BLACKSTONE — Erika Murray’s life began spinning out of control three years ago when she secretly gave birth to a third child inside her small home, despite the adamant insistence of her financially strapped high school sweetheart that he wanted no more children than the two they already had, her court-appointed defense attorney said Saturday.
Then, about five months ago, the 31-year-old mother gave birth to yet another child, and allegedly tried to hide her connection to both of these children from Ramon Rivera, 37, a Framingham native who lived in the same house.
“She lived in terror of their existence being known,” said Wellesley lawyer Keith Halpern. “She was frozen in this nightmare. She couldn’t get out of it.”
In the end, the modest 1,150-square-foot house where she had hoped to have a stable family life ended up a place of squalor and unthinkable horror.
Two weeks ago, after a complaint lodged by a neighbor about a crying child, police entered the trash-filled, flea-infested residence and found four children — a 13-year-old girl, a 10-year-old boy, a 3-year-old child, and a 5-month-old girl, the youngest two of whom were allegedly never taken outside.
After the four children were put in foster care, police this week began to search the condemned home further and uncovered the skeletal remains of three infants.
On Friday, Murray was arraigned on charges related to child endangerment and concealing fetal death. She is being held at a women’s prison in Framingham.
Rivera, who was not present when the police first entered the home on Aug. 28, has not been charged with any crimes involving the children or home. However, Blackstone Police Chief Ross Atstupenas, in a phone interview Saturday, said that Rivera was criminally charged on Aug. 28 with “possession and cultivating” marijuana in the basement of the home at 23 St. Paul Street in Blackstone.
He said he believes that Rivera has been arraigned and released, though he did not have access to the court records over the weekend. Rivera stated he lived in the basement of the home, Atstupenas said. The Globe’s efforts to reach Rivera over the past few days have been unsuccessful.
Halpern said he spent many hours before and after Murray’s arraignment Friday talking with his client, and has concluded that she suffers some kind of mental disorder. He said he bases this on the horrific evidence taken from the home, as well as “by talking to her,” particularly about the state of her home life.
He said that since her arrest, she has been focused on the whereabouts and well-being of her children and seems unconcerned about the charges she faces and her detainment behind bars.
When asked if her fears about Rivera discovering the birth of the two other children were grounded in threats of domestic violence, Halpern said that at this point, “I really don’t know.”
Atstupenas said that neither Rivera nor Murray had previously come to the attention of police, and he has no evidence of any restraining orders or domestic legal problems.
Halpern said he does not believe she suffers from alcohol or substance abuse problems.
A state investigator who has been briefed on the case and asked to remain nameless said the two younger children have shown signs of profound neglect: The 3-year-old has poor muscle tone and does not walk, while the baby shows signs of rarely being in sunlight.
The lawyer said that even though Murray kept the two younger children in seclusion, she loved them and spent endless amounts of time with them inside the house, even as she allowed the two older children to attend public schools and meet with friends away from home.
“As hard as this is to fathom given the allegations, she is completely attached to these children, including the two younger children,” Halpern said.
Halpern said he knows prosecutors have interviewed Rivera, who is believed to be the father of the four children. Halpern said it is hard for him to imagine that Rivera, who allegedly lived full time in the house, did not know about the two other children.
Murray apparently explained to Rivera that the two younger children were not hers — but belonged to another woman and she was babysitting them, a story that she allegedly repeated to the two older children, according to a neighbor whose call prompted police to respond on Aug. 28 to investigate the home.
The neighbor, who met both of the younger children that day after entering the home, said that both children looked like they had been “dipped in feces” and that the 3-year-old child did not speak at all.
Halpern said that, in many ways, Murray’s perceptions do not match reality. Murray did not perceive herself to be neglectful of the two younger children, and also did not perceive her home to be uninhabitable, as law enforcement officials have described.
The couple met while working at a McDonald’s more than a dozen years ago, and at age 18, Murray gave birth to their first child. Unable to support themselves financially, they moved into Murray’s parents’ home and occupied Murray’s childhood bedroom, her lawyer said.
About three years later, when the couple was expecting their second child, the couple moved out of Murray’s childhood home and into the Blackstone home on St. Paul Street, which was owned by Rivera’s sister.
During this move, around 2004, they were aware that the extended family worried about their ability to raise two children, even after Rivera got a sales position at Staples.
For two years, Rivera’s sister’s family also lived in the house, but then around 2006, they moved out.
A year later, the Department of Children and Families visited the home, after getting a complaint about the conditions inside. Agency staff recommended some upgrades, but they did not find the two children in the home to be in danger and closed the case.
It remains unclear just how life unfolded over the next few years and if some of the dead infants, who were found this past week in the house, were born during these years.
It is only known that around 2011, a baby girl was born, an event that initiated Murray’s need to keep up a dual existence: Her cheerful image as a devoted mother with Facebook postings showing two school-age children in Halloween costumes and newly bought school outfits, and a woman struggling, unsuccessfully, with a darker private life.
“Her life became much more isolated after the birth of the 3-year-old,” her lawyer said.
A cleaning crew worker who was at the house this week and asked to remain nameless, said that the conditions there “broke my heart” and that nearly every square foot of the house was covered in rubbish and debris. He said he had to wonder about the mind of the woman who oversaw this household.
Patricia Wen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jacqueline Tempera contributed to this report.