FITCHBURG — The father of missing 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver vowed he will “never give up” looking for his son, as dozens of volunteers combed through the boy’s neighborhood Saturday in an attempt to find him.
Jeremiah was last seen by relatives on Sept. 14. His mother, 28-year-old Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Alberto L. Sierra Jr., are being held on child abuse charges.
The boy was only officially reported as missing Dec. 2, when his 7-year-old sister told staff at her school that Sierra was abusing her. The state Department of Children and Families has fired a social worker and a supervisor for failing to keep tabs on the children and has reassigned a program manager pending an investigation into what went wrong.
Saturday’s search, organized through social media by family members and supporters, was not sanctioned by police, although several Fitchburg police officers were standing by to examine any potential evidence that volunteers might find. Police had initially discouraged the search, afraid that a horde of well-intentioned but inexperienced searchers could disturb or even destroy valuable evidence.
In a parking lot across from the house where the family lived, the boy’s father, Jose Oliver, said he was holding out hope Jeremiah would be found.
“They didn’t have a car, so if they did do something to him, I’m pretty sure he’ll be around here,” Oliver said, wearing a shirt bearing an image of his son’s face and “DADDY” printed on the back.
Oliver expressed gratitude to the approximately 70 volunteers who turned out to search, many of whom did not know the family.
“There’s people out here that have heart,” he said, trembling with emotion.
Volunteers prayed for the young boy, then dispersed into nearby woods and neighborhoods to search, poking at melting snow with fallen branches. One group searched a culvert in the hill behind the family’s home, calling for a flashlight. They found nothing, and Jeremiah’s uncle, Sandrino Oliver, emerged from the area wailing and screaming in despair.
After several hours, no clues had emerged.
“We looked everywhere, but, nothing,” said a despondent Jose Oliver.
A judge this week ordered Elsa Oliver to undergo a mental evaluation. But Jose Oliver said he doubted his wife of eight years was mentally incompetent.
“She wasn’t like that with my kids when she lived with me,” he said. “She always made sure they went to school, she always made sure they got fed, she always brought them to the doctor’s appointment, she was always playing with them, telling them I love you, kissing them, and so on.”
Oliver condemned Sierra for not cooperating with police.
“I would say to him, you have a son,” Oliver said. “How can you have the heart to just sit there and stay silent?”
Sierra has been charged with two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and two counts of assault and battery on a child causing bodily injury. Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said some of the charges are related to alleged abuse of Elsa Oliver, who has been charged with being an accessory after the fact to the attacks, and two counts of reckless endangerment of a child.
Sierra, who is in custody, faces a dangerousness hearing Tuesday in Fitchburg District Court.
Some volunteers decried what they called a lack of effort by authorities. When a State Police cruiser passed by, some among a group of sign-holding supporters along the road jeered, with one man throwing a snowball at the car.
State Police spokesman David Procopio declined to comment on specifics of the investigation, but said efforts to find the boy are ongoing.
“It’s being investigated around the clock,” he said. “It’s active, it’s dynamic, and there is progress being made.”
Procopio and Tim Connolly, spokesman for the district attorney, said State Police detectives and K-9 units had searched several areas in Fitchburg just after dawn Saturday but found nothing. Investigators will now “reassess” their standing, Procopio said, adding the State Police were supportive of the civilian search effort.
“We completely understand their desire and willingness to search,” Procopio said. “We welcome their help, and we coordinate with them as much as possible to ensure they follow proper protocol.”
Early insisted that authorities have been working tirelessly on the case, saying an unusually large number of State Police detectives were assigned to it, along with detectives from the Fitchburg police. He said the case was complicated by the fact that investigators were starting to work months after the child went missing.
“There is a great deal of frustration on everyone’s part,” Early said in a phone interview, adding that most of the detectives were parents who were “heartbroken” over the boy’s disappearance. “This case is getting everything we have at our disposal. We’re not done looking.”
Motorists passing the searchers honked in support. Some stopped to leave stuffed animals, candles, and flowers at a makeshift memorial.
Mike Alvarado, 53 of Fitchburg, brought his family along to help. Though Alvarado does not know Jeremiah’s family, he knows the pain of missing a loved one: In 1994, his sister went missing and was never found.
Even so, Alvarado said a missing child is an unfathomable burden.
“My sister was 34, she was on the streets, she was an adult, she lived her life. But a young kid like that — it hits you right in the heart.”
After the search ended, Sandrino Oliver, Jeremiah’s uncle, stood listening to family members compare notes. Hands in his pockets, he turned to gaze at the sky as if seeking answers, but finding none, sighed and looked downward, tears rolling from his eyes.