DOVER, N.Y. (AP) – What started out as a joyful reunion of a young woman with her birth parents soon turned sour, then shocking, and finally deadly.
A young woman named Katie married her birth father, had a baby with him and, after she decided to leave him, lost her life to him along with that of their child and her adoptive father. All three were laid to rest this weekend in upstate New York.
"We’re all still in shock," said Shirley Mann, a neighbor of Katie’s adoptive parents in Dover. "It’s crazy. I don’t know what else to say. It’s horrible."
Katie, whose last name was Fusco at the time, had no idea before she moved in with Steven Pladl and his wife in August 2016 that he had an explosive temper, a history of abusive behavior and owned at least four guns.
A VERY NORMAL LIFE
In 1995, Steven Pladl was 20 when he met a 15-year-old girl named Alyssa on the internet. She soon became pregnant and gave birth to a girl they named Denise.
Alyssa Pladl told The Associated Press in an interview last week that they put the girl up for adoption when she was 8 months old. They were young and poor, she said, but she also believed Steven Pladl physically abused the baby. In her interview, she did not elaborate.
"It was so hard to give her up," Alyssa said, "but I had to because I wanted her to live and be happy."
For most of what was to be her short life, she was. Tony Fusco and his wife, Kelly, adopted the girl they renamed Katie and raised her with their biological daughter in Dover, about 80 miles north of New York City.
"They had a very, very normal life," said Cary Gould, Kelly Fusco’s brother. "My nickname for Katie was Pac-Man. She was always eating. She loved animals. She was a vegetarian."
Katie was an aspiring artist known at Dover High School for drawing comic strips. She planned to attend college and pursue a career in digital advertising.
"A pen and something to draw on became a safe place for me," she wrote in a blog post. "Ink became my weapon against rules and regulations. … To be short; for me, a life without art is no life at all."
After turning 18 in January 2016, Katie, who Gould said had been told she was adopted, found her birth parents and messaged them. The Pladls were happy to reunite with her.
Instead of going to college in August 2016, Katie moved in with the Pladls in Henrico County, Virginia, that month. Tony and Kelly Fusco were apprehensive, Gould said, but they thought Katie was old enough to make her own decisions and supported her.
All was not well in the Pladl home. Steven and Alyssa had already decided to separate and were sleeping in separate rooms. Alyssa Pladl said she had suffered emotional and verbal abuse by her husband for years.
"I was always on eggshells, whatever his mood was, everybody knew, and that mood was often not happy, a lot of yelling, a lot of things smashed in the house, in front of our kids," she said.
Alyssa Pladl told Katie privately that Steven Pladl had abused her as a baby and that a major reason for the adoption was her own safety.
Katie, according to Alyssa, didn’t appear to be concerned.
‘WE’RE IN LOVE’
Steven Pladl’s behavior changed after he met Katie, Alyssa Pladl said. He began wearing skinny jeans and form-fitting shirts. He shaved his beard and let his hair grow long. About six weeks after Katie moved in, Steven Pladl one night slept on the floor in her room.
It immediately concerned Alyssa. After he did it again the next night, she confronted him. He said it was none of her business and stormed out of the house with Katie.
Alyssa Pladl finally moved out in November 2016, and she shared custody of the two children with Steven Pladl.
In May 2017, she learned from her 11-year-old daughter’s journal of the incestuous relationship and Katie’s pregnancy. Her daughter wrote that she and her sister were told by Steven Pladl to refer to Katie as their stepmother.
"I started to become hysterical, and I called him," she said. "I said, ‘Is Katie pregnant with your baby?’ He just said, ‘I thought you knew. We’re in love.’
"I started screaming," she said. "I was just cursing him out: ‘How could you? You’re sick. She’s a child.’"
Then she called the police.
On July 20, 2017, two months after his divorce from Alyssa was finalized and amid the police investigation, Steven Pladl married Katie in Parkton, Maryland. They lied on their application, saying they were unrelated, according to records.
Katie’s adoptive parents posed for a photo on the wedding day along with Steven, Katie and Steven’s mother. Katie wears a short black dress.
Tony and Kelly Fusco thought there was nothing they could do and had decided it was best to support Katie, Gould said.
Katie gave birth to Bennett on Sept. 1. She and Steven moved to a house on a cul-de-sac in Knightdale, North Carolina, just east of Raleigh, but wedded bliss did not last long. They were arrested on incest charges in January. A judge ordered them to not contact each other, and Steven Pladl’s mother has custody.
Steven Pladl’s lawyer, Rick Friedman II, said there was never an allegation that Steven Pladl pressured Katie into a relationship.
"This case is an 18-year-old girl who shows up at the doorstep of a 40-year-old man who’s going through difficult times with his wife," Friedman said. "They have a bond because they’re biologically related, but they never knew each other before they had a sexual relationship. He was head over heels in love with her, so much so that that outweighed the issue of them being biologically related."
After the arrests, Katie moved back with Tony and Kelly Fusco, who declined to comment for this article. Every Tuesday and Thursday, she would travel to her adoptive grandmother’s home in Waterbury, Connecticut, Gould said.
On April 12, a Thursday, Katie and Tony Fusco left the Dover home for Waterbury. In a minivan nearby, Steven Pladl watched them leave, surveillance video shows.
Minutes later in nearby New Milford, witnesses reported someone opening fire. Katie and Tony Fusco, 56, were fatally shot. Steven Pladl was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot back in Dover.
Shortly after the New Milford shooting, Steven Pladl’s mother called 911 to report her son had told her he killed the baby, Katie and her adoptive father.
"I can’t even believe this is happening," Steven’s mother told authorities, according to a 911 call transcript from which her name was redacted. Her son, she said, was upset because Katie, by then just 20, had broken up with him.
Police found the baby dead and alone in Katie and Steven’s home.
Alyssa Pladl struggles to make sense of it all.
"I’m grieving. I’m sad. I’m upset," she said. "But I also want to have something good come out of this. If it’s to get truth out there, to open people’s eyes to incest."
Lavoie reported from Richmond, Virginia. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writer Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, and AP news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York.
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