LAWRENCE — Lee Manuel Viloria-Paulino had brought 16-year-old Mathew Borges to his family home just once, in the middle of November. Viloria-Paulino’s tight-knit family knew only that they were classmates at Lawrence High School, a family spokeswoman said. If it was a friendship, it seemed new.
But a few days after that visit, Viloria-Paulino, 16, went missing. About two weeks later, on Thursday, his decapitated body was found along the banks of the Merrimack River. On Saturday, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett announced at an afternoon press conference that Borges had brutally killed Viloria-Paulino, mutilating his body so badly that the autopsy took 11 hours.
“This was a horrific, horrific murder,” said Blodgett at a press conference outside Lawrence District Court on Saturday afternoon. “While it shook the community, we were completely and totally resolved to bring this matter to justice.”
Investigators searched Borges’s home on Oxford Street in Lawrence early Saturday morning and arrested him at around 11 a.m., Blodgett said. The teenager will be charged as an adult with first degree murder and will be arraigned Monday in Lawrence District Court. Blodgett declined to discuss motive.
Viloria-Paulino’s stricken family gathered at their Lawrence home, praying, singing, and weeping, and harshly criticized Lawrence police for their initial handling of the case. When Viloria-Paulino first went missing Nov. 18, family said officers insisted the good-hearted teenager who was devoted to his family and active in his church had simply run away.
“We’ve been here since the beginning, asking for help,” said the teenager’s grandmother, Ivelisse Cornielle. “We are poor, we are Hispanic, they considered this a normal runaway case. I told them from day one that it wasn’t.”
If police had begun their search in earnest earlier, the family said, Viloria-Paulino may still be alive.
“That’s my pain,” wept Cornielle.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera told reporters after the district attorney’s press conference that “if need be,” he would seek an independent investigation into the department’s early handling of the case.
“Things could have been done differently early on, but I don’t know,” Rivera said. When he spoke with investigators recently, he said, everyone was doing everything they could. But the family had told him that in the beginning, they had to push for reaction.
Lawrence Police Officer William Green said that the police department treats missing person reports like “nuisances” instead of something to be investigated. Unless it’s a young child, he said, the reports are not treated with urgency.
“It goes into a bin,” he said. “It’s forgotten.”
Green said he knew he would get in trouble for speaking out, but that he had complained in the past about the missing person policy and nothing had changed.
Rivera declined to comment on what Green said; police officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Family and friends said Viloria-Paulino had no run-ins with the law or with any gangs. Blodgett declined to say whether Borges was known to police, or to answer questions about what weapon was used or when Viloria-Paulino died.
No one answered the door at the address Blodgett said Borges lived at; while one neighbor said he saw the family sometimes, others were not sure if a teenage boy lived at the address.
Viloria-Paulino’s family said he was a good boy with a moral upbringing. When he got home from school, said his grandfather Gustavo Paulino, he would hug everyone in his family and tell them he had missed them.
“If he left the house for one hour, he’s hugging everybody,” said Paulino.
The family declined to comment on Borges, but said that the arrest did little to make them feel justice or closure.
“Nothing’s going to return our child,” said Paulino.
“Our concern now is that they pay attention, and this does not happen to other families,” said Cornielle.
Officials have repeatedly said that the killing was an isolated, targeted incident, and that no one else in Lawrence was in any danger, but Viloria-Paulino’s family scoffed at that idea.
“Nobody’s safe. Lock your doors, home-school your kids,” said the teenager’s uncle, Julik Paulino. “If Lee wasn’t safe, nobody’s safe.”
As the family spoke outside their home, two photographs of Viloria-Paulino stared out from a missing person poster still hanging in the rear window of one of the family’s cars.
“Lee, please return home,” the poster read. “We love you!!!!!!!!!!”