fb-pixel

LAWRENCE — The shooting death of a woman in a two-story house over the weekend led to the arrests of three men who were arraigned in Lawrence District Court Monday on drug charges.

Mirta Rivera was asleep Saturday morning when a bullet pierced through a hardwood floor in the apartment above, hitting her in the abdomen, traveling through her mattress and into the floor before bouncing back into her box spring.

Rivera’s boyfriend, Jorge Villalta, and responding officers tried to save her, but the 41-year-old woman was pronounced dead at Lawrence General Hospital.

Moments after the shooting, police discovered a bullet hole in the ceiling above Rivera’s bed, leading officers to a second-floor unit where they found three men, a woman, heroin and cocaine worth about $75,000, a scale, material for packaging drugs and firearms. When officers entered the unit around 4:26 a.m., the fresh stench of gunpowder hung in the air, police said.

Christopher Paganmoux, 23; Jose Lara-Mejia, 35; and Wilton Lara-Calmona, 38, were arraigned on charges of trafficking in heroin over 200 grams, trafficking in cocaine over 14 grams, and possession with intent to distribute a Class A substance near a school or park, according to court records.

Advertisement



All three men face a minimum of 12 years in prison. They were not charged in connection with the shooting and officials would not say whether further charges were pending. Authorities did not provide an explanation as to what led to the shooting.

Mirta Rivera was asleep when she was shot.
Mirta Rivera was asleep when she was shot.The Boston Globe

Lawrence District Court Judge Lynn Rooney ordered Paganmoux, who faces an additional charge of trafficking heroine over 14 grams, held on $250,000 cash bail. Lara-Mejia and Lara-Calmona were ordered held on $500,000 cash bail.

Police found a black handgun between the mattress and box spring of a bed in the apartment on Exchange Street, court records show, as well as drug paraphernalia and a rifle.

Advertisement



A “mushroomed” bullet found in Rivera’s box spring matched the rifle and a casing that was found, police said.

Rivera’s daughter and son wept in the courtroom as assistant district attorney Karen Hopwood revealed the details of the case. They left without comment. They were accompanied by more than a dozen relatives and friends.

In arguing for a high bail, Hopwood told the court that Lara-Mejia has a warrant for deportation to the Dominican Republic and Lara-Calmona altered his fingerprints, making it difficult for the FBI to identify him. Paganmoux was arrested last month in Lawrence on drug charges and for allegedly driving while intoxicated, court records show.

State Police had pulled Paganmoux over on Tremont Street on June 18 for failing to signal. He was arrested after he failed a series of sobriety tests, records show. A small bag containing cocaine was found underneath the driver’s seat.

Lara-Mejia and three other people in a vehicle were arrested in February 2014 after police in Lawrence discovered heroin in a car they were traveling in. Drug-related charges were later dismissed.

Lara-Mejia is a painter and Lara-Calmona has been unemployed after an accident months ago left him disabled, their attorneys, Bill Sullivan and Pamela Rogers, said in court.

The attorneys said their clients were in a bedroom nowhere near where the shooting took place and that nothing connects them to a backpack full of drugs and paraphernalia found outside the house.

Attorney Kelli Ganz, who represented Paganmoux, said he has been a construction worker for the past six months. She said the prosecution’s case has holes.

Advertisement



“There are a great number of unanswered questions with regards to this case,” Ganz argued. “The room where the bullet went through the bedroom was not my client’s bedroom. These facts are really just about a young man who was merely present and this court knows merely being present is not a crime.”

Paganmoux’s girlfriend told police that she woke up to find him frantically pacing the room and when officers knocked on the door he jumped into the bed and pretended to be asleep, court records show.

On Exchange Street Monday afternoon, a makeshift memorial with flowers, candles, and a poster bearing a photo of Rivera with the words “Te Amo” scribbled across it — “I love you” in Spanish — was erected in front of the house.

“She was just a hard worker and a good parent,” said Frank Gaton, 29, who lives down the block from Rivera’s home. “I know people are very sad. We feel compassion for a pointless death.”

Neighbors said Rivera worked with the elderly and lived in the first-floor apartment with her daughter Francesca Nieves and her 9-year-old granddaughter.

The daughter of the shooting victim wept openly during the arraignment.
The daughter of the shooting victim wept openly during the arraignment.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Jan_Ransom.