On the day Angelika Graswald became an alleged murderer, she woke up hungover. She and her fiancé, Vincent Viafore, had been out drinking in Poughkeepsie, New York, near where they had lived together for more than a year. They had fought about how long to stay out, she later told police, and whether he was okay to drive home. By morning, the couple had made up, and were determined to sneak in a kayaking trip—the first of the season—before the weekend was out. It was unseasonably warm on April 19, 2015, but bad weather was forecast for that evening. Viafore packed the car while Graswald showered. They stopped at a Wendy’s on their way to Plum Point, a popular launch site on the west bank of the Hudson River.
Their destination was Bannerman Island, home to the red-brick carapace of Bannerman Castle. A former military-surplus arsenal built at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Scottish-style castle is now mostly destroyed, the result of a fire in 1969. The island is off-limits to visitors outside of scheduled tours, but Graswald was a volunteer gardener with the Bannerman Castle Trust and was friends with its caretakers. She and Viafore wanted to take their wedding photos on the island.
Graswald, 35, and Viafore, 46, were a good match. They were both fit and attractive,and liked to party. Both had been married twice before and had no children. After three weeks of dating, Graswald, a Latvian émigré who worked as a bartender, moved into Viafore’s apartment. Five months later, Viafore, a project manager for the state, proposed to Graswald with an onion ring off a hibachi grill. They shared a love of the outdoors and, above all, being alone together somewhere beautiful, taking pictures of each other.
It was about 4:30 p.m. by the time they pushed off. Graswald had a life jacket and her purse. Viafore had his phone, a camera, and the dry bag. They brought some beers. Graswald texted her friend Barbara Gottlock, a caretaker, telling her that they were headed to the island.
The couple had planned on staging a sexy photo shoot. Graswald had brought fishnets and heels but had decided it was too cold. Graswald and Viafore arrived on the island a half hour later. They walked around, drank beers, and took pictures anyway, both wearing sweatshirts. At around 7 p.m., Gottlock texted to say she and her husband thought they had seen Graswald and Viafore on the island through the telescope on their deck. Her husband thought he made out Graswald on the dock, dancing while Viafore took her photo. Graswald replied that they were leaving and said they waved in the direction of her house.
The couple paddled toward the other side of the island, intending to make a stop there, but quickly called it off. The sun was setting, the wind was picking up, and the waves were getting bigger. Plus, the tide was heading out, which meant the return trip would be more strenuous. As Viafore pulled ahead of Graswald in his kayak, riding the three-foot waves, he said, “Baby, this is an adventure of a lifetime.”
At approximately 7:40 p.m., Graswald called 911. In a recording of the call, she sounds panicked. She tells the dispatcher their location in the river and asks them to “please call anybody.” She explains that she and her fiancé were kayaking, and that his kayak flipped over and he is now in the water. The current is dragging him south while the waves carry her north. He doesn’t have a life jacket, she says, but is gripping a small floating cushion. “I can’t get to him. It’s very windy and the waves are coming in and I can’t paddle to him,” she says. The wind is audible, as is the rhythmic, hollow slapping of waves against her kayak.
“Hold on, baby!” she yells.
Five minutes into the call, Graswald says she can’t see Viafore anymore. She starts wailing. The dispatcher urges her to stay calm and paddle in the direction of the lights of the emergency vehicle arriving onshore.
“I’m not worried about myself,” she says. “I’m worried about him.” The question of whether Graswald was worried enough about her fiancé’s drowning would define the next four years of her life.
“I’m going to be stopping a lot to take pictures,” Graswald warns me. It’s been four years since her fiancé drowned in the Hudson River, since Graswald told police officers that she felt “euphoric” about his death, and since the New York tabloids dubbed her the Kayak Killer. It’s been 19 months since Graswald pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, admitting that she helped cause Viafore’s death by removing the plug from his kayak, and by being aware that he was not wearing a life vest and that the water was dangerously cold and rough. Fourteen months ago, she was released on parole, having served 31 months in Orange County Jail and one month in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
We’re attempting to hike Breakneck Ridge, a vertiginous slab of rock that looks down onto Bannerman Island. Leaf-peeping season has come and gone; the dramatic river banks are mostly brown, and Bannerman Island is empty. Across the dark gray river is Orange County, where Graswald has been living on parole for the past year, working for room and board at a small camp with ties to her church.
Graswald lives in a small cabin decorated partly by its owners (a buck’s head, a braided rug) and partly with belongings from her old apartment (Latvia fridge magnets, a framed photo of her and Viafore, prom-formal on a Bahamas cruise). She works long hours at the camp, tending to farm animals and overseeing children’s birthday parties. She takes pictures constantly: nature photos, nature selfies, and nature selfies with Beacon, a Labradoodle belonging to her lawyer Richard Portale, for whom Graswald dog-sits. Discouraged from using social media while on parole, Graswald edits her favorite photos, overlays them with a few relevant words of scripture, and sends them to friends. Her cabin looks out onto a lake where she sometimes kayaks, and where she was baptized in September, she says, “born-again Christian.”
The first time Graswald was baptized, she was 11, and the ceremony meant little to her—something she did for her Russian Orthodox grandmother. Graswald grew up middle class in Rezekne, a small city near Latvia’s Russian border in a region known for its forests, castle ruins, and abandoned Soviet-era buildings. The daughter of a police officer–turned–trucking company administrator and a homemaker, she says, “My mother didn’t get a nanny or anything like that. It was unheard-of where I grew up.” Her childhood was marked by annual summer camping trips, swimming, playing volleyball, and fishing.
Graswald attended university in Daugavpils and, at 20, took an academic leave, hoping to learn a language and “experience something new, see the world.” Her then boyfriend helped her place an ad as an au pair in a newspaper in Oslo. The first call came from a Norwegian family in Greenwich, Connecticut, and she took the job. Nannying for twin two-year-old boys and a five-year-old girl was, she says, the hardest job she’d ever had. “It was a four-story, huge house and it was under construction…. I had to do cooking, cleaning, kids, dogs. Everything was on me.” After six months, she quit, secure in the knowledge that whatever happened, she had a return ticket home and cab fare to the airport. The night before her twenty-first birthday, she walked into a bar in Stamford, Connecticut, and was hired on the spot.
Graswald spent the next 13 years working, studying, and dating around the region. While still in her early twenties, she was briefly married to a man she met through a mutual friend. (He now lives in Colorado; they parted on good terms.) She studied photography online and took Spanish and business courses at a community college; she worked as a camera operator and service consultant at an imaging company; and she married Richard Graswald Jr. (they’re not in touch). In between her marriages, Graswald rented a room in Derby, Connecticut, from her friend Julia Kurjakova’s grandmother. Kurjakova, who moved to the U.S. from Latvia at 14, describes Graswald as a big-sister figure. She took Kurjakova to the mall while her mother and grandmother worked full-time. After Viafore’s death, the press had a field day with Graswald’s multiple marriages, but Kurjakova says it’s not uncommon for her émigré peers to jump quickly into serious relationships. “When you find a person who is good for you, you hang on to them,”she says. “That’s your family, because you don’t have any other family in this country.”
While still unhappy in her second marriage, Graswald was offered a project micro-filming for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. “My favorite job,” Graswald says. “I actually held a president’s speeches in my hands.” One night after work, she met a DJ at a bar; by 2009, she’d left her husband and moved in with him. Eighteen months later, she broke up with him as well but stayed in the area, working in restaurants and bars and, eventually, moving in with Viafore. On the day Graswald brought Viafore to meet Kurjakova’s family, Kurjakova says they breathed a sigh of relief. Viafore was just like Graswald—outgoing and outdoorsy—and he was a good man with a good job. Husband material.
Meanwhile, Graswald was making a positive impression on the Bannerman Island volunteers. Susan McCardell, an expert gardener who started volunteering the same day Graswald did, says she was charmed by her curiosity and intelligence. She quickly thought of her three sons. “I remember teasing her,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I need to bring you home with me.’” Gottlock, who runs the Bannerman Castle Trust volunteer program, remembers Graswald as “very sweet, always upbeat, and a hard worker.” Graswald was always taking photos, she says, and at the end of the season gave her fellow volunteers disks with six months’ worth of photographs: arriving at Cornwall Yacht Club, loading up flowers on the boat, planting and gardening on the island, going back to the club. When newspaper reports about Viafore’s disappearance listed Graswald as 35, Gottlock says the gardening group was shocked. “We all thought she was in her twenties—she seemed like a young, vivacious girl.”
Aside from a handful of court dates, this is Graswald’s first time back on the east side of the Hudson, and the closest she’s been to Bannerman Island. True to her word, she lags behind on the trail, taking photos. Samsung phone aloft, with her natural blond, messy bun dangling down the back of her black puffer, Graswald does look about 20 years younger than her 39 years. Being back here, she says, “is a feeling of coming full circle.”
Once her parole is over, the first order of business is to go to Washington, DC, to sort out her immigration status. She wants to go back to Latvia to meet her nephew, who was born while she was in jail. Her family is desperate for her to leave the U.S. permanently. But before she leaves the country, she wants to see the Grand Canyon, and she wants to go back to Bannerman Island one last time. As she takes pictures of the castle, she says over her shoulder, “Some of the people who run the park don’t want me to go back there.”
When women who look like Graswald are charged with murder, they become celebrities. In 2011, over 5 million people watched live on Nancy Grace as Casey Anthony was found not guilty in the murder of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee. In 2013, 8.5 million tuned in to Amanda Knox’s first televised interview, with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, after her 2009 conviction for the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher was overturned in 2011.
A 2006 study coauthored by Indiana University Bloomington’s Maria Elizabeth Grabe found that alleged violent female criminals receive more gender-based media coverage than their male counterparts, and are subject to more media conjecturing about their character and motivations than nonviolent female criminals. It’s partly that female criminals are more newsworthy, and partly that violence seems to defy women’s nature so freakishly it demands additional explanation—fueling the news cycle, poisoning public opinion, and potentially making it harder to find impartial juries.
But, unlike the cases of Anthony and Knox, Graswald’s alleged crime wasn’t violent or gruesome. Those who followed Graswald’s case could reasonably speculate that Viafore took an undue risk by forgoing a lifejacket, with typically masculine outdoorsy bravado. (Later that summer, model Ian Jones drowned in the Hudson while kayaking with his girlfriend, artist Tali Lennox, daughter of singer Annie Lennox. She was not accused of any wrongdoing nor charged with any crime.)
But when women stand accused in the death of a loved one, stereotypes about how they ought to act have a way of intervening. According to a 2015 survey of wrongful convictions involving mothers and female caregivers by Northwestern University’s Andrea Lewis and Sara Sommervold, when a woman is suspected in the death of a loved one in her care, she is often on trial for two crimes. The first is “whether she committed the crime that she was accused of committing,” they write. The second is whether, “by ‘allowing’ a [loved one] to die, she should be punished for shirking her duties as a woman and as a natural caregiver.”
The last time Graswald was on Bannerman Island, it was 10 days after Viafore had disappeared in the water; his body was finally found more than a month later. She had returned with a volunteer crew and supplies to make a memorial flower wreath. She had been in touch with the police over the previous week, aiding with their search, and when she got off the boat, they were waiting for her. She greeted them with hugs. She didn’t know that they were pursuing a murder investigation, and that she was a suspect.
The police’s suspicions began the night Viafore drowned. After the 911 dispatcher urged a reluctant Graswald to start paddling to safety, her kayak flipped over and she fell into the water as well. A civilian rescue boat pulled her out, and she was taken to the hospital to be treated for hypothermia. That night, officers later testified, Graswald seemed “odd.” One said that she seemed “calm” and “did not really show any emotion.” An eyewitness from the yacht club told officers it appeared that Graswald had flipped her kayak moments before the rescue boat arrived.
Over the next week, the case against Graswald intensified. She attended a memorial night for Viafore with friends at a local bar, during which she sang “Hotel California,” looking “a little too happy for someone who lost her fiancé,” a friend of Viafore’s told People. Through Viafore’s sister, Laura Rice, police discovered a possible motive: A few months after they started dating, Viafore had made Graswald a primary beneficiary of two life insurance policies, with a combined value of $550,000 (at the time, he told Rice it was a way to claim Graswald as a domestic partner and put her on his health insurance). Then there were Graswald’s Facebook posts following the incident: a shot of herself kayaking (caption: “If I only could have paddled harder, dammit…”), a photo of herself doing a one-legged wheel pose on the shore of the Hudson, and a video of herself cartwheeling. Asked about the posts, Graswald says, “I was a mess. I just wanted to put it out there that I was okay, but I wasn’t.”
Amanda Knox, who served four years in an Italian prison for the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher when both were exchange students, also once aroused suspicion for supposedly doing a cartwheel (in fact, she says, she never did a cartwheel). She describes the days in between Kercher’s murder and her own arrest similarly. “I went through a range of emotions very quickly: denial, grief, fear, relief that I wasn’t dead. I was experiencing a heightened sense of perception, heightened energy, an adrenaline rush. Something big was happening that was overwhelming. I personally fell back on what was familiar—my boyfriend, yoga,” she says. Looking back, she sees she was stuck in a feedback loop. “People were telling me it was going to be okay; I was telling them I was okay. I was acting as if things were going to be okay, and I was over-compensating, honestly.”
Since her exoneration, Knox has become a criminal justice advocate and TV host on Vice’s The Scarlet Letter Reports. She believes the way women’s behavior is scrutinized following traumatic events has implications beyond high-profile cases like hers and Graswald’s. In the 2015 Northwestern survey of female exonerees, Lewis and Sommervold found that in 64 percent of women’s wrongful convictions since 1989, the evidence at the time of exoneration “suggested no crime took place at all,” compared to in 23 percent of men’s cases. When men are wrongfully convicted, in other words, more often than not a crime happened; they got the wrong guy. With sufficient resources and DNA evidence, Knox points out, these cases can be overturned. But in the majority of cases involving women, a tragic accident, misfortune, or a suicide has occurred. Police look at those closest to the incident, and if they don’t like the way one of them is acting, it sets off a chain of confirmation bias that creates hard-to-overturn rulings wrapped up in subjective evidence about women’s behavior. “Women who don’t express grief the way we expect them to trigger us in a really exaggerated way,” Knox says. “For police officers incentivized to get a conviction or confession, that smells like criminal intent. It’s just women who haven’t lived up to society’s expectations of how you’re supposed to be as a woman. It’s maddening,” she says.
When Graswald arrived on Bannerman Island for her planned memorial, three investigators led her away from her friends and asked her to show them pertinent locations from her day on the island with Viafore. Soon they were sitting down on a dirt trail. They told her they knew she was hiding something from them. According to a police write-up of the conversation, they discussed a small plug that had been missing from Viafore’s kayak, and Graswald said she had taken it out and stashed it in a drawer in their apartment. The police also asked about the location of Graswald’s missing cellphone. Graswald had said she lost her phone in the water, but an eyewitness said she saw her with it on the rescue boat. Graswald was crying and holding her stomach. The other volunteers could hear that the discussion was getting tense. One of them asked Graswald if she was all right. She sent her away.
Two hours later, Graswald was on a police boat back to New York State Police barracks, where she was interrogated for hours and then transferred to Orange County Jail, where she would spend nearly three years. According to the officers, during the boat ride to the barracks, she yelled, “I’m free!”
The case against Graswald hinged on what police said she told them on Bannerman Island and then repeated, after having been read her Miranda rights, in an 11-hour taped interrogation. Graswald’s attorney argued that the confession was coerced, a case that will be made in a forthcoming episode of Netflix’s true-crime docuseries The Confession Tapes.
“So we had a good discussion out there,”the interrogator begins at about 3:30 p.m. “I think you feel a lot better, right?”
“Yeah, I do,” Graswald says. “Thanks.”
“I know you probably don’t want to run through it again, but this is what we have to do, all right?”
“It’s therapy for you. You’ll feel better.” Believing her innocence, Graswald did not think she needed a lawyer. But it’s not uncommon for people to take responsibility for crimes they didn’t commit, and the conversation that followed showed signs of risk factors associated with coerced confession. Police officers implied that Graswald’s honesty would result in leniency and minimized the consequences of what a confession would mean. (“We’re not the morality police”; “Listen, nobody’s judging you”; “It’s not about assessing right, wrong, whatever.”) The interrogation dragged on to the point at which one might say anything to end the questioning.
According to Saul Kassin, distinguished professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, the average interrogation lasts 30 minutes to two hours. “Those involving false confessions tend to run over eight hours,” says Kassin, who did not specifically examine Graswald’s case. “I don’t think it’s particularly shocking that everybody has a breaking point,” he says. “[False confessors] are not stupid people. Sometimes police have led them to believe that what they’re confessing to is no big deal.” Throughout the long, overnight interview—amid breaks for pizza, tea, and yoga—Graswald is steadfast in maintaining that she did not kill her fiancé. She says she realized early in the trip that the plug was missing from Viafore’s kayak. It had been removed at some point during the off-season—their new kitten was playing with it, she says—and was either in their apartment or in the car. (Kayaking experts say that the missing plug, which was the size of a quarter and was located on the top of the kayak, wouldn’t have allowed water in quickly enough to sink the boat.)
It was also widely reported that Graswald took Viafore’s paddle away from him after he went into the water. Graswald denies this, too. She says she grabbed on to the paddle as it drifted away from him—or maybe as he pushed it toward her. It’s hard to say. Viafore’s hands were full with holding on to the kayak, his belongings, and a small floating cushion.
A little less than halfway through the interrogation, the police officer tells Graswald he has a feeling she’s not telling him everything, then asks her point-blank: “Why do I feel like that?”
“Because I’m a complicated person,” she says.
What Graswald does admit—at multiple points during the interrogation, and to this day—is that their relationship wasn’t perfect, and she had mixed feelings about her fiancé’s death. She talks at length about their sex life and says he pressured her to have threesomes and engage in dominant-submissive role-playing. “He wanted me to be fully his, sexually. He wanted to own me,” she says. “And I’m not a sub. Hell, no.” She says she wanted to work it out with him and wanted to have his children, but that now that he’s gone, she feels free. At one point, an interrogator seems to be leading Graswald into a confession by saying that anyone who’d pressure someone into threesomes never loved her anyway. “Are you saying he didn’t love me? Do you know?” Graswald asks.
As the interrogation drags on, Graswald’s remarks get stranger. She says that she just “sensed” Viafore was going to die that day, because she is “in tune with the other side.” She says she was glad she fell into the water, because she wanted to feel what her fiancé felt. Asked if she took the plug out of the kayak over the winter as a way of planning her escape, she says, “Could be symbolically.”
“I wanted him dead and now he’s gone. And I’m okay with that,” Graswald says around 1 a.m. “Now do we have a deal?” She says she needs to go home to feed her cat.
Four years later, talking about the interrogation still makes Graswald embarrassed. “I grew up around police, and I’ve trusted them, so that was my fault,” she says over lunch at a sushi restaurant she and Viafore used to frequent. “I was naïve. Very naïve.” At one point early in the investigation, she tried to give an officer a $10 Google Play gift card, to thank him.
“I was just being honest,” she says. “They said it was therapy.” She hadn’t told anyone that she felt some relief that Viafore had died, and it felt good to admit it. She hadn’t realized she was a suspect until the interrogation was over and they put her in handcuffs.
But when it comes to the specific things she said, she won’t revisit them. “I don’t think back. I look forward…. I don’t regret what happened. I don’t think ‘What if’ anymore,” she says. “That’s the beauty of being a Christian. You know you have a bright future.”
Graswald took a plea bargain before a jury could hear the interrogation and decide for themselves whether it was a crime not to seem sad that your fiancé’s dead. Judging from remarks made by Judge Robert Freehill at her sentencing, she made the right bet.
“Was it removing a plug from the kayak, which appears to have been done months ago? Was it tampering with the clip on the paddle?” Freehill asked. “Not really. It was the immediate acts of you being in your [kayak] and Vincent floundering in the water and you not taking any steps to try to help him.” Never mind that the 911 dispatcher had told her to paddle toward shore, or that kayaking experts had deemed a rescue by kayak untenable. “It appears to me that you have an excessive need for admiration. You exhibit such exaggerated feelings of self-worth, and Vincent Viafore was the unnecessary victim of that,” Freehill said.
After spending even a few hours with Graswald, it’s challenging to mentally recast her in the role of a tabloid’s cold-blooded killer. She is a woman who works with children and animals, and spends her day off driving around the county, paying visits to women in need whom she knows from prison or church. A person who texts to make sure you got home safe and whose belongings you must never admire, because she will try to give them to you.
Buried in her case file is a potential explanation for the happiness she described in her interrogation and for her other unusual behavior. Two and a half months after Viafore’s death, Graswald was evaluated by a forensic psychologist hired by the defense, who reported she showed signs of “paranoid ideation” and “hypomanic trends.” The paranoid ideation appeared to be a result of her status as a high-profile criminal. “The profile suggests elated moods and euphoria,” the report says. “She is manic, inflated, and grandiose. She is impulsive and lacking in judgment.”
Hypomania is a milder form of the manic episodes experienced by people with bipolar disorder, and it can be triggered by traumatic events. “I had a book on grieving that I gave to [my lawyer] Richard after his uncle passed,” she says. “It actually talked about it.” She said she highlighted a passage that says it’s normal to experience euphoric feelings after the death of a loved one. “That needs to be out there, somehow,” she says.
The way Graswald sees it, there are two other reasons she was perceived as uncaring after Viafore’s death. The first is her upbringing. “Russian women are not meant to be seen crying or as weak or broken,” she says. The second is that she hadn’t yet found her faith.
Graswald has always been spiritual, but she wasn’t really living as a Christian until she was arrested. She read the Bible for the first time while in prison. “I’m more vulnerable now, and I’m okay with it. Before, I wasn’t…I didn’t want to show my weak parts at all. Now I’m like, So what? That’s who I am.” Viafore used to tell her she was very proud, and it occurred to her that he was right, she says. “Pride is the opposite of faith.” In other ways, Graswald’s faith has also made her less vulnerable. It gives her a vocabulary to describe the sense of peace she felt after Viafore’s death, and it makes her impervious to questions about how she came to terms with what happened that night.
How did she manage to stop ruminating about Viafore’s death? “I just read the Bible, and it teaches you not to dwell on the past.”
Does she have any fears about opening up to someone new romantically? “I don’t have any more fear. Period. God didn’t give us a spirit of fear. Right out of the Bible.”
What was it like to start kayaking again? “I prayed on it.”
While Graswald contemplates dessert, I ask if there was anything about the night that Viafore died that she has kept to herself all these years, out of shame or out of protectiveness for their last moments together.
“Bottom line, I’m the only living person who’s still here, and I’m the only one who knows. So it’s between me and God. We’ll just leave it at that. I don’t care what anybody else thinks.”
“You’re good with God,” I summarize.
“No,” she says sharply. “He’s good with me.”
A long and very awkward silence follows. Graswald looks out at the river; I pretend to look at my notes. I’m shaken by her sudden frostiness. Then she starts speaking again, slower and more softly.
“Vince loved me. I loved him. He had mentioned that he would die for me if need be, and I feel like he did so I could live. He saved me in a way.” She explains again that she wouldn’t have called 911 if he hadn’t told her to, and probably would have drowned trying to save him instead of paddling toward shore. “I was naïve enough to think that I could help him. I was wrong on that one, too. I’ve been in these situations on the Hudson before, where it was dangerous, and I always got out of it, so I felt like that night I could, too. You know how you get careless? I was careless. So was he. We both were. It cost him. It cost him his life.”
A waiter sneezes from the depths of the kitchen, and Graswald loudly blesses her. She tucks into her green tea ice cream. “This is delicious,” she says. “You don’t get ice cream in jail.”