FITCHBURG — A lawyer for the mother of a missing Fitchburg 5-year-old said Saturday his client is “in denial to the point of unreality” about the magnitude of events surrounding her son’s disappearance.
Meanwhile, volunteers and relatives of the boy mounted a search for the second Saturday in a row, combing through acres of snowy woods, desperately hoping for clues in a case that has so far baffled investigators and prompted public outrage.
Jeremiah Oliver was last seen by relatives in September, but officials only learned of his disappearance Dec. 2, when his 7-year-old sister told staff at her school that her mother’s boyfriend was abusing her. While family members say they are holding out hope Jeremiah will be found alive, police investigators are treating the case as a potential homicide.
Jeremiah’s mother, 28-year-old Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Alberto Sierra Jr., are being held on child abuse charges. A judge this week ordered Sierra held without bail; Elsa Oliver had her bail set at $100,000, but is being held indefinitely in contempt of juvenile court, where she has been ordered to produce her son. Elsa Oliver is also undergoing a court-ordered competency evaluation.
Members of Jeremiah’s family have said police told them Sierra is not cooperating with interrogators.
Lawyer James G. Reardon Jr. said in an interview that Elsa Oliver has a history of domestic abuse and psychological issues.
“I assume that she is the victim of some significant domestic violence,” Reardon said, describing his client’s unusually calm and blank demeanor in the face of serious charges. “I’m not certain she’s processing what really is occurring right now . . . I don’t get any useful information out of her.”
Reardon said he is waiting for the results of the psychological evaluation before deciding if he would argue Elsa Oliver needs medical treatment rather than jail time. And he said those who have condemned Elsa Oliver over her alleged role in Jeremiah’s disappearance should also wait for the legal process to play out.
The case is one of the most unusual in his career, Reardon said.
“It’s an extraordinary case with a difficult future,” he said. “You have a child missing for so long, and then you have several people involved with unusual and amorphous backgrounds, and I have a client who has some significant degree of mental or emotional problems.”
About 35 people showed up for Saturday’s search. After rallying at a parking lot across from Jeremiah’s home and saying a prayer at a makeshift shrine honoring the boy, the group split into three teams and searched two areas: a playground where neighbors said they sometimes saw Sierra with Jeremiah and his siblings, and woods behind a housing development where Sierra’s family lives. Organizers speculated that Sierra may have hidden the boy’s body in a familiar area.
Miguel Fleitas, a 46-year-old naval reservist with training in search and rescue, organized the search in cooperation with the family.
“As a father I would hope that nothing like that happens to my child,” Fleitas said. “I just want . . . to help them find anything I can.”
Sandrino Oliver, Jeremiah’s uncle, said the family is “holding on,” but that its Christmas gathering was a grim affair.
“I went to my mother-in-law’s house, but I couldn’t stay. I left,” he said. “Looking at the presents, knowing that my nephew’s not around to open them or anything, it’s too difficult.”
Sandrino Oliver thanked volunteers who have aided with searches, and pleaded repeatedly for anyone with information about Jeremiah’s whereabouts to come forward.
“If someone’s got him, please just give him to us,” he said. “If you’re afraid of getting caught, drop him somewhere, go to somebody’s house, ring the doorbell and take off running. . . . He belongs with the family.”
Sandrino Oliver saved his strongest words for Sierra.
“I have so much anger that if I could hit someone and end up in the House of Corrections and end up in the same block as him, I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him,” he said.
After several hours of searching, the effort was called off when a volunteer slipped on ice and injured her shoulder.
A similar search by about 70 volunteers last Saturday near Jeremiah’s home found nothing. State Police K-9 units had scoured the area for evidence that morning and also came up empty-handed.
Investigators have declined to give play-by-play updates on their work, but insist they are working the case around the clock.
“The full weight of the District Attorney [Joseph] Early’s office, Fitchburg Police, and the State Police remain behind the effort to find out what happened to Jeremiah,” State Police spokesman David Procopio wrote in a brief statement.
Under investigation is the significance of a tattoo depicting a butterfly and the date, “Sept. 25, 2013” on Elsa Oliver.
Paul Jarvey, a spokesman for Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., confirmed Saturday that detectives had interviewed area tattoo artists in hopes of discovering who gave Elsa Oliver the tattoo.
Jarvey also said Jose Oliver, Jeremiah’s father, had been allowed to see his two other children, who are in Department of Children and Families custody, this week.
A social worker and supervisor at the state DCF were fired for not properly monitoring the family, and the department has launched an investigation into the case.