Hundreds gather to celebrate and sing in memory of Westerly shooting victim
"My sister would have loved this," Tracey Cardinal said as she watched her niece Morgan Bettencourt belt out a ballad in memory of her mother, dancing around in a flowing black and gold sequined dress the 47-year-old left behind.
"She should have been here."
Just a few weeks prior, Julie Cardinal wore the same sparkling dress to a Christmas party in Westerly where she was, as always, the center of the room.
"She was like a disco ball in that dress," said friend Andrea Herring. "But that was her no matter what she had on or what she was doing, she was the life of the party."
Less than a month after lighting up the room at the party, Julie Cardinal was killed by a resident of the subsidized housing complex where she worked as an office manager. Cardinal had been working at Babcock Village, a 151-unit facility for the elderly and disabled in Westerly, for just two months when 66-year-old Joseph Giachello shot her, her co-worker and another resident.
Giachello, who had been threatened with eviction and had a history of homicidal threats, legally bought a gun in Rhode Island on Dec. 17, and two days later opened fire in the complex office, fatally striking Cardinal and wounding two others before turning the gun on himself, police say.
Cardinal, a lifelong resident and mother of four, had just taken the job. She transferred from a position in Newport to shorten her commute and escape the stress and danger she faced from disgruntled residents at her old job, her fiancé, Chuck Ramsey, said Friday.
"She took this job to feel safer," Ramsey said, his eyes welling up with tears.
On Friday, a week after Julie Cardinal's life was cut short, hundreds gathered at the Westerly Yacht Club to celebrate her life. The sound of live music filled the halls as dozens of friends and family members took to the stage to sing her favorite songs: "Bed of Roses" by Bon Jovi, "The Rose" by Bette Midler and anything by her idol, Stevie Nicks.
As the crowd filled multiple rooms at the club, Cardinal's mother, Holly, thanked guests for coming to honor her daughter's memory, but quickly reminded everyone that the event was meant to celebrate her life, not mourn her tragic death. "Stop the crying and start the music," she said.
Cardinal's former brother-in-law, Jamie Bruce, took to the stage first, with Bettencourt soon joining him to sing "Shallow" by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.
"Like mother, like daughter," said longtime friend Christine Connelly as she watched Cardinal's second-oldest child sing. Cardinal, she recalled, was at her best with a microphone in her hand.
The celebration, said her sister, was exactly what Cardinal would have wanted.
"Julie loved nothing more than her kids and hearing her kids sing," she said. "She loved music. That's why it was so important to have this here, we wouldn't be able to feel Julie in the room without music."
To make sure there was room for all those who wanted to sing in Julie's honor, a makeshift stage was set up inside the yacht club, brightly decorated with dozens of colorful scarves that belonged to Cardinal, below which hung canvases adorned with her vibrant paintings.
To the side of the stage, a television screen played a slideshow of photos of Cardinal with her children, her fiancé and her many friends. All throughout the yacht club, framed photos showed Cardinal smiling brightly; in one she rode a light blue bike, wearing a cowboy hat; in another she lounged in a pool float with her sunglasses on; in many, she dressed in elaborate costumes for Halloween, Christmas and Mardi Gras.
"There are 420 photos in the slideshow and 85 framed and I still couldn't get everybody that Julie loved in the photos," said her sister, who looked around admiring how much the celebration showcased her sister's personality and showed how many lives she touched.
"She's going to leave such a big hole because her personality was so big," she said. "She was this huge ball of energy, everybody knew her."
In addition to raising two daughters and two sons and working at Babcock Village, Cardinal was a constant presence throughout Westerly and knew almost everyone in town, her fiancé said.
At the time of her death, Ramsey said, she was excelling in her career, actively volunteering and enjoying spending time with her family. "When she passed she was at the happiest point of her life, she was where she wanted to be," he said.
Cardinal worked part time at the Sandy Shore Motel and Gino's by the Beach in Misquamicut, and when Hurricane Sandy hit, she helped rebuild the beach. She helped spread awareness about the opioid crisis, was involved with women's rights and was instrumental in the yacht club's move to allow women to be members. She hosted a radio show, did marketing for local bars and restaurants, and she helped people find stable housing when they were in need.
"She loved this town so much," Ramsey said, "She wore her heart on her sleeve and would give the shirt off her back."
Ramsey and Cardinal had been together for 10 years. They enjoyed attending events in the community and going out to sing karaoke.
"She was a truly unique and original person," he said. "She was the heart of my life."
As the community rallied to support Cardinal's family, raising nearly $60,000 on GoFundMe to help pay for her funeral, many remembered how she had helped them when they were struggling with a loss.
On Friday, New London resident Jennifer Maccione said Cardinal helped support her when her 26-year-old son died of an opioid overdose last year.
Maccione, who taught Cardinal's children Morgan and Noah Bettencourt in pre-school, had known Cardinal for 20 years. When she lost her son, Maccione said, Cardinal "was right there."
Cardinal helped plan a candlelight vigil for her son and supported her through the difficult task of speaking at the vigil and raising awareness about the heroin crisis in the wake of his death.
"Her heart was so huge, she cared about people hurting and when she was in your corner, she stayed in your corner and never left," Maccione said. "She instilled strength in a lot of people with her bubbly, positive, vivacious energy."
Helping people was something Cardinal drew great joy from, her sister said. "Everybody knew you could call my sister if you needed something and she would figure it out."
Westerly police Chief Shawn Lacey spoke with Cardinal's family at the celebration and said afterward that the massive turnout was a testament to how many lives Cardinal touched.
"I think this is an absolutely outstanding representation of Julie's life, the outpouring of the community here definitely shows what she was all about," Lacey said. "And it shows how tight-knit the community in Westerly is."
At the memorial, Lacey said that the Westerly Police Department and Rhode Island State Police would continue to investigate the shooting for three to four more weeks.
On Monday, police determined that the shooting was motivated by an eviction notice and notices from Cardinal and Moss, another victim of the shooting, asking for his signature on paperwork regarding changes to his rent payment.
Two days before the shooting, Giachello legally obtained a 38-caliber revolver from Hope Valley Bait and Tackle in Wyoming, R.I., police have said. Court records showed that he had a history of threatening homicide and suicide.
Moss, 38, was in fair condition at Yale New Haven Hospital as of Friday morning. She had been taken by Lifestar helicopter to the hospital, where she had been in critical condition since the shooting. She was shot three times in the area between her chest and waist and suffered internal injuries that required multiple surgeries. She had been taken off a breathing machine and was breathing on her own as of Friday morning, Lacey said.
Donna Thornley, a 66-year-old resident who was shot once, was in stable condition last week after being treated at Rhode Island Hospital.