Advocates blocked from having lawyers at police meeting about missing East Boston woman 

A FURTHER EXAMPLE of the disparate treatment by law enforcement of cases involving victims of color and White people, or an innocent misunderstanding in the heat of the moment? Those are the dueling accounts of an encounter this week between Boston police and advocates for an East Boston woman who has been missing since late November. 

Reina Morales Rojas was seen getting into a van in East Boston on November 26 and later getting dropped off in Somerville. The 41-year-old native of El Salvador hasn’t been heard from since. 

Boston Globe columnist Marcela Garcia wrote earlier this week that Morales Rojas’s boyfriend and landlord reported her missing to police in late November. The Boston Police Department did not go public with news of her disappearance, however, until January 12. 

The delay has prompted strong criticism from advocates for the immigrant community, particularly in light of the wall-to-wall coverage of the case of Ana Walshe, a white woman living in wealthy Cohasset, who went missing on New Year’s Day and whose case was publicized within days of her disappearance. 

On Tuesday night, Latinos Unidos en Massachusetts, an Everett-based advocacy group, organized a vigil outside the East Boston district police station calling for more aggressive action in trying to find Morales Rojas. 

On Wednesday, the leader of the group and a representative of El Salvador were scheduled to meet with police at the station to discuss their concerns and hear directly about the status of the investigation. That morning, LUMA executive director Lucy Pineda reached out to Lawyers for Civil Rights to see whether the group could have an attorney accompany them to the meeting. But when two Spanish-speaking lawyers from the organization showed up with Pineda for the 2 p.m. meeting, police balked at holding the session with the attorneys there, said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. 

“BPD threatened to cancel the meeting if LUMA insisted on having counsel and barred our lawyers from the meeting,” he said. 

Espinoza-Madrigal said LUMA leaders were wary of going into the meeting without a lawyer who understands the issues involved in a missing person case.

“They were afraid of meeting with the police department about a high-profile matter where there is a serious imbalance of power, where immigrants and people of color from a low-income community are meeting with law enforcement officials who are often not the most accessible and community-oriented, at least from the perspective of our clients,” said Espinoza-Madrigal. 

The meeting took place without the attorneys from Lawyers for Civil Rights, but Espinoza-Madrigal immediately reached out to City Hall and said he spoke directly with Mayor Michelle Wu on Wednesday afternoon. 

“The mayor expressed that a reset would be in the interest of resolving Reina’s  disappearance and we quickly determined that a follow-up meeting [with police] with counsel present would be the appropriate next step to keep the investigation focused on Reina’s disappearance and to make sure that the community could help law enforcement officials in this effort,” said Espinoza-Madrigal. 

That meeting has not yet been scheduled, but Espinoza-Madrigal said he anticipates setting a date soon. 

For its part, the police department acknowledged that it could have publicized Morales Rojas’s disappearance sooner. 

“The Boston Police Department is actively working to find Ms. Morales Rojas and has been since she was reported missing on November 28th,” said Mariellen Burns, a spokeswoman for the department. “We have been in regular contact with her family, and we are working closely with other jurisdictions, including Somerville where Ms. Morales Rojas was last seen. We have shared information and photos of her widely with other law enforcement agencies. In our focused efforts to identify her whereabouts, our investigative team regrettably did not share her information publicly until January 12th. However, since then, we have unfortunately not had any successful leads.” 

Burns did not directly explain why the attorneys from Lawyers for Civil Rights were shut out of Wednesday’s meeting, but suggested it was because no one at the meeting was the subject of investigation. 

“A meeting with BPD was requested by LUMA to have an informal conversation with the executive director of LUMA and the Consul General of El Salvador, and that meeting took place on Wednesday,” Burns said. “Boston Police agreed to have this conversation to answer questions. No one was brought in for questioning or as party to an investigation. Due to any misunderstanding, a follow up meeting will be held with Lawyers for Civil Rights.”

MICHAEL JONAS

NEW STORIES FROM COMMONWEALTH MAGAZINE

Very bad news: It’s another in a long line of negative news stories about the MBTA, but this one could have far-ranging consequences. Jeff Gonneville, the acting general manager of the MBTA, described for his board just how bad the T’s contract is with CRRC, the Chinese company producing new Orange and Red Line trains. CRRC is way behind on deliveries, struggling at its Springfield assembly facility, and operating with little incentive to turn things around because its attempt to expand into the US market is floundering amid US sanctions and higher tariffs.

– Gonneville, who is serving in the interim between the Baker and Healey administrations, broke what appeared to be a code of silence at the T on problems with CRRC. His revelations could have dire consequences for the transit authority, which has been counting on new Red and Orange Line cars to replace a fleet of broken-down aging vehicles, some of which were first placed in service in 1969. The problems cited by Gonneville, unless rectified, could result in the shutdown of the Springfield plant and leave the T with a bunch of half-done vehicles and no company to repair them in the future.

– Despite the litany of problems raised by Gonneville, not one member of the T’s oversight board asked a question about the situation. Betsy Taylor, the board’s chair, described the procurement as “a very complicated situation” and urged Gonneville to come up with “a set of alternatives” for the T to consider. Read more.

Still more bad news: Brian Kane, the executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns served by the transit authority, told the T board that his members are worried the agency lacks the resources and the staff to pull off its redesign of the bus network. He said the T wants to expand service even though it doesn’t have enough drivers to provide the reduced service it is offering now. Read more.

OPINION

Different degrees of free: Christopher Geary, a senior policy analyst at the New America think tank, applauds Gov. Maura Healey for getting behind a plan to make community college free, but said her proposal, patterned after a similar Michigan initiative, is inadequate and doesn’t go far enough. Read more.

 

STORIES FROM ELSEWHERE AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Gov. Maura Healey tells a business group she wants to build more housing, expand the workforce, improve transportation, and provide tax relief. (Salem News) But she’s vague on exactly what that relief would like. (Boston Globe

Massachusetts gets a poor grade from the American Lung Association on anti-tobacco spending. (Salem News)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu followed through on her vow in Wednesday’s State of the City speech to remake the city’s development and planning systems and signed an executive order on Thursday creating a Boston Planning Advisory Council. (Boston Herald)


Wu is proposing a new development plan for Mattapan, one that will test whether it’s possible to promote economic growth without sacrificing racial equity. (WBUR)

EDUCATION

WBUR has details on the Year 13 pilot program pitched by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu at her State of the City address. The program would let Fenway High students earn a year of college credits at UMass at no cost while continuing to receive academic support from Fenway staff.

State education commissioner Jeff Riley voiced frustration over news that the Boston Public Schools, already under state scrutiny over a host of issues, is struggling to make good on back pay owed to teachers and other school staff. (Boston Herald

Williams College agrees to pay nearly a quarter of the cost of Williamstown’s proposed $22.5 million fire station. (Berkshire Eagle)

TRANSPORTATION

Weekend shutdowns are coming on the Orange and Green Lines amid the demolition of the Government Center parking garage near Haymarket Station. But the shutdowns are broader than that immediate area to address rail issues nearby that apparently weren’t dealt with during the one-month Orange Line shutdown last year. (WBUR)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

In the latest volley in the brewing battle over new septic regulations on the South Coast and Cape Cod, the health director for the town of Dartmouth is charging that the meetings held to develop the new plans violated the state’s Open Meeting Law. (New Bedford Light

Climate activists have been pursuing an inside game to gain influence on ISO-New England, which operates the region’s power grid. (Boston Globe

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A report by the state Civil Service Commission says former Methuen police chief Joseph Solomon should face civil or criminal charges for “serious misconduct” in hiring untrained and unqualified officers. (Boston Globe)

Ethan Rosa testifies that he saw his father kill his mother in 2016 – when he was 4 years old. (Eagle-Tribune)

MEDIA

Lawmakers in Arizona move to shield themselves from the state’s public records law after the release of embarrassing emails from Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, pressuring them to overturn the 2020 election results. (Washington Post)

The New Yorker examines what’s gone wrong at the Washington Post.