It has got to be one of the strangest murder cases in Connecticut history. I’d say it rivals the infamous 1986 wood-chipper murder, which thrust the state into the national media after a Newtown flight attendant disappeared and her husband was eventually convicted of the murder even though her body was never found.
In the bizarre case of University of Connecticut Health Center Prof. Pierluigi Bigazzi, we have a body and it seems pretty clear how he was killed and by whom. The mystery lies in why UConn officials were so slow to react when Bigazzi became incommunicado and why they continued to pay his generous salary until his wife was arrested at their Burlington home on Feb. 5, seven months after anyone at the university had heard from him.
For the uninitiated — or for those who don’t share my fascination with strange murder cases — Burlington and State Police approached the couple’s home last month after someone at UConn finally noticed Bigazzi, 84, was MIA and asked police to perform a “well-being check.”
Inside, police found “insect activity” and when they descended into the basement in an attempt to identify the source, they found Bigazzi’s badly decomposed body wrapped in plastic garbage bags. Police indicated he might have been dead since last June.
When the arrest warrant was finally unsealed thanks to Hartford Courant reporter Matt Kauffman’s persistence and expertise in freedom-of-information law, we learned that Bigazzi’s wife, Linda Kosuda-Bigazzi, essentially confessed in a diary entry to killing him with a hammer after a violent argument over a home repair.
The state medical examiner’s office performed an autopsy on the remains and concluded that Bigazzi died of “multiple blunt force injuries to the skull” and ruled the death a homicide. Of course, Kosuda-Bigazzi deserves a fair trial but it’s reasonable to conclude that she acted against her husband in the manner she described — if not out of malice, then in self-defense.
So this is more like an episode of Columbo than Murder, She Wrote. It’s not much of a mystery who committed the crime. The mystery lies in the circumstances surrounding the death — in this case, how Bigazzi’s employer, the taxpayers of the state of Connecticut, could have paid a dead body to do nothing for months on end.
I understand that incompetence comes in all forms and in all segments of society — and I do think government is the object of more than its fair share of criticism for this. I have, after all, seen inefficiency and waste firsthand in the private sector as well. But the situation at UConn Medical simply boggles the mind.
And it feeds right into the notion that government employees aren’t mindful about wasteful spending — or they simply don’t care about it because, in the words of Donald Trump, it’s only “other people’s money” (OPM) we’re talking about here.
Financial woes are nothing new to UConn, whose dubious spending habits were documented in an audit a couple of years ago that found overpayment of employees and improper spending of almost $50 million in state funds. And of course there was the series of substantial raises — some extravagant — UConn President Susan Herbst proposed in 2016 for top staffers ranging from 3 to 32 percent. Herbst later backed off under pressure from lawmakers but never admitted she was wrong in pushing for the raises.
So this latest incident damages UConn’s already dubious fiscal reputation. First of all, can we admit that it’s a little strange to have an 84-year-old, work-from-home professor on the payroll at an annual salary of more than $200,000, and not require him to actually report to the office every now and then to make sure he is still alive?
Bigazzi’s prolonged absence from the campus should have set off all kinds of alarms. Yet despite not performing a lick of work or returning a single email since July 7, he continued to receive his biweekly paycheck of almost $7,500, deposited electronically into his bank account. Evidently, nothing was done until January when Bigazzi was slated to make a presentation on the campus.
I understand that Bigazzi might have been treated differently by his colleagues because of his advanced age and that perhaps, even as his body lay in their cellar, his wife tried to pull the wool over the eyes of UConn officials. Still, you would think an organization as vast the state’s flagship university would have better safeguards in place to detect this kind of skulduggery.
Herbst has rightly called for a review of the peculiar work arrangements given to Bigazzi. Certainly, it is acceptable for some employees to work remotely. Heck, I do it myself one or two days a week.
“However, it would be inappropriate for any regular full-time employee to be absent from campus and out of communication for a very lengthy period of time if they are not on sabbatical or some other form of official leave,” said UConn Health Center spokeswoman Lauren Woods. “Given that, the president instructed that this review take place.”
Herbst is to be commended for ordering this study and for trying to inject a measure of accountability into a tragic and mystifying situation. Taxpayers should expect no less. I have worked all my life in the private sector — both in nonprofits and in independent media companies
— and I can tell that if anything like this had happened in any one of those organizations, someone would be cleaning out his desk.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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