Braulio Castillo. All signs were pointing to him as a suspect in his wife's murder, which was first thought to be a mysterious suicide. And police discover video proof that an intruder entered the home before Michelle and her kids came home and ran away some four hours later.
Is Braulio the man in the video? Investigators can't be sure yet. They need more.
"The detectives ran cadaver dogs through that house, and cadaver dogs basically alert to the scent of human decomposition," said Nicole Wittmann. "This was 17 days after the murder, Michelle's body was gone, by then long gone, the house had been cleaned by Mr. Castillo's family. The sheets had been changed, the bedding was gone.
"And the dog immediately ran down to the basement and alerted in the shower, where Michelle was hanging. They pulled the dog off that, the dog then went through the entire house, over 10,000 square feet. The dog alerted in one other place in the house, and that was at the foot of Michelle's bed."
DNA tests finally come back, erasing any doubts for investigators: It's their man, Braulio Castillo.
"We had gotten the defendant's blood on Michelle Castillo's sweatshirt in multiple locations, as well as on one of the sheets in her bed," said Wittmann.
McCaffrey finds Braulio Castillo relaxing in a local coffee shop and arrested him on the spot.
But on the eve of the trial, McCaffrey is hit with news that could jeopardize the entire case: he's fired by the county sheriff. He claims it's because he voted for his boss's opponent in the recent election.
"At Christmastime, I was taking my kids on a family vacation to Williamsburg for a Christmas light festival and I got the call that I wasn't coming back," said McCaffrey.
"I was concerned that these defense attorneys would somehow convince this jury that there was a problem with the lead detective, that's why he wasn't re-sworn," said Nicole Wittmann. "And so, you know, if you can't trust the lead detective, how can you trust the evidence?"
Adding to the drama, another key witness has an even more difficult time showing up in court to testify against Braulio: Nicholas Castillo.
"It was very hard from the standpoint of This is my dad, I didn't want this to be my dad, it looks like my dad, this could be my dad, I think it's my dad, it is my dad -- I had to go through that process to slowly but surely make my way to the end of where I said it was," said Nick Castillo.
"I know [Braulio] was inside that house," said Det. McCaffrey. "Those children, she bathed them, she fed them, she put them to bed, read them a story, they said prayers and said good night -- that was about between 9 and 9:30, all the time Mr. Castillo was in that house, probably in the basement waiting, and then he ambushed her later on."
"This was a very quick but very savage attack," said Alejandra Rueda. "We feel that he disabled her very quickly and got her unconscious very quickly."
Jurors also hear heart-wrenching closed-circuit testimony from the Castillos' 9-year-old son, who testified he had left his security blanket in his mother's room on the night of her death.
"And Mr. Castillo I think realized that this kid is going to come popping out and come back into this room looking for this security blanket, and so what the little boy said was that his father appeared and brought him his little 'lovey' blanket, he said he didn't say anything to him, but he gave him the blanket," said Wittmann. "And I asked him 'How did you know it was your dad?' And he said 'Because I saw his face.'"
"It was very difficult for the jury to hear that testimony," said Rueda. "But they wanted to testify. They wanted to be there for their mother."
Braulio's 9-year-old son offers one last damning piece of information on how his dad got in the house that night.
"He said 'I know you did it, dad, and I know you did this, and you made me give you the pass code and you yelled at me' -- it was just a horrific time, a horrific moment," said McCaffrey.
By the end of the first day of deliberations, the jury reaches its verdict: guilty of first-degree murder. Braulio Castillo is sentenced to life without parole, plus 16 years, leaving behind a family torn apart by the murder of a loving mother, trying to heal.
Today, the four youngest remain together in a new home.
"These children are actually thriving if you can imagine it," said Wittmann.
The eldest son, Nick, still struggles to make sense out of such a senseless loss.
"It's really, really hard on the mind," said Nick Castillo. "It hurts me every day, every time I think about it. Thinking about it right now, it gets me all choked up."
Braulio Castillo maintains that his wife committed suicide and that he is innocent.
At his sentencing he did not address the court or show any emotion when his children vilified him.
Nick Castillo is currently suing his father for wrongful death, hoping to get back some of the family inheritance that he says his dad cleaned out before he went to prison.
March 29, 2017:
Braulio Castillo is appealing his conviction, the Loudon Times-Mirror reports. The case is set to be reviewed on May 26, 2017.