Heather Giglio sat Tuesday afternoon in the second-floor Langhorne bedroom of her 7-year-old niece Kayden Mancuso, its walls bathed in pink and its bedsheets dotted with unicorn prints.
On the wall hung a white flower-girl dress.
Kayden wore it to her mother’s wedding two years ago. Now family members were deciding if the girl should be buried in it.
A day after her body was found – fatally beaten by her father in the final, violent act of a yearslong custody dispute – Kayden’s death left her family reeling, her Bucks County school numb, and others wondering if law enforcement or the court system should or could have responded differently.
Before he killed his daughter and himself in his Manayunk home last weekend, Jeffrey Mancuso penned a vengeful note that he left on Kayden’s body, according to Giglio.
“It said we got what we deserved and he had the final say — something along those lines,” she said.
As she spoke, her sister Kathryn was downstairs in the living room with her husband, Brian Sherlock, both too distraught to speak to a reporter. But other family members described the tortuous legal battle between the girl’s parents, and how her mother, now married as Kathryn Sherlock, had warned judges and others about Mancuso’s violence and threats.
In an application last fall for a protection-from-abuse order, the girl’s mother wrote: “Kayden has told multiple family members that she didn’t feel safe with her dad, stating she thought he was dangerous because he assaulted her grandmother in front of her.”
A judge approved the application, and set restrictions on Mancuso’s interaction with Kayden’s mother. But Mancuso still had unsupervised time with his daughter.
In October 2016, Bucks County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey G. Trauger had entered an interim order granting the girl’s mother primary custody and Mancuso weekend visitation rights, records show. The two challenged that initial ruling multiple times, alleging the other violated the order.
In a May decision, Trauger reaffirmed primary custody for Kayden’s mother — who lives with her husband and two young sons in Lower Bucks County — but with new restrictions on Mancuso. Instead of getting custody of his daughter on alternate weeks from Thursday afternoon to Monday morning, he was limited to Saturdays and Sundays, family members said.
The order noted that Kayden personally witnessed her father’s violent behavior when he was frustrated or angry. It also recounted Mancuso’s assault conviction for biting off part of a man’s ear at a South Philadelphia bar in 2012, his abusive interaction with Kayden’s teacher and principal at her Lower Makefield Township school, and a psychiatrist’s conclusion that he suffered from major depression.
Trauger also noted that Kayden’s mother told a custody evaluator that Mancuso “was violent to her when they were together.”
Jennifer Sherlock, the girl’s aunt, said her sister-in-law warned the judge “so many times” about Mancuso’s violent tendencies. Other relatives said Mancuso, a 41-year-old consultant, sent Kathryn hundreds if not thousands of threatening emails, and stalked her at her job as an emergency-room nurse in Trenton.
Still, she was bound to follow the custody ruling.
“My sister would never have given her to him” except for the judge’s order, Heather Giglio said. “She was legally told she had to.”
Stephen Heckman, the court administrator for Bucks County, said Tuesday that Trauger is unable to comment on individual cases, but that the judge reviewed “a great deal of material” in the case and took it all into consideration. “It is no consolation, but he did what he had to do as judge,” Heckman said.
Family-rights lawyers interviewed Tuesday said judges who oversee such cases face tough decisions, and have to make them based on the evidence they have.
“There are a lot of safeguards, but the problem is that no matter how many safeguards are in place, they are only as good as the litigants themselves,” said Mark Dischell, a family-rights attorney in Lansdale.
Parents in custody disputes “always say, ‘You don’t know my spouse, you don’t know what he’s capable of,’ ” said Mary Cushing Doherty, a lawyer at High Swartz LLP, which handles cases in Bucks and Montgomery Counties. “But you have to get down to the facts of the case.”
In his ruling, Trauger pointed out that while Kayden was aware of the conflicts and turmoil between her mother and father, both parents cared for her and neither had physically abused her.
“However,” he wrote, “the Court cautions Father to be aware at all times of the potential risks that his behavior may have on Child’s future emotional and psychological well-being and her long-term relationship with Father and others as she matures.”
Under his order, Mancuso’s alternate weekend visits would span from 10 a.m. Saturday to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Brian Sherlock, who married Kathryn two years ago and spent several years raising Kayden, dropped her off at Mancuso’s three-story white house on Wilde Street last Saturday morning. The last thing Kayden said to her stepfather, according to his sister, was: “I love you, Bri.”
When Mancuso hadn’t brought her home by Sunday evening, Kayden’s mother and stepfather went to Manayunk, knocking on the door around 10:30. Hearing no answer, they called police.
An officer arrived 90 minutes later, but said police couldn’t act without a search warrant, according to Heather Giglio. (Homicide Capt. John Ryan said a warrant wasn’t an issue; officers could have made “a judgment call then and there,” he said, if they deemed it was an emergency.)
What no one knew was that Kayden’s lifeless body lay inside, just a few feet from the front door, her head covered with a bag. She died after being hit in the back of her head four times with a weight, a medical examiner told family members.
The next morning, Kayden’s stepfather and grandfather returned to the house, found a back door open, and discovered the girl’s body in the living room. Mancuso’s body was upstairs; authorities have not said how he died.
At a vigil Tuesday night at Edgewood Elementary School in Lower Makefield, about 200 people gathered to remember the girl who loved Disney princesses and unicorns, but could hit a baseball, danced, and “brought joy and light” to the classroom, as her first-grade teacher, Jocelyn Setzman, recalled.
The family ended the vigil with a video celebrating Kayden’s life. One scene showed the girl dancing and singing to “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten, which her aunt said was Kayden’s song.
Another aunt, Meghan Giglio, said Jeff Mancuso “tried to destroy us.”
“But we’re not going to stop celebrating,” she said. “We’re going to get back up.”