STERLING — Worcester County’s top prosecutor said the body of a young child found Friday morning near a highway in Sterling matches the height and weight of a missing Fitchburg preschooler who has been at the center of one of the worst lapses in the history of the state’s child-protection agency.
District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said he is awaiting results of further testing to say whether the body — discovered wrapped in cloth inside what could be a suitcase or duffel bag — is that of Jeremiah Oliver, who was 4 when he was last seen by a relative in September. The container and body were found about 9 a.m. on a grassy embankment about 40 feet from the southbound lanes of Interstate 190 near Exit 6.
Early said the container was visible from the road, though he did not describe its size. If it held Jeremiah, it would have to be big enough to hold a boy who last measured, according to police, about 3 feet 4 inches tall and weighing about 40 pounds.
Jeremiah is alleged to have been the victim of violence involving his mother, Elsa Oliver, 28, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra Jr., 23, both of whom have refused to say anything about the boy’s whereabouts since their arrest in December on assault and child endangerment charges.
Early said the death “appeared to be a homicide,’’ but many questions were left unanswered at a news conference outside a Worcester courthouse.
He declined to describe the body’s condition, when it may have been left there, or when the child died. He also would not say why police descended Friday on that roadside spot, which is about 13 miles south of Jeremiah’s home in Fitchburg. “I cannot tell you what led us to the body,” he said.
Early said autopsy results could be completed by Saturday.
Prosecutors are also not saying if three individuals who were arrested last month for interfering in the investigation — Christian Sierra, 21, the brother of Alberto Sierra; Cailey Thibault, 23; and Ashley M. Cormier, 24, all of Fitchburg — played any role in leading police to the body.
In a telephone interview, Jeremiah’s biological father, Jose Oliver, 41, said he will be picked up by police Saturday at his apartment in New Britain, Conn., and driven to a Boston facility to help the medical examiner’s office identify the body. His memories about the appearance of his son, however, will be dated. Jose Oliver, who has been separated from the boy’s mother and is the subject of a restraining order filed by her, had not seen Jeremiah in about two years.
He said he is hoping that the body will look nothing like the boy he knew. “I’m hoping it’s not true,” said Oliver, who has been active in volunteer search efforts to find Jeremiah for the past four months.
The discovery of the body has been anguishing for many close to the boy.
Jose Oliver’s older brother, Sandrino Oliver, 44, was overcome with grief Friday when he visited a makeshift shrine in memory of Jeremiah outside the Fitchburg apartment where the boy most recently lived with his two older siblings, his mother, and her boyfriend.
“It didn’t have to be this way!” the uncle shouted, while embracing Miguel Fleitas, a Fitchburg man who has been leading volunteer search efforts. Sandrino Oliver later collapsed as relatives were leading him back to his vehicle, where he was assisted by paramedics.
The boy’s disappearance only became known to police in December when his 7-year-old sister disclosed to school staff that she and her 9-year-old brother had been physically abused at home and that she had not seen Jeremiah in a long time. When confronted by police, Elsa Oliver and Alberto Sierra were silent about Jeremiah’s whereabouts. She appeared at her first arraignment with bruises around one eye. Both are now behind bars and charged with child endangerment and assault.
The boy’s disappearance prompted an inquiry about why the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, which had been monitoring the boy’s family after allegations of neglect for two years, didn’t realize he was gone until his sister spoke up.
A subsequent investigation found that the assigned social worker had skipped mandatory monthly visits since last April, a lapse that prevented her from knowing that Elsa Oliver had a new boyfriend with a history of domestic violence, and that Jeremiah was missing.
The social worker and two of her supervisors have been fired, and Jeremiah’s case has sparked several investigations into systemic problems at the agency, including crushing caseloads and poor internal communication.
Governor Deval Patrick, who called for in-depth reviews of the department, said in a statement Friday that the discovery of the body in Sterling causes him “deep sadness.”
“What we know right now is that a young child has died, and that his body has been disposed of in a heartless way,” Patrick said.
Representative David P. Linsky, chairman of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, which is investigating DCF, called the discovery of the body “a tragedy of unspeakable proportions.”
“The investigation that the House has been doing has been focused on ensuring that systems are in place at DCF to ensure that this type of incident can’t happen again,” he said.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Early urged the public to be patient as the police “do their work” and get answers to the many questions swirling in this case.
The body was found in a “wrapped condition,” he said, and “it was somewhat concealed from the elements.”
It remains unclear, however, if the container might have been buried in the winter’s deep snow or placed near the highway more recently.
While the container could be seen from the highway, he suggested that drivers going by would be traveling at speeds that would make it difficult for them to spot it.
Armand Roseberry, 72, who owns a 50-acre lot a few hundred yards from where the body was found, said he had recently spotted two different pairs of people he did not recognize walking near that area on separate occasions in recent months. He said not many people stroll in that area, so he noticed them.
Roseberry, whose property contains a surveillance camera, said he now wonders if they had anything to do with the body’s disposal.
Among the small crowd that gathered Friday around the makeshift shrine outside Jeremiah’s last home was Judy Reardon, 39. She said she has prayed nightly for Jeremiah to be found alive.
She said that if the body is that of Jeremiah, she is glad his family will finally have closure. Still, she said, she had trouble controlling her emotions throughout the day.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “I broke down four times.”