SALEM — Ernesto L. Gonzalez Jr. shuffled to the inmate dock in Essex Superior Court this month wearing a slate-gray prison jumpsuit, his hands cuffed in front of him. His eyes flickered to the ceiling, then scanned the courtroom and fixed on the judge.
“Good morning, Mr. Gonzalez,” the judge said.
Gonzalez paused, and answered him.
The simple exchange captivated a courtroom still searching for answers from the former meatpacker about the August 2008 disappearance of his 5-year-old son, Giovanni, during a weekend visit in Lynn — answers Gonzalez’s defense lawyer argues that his client is no longer mentally competent to give. Now the case is at a crossroads, with Bridgewater State Hospital evaluating Gonzalez again this month to see if he is fit to stand trial.
Gonzalez, 41, has been in jail, or a secure mental hospital, for an extraordinary four years and nine months, charged with parental kidnapping and misleading investigators. Though Gonzalez confessed to a Globe reporter three months after the disappearance that he killed the boy, leading to the discovery of a bloodstained knife, he has never been charged with homicide and Giovanni has never been found. The boy’s mother believes he is still alive, like the three missing women recently found in Cleveland about a decade after their disappearances.
Harrowing new details obtained by the Globe only deepen the mystery: Records in Salem District and Superior courts show that Gonzalez overdosed on painkillers four months before Giovanni disappeared, had a childhood history of torturing cats, and confessed to killing his son not once, but twice. Investigators are also nagged by the one trash bin that collectors took to an incinerator before police could search it, according to a person with direct knowledge of the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett declined to be interviewed for this story, but his spokeswoman said prosecutors are committed to solving the case. She said Gonzalez’s trial has been delayed for several reasons, including legal filings, turnover among his lawyers, and now, his mental health.
“Not a day goes by that the district attorney and others aren’t thinking about this case or aren’t concerned about resolving what happened,” said Carrie Kimball Monahan.
Russell C. Sobelman, Gonzalez’s court-appointed lawyer, said he believes his client is incompetent to stand trial. Gonzalez has pleaded not guilty.
He said Gonzalez rarely answers questions or rants about unrelated matters. Gonzalez has been in Bridgewater, the prison system’s psychiatric hospital, since December.
“I think he would confess to the Lindbergh kidnapping if he could,” said Sobelman, Gonzalez’s third lawyer since his arrest. “Because he’s not in his right mind. He’s in a fantasy world.”
A court hearing on the matter is scheduled for Friday. Depending on the hospital’s report, Sobelman said he would ask to schedule a full competency hearing. If Gonzalez is later declared incompetent, the lawyer said he would seek to dismiss the charges and have him committed to a secure hospital.
Gonzalez, a former boxer and runner, was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Lynn with his sister, mother, and stepfather. He suffered a “horrific pattern of abuse in his family,” according to a psychological assessment filed in court by the defense last year, and dropped out of school in seventh or eighth grade. In 2001 he was convicted of punching a girlfriend, damaging a minivan with a knife, and other charges.
Gonzalez fathered several children by different women, but Giovanni, whose name he chose when the boy was born in 2003, was probably the one he knew best. Former girlfriends have told the Globe that Gonzalez was a loving, if distant, father. He was also known as a hard worker at the Old Neighborhood meatpacking plant in Lynn, where he was quick on the assembly line stuffing cold cuts into packages.
Some coworkers thought him odd because he was unusually quiet, always ate by himself, and sometimes burst into strange laughter.
Gonzalez had not seen Giovanni for about a year when he filed a lawsuit seeking joint custody in June 2008. The boy’s mother, Daisy Colon, had halted the visits, concerned that Gonzalez disciplined him too harshly.
During their time apart, according to the psychological report, Gonzalez was hospitalized in April 2008 at a detox center for an overdose of Tylenol and Advil. The records did not state the reason for the overdose or how Gonzalez got to the hospital. Authorities have said Gonzalez lived alone and did not have a car or many friends.
Colon, unaware of the overdose, allowed Gonzalez to start seeing Giovanni again on weekends that summer, saying she wanted Giovanni to know his father.
She said two weekend visits went fine. On a third, Colon dropped the boy at his father’s apartment in Lynn and warned Gonzalez that he had to stay in the boy’s life or the visits would stop.
The next day, Saturday, Gonzalez stopped at a community health center in Lynn for outpatient counseling with Giovanni in tow. Later, Gonzalez refused to tell a state psychologist why he went, saying only, according to court records, “I needed to talk to somebody, so I did.”
When Colon returned to pick up Giovanni on Sunday, nobody answered the door.
Frantic, she called police. The Fire Department entered through Gonzalez’s second-floor window and found him alone inside, with an unexplained cut on his hand. He insisted that he did not have the boy that weekend and had not talked to Colon. But she showed police a call with Gonzalez on her cellphone, and police arrested him.
A massive search for Giovanni ensued: Police combed trash bins, a cemetery, and Flax Pond, erected a billboard in Wyoma Square, and set up a roadblock near Gonzalez’s apartment, where they handed out fliers. A helicopter equipped with infrared equipment scoured a wooded area.
Three months later, during an interview with a Globe reporter, Gonzalez said that he had stabbed his son to death in a fit of anger over the child’s alleged misbehavior. He said he dismembered the boy and dumped his remains in three different trash bins. The confession prompted a new search of Gonzalez’s apartment that found Giovanni’s blood on a knife, a piece of wood flooring, and on the threshold to the bathroom.
According to the court records, Gonzalez, in the weeks after the boy disappeared, also confessed to Colon that he killed the child.
Colon said in a recent interview that Gonzalez made the confession during a jailhouse meeting with him. She insisted to him she had seen their son with a man in Lynn. He replied that wasn’t possible because the boy was dead. Police searched but never found the pair.
“I don’t believe him,” she said, adding that the blood in the apartment could have been from a cut or nosebleed. “I never believed him because in my heart I always know that Giovanni is out there.”
Gonzalez was deemed fit to stand trial in January 2010 after his first visit to Bridgewater State Hospital, though he was back at the hospital within weeks. The case was further delayed by legal wrangling over the parental kidnapping charge; Judge John T. Lu dismissed the charge in 2011 and he was overturned a year later.
Colon, who has attended most hearings, said she believes Gonzalez is competent to stand trial.
“I’ve never believed he was incompetent,” she said. “But if you’re being realistic, the longer you’re in a place where you’re enclosed, your mind can play tricks on you.”
In October 2011, Gonzalez allegedly smashed the head of his 56-year-old cellmate, Orlando Diaz, against a metal sink, breaking bones in his face, injuring his right eye, and leaving the cell floor covered in blood, according to the court documents. Sheriff’s officials moved Gonzalez to another cell and prosecutors charged him with assault and battery.
Two months later, Gonzalez interrupted a court appearance and shouted that he wanted to plead guilty, according to an account by the Daily Item of Lynn. Sobelman, then his new lawyer, asked the court to pay for a psychological evaluation.
In the evaluation, psychologist Robert H. Joss said he met with Gonzalez twice after he was hired by the defense. He said Gonzalez ranted that two previous lawyers, a judge, and a jailer had sexually abused him and that one lawyer stole $2,000 from his pocket. On a second visit, Gonzalez glared at him in silence, drumming his fingers on a metal shelf.
Joss recommended that authorities hospitalize Gonzalez and require him to take antipsychotic drugs, which Gonzalez had refused in the past.
Gonzalez remained in jail, mainly at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Middleton.
Ten months later, Gonzalez allegedly punched and bit a correctional officer, a spokesman for the Essex County sheriff said. Prosecutors have not yet filed charges in the assault, pending a competency hearing.
The next day, officials sent Gonzalez back to Bridgewater. The hospital soon asked the court to extend his stay, saying Gonzalez is mentally ill and failing to keep him in strict security could lead to “serious harm,” according to the court documents.
Meanwhile, Giovanni’s mother keeps looking for him. She raised $2,000 for a reward and launched a Facebook page to aid in the search. She begged whoever has him to drop him off at a mall or police station. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has posted an age-enhanced image of him. Lynn police accept anonymous tips at 781-477-4444 or text to 847411, with the word “tiplynn” in the message.
Giovanni’s 10th birthday was May 1.
“I’ve never lost hope that we’re going to find Giovanni,” she said. “It’s not easy because every birthday, every Christmas, every day to celebrate, he’s not here.”