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Seven years later, still no justice for Jeremiah Oliver

Fitchburg boy's death spurred changes at DCF

  • (Fitchburg, MA 12/21/13) Fitchburg resident Anibal Gonzalez (CQ) used a pole while combing through a snowbank for missing 5 year old Jeremiah Oliver during the search on Saturday, December 21, 2013. Staff photo by Patrick Whittemore.

  • Elsa Oliver is led into District Court for a hearing Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, in Fitchburg, Mass., where a judge ruled she was competent to face charges, including reckless endangerment of a child. Her son Jeremiah Oliver, 5, has not been seen by relatives since September but police learned of the disappearance only in December. The case led to the firing of three workers in the Leominster office of the state Department of Children and Families for not properly checking on the family. (AP Photo/Sentinel & Enterprise, Brett Crawford)

  • 12/17/2013-Fitchburg,MA. An emotional Sandrino Oliver, the uncle of missing 5 year old boy Jeremiah Oliver, stands outside Fitchburg courthouse today December 17, 2013. Staff photo by Mark Garfinkel

  • (010214 New Britian, CT ) Jose Oliver, the father of the missing five year old Fitchburg boy Jeremiah, was arrested for Herion possession in Ct. Contributed

  • (Worcester, MA 05/03/14) Palbearers handle the casket of Jeremiah Oliver at Hope Cemetery on Saturday, May 03, 2014. Staff photo by Patrick Whittemore.

  • (Fitchburg, MA, 12/24/13) Arraignment of Elsa Oliver and Alberto Sierra at Fitchburg District Court. Sandrino Oliver (uncle of Jeremiah, left) and Jose Oliver, biological father of missing Fitchburg boy Jeremiah Oliver were in court to witness the arraignment of Elsa Oliver of Fitchburg who was charged with reckless endangerment of a child and being an accessory after the fact and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, who was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and assault and battery on a child Tuesday, December 24, 2013. Staff photo by Ted Fitzgerald

  • (Fitchburg, MA, 04/28/14)the memorial for John Oliver on Kimball St in Fitchburg on Monday, April 28, 2014. Staff Photo by Nancy Lane

  • (041914 Fitchburg, MA) Bonnie White of Shirley, Mass. lights candles as her daughter Alyssa, 5, looks on before a candlelight vigil for Jeremiah Oliver in Fitchburg, Mass., Saturday, April 19, 2014. Investigators discovered the body of a child on Friday and the body was identified as Jeremiah Oliver on Saturday. Photo by Chitose Suzuki

  • (Fitchburg, Ma 041814) Helen Valcourt, mother-in-law of Sandrino Oliver, is comforted by Mike Alvarado, as medical personnel work on Sandrino Oliver who is the uncle of Jeremiah Oliver, who collapsed in grief while screaming Jeremiah, the body of fitting the size and age of Jeremiah Oliver was found on the side of I-190 earlier in the day, Friday, April 18, 2014, at a small memorial on Kimball Street site in Fitchburg. (Jim Michaud Photo) For Saturday

  • Roadside memorial to Jeremiah Oliver, on Rt 190 southbound in Sterling, where the young boy’s body was found in 2014. JULIA MALAKIE/LOWELLSUN

  • Roadside memorial to Jeremiah Oliver, on Rt 190 southbound in Sterling, where the young boy’s body was found in 2014. JULIA MALAKIE/LOWELLSUN

  • Roadside memorial to Jeremiah Oliver, on Rt 190 southbound in Sterling, where the young boy’s body was found in 2014. JULIA MALAKIE/LOWELLSUN

  • Roadside memorial to Jeremiah Oliver, on Rt 190 southbound in Sterling, where the young boy’s body was found in 2014. JULIA MALAKIE/LOWELLSUN

  • Roadside memorial to Jeremiah Oliver, on Rt 190 southbound in Sterling, where the young boy’s body was found in 2014. JULIA MALAKIE/LOWELLSUN

  • Roadside memorial to Jeremiah Oliver, on Rt 190 southbound in Sterling, where the young boy’s body was found in 2014. JULIA MALAKIE/LOWELLSUN

  • Roadside memorial to Jeremiah Oliver, on Rt 190 southbound in Sterling, where the young boy’s body was found in 2014. JULIA MALAKIE/LOWELLSUN

  • Roadside memorial to Jeremiah Oliver, on Rt 190 southbound in Sterling, where the young boy’s body was found in 2014. JULIA MALAKIE/LOWELLSUN

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A sky-blue cross adorned with a shiny blue garland and yellow flowers peeks out from the side of Interstate 190 in Sterling, tucked away into a small gully surrounded by trees.

A Spiderman toy and a small string of brightly colored bulbs hang from the upper part of the cross, with more toys on the ground below next to little daffodils that have just begun to bloom. “JEREMIAH,” the cross reads in all capital letters, with a light affixed to the top and more staked into the ground to illuminate it in the dark.

The roadside memorial, still lovingly maintained by area residents, marks where Jeremiah Oliver was found exactly seven years ago Sunday.

The 5-year-old Fitchburg boy was last seen alive by relatives in September 2013, but he was not reported missing until that December. It would be a full four months before his little body would be found in a suitcase on the side of that highway.

Jeremiah’s mother, Elsa Oliver, and her then-boyfriend, Alberto Sierra, were convicted in Worcester Superior Court in 2017 on charges related to abuse and endangerment of Oliver’s other two children, but there has been no conviction for Jeremiah’s death. Both Oliver and Sierra had received charges related to Jeremiah — including kidnapping, assault and battery and permitting injury to a child — but they were dropped to avoid double jeopardy while the homicide investigation continues.

Paul Jarvey, a spokesman for Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early, said Wednesday the case remains under investigation and declined to comment further.

“We thought, at the end of the day, there would be some repercussions for what they did to that child,” Judy Reardon said. “And seven years later, we’re all still screaming ‘justice for Jeremiah.’”

Reardon, along with Tami Arguelles, Mike Alvarado and Dina Hammad, were among many Fitchburg residents who came together to conduct searches and vigils for Jeremiah, and later fundraised for his headstone and a memorial bench at Coggshall Park.

Reardon said the community rallied for “a baby that nobody protected, not even his own mom.”

Jeremiah touched them all in their own way, many as parents who could not fathom allowing something like this to happen to their own children. For Alvarado, it was also the hope that he could help Jeremiah’s relatives find the closure that evaded his own family for so long after his sister went missing years earlier.

“We were searching at night, 12 o’clock midnight, we went early morning,” Alvarado said. “We went deep down, knee-deep in the snow, we went in the Nashua River. We went all over Fitchburg.”

They prayed Jeremiah was somewhere safe, that he was at his grandmother’s home in Florida, as Oliver had told the state Department of Children and Families.

“We just wanted to have a little bit of hope that somebody had him hidden somewhere,” Hammad said, but a gut feeling told them otherwise.

Learning that he had been dumped on the side of a highway “like a piece of trash” was devastating, Arguelles said.

The Oliver family had an open case with DCF for more than two years at the time, following a 2011 report alleging neglect of the three children. According to a report from the state Office of the Child Advocate, the family’s initial social worker had kept up with monthly visits and service referrals. But after the family moved to Fitchburg and their case was transferred in January 2013 to the North Central Area Office — which had some of the highest caseload per worker ratios in the state — their new social worker failed to make regular visits and properly investigate subsequent reports of abuse and neglect that spring.

Three employees were fired and another was disciplined for mishandling the case, and then-DCF Commissioner Olga Roche resigned in light of the deaths of Jeremiah and two other children. The agency underwent an overhaul in an attempt to correct the untenable caseloads and other issues that led to Jeremiah slipping through the cracks, but came under scrutiny again following the 2015 death of Bella Bond, and most recently, David Almond, during the coronavirus pandemic.

Jennifer Lane, president of Community VOICES, a local child protection and victim advocacy organization, said Jeremiah’s case exposed many gaps in the system that can only be filled by making protection of children the main priority.

“The greatest justice that can be served at this point in time, is that no other child suffer the same fate as Jeremiah,” Lane said. “Sadly, with the pandemic, the decrease in home visits by DCF and school closures, we will likely see more cases if these patterns continue.”

Fitchburg Police Chief Ernest Martineau is still haunted by Jeremiah’s case. He ran the department’s detective bureau at the time, and had a front-row seat to the investigation and how the case deeply affected the entire community. In his 34 years in law enforcement, it’s one of the cases that hit him the hardest, and “will never be erased from my memory,” he said.

Though there hasn’t been any public movement in the case for years, Martineau said he has “the utmost confidence” that local and State Police investigators will continue to work to bring those responsible for Jeremiah’s death to justice.

“Every detective, every person that’s worked on that case, has not given up on it,” Martineau said.

On the charges related to Oliver’s other children, Sierra was sentenced to six to seven years in prison and three years probation. Oliver was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail. Both received credit for time served prior to their convictions.

According to the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee, Oliver was released Jan. 10, 2020. Sierra was released from the North Central Correctional Institute in Gardner March 25, 2020, according to the state Department of Correction.

Reached on Facebook, Oliver declined to speak with a reporter, saying she’d “had enough trauma,” and then blocked the reporter. Sierra could not be reached directly or through the attorney that represented him in the matter, Alan Black.

Reardon and Arguelles said they’ve lost all faith in the system that failed Jeremiah and his siblings, who were sent to live with Oliver’s family in Florida.

“That little boy deserved more than what happened to him, and what is happening to him still,” Arguelles said.

Jeremiah doesn’t get to have birthdays, Christmas or play in the playground — while Oliver and Sierra now walk free, Arguelles and Reardon said.

Rosa Oliver, Jeremiah’s aunt, said the family still hopes to find justice for him, and asked those who have information to come forward. She questioned how they could not have any regrets about what happened to this little boy.

“How are you going to hold all this information and not tell nobody?” she said. “It’s going to haunt you in the long-run that you did not say anything and let him have justice.”