The death of a Chelsea landlady, first thought to be the result of this summer’s heat wave, was described Wednesday as the cruel act of a tenant who allegedly beat the 88-year-old woman to death, stole her wedding and engagement rings off her hands, and left her body to be discovered four days later.
The body of Hilda Devincenzo was found in the three-family home she owned on Washington Avenue on July 7, four days after authorities allege that Felix Melendez attacked her in the second floor flat she called home.
Prosecutor Tara Burdman said in Suffolk Superior Court the investigation that led Chelsea and State Police to Melendez was sparked by interviews with first-floor residents, and an autopsy that showed the longtime resident had been strangled and beaten, and was not a victim of heatstroke.
Suffolk Superior Court Assistant Clerk Magistrate Connie Wong ordered Melendez held without bail after his arraignment on charges of murder, robbery of a person over 60, and receiving stolen property over $250.
According to Burdman, Melendez told a fellow tenant that Devincenzo was “driving him crazy’’ because she was always demanding he fix the wiring or do other repairs. On July 3, a first-floor neighbor heard running and screaming coming from Devincenzo’s second-floor apartment, a bang, and then no other sounds.
‘She was a nice, nice, nice lady . . . ’
No one checked on Devincenzo until July 7 when Chelsea firefighters were called to extinguish a small fire in the basement of the three-family home, a fire that Melendez is now accused of setting, Burdman said. When firefighters were at the house, they did a well-being check on Devincenzo and found her body.
“Thanks to the professionalism of Chelsea’s first responders and the careful, methodical work of investigators, we now have a much clearer picture of what happened in Ms. Devincenzo’s apartment,” Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said in a statement. “It is, unfortunately, a deeply disturbing picture.’’
Devincenzo’s relatives declined to comment Wednesday. But one area resident, who knew the victim for 20 years, said she was a bright presence in her Chelsea neighborhood where she was frequently seen going on walks.
“She was a nice, nice, nice lady,’’ said the resident who asked not to be identified by name. “She was like anybody’s grandmother.’’
The neighbor recalled that when he first learned that she had died during the July heat wave, he immediately suspected that she died from foul play, not natural causes. “She wasn’t frail at all,’’ he said, adding that what happened to the woman he knew was horrible.
Burdman said two rings were stolen from Devincenzo’s body — her wedding band and an engagement ring. Prosecutors said Melendez pawned the wedding band at an Everett jewelry store along with other items for $130, where the owner made a photocopy of his driver’s license. The second ring was found in Melendez’s apartment, Burdman said.
A fingerprint found on a plastic bag in the victim’s bedroom was a match to the defendant , prosecutors said.
At the request of defense attorney James H. Budreau, Melendez did not appear in the magistrate’s session but was allowed to listen to the proceedings in an adjacent hallway. Melendez, through Budreau, pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Budreau said in court and to reporters in the courthouse hallway, that the evidence the government claims incriminates his client, in fact, buttresses his claims of innocence. Budreau noted that his client cooperated with investigators, and told them where he had gotten the ring he pawned — he found it outside Devincenzo’s home.
“He cooperated at every juncture,’’ said Budreau. “He admitted he found the ring, that he pawned it. He didn’t hide it.’’
Budreau also said the fingerprint evidence merely confirmed what was already known — that his client was in Devincenzo’s apartment at some time before her death. “His relationship with his landlord was fine,’’ Budreau said.