Like so many little girls, Bella clutched her favorite stuffed animals in her tiny 2-year-old hands. She tore open her Christmas presents, and helped her mom make pizza. In the photos her mother posted on Facebook, she was, if anything, more beautiful than Baby Doe, the nameless digital approximation through which so many came, in death, to know her.
Her eyebrows were darker and more expressive. Her round-faced smile was more joyful. Bella was, by most accounts, a happy girl — a happy girl born into a hard life that ended far too soon.
Investigators on Friday arrested Bella’s mother, Rachelle Bond, and Bond’s boyfriend, Michael McCarthy, in connection with her death. McCarthy was charged with her murder; Bond with helping him to cover it up.
Public records and people who knew Bond in recent years described her tenuous attempts to hold things together before tumbling back into chaos and, finally, tragedy.
Bond was living at the Mary Eliza Mahoney House Family Shelter in Roxbury, according to a worker there, when she gave birth to Bella in August 2012.
The worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bond arrived pregnant after losing her housing due to drug use. Before Bella was born, Bond’s rap sheet was dotted with arrests for drugs and prostitution.
But at the shelter, she took GED classes, and looked for a job and permanent housing.
“She was trying to get her life together,” said the worker, who recalled holding Bella often.
Bella was “very bright,” said Dora Enwright, a close friend who grew up with Bond in Fitchburg. “She was very upbeat. She had an awesome personality.” When Bond found a place to live with Bella in Dorchester, Enwright said, she went to visit them.
Bond, who had two other children previously taken away by the Department of Children and Families, vowed not to lose Bella, Enwright said. “She promised me that she wouldn’t let anything happen to her.” Enwright was pregnant, and the women talked about play dates. But she never heard from Bond again.
On Facebook, Bond described her daughter as the catalyst for her recovery.
“I am on top of the world because of her. My life is complete again and worth living. I give her the world and more if I can,” Bond wrote in a September 2014 post that included a picture of the little girl in too-small footsie pajamas.
“She absolutely loves her new talking dog. It’s name is Violet,” Bond wrote in August 2014. “And for Christmas she’s getting the dog that actually runs around with her.”
Christmas was the last time Bond shared photos of her daughter online. In one, the little girl is wearing a fluffy pink robe and sitting in a tiny pink chair as she tears open a gift.
Neighbors in the Maxwell Street apartment building where Bond and Bella lived described a less idyllic life, and the Department of Children and Families twice investigated neglect complaints involving Bella in 2012 and 2013.
“Half the time she was crying,” said Siomy Torres, who lived next door and whose daughter played with the little girl.
Torres said that a steady stream of different, seemingly strung-out men made their way in and out of Bond’s apartment. She could often hear them fighting, and Bella crying.
About a year ago, Torres said, Bond told her that her then-boyfriend was trying to potty train Bella by exposing himself to her. Horrified, Torres said, she told Bond that she had to kick him out. Torres never saw him again, but he was quickly replaced by another man.
Enwright said she kept trying to reach Bond.
“Inbox me woman,” she wrote on Facebook on Christmas Day, “we need to talk.” She was surprised that her friend fell off the radar, “but I just thought she maybe had a bad relationship.”
Enwright didn’t realize it, but she did see one other picture of Bella. It was on a billboard.
Enwright saw the “Baby Doe” images, but never made the connection. She was stunned to learn that Bella was the girl on the billboards, the little body on the Deer Island beach.
“My love, my soul, my life. My heart beats because she’s in my world,” Bond wrote in August 2014, not long after Bella’s second birthday.
Bella never made it to her third.
Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NestorARamos.
Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @EvanMAllen.