The call came in at 3:41 on a sultry September morning, when dawn was still just an aspiration. Boston police officer Kenny Joseph pulled his cruiser into the Ryan playground in Charlestown, pulled out his flashlight and walked over to a bench in the shadow of the Schrafft’s building.
He looked down and saw what appeared to be a man lying on his back, a man whose face and head had been pummeled with a murderous ferocity.
Hours later, Eric McPherson, a homicide detective, was standing next to a table in the medical examiner’s office as Dr. Andrew Elin performed an autopsy, cataloguing a litany of trauma — fractures, hemorrhages, lacerations and contusions — to the dead man’s lip, chin, nose, and brain.
The dead man’s name was Joshua Eric Rivera. A review of police reports and court records and interviews with police, prosecutors, and homeless people paint the portrait of a man who had a job but couldn’t afford a home. The reports and records also chronicle the relentless pursuit of his killer by detectives who saw the humanity of a victim who was largely invisible to so many others.
After the autopsy, McPherson met with the rest of his squad, Sergeant Detective Rich Lewis and detectives Ken Autio and Tim Evans. They had three witnesses, homeless people who were bedding down in the playground for the night when they saw a man carrying a baseball bat walk over to a bench and just start wailing.
They thought the guy was just hitting the bench, because it sounded like metal on metal. Later, after the man with the bat had disappeared into the humid darkness, curiosity got the better of them. They went over to the bench and were horrified by what they saw.
Rivera had turned 54 five days before. He had some money in his pocket, a pay slip from a local restaurant, so it wasn’t robbery. His family members, who live out of state, didn’t know he had fallen on such hard times. A proud man, Rivera soldiered on, working when he could, sleeping where he could.
For Rich Lewis’s squad, it became a case of shoe leather and eye strain, interviewing everyone and anyone who had been in the area, collecting and watching video from myriad surveillance cameras. A video from the Sullivan Square MBTA Station showed a guy wearing an Adidas backpack and carrying a baseball bat, headed toward the playground around the time of the murder. But it was dark and impossible to identify his face.
The homicide detectives kept digging, talking to homeless people, checking with police in neighboring Somerville and elsewhere, sifting through hour upon hour of video.
Shortly after 8 a.m. on Oct. 9, they got a break. Somerville police officer James Torres responded to a call and found a woman lying at the intersection of Somerville Avenue and Linden Street as firefighters tended to her. Someone had walked up behind her and smacked her in the head with a baseball bat. A group of bystanders had chased down the alleged assailant and held him for the cops.
The police identified him as Clifton Moore, 30, who gave an address in Somerville. A video from a nearby Target store showed Moore buying the bat shortly before the woman was struck with it. The police put two and two together and when homicide detectives looked at Moore and compared him to the person in the video from the MBTA station, they believed they had a match.
The homicide detectives conferred with Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Catherine Ham, who went to a grand jury and built a case.
Last week, in the sparsely populated magistrate’s session in Room 705 in Suffolk Superior Court, Cat Ham outlined the evidence against Clifton Moore, saying his sneakers and backpack matched those of the man carrying the bat in the MBTA video. By Ham’s account, Moore was a drifter with a history of attacking strangers at random: In 2010, he struck a stranger with his fist in Louisiana; in 2013, he attacked a stranger with a chair in a library in San Francisco; in 2014, he punched a man walking down the street in Beverly Hills and a month later hit a woman. At some point, he moved to the Boston area and last February a video reportedly captured Moore striking an MBTA conductor.
Ham acknowledged that there is no known personal connection between Moore and Rivera but that the attack fit Moore’s modus operandi of singling out strangers for unprovoked violence in public spaces. She also acknowledged the murder weapon has not been found.
Moore’s lawyer, Kelli Porges, described the case as entirely circumstantial and “very thin.” She said there is no motive, no physical evidence, no eyewitness who can place Moore at the scene of the murder.
About seven hours after Moore’s arraignment, a man was beaten to death in a Cambridge park. Police recovered a baseball bat nearby, though it hasn’t been determined whether that bat was the murder weapon. Porges told me the murder of Paul Wilson in Cambridge is eerily similar to Joshua Rivera’s four months earlier and four miles away. She noted that Moore has been locked up since October and accused police of improperly seizing the belongings they say link Moore to Rivera’s murder.
Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, said while there are some similarities to the murders, there is no evidence to suggest they were carried out by the same person. He also said Moore’s belongings were properly seized.
Porges intends to cite the similarities of the murders at a hearing next month, when she will seek bail for Moore.
“If you arrest the wrong person,” Porges asked, “does it embolden the right person?”
Lieutenant Detective Darrin Greeley, commander of the Boston Police homicide unit, believes his detectives have the right person. He also says they worked the case as hard as they would have for someone who possessed the wealth and status that Joshua Rivera lacked.
It doesn’t matter if you live in a brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue or the alleys in back of those brownstones, Greeley said, “our people are going to give the effort and speak for you.”
They speak for the dead. And when they need to, they speak for the invisible, too.