EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 19, 2013

'He's fighting for his life'

Girlfriend: Beating victim unresponsive after 3 brain surgeries

By Mike LaBella

---- — HAVERHILL — A landscaping worker who was savagely beaten in broad daylight is unresponsive, despite three surgeries on his brain, his girlfriend said.

Melissa Merrill said she visits her boyfriend, Jesse Downs, 31, almost daily in the intensive care unit of a Boston hospital. His eyes are open, but he does not respond in any way, she said.

“All we have is hope,” Merrill said. “All we can do is pray.

“He’s fighting for his life,” she said. “They had to remove half his skull to relieve swelling.”

Police said Downs apparently was the target of an unprovoked attack Aug. 30 about 2 p.m. on a sidewalk on the north side of Winter Street. The location is near the railing of a small bridge that crosses Little River next to Lafayette Square.

The two men charged in the attack, Rodney McCray, 21, of Haverhill and Roberto Hilerio, 21, of Boston, continue to be held without bail.

Carrie Kimball-Monahan, a spokeswoman for Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, said yesterday she could not comment on any possible motive for the assault. She said no statements have been made in court by the District Attorney’s Office as to reasons for the attack and that evidence is being presented to a grand jury.

Merrill said she has had a relationship with Downs for seven years and that he’s a good caretaker for her three children and her 7-year-old brother, who she is also raising. She said Downs is the family’s primary income earner.

Merrill, who works at a cafe at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, said it was by coincidence that she was driving on Winter Street the day of the attack when she saw her boyfriend sitting on the sidewalk near Little River. He was covered in blood and talking to police and emergency medical personnel. She pulled her car over and ran to him.

“I told them I wanted to take him to the hospital and they said his head needed to get looked at, so I drove right to Merrimack Valley Hospital,” she said.

Downs was later taken by helicopter to a Boston hospital.

Merrill said Downs got out of work early the day of the attack because it was Labor Day weekend. She said he left his workplace on Hale Street and was on his way to a convenience store in Lafayette Square when he was jumped from behind.

“He kept asking me, ‘Why did they jump me?’” Merrill said of how Downs reacted immediately after the attack. “He still had his money and paycheck on him. They didn’t touch it.

“They attacked him right in broad daylight, in the middle of the sidewalk,” Merrill said. “They jumped him from behind and beat him in his head for no reason.”

A few hours after the attack, police arrested McCray and charged him with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury, disorderly conduct and witness intimidation. Several days later, police arrested Hilerio and charged him with aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.

After yesterday’s hearing to review the status of the two men charged, members of Downs’ family gathered in front of Haverhill District Court and spoke to an Eagle-Tribune reporter.

Downs’ cousin Victor Lavalley Jr. said Downs is a good family man who works hard during the day and is always home with his family at night.

“He’s a really good guy, and I’m not just saying that,” Lavalley said. “None of us can understand why Jesse was attacked. He would never say anything bad to anyone. It was a totally random thing and we’re all very upset about it.”

Merrill said she visited Downs yesterday afternoon and that his condition was stable, but that he was still unresponsive.

Merrill said a fund called “Justice for Jesse” has been set up at Pentucket Bank to help with expenses. She said Downs does not have medical insurance at this time, but that an application has been submitted to Mass Health.

“We just received a bill for about $14,000 for the helicopter, but it was reduced to $8,600,” Merrill said. “I don’t know how we’ll be able to pay it. I have a family to support and with Jesse out of work ... I can’t pay any medical bills right now.”