FITCHBURG — Moments after a judge found the mother of missing 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver competent to stand trial Friday, the boy’s uncle erupted in anguished rage, wailing, “Where’s my nephew?” over and over as his wife tried to hug him and cover his mouth.
Court officers and state troopers swarmed Sandrino Oliver and wrestled him out of the courtroom while family members and friends tried to shield him. The group spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, still jostling and shouting, and Sandrino Oliver ran down the street, where he hunched against a building, sobbing.
“He’s sick, he’s sick!” his family cried, forming a circle around him. Court officials approached and persuaded him to return to the courthouse, where he was briefly taken into custody and handcuffed.
The melee came after a brief hearing before Judge Margaret Guzman, who concluded that Elsa Oliver, 28, who has been examined in recent weeks by mental health professionals, is competent to stand trial on charges that she allowed her boyfriend, Alberto L. Sierra, Jr., 23, to abuse Jeremiah. Sierra is facing charges of abusing Jeremiah. Both Oliver and Sierra have pleaded not guilty.
“It does not appear that there are sufficient grounds to determine a lack of competence,” Guzman said. “Based on the report [on Oliver’s condition], I will find that the defendant is competent to stand trial. We will now proceed in a regular prosecution.”
Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. has said he fears that Jeremiah is a victim of homicide. Authorities learned he was missing last month after his 7-year-old sister told Fitchburg school officials that she and her siblings were being abused and that when she last saw Jeremiah in September his hand was bleeding and their mother was worried that he would die from the wound.
Jeremiah’s sister and their 9-year-old brother have been placed in state custody.
Oliver remained impassive throughout the hearing. Shackled hand and foot and dressed in a light gray sweat shirt and pink pajama pants, she walked gingerly and held her body stiffly. She glanced at the large number of reporters but did not appear to look at family members, who lined the back bench.
Her attorney, James Gavin Reardon Jr., said after the hearing that while he feels Oliver’s condition has improved since he first spoke with her in December, he is not convinced that she is able to communicate with him.
“She was definitely on the verge of paranoia and extremely distrustful, and I can’t say that has all evaporated, but she seems to be a work in progress,” he said. “My issue is, is she able to work with her attorney? And that is still a very live issue.”
Reardon said he was willing to consider a request by Jeremiah’s biological father, Jose Oliver, to meet with his estranged wife and ask what happened to his youngest son.
Jose Oliver told reporters before the hearing that his sister-in-law had spoken with Elsa Oliver about two weeks ago. Elsa asked about Jeremiah, he said, but without any obvious emotion, and at one point during the conversation, she asked, “Is it the rapture?”
Jose Oliver, however, does not believe his wife is mentally ill.
“She’s just afraid,” he said. “When she was with me, she was a good mom. She was always on top of my kids, for school, when they eat, do homework. . . . I don’t think she’s crazy.”
The Department of Children and Families has come under fire for not protecting the Oliver children after the agency acknowledged that the social worker assigned to the family did not visit their home as required. The social worker and two supervisors were fired.
Jose Oliver blames the agency for his son’s disappearance and fears that the boy is dead.
“I believe if they would have went there when they had to, my son would have been here,” he said. “How can you not go? That job is serious. . . . People called them and told them about noises coming from the house, my kids screaming, Elsa Oliver screaming.”
Asked for comment, a Department of Children and Families spokeswoman referred a reporter to testimony on the case delivered Thursday at a legislative hearing by the department’s commissioner, Olga Roche, in which Roche acknowledged failures by her staff and promised reform.
Jose Oliver has organized another search in Fitchburg for his son on Saturday morning.
Elsa Oliver will be taken to MCI Framingham, her lawyer said. Both she and Sierra are due back in court Feb. 21.
After Sandrino Oliver returned to the courthouse, he was cited for contempt of court. He appeared before Guzman, who dismissed the charge after he promised not to repeat his behavior in the future.
Court officers and state troopers escorted Sandrino Oliver out of the courthouse, formed a loose perimeter around his family’s car, and watched them drive away.