Was Joan Baruffaldi Suicide or Husband's Murder Victim?

Joan Baruffaldi with her husband, Robert Harris.Courtesy of MyFoxBoston.com
Joan Baruffaldi with her husband, Robert Harris.

The body of Joan Baruffaldi lies in the basement of a funeral home in Somerville, Mass. That part, at least, is not in dispute. But whether Baruffaldi committed suicide or was murdered is the issue that is pitting two families against each other and has lawyers for both sides fighting in court.

On Nov. 1, 45-year-old Joan Baruffaldi traveled to the tropical paradise of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands to attend a veterinary conference. Baruffaldi was the owner of a successful animal clinic in North Reading, Mass., and the mother of two.

On the trip to St. John she brought along her husband of three years, 47-year-old Robert Harris. The decision to go was, according to the Baruffaldi family attorney, a chance to try to repair a failing marriage. Baruffaldi had found evidence Harris had carried on an affair with a co-worker and according to attorney Donald McNamee of Winchester, Mass., there was also a history of violence in the marriage.

"At one point she filed a 209A restraining order where she told the police that she thought he was poisoning her," McNamee said.

On Nov. 4, Baruffaldi was found after midnight hanging from a shower rod clinging to life.

"Her feet were on the floor, she was propped up against a wall with the tie from her bathrobe around her neck," said McNamee. Baruffaldi died in a hospital several hours later.

Harris told authorities he and his wife had spent the day drinking and arguing, and late in the evening she locked herself in their hotel room bathroom. Harris said he called hotel security when he heard a crash and his wife didn't respond. Authorities on St. John ruled the death a suicide by hanging.

That was far from the end of it.

Deeply suspicious of Harris, Baruffaldi's family hired an attorney. And Baruffaldi's brother, Robert, traveled down to St. John to talk to the authorities and witnesses himself. The families' aim is to get a second autopsy performed in the United States.

Their attorney has also filed a wrongful death action against Harris, who has since hired well-known defense attorney Kevin Reddington to represent him. Reddington did not return repeated calls from ABCNews.com.

Accusations Resemble Murder Case of Shelley Tyre

The legal issues are complicated by the fact that Harris is the co-executor of Baruffaldi's estate, and that means he has control over the family finances and over decisions related to her burial. Harris' attorney argued in court that he is against having a second autopsy performed.

The situation between Harris and the Baruffaldi family is so tense at this point, according to McNamee, that police had to be hired for both the wake and the funeral because Harris insisted he wanted to stand beside the casket of his wife and Baruffaldi's family refused to let him. Harris rented his own limousine for the funeral procession.

McNamee insists resolving the dispute between the two parties should be simple. "He says he did not kill his wife. Then fine, if you didn't do anything why not have a second autopsy to take all the suspicion away? We could have a second autopsy and it ends there. Why not?" said McNamee.

The Baruffaldi situation eerily echoes the case of another New England couple, Shelly Tyre and David Swain.

In 1999, Tyre died while diving in Tortola. The death was originally ruled accidental, but Tyre's family pursued a wrongful death claim against their daughter's husband and eventually won.

That led Tortola officials to reopen the case and years later they charged Swain with murder. During the murder trial, prosecutors introduced evidence that, rather than try to rescue his wife, Swain had ripped off her diving mask and shut off her air supply. The motive was two-fold, according to authorities, money and love. Swain was in love with another woman and stood to benefit from a life insurance policy.

Swain was found guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

As for Joan Baruffaldi, a judge has scheduled a hearing in the matter, but no decision has been made so her body will remain in the basement of a funeral home for now.