Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Soldier’s widow murdered: Lavinia Gelineau’s body was found in her basement on Central Street Friday afternoon.

Published in the American Journal; co-written with Mike Higgins

The widow of a Maine soldier killed in Iraq last year was brutally murdered by her father last week in Westbrook.

The father, Nicolae Onitiu, 51, strangled Lavinia Gelineau, 25, with a clothesline in the basement of her home on Central Street. Shortly after killing his daughter, police said Onitiu, who was visiting from Romania, took his own life by hanging himself from a floor joist in the basement.

State Police Spokesman Steve McCausland said that before killing himself, Onitiu took the time to smoke a cigarette. Police found the lighter still clutched in his hand.

McCausland said police believe the murder took place sometime late Thursday night or early Friday morning.

Westbrook Police Chief Paul McCarthy said it was the first homicide in the city since Oct. 27, 2000, when 21-year-old Brandon Feyler of Portland was stabbed by Anthony Osborne during an altercation outside Osborne’s home on Seavey Street. McCarthy said Osborne was convicted in connection with Feyler’s death.

Police discovered the bodies of Gelineau and her father on Friday afternoon. Gelineau’s co-workers had called and asked them to check on her because she had failed to show up for work.

Gelineau had worked since August at STRIVE, a non-profit in South Portland supporting young adults with intellectual and emotional disabilities. "It was going to be her last day, and she didn’t come in for work,” said STRIVE Program Manager Peter Brown. “We got concerned about her.”

The staff had planned a party for her, because it was her last day of work, before she headed back to school to become a French teacher. They called and left messages for Gelineau, but never heard back. Not showing up was “very unlike her,” and “a couple of employees had a sense that something was wrong,” Brown said.

The STRIVE staff called police twice, the first time to ask them to check on Gelineau. They asked police to call back to say what they had found. The police said they couldn’t call, but could have Gelineau call to say everything was alright.

Later, having heard nothing, they called Westbrook police again. That time, they were asked to describe the make and model of her car and other information, Brown said.

“We were just putting the pieces together ourselves,” Brown said. And, it wasn’t a good picture.

“We knew it had been, first of all, a really horrible year. And we knew that her father had just come into town, and they had a difficult relationship,” Brown said.

Brown said police called the company around noon on Friday to inform them of Gelineau’s death. He said staff members were given crisis hotline numbers to call if they needed someone to talk with and councilors visited the office on Monday to help staff members deal with the loss.

To say Gelineau was having a difficult year is an understatement.

Last April 20, her husband Christopher Gelineau was killed in combat while serving in Iraq.

By all accounts, Gelineau was devastated by her husband’s death and was still mourning his loss.

Gelineau’s mother, Iuliana Onitiu, had come to live with her daughter shortly after the death of Gelineau’s husband. They had previously shared an apartment in Portland before moving to a house in Westbrook just a couple of weeks ago. Gelineau also has a brother who is still living in Romania.

Shortly before her estranged husband arrived from Romania, Iuliana Onitiu had left Westbrook to visit Christopher’s parents.

McCausland said Nicolae and Iuliana Onitiu had a history of domestic violence.

“She wanted no contact with him,” McCausland said.

While it appeared Gelineau was aware of the previous violence between her parents, McCausland said it did not appear that there had been any previous incidents of violence between her and her father. In fact, about six moths ago, Nicolae Onitiu attempted suicide in Romania, and Gelineau flew to that country to visit him.

Gelineau, however, was wary enough about his visit to speak to co-workers about it, especially about how it would affect her mother.

“She was concerned about her father and her mother being in the same place,” Brown said. But Gelineau was not concerned about herself.

“She thought her father’s concerns were with her mother,” Brown said. “She was confident she could handle her father.”

In the wake of her death, those that knew Gelineau remember her fondly, speaking of her love for her husband and the compassion that she showed to other soldier’s families who were suffering as she was. They remember a woman who worked hard to get her life back on track.

“She was just a great lady, and she was doing her best to help everyone out,” said Maj. Peter Rogers of the Maine National Guard.

Rogers said that after Christopher Gelineau’s death, Lavinia remained active in the Guard’s Family Assistance Program, and attended the funerals of other Maine soldiers who were killed in Iraq. “She was very strong for a lot of family members,” he said.

Maine National Guard State Family Program Director Sgt. 1st Class Barbara Claudel said Gelineau had a great effect on the lives of soldiers and their families even after losing her husband. She said Gelineau kept in constant contact with many soldiers through e-mail and also shipped care packages overseas to them. “A lot of families had a deep connection to her because of the type of person that she was,” she said.

Like Rogers, Claudel also remembers Gelineau being at the funeral for every Maine soldier killed in action. Claudel remembers Gelineau offering comfort to grieving families by a kind word, a hug or just her presence. Claudel said he was amazed that Gelineau had the capacity for such compassion even in the face of her own tragic loss.

“I don’t know how she had that kind of strength," she said. “I don’t think she ever stopped giving, even though she was grieving.”

Gelineau also took the time to continue pursuing her dreams. She and Christopher met at the University of Southern Maine. Last May, she received her diploma and a diploma posthumously awarded to her husband to a standing ovation from the audience in attendance at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

“A real tragic end,” said Rogers. “Things were just starting to look bright for her.”

Brown said the staff at STRIVE will be feeling Gelineau’s loss for quite some time. “She was a really nice person who had really suffered a lot,” Brown said. “She was very well liked by our clients and our staff alike.”

Claudel said she would remember Gelineau’s compassion to others in the wake of her own tragedy.

“She was a very special person, and she affected every one of us,” she said. “People don’t do that anymore. They don’t reach out, and she just did. She was very special to a lot of people.”

Looking for a bright spot, Claudel said that at least now the pain that Gelineau was feeling for the loss of her beloved husband was finally over. “She grieved and she grieved a long time because she had an undying love for this man,” Claudel said. “She had a love that most of us don’t see, and now she’s with Chris.”