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    Man pleads guilty in homeless shelter murder

    Pericles Clergeau, during his February 2011 arraignment in a Lowell courtroom.
    David H. Brow/Associated Press/Pool/File
    Pericles Clergeau, during his February 2011 arraignment in a Lowell courtroom.

    WOBURN — Pericles Clergeau stood, turned, and looked tentatively at the brother and sister of the man he fatally stabbed more than five years ago.

    “I’m not very good with words,” Clergeau, 24, said in a halting voice. “I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry for taking that loss. I will try to be a better person.”

    Clergeau’s moment of remorse came Tuesday in Middlesex Superior Court as he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the 2011 killing of Jose Roldan, a 34-year-old employee of the Lowell homeless shelter where Clergeau was living at the time. He faces life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years.

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    The plea deal came just as Clergeau’s first-degree murder trial was set to begin, in a high-profile case that laid bare the dangers of severe untreated mental illness and the inability of the state mental health care system to treat its sickest individuals.

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    Roldan’s 37-year-old brother, Miggy Cuba, delivered a composed and compelling statement about what the family — and the world — had lost. Roldan, who had once lived at the shelter himself, had turned his life around and was helping others do the same, Cuba said.

    “He wanted to give back and he died trying,” he said, describing his brother as a “man without shoes becoming the man who gives shoes.”

    Clergeau, whose diagnoses include antisocial personality disorder and schizophrenia, has a record of psychiatric disorders and hospitalizations that dates to his childhood. Born in Haiti, he was abandoned by his mother and abused by his father, his lawyer, Keith Halpern, said in court Tuesday. (Clergeau’s father told The New York Times in 2011 that the abuse accusation was never substantiated.)

    Growing up in Massachusetts, Clergeau was a ward of several state agencies, bouncing from facility to facility and leaving a trail of violence in his wake. He assaulted fellow psychiatric patients, school staff, and mental health workers, and he destroyed classrooms, a copy machine, and other property. Still, Westborough State Hospital discharged him in 2010.

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    Less than a year later, on Jan. 29, 2011, Clergeau was sitting in the common area of the Lowell Transitional Living Center. His delusions convinced him that Roldan and another shelter employee, identified in court records as Holly Scholfield, were talking about him.

    “What are you talking about me for?” he shouted, approaching them.

    When they denied it, Clergeau called Scholfield a vulgar name and went back to where he was sitting. Roldan walked over to calm him. As Roldan crouched down in front of him, Clergeau lunged with a knife and stabbed him in the neck.

    Roldan lost consciousness 15 seconds later and never regained it, prosecutor Thomas O’Reilly said Tuesday. He was taken by helicopter to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he died a few hours later.

    When police first arrived at the shelter, Clergeau was holding the knife, yelling, “I did it. I did it. I don’t care.”

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    In court Tuesday, Clergeau wore a white button-down shirt, black pants, and shiny black shoes above shackles around his ankles. He appeared lucid, waving to family members seated behind him and answering questions from Superior Court Judge Josh Wall.

    “Guilty,” Clergeau said quietly when asked to state his plea.

    Cuba expressed sadness that he will never see his brother with gray hair, and that Roldan’s nieces and nephews will never know Tio Jose.

    But Cuba also showed sympathy for Clergeau, saying he applauded Clergeau’s decision to take responsibility for his crime.

    “I hope to God that he’s on the right path,” said Cuba, turning to face Clergeau at one point. “I pray for you, man. I don’t hate you.”

    “That was a generous statement,” Halpern told Cuba, visibly moved by the gesture of forgiveness.

    Halpern then delivered a blistering indictment of a mental health care system that knew years ago that Clergeau posed a major risk and yet failed to properly treat him prior to Roldan’s slaying.

    “It didn’t have to happen,” he said. “It wasn’t a surprise that there was another violent episode.”

    Clergeau’s day in court had been delayed for years, because his competency to stand trial had often been in doubt. Held at the Middlesex Jail in Billerica, Bridgewater State Hospital, and later at the Nashua Street Jail, he choked other prisoners and attempted suicide.

    Over the past year, Halpern said, medication and treatment stabilized him, enabling the criminal case to go forward.

    Clergeau followed Tuesday’s proceedings from a chair at the defense table, spinning gently from side to side while he listened. When it was over, he was led out of the courtroom, raising his shackled arms to deliver one final wave to his family.

    Scott Helman can be reached at scott.helman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @swhelman.