It was a lonely life out in Southern California.
Moses Bermudez had moved there alone in the 1990s from New England, where he had grown up, and, by the late 2000s, his life was his work: sorting UPS packages and unloading containers from massive cargo ships in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, sometimes sleeping in his car near the docks, saving up.
Until he met Sara Mendez. She was dark-haired and sweet, living near his grandmother in El Salvador. Bermudez was smitten after he visited, telling his close friend when he returned home: “I met my soul mate.”
They had a little girl and married in a simple ceremony in a neighborhood chapel in Huntington Park, Calif., in 2010, Mendez in a bright dress and Bermudez crying with joy, said Eloy Medrano, the best man. They had two more children.
“It was a blessing for him, going from not having a family to having a family,” said Medrano.
But on a frigid day eight years later, that family was gone: found on March 1 stabbed to death and burned, their bodies clustered in a bedroom in the West Brookfield home where they’d moved to get the kids out in nature, close to Bermudez’s family, and away from the crime and concrete of Los Angeles.
Moses Bermudez, who had been working on the docks in Los Angeles that day, according to his family, was the sole survivor.
Almost two months later, the case has yielded few clues that have been shared with the public. Investigators have asked for the neighbors’ help finding a yellow gas can; rumors about the supposed role of savage gangs have circulated around the town and on social media; overwhelmed family members have stopped answering their doors to members of the media.
Police have not named any suspects in the killings. They have made an arrest, but it was for misleading investigators about the crime.
The man they say lied to them is Moses Bermudez’s cousin.
. . .
The cousin, Mathew Locke, had moved back to Massachusetts in September after serving several years behind bars in Maine for trying to burn down a mobile home in Lubec, an isolated town on the Canadian border that boasts 97 miles of coastline and a population of about 1,400.
When Locke was little, Bermudez had baby-sat him, according to Locke’s mother. Now, he was 31, with a long criminal record that included charges for theft, larceny, and receiving stolen property, and a myriad of abuse allegations from a woman with whom he had a child.
“He pushed me against the wall when I was pregnant, he has told me he wishes he could kill me sometimes and he is violent and unpredictable on drugs and I am afraid for my safety and especially my sons,” the woman wrote in a restraining order affidavit in 2012, after she said he took her car and refused to hand over her keys.
The restraining order has since lapsed. The woman, in an e-mail to the Globe, said she and Locke are on better terms and cooperate in raising their son.
Locke’s whereabouts in the period when the murders could have happened are the subject of grand jury proceedings, said his mother.
Police have accused him of falsely claiming that Moses Bermudez implicated a gang in the deaths of his family, several weeks after their deaths.
The incident that precipitated the lying charge illustrates the complexity of the riddle that investigators must solve. According to prosecutors, Locke and a friend stopped at the Bermudez home on Old Warren Road a few weeks after the killings and found Moses Bermudez sitting in his truck. But the stories that the three men told about that meeting — whether it happened, and what was said — diverged sharply.
Locke claimed Bermudez told him to pay attention to the news, because anyone associated with the notoriously brutal street gang MS-13, which originated in Los Angeles with Salvadoran immigrants in the 1970s, was going to get hurt and die. Locke, prosecutors said in court filings, had falsely “indicated that members of MS-13 were responsible for the murders.”
Locke’s friend, who also has a lengthy criminal record, said Bermudez never mentioned the gang.
And Bermudez told police that the meeting never took place at all.
Police arrested Locke, who pleaded not guilty to misleading them on March 26 and remains jailed on $10,000 bail.
Locke’s mother, Marla Lyons, 53, said in an interview that her son had not lied — that he had heard the talk about MS-13 from Bermudez. Bermudez’s sister, Rachaul Bermudez, said in an interview that she had heard rumors on social media, television, and in the newspapers about the gang’s possible role, and that her family had discussed them, but that she did not know where the rumors started.
There have been, she said, lots of rumors: that the killer or killers were involved with drugs; that it could have been someone from California associated with her brother’s work; that Sara Bermudez herself was the target.
“I’m totally in the dark,” she said. “We’ll wait til the cops solve the case.”
A spokesman for Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said Friday that there were no updates on the case.
Lyons said investigators have focused unfairly on her son because of his lengthy criminal record. At the time of the killings, she said, her son and two of his cousins from Maine were staying with her in Ware. The cousins returned to Maine just over a week after the killings. Shortly afterward, she said, police searched her house.
But Lyons said she had told the grand jury that her son was home during the period when the killings happened.
He has a strong alibi, she said: her word. And he would never hurt his own family.
. . .
It was family that brought the Bermudez clan to West Brookfield from California around 2013. By then, Moses and Sara had built a solid and happy life by working hard and almost constantly.
After years of backbreaking hours at the docks, Moses Bermudez had secured a coveted full-time position there as a longshoreman, earning between $45 and $50 hourly and receiving generous benefits, his colleagues said.
But housing costs in southern California were high, and Bermudez worried about crime. He looked east to Massachusetts, where he had lived as a child and had a big extended family. West Brookfield is a town of about 3,500 people tucked among the Quaboag Hills, dotted with orchards, barns, and long stretches of winding roads lined by trees.
“He told me how safe it is there. You could literally leave a car with the car keys inside,” said Medrano, the best man at Moses and Sara’s wedding. “He wanted to do the right thing and provide his family a better future.”
And so the couple took their children — Madison, their little girl born in 2009, and James, their son born in 2011 — back to central Massachusetts, living first in an apartment in Ware and then in 2014 buying the Cape-style house with a sloping front yard at 10 Old Warren Road in neighboring West Brookfield. They had a third child, Michael, the next year.
Bermudez kept his job as a longshoreman, flying to California where he stayed with friends or booked a hotel room while he worked nonstop for weeks at a time, said his colleagues, before flying home for visits of a week or more.
Sara didn’t drive, so while he was away, his father, sister, and an aunt looked in on her, helping them with groceries and giving them rides. Madison translated for Sara until she learned to speak English.
To earn extra money, Moses and Sara opened a bouncy house business, MJM Jumpers, and rented out equipment for parties. Though the pair worked long hours, Moses told colleagues in California that he was happy.
“He just talked about the place, how the kids loved it, and it was an awesome place to live,” said Cesar Gallardo, a fellow longshoreman.
On special days, Moses and Sara took their kids to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Madison, 8, was their little princess, according to the obituary; James, 6, made endless inside jokes. Michael, 2, wanted to be just like his older brother and sister.
. . .
On March 1, Moses Bermudez called his father from California and sent him over to the house in Massachusetts to make sure his family was OK, according to his sister, Rachaul Bermudez. He was worried. He hadn’t been able to reach his wife on her cellphone.
When his father walked inside, he knew immediately that it was over, said Rachaul Bermudez.
In a bedroom, he found the slashed and burned bodies of Sara, Madison, James, and Michael, said Rachaul.
The family cat was dead in a closet, said Rachaul.
“I can see it, I can see it! They’re not fine!” Moses’s father screamed into the phone to his wife, Rachaul said.
Investigators swarmed the house. Moses Bermudez flew home.
When he pulled into his driveway the next day, he found his house a crime scene. He leapt from his car and charged inside, said Lyons, as officers scrambled to subdue him. News cameras captured the dramatic scene: a husky man loping up the driveway, ducking under the garage door while it opened, with investigators sprinting behind him.
In the weeks that followed, the family has waited, desperate for answers.
“I request that the police — anybody in authority — look for the killers of my family,” said Moses’s mother, Anita Bermudez, from behind her screen door in a brief interview this month. “It’s been too long.”
Reached Saturday, Moses Bermudez said he was in Florida and declined to comment.
He is alone again.Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.