On Monday morning, shortly after 15-year-old Mathew Borges was arraigned in the gruesome murder of his 16-year-old Lawrence High classmate Lee Viloria-Paulino, Carrie Kimball-Monahan checked her voice mail. Kimball-Monahan, who handles communications for Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, found messages from People magazine, the Huffington Post, and the New York Post.
The death of a poor Hispanic teenager in a struggling old mill town in the Merrimack Valley is hardly the stuff of national news. Except, in this case, it is, raising this question:
If Lee Viloria-Paulino wasn’t decapitated, would we be paying as much attention to his death?
“I doubt it,” Blodgett told me. “We treat every [murder] case the same way. We put in the same effort, the same resources, the same humanity, whether the news media pays attention or not. That’s not our concern. Our concern is finding justice for the victim and their family.”
For the rest of us, there is a hierarchy of depravity, an unwritten code that some deaths are more worthy of attention than others.
It is ineffably sad that Lee Viloria-Paulino will never go to his prom, never go to college, never marry, never have kids, never watch those kids grow up. But it’s also sad to consider that if he had just been stabbed a couple of times and left to die on the banks of the Merrimack, his death would have passed without hardly anyone — outside of those who loved him and the people in law enforcement — taking notice.
He would have been just another 16-year-old Hispanic kid stabbed to death in Lawrence.
Last year, a 16-year-old named Jose Aguilar-Villanueva was found dead behind a bench on O’Connell South Common, a park in the middle of Lawrence. Members of the MS-13 gang had used him as a pin cushion, stabbing him repeatedly. His murder caused barely a ripple in our collective consciousness.
“It’s not just Lawrence,” Dan Rivera, the mayor of Lawrence, said. “You have kids in Dorchester and Roxbury getting killed, and how much attention does it get?”
At this point, investigators don’t know if Lee’s head and hands were cut off in a sick case of overkill, or as an attempt to prevent identification. The head was found in a bag upstream from where the torso was found.
MS-13 has chopped off the hands of some of its victims, but investigators have not established any gang connection in this case. Lee was an easygoing, church-going kid. Investigators are checking reports about Borges’ purported mental health problems.
Investigators have been told the boys went to the river to smoke marijuana. There may have been a dispute over a girl. At this point, nothing’s certain.
While the timeline presented by police suggests Lee was killed the night his family last saw him, his family complain that police didn’t take his disappearance seriously, dismissing him as a runaway, because of the family’s social status.
“We are poor,” Lee’s grandmother, Ivelisse Cornielle said. “We are Hispanic.”
Police are wary of getting into a public spat with a grieving family, but law enforcement sources told me there is evidence that police did look for Lee, that his photo was posted on the department’s Facebook page and its Twitter feed, that officers reviewed videotape of him and got conflicting reports from peers about when they last saw him.
After the arraignment Monday, Lee’s mom, Katiuska, complained that two weeks after Lee went missing there was a flier for a lost dog named Karma posted at the police station but the flier for Lee wasn’t.
Someone, not the police, put up the missing dog flier. Still, the mayor said he is inclined to launch an independent investigation into the handling of Lee’s disappearance.
“To make sure we’re doing what we should do, not just in this case, but in any other case,” Rivera said. “Every kid matters.”