WORCESTER — Speaking in a flat, barely audible voice, Elsa Oliver, a 28-year-old mother of three from Fitchburg, told a judge Friday that she may want to represent herself or possibly seek a different attorney in defending herself against charges that she played a role in the disappearance and possible death of her youngest child, Jeremiah.
Oliver, who was indicted last week along with her boyfriend, looked blankly at her court-
appointed lawyer, James Gavin Reardon Jr., standing next to her, when asked by Superior Court Judge James Lemire if she would like to still retain him. She paused and vacillated. When asked if she had the educational know-how to represent herself against complex charges, Oliver, who has a high school education, replied, “No, I wouldn’t.”
Later, she acknowledged not cooperating with a court clerk trying to help her complete a financial form to justify taxpayer-paid counsel.
“I’d rather write it out on my own,” she replied.
After the arraignment, Reardon, a veteran criminal defense attorney, said he was not surprised by the comments of Oliver, who has continually resisted communicating with him and many others since her arrest in December. Though she has previously been deemed mentally competent to stand trial, Reardon believes that her psychological state is seriously impaired and that she shows intense paranoia.
“I don’t know what to expect from Elsa one day to the next,” said Reardon, who the judge assigned to represent Oliver for the time being.
At her arraignment in district court last December, she appeared with bruises on her face and spoke very little, giving the impression she may be a battered woman who is fearful of speaking up about what she knows about Jeremiah, who was last seen alive at age 4.
At Friday’s hearing, Oliver, dressed in green sweatshirt and brown pants, still has not said anything about Jeremiah’s fate as she was arraigned on nine counts handed up by a grand jury last week. The indictments allege that she assaulted her three children, including one with a belt, sometime between March and December of last year, as well as reckless endangerment of a child. The new charges portray a woman more capable of violence herself.
Still, based on the indictments, Alberto L. Sierra, 23, is depicted as a more violent force. He faces more than a dozen charges, including assaulting each of the children with a belt, as well as one indecent assault on one of the children. He is also accused of assaulting Elsa Oliver with a knife.
Each of them also face a kidnapping charge, but it is unclear if that relates to Jeremiah’s disappearance. According to the law, that charge covers everything from transporting a person against his or her will or confining someone in a small space against his or her will.
Sierra’s brother, Christian Sierra, 21, and two other people are facing charges of misleading police and interfering with a criminal investigation. Court records indicate that one of these three suspects made an unspecified threat to Oliver in December.
The investigation began last December, when Jeremiah’s 7-year-old sister told employees at Reingold Elementary School in Fitchburg that she and her two brothers were being abused in their home by Sierra and that she had not seen Jeremiah recently.
School officials alerted the Department of Children and Families, which later discovered that a caseworker assigned to the Oliver family had missed required monthly visits since April 2013.
That caseworker and two supervisors have since been fired.Patricia Wen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.