FITCHBURG — The body of a child found Friday off Interstate 190 in Sterling has been positively identified as Jeremiah Oliver, the Fitchburg preschooler who vanished last year while his family was being monitored by the state’s child-protection agency.
“I don’t feel relief,” Jeremiah’s father, Jose Oliver, said in a telephone interview. “I’m disappointed.”
Jose Oliver, who lives in New Britain, Conn., said he had been told by authorities that the body was his son’s just minutes before the announcement was made publicly Saturday afternoon.
The body was found in a grassy area off the southbound side of the highway south of Exit 6. In a brief statement Saturday afternoon, Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said the body had been identified, but the autopsy report is not complete and no further information would be released at this time.
At a news conference Friday, Early said the body was discovered wrapped in cloth inside what could be either a suitcase or a duffel bag, and said the death “appeared to be a homicide.” A spokesman declined to answer questions Saturday.
Jeremiah was 4 when he was last seen by a relative in September. He 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 his whereabouts since their December arrest on assault and child endangerment charges.
James Gavin Reardon Jr., who represents Elsa Oliver, said the district attorney had not spoken to him about additional charges his client might face.
“Obviously, we know there’s a tragic death, but the circumstances and the responsibility for it are open questions,” said Reardon. “So far as I know, there is still no evidence that my client is responsible for the death, and that’s certainly one of the issues that will be addressed in the court proceedings.”
Questions about Elsa Oliver’s mental state have swirled throughout the case, though on Jan. 24 she was declared competent to stand trial after an examination and sent to MCI Framingham. Reardon said Saturday that on April 2, prison officials transferred her to a mental health facility. Reardon said he did not know what sparked it and he declined to say where she was being held.
“I still strongly believe that Ms. Oliver is not competent to process the magnitude of what’s happened, and understand the procedure which is occurring in the legal system,” he said. “And obviously, I’m concerned that the prison transferred her to a mental health facility.”
He said he had not spoken to his client after the district attorney confirmed that the body was her son’s.
The attorney for Alberto Sierra Jr. did not respond to messages seeking comment.
As word of Jeremiah’s death spread through his Fitchburg neighborhood, community members, many of them families with young children, began making the pilgrimage to Kimball Street, where the little boy lived, to light candles and leave stuffed bears and balloons in a growing makeshift memorial.
“He was the same age as my grandchildren, so it hits home big time,” said Lori Lavoie, 45, of Fitchburg. She knew the Oliver family casually because her father had managed a package store where Jose Oliver was a customer, and she had met Jeremiah when he was a baby.
The identification of the body provided resolution, and some relief, she said, “but it should never have happened to Jeremiah. He was a sweet boy.”
As night fell and the crowd grew to near 100, the Rev. Stephen D. Mayo, pastor of the Elm Street Community Church, and the Rev. Thomas Hughes, pastor of New Creation Community Church, led brief prayers. Hughes called on those present to treat their own children with patience, never violence, and to support Jeremiah’s family.
“We don’t have to look anymore,” Hughes said. “The hunt is over. Our Jeremiah is home.”
Though the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families had been monitoring Jeremiah’s family for two years after allegations of neglect, officials did not realize he was missing until December, when his 7-year-old sister told 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. The last time she saw him, she said, he was bleeding from his hand and their mother was afraid he would die from the wound.
An investigation into the boy’s disappearance found that the assigned social worker had skipped mandatory monthly visits since last April. The worker and two supervisors were fired, and the case has sparked investigations into systemic problems within the agency.
“It’s a terrible tragedy what happened with Jeremiah Oliver, and we as a government can’t allow an agency to let that happen on their watch,” said Representative David P. Linsky, who chairs the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, which is investigating DCF.
“The entire executive branch will have new personnel next January. The question that should be asked is, who can lead DCF for the next eight months?” he said. “That’s not a legislative function, that’s a function of the governor.”
DCF Commissioner Olga Roche, who has been at the center of much of the controversy surrounding her agency’s handling of the Oliver case, said in a statement Saturday that DCF is focused on caring for Jeremiah’s siblings. “We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Jeremiah Oliver,” said Roche. “The Department is grateful for the dedication of the District Attorney and law enforcement partners leading this investigation and will continue to assist in any way we can.”
Governor Deval Patrick also lamented Jeremiah’s death.
“I am so grateful to the State Police and others in law enforcement for their tenacity in finding Jeremiah, and so sad that he was not found alive,” Patrick said Saturday. “We now look to the District Attorney to prosecute this crime to the fullest extent of the law.”
Reardon said murder charges against his client were “within the realm of possibility,” but he could not speculate.