Victim’s family protests plea agreement in East Lyme motel murder
New London — Family and friends of Corina Zukowski, the pregnant 25-year-old East Lyme mother brutally stabbed to death four years ago, say 40 years in prison for her killer is simply not enough.
“How could it be? He took my daughter. It’s devastated our family,” said an emotional Heather Rodriguez, Zukowski’s mother, as she stood outside New London Superior Court on Thursday.
Rodriguez had gathered with friends and family outside the courthouse in matching memorial “Justice for Corina” T-shirts for the sentencing of Avery Hallbrooks. Her survivors said Hallbrooks killed a woman who had an infectious laugh and could brighten a room with her mere presence.
Hallbrooks, 31, was Zukowski’s boyfriend when, according to court records and testimony, he stabbed her at least 45 times after an argument on Dec. 11, 2018 in a room at the former Starlight Inn motel at 356 Flanders Road in Niantic.
Hallbrooks’ sentence was the result of a plea agreement with the prosecution to avoid a trial. He had faced up to 60 years in prison if convicted of murder at trial, and possibly more if the prosecution had pursued charges related to the death of Zukowski’s unborn child.
New London Superior Court Judge Hillary Strackbein said trials bring uncertainty and the likelihood of appeals that would add time to court proceedings and further pain to the family. She called the plea agreement “as close to closure as we can ever hope for in a case like this.”
Strackbein called Zukowski’s death the result of an act of “incomprehensible violence,” against a woman who had the kind of vulnerability sometimes present in cases of domestic violence.
Friends said Zukowski had tried to help Hallbrooks with his drug and alcohol problems and was preparing to leave him on the night of the murder. Police said Zukowski, after an argument, had tossed Hallbrooks belongings out of the motel room on the day of the murder but had later let him back in.
Prosecutors said Hallbrooks tried to cover up the murder and had called 911 to report initially that a former boyfriend of Zukowski had committed the crime. Police said he also tried to clean up the crime scene with bleach and by tossing a pillow case with bloody clothes in the nearby woods.
Police, however, later obtained a confession from him.
Victim impact statements
There was an outpouring of emotion ranging from sorrow to anger on Thursday from those who read victim impact statements in court. Three poster-sized photos of Zukowski and her three children were propped up in aisles in the courtroom.
Hallbrooks, sitting bedside his attorney John Franckling, had his head down during most of the proceedings.
“Hallbrooks is a coward,” said Zukowski’s father, Phil Rodriguez, through tears. “He shook this family to the core. If he had been a man he would have just walked away. He didn’t have to kill her.”
Rodriguez, after the sentencing, said he second guesses himself about missing the signs of domestic violence, such as the growing isolation between her daughter and the rest of the family.
Zukowski was the oldest of nine children.
“I’m scared for my daughters. I’m scared for all of the women out there,” Rodriguez said.
Zukowski had worked at the McDonald’s Restaurant in the Flanders section of East Lyme, and by many accounts was a loving mother whose focus was her kids. The children were ages 2, 5 and 6 at the time of her death and now being cared for by Zukowski’s parents, Heather and Phil Rodriguez.
“The defendant has a history of domestic violence and controlling behavior. All Corina wanted was for him to stay clean and for them to be a family,” Heather Rodriguez said. “Corina was planning on leaving Avery that night. Her boys were waiting for her to be the mom we all knew she could be. But the defendant robbed her of that opportunity.”
Heather Rodriguez said she and her husband also were robbed of the opportunity to be grandparents, and instead have assumed the role of parents who are trying to keep Zukowki’s memory alive for the children.
Heather Rodriguez said she is angered by the 40-year sentence, especially considering Hallbrooks previously rejected an offer to plead guilty in exchange for a 48-year prison sentence. She thinks the state of Connecticut should consider a murder committed during a domestic violence incident as a “special circumstance” and punishable by up to life in prison. Under state law, there are eight special circumstances that carry a life sentence and include crimes such as killing a police officer or a murder involving a sexual assault.
Debbie Jett-Harris, a neighbor of Zukowski in the Pine Grove neighborhood of East Lyme, said in a letter to the court that Zukowski “truly was a victim of domestic violence.”
“When they would walk down the street he yelled at her, her face always down, sometimes crying and him screaming at her to walk 10 feet in back of him. He had no respect for her at all. He had no respect for anyone,” she wrote.
While Zukowski could always be spotted out with her kids, Jett-Harris said Hallbrooks was selling drugs from his porch and walking around in a stupor.
“There are many of us here that wish we knew then what we know now, maybe we could have helped her,” she wrote.
Prior to being led back to prison to start his prison sentence, Hallbrooks addressed the court and apologized to the family.
“There’s not a day that passes that I don’t think about it,” Hallbrooks said. “The man I was back then…to the man I am now are two different people. This wasn’t supposed to happen at all. None of this was supposed to happen.”
Hallbrooks is expected to serve the full 40 years in prison as the state does not reduce time in prison for any reason in murder convictions.
Editor’s note: This version clarifies that Debbie Jett-Harris was a former neighbor of Zukowski and Hallbrooks.