PEABODY — On Christmas Eve, Jessica Herrera and Ashley Fernandes went out for drinks and dinner, then back to their apartment on Oak Street in Peabody.
Her kids were with their father for the holiday, so the two had some time alone together.
But sometime in the early morning hours of Christmas, something went horribly wrong, she would later tell police. Fernandes began strangling and punching her in a violent attack during which he told her she was going to die, she said.
A little more than three months later — and just days before he was set to stand trial in that incident — police say Fernandes made good on that promise, strangling Herrera, 25, then wrapping her body in a blanket and hiding it in a back room of the apartment.
Fernandes, 28, of 7 Oak St., Apt. 9, pleaded not guilty to murder and driving without a license during his arraignment yesterday afternoon in Peabody District Court. Judge James J. O'Leary ordered him held without bail.
Prosecutors had made the same no-bail request after the December incident, but another judge denied the request after a two-hour hearing on Jan. 10.
Fernandes, who confessed to police, showed no reaction as prosecutor James Burbridge read a police report outlining the state's case. At one point, he even smiled at a photographer. His lawyer, Lawrence McGuire, was granted money to have Fernandes undergo a mental health evaluation.
'Please don't kill me'
Details of the couple's troubled relationship emerged from court papers filed in the murder case, as well as in the incident on Christmas and in connection with a restraining order Herrera sought, then dropped on Valentine's Day.
The couple had been living together for about six months, Herrera told police in January. In a restraining order affidavit, she described how they were having sex when "the next thing I remember I was being held on the floor with him punching me, slamming my head into the floor, cursing me to tell me the reason for every single punch." He accused her of cheating on him, she said.
"He strangled me. I blacked out two times. ... I pleaded for my life in any way I could because he had told me I would die that night," she wrote.
When she came to, he was still on top of her, she told police. She pleaded with him:
"I love my kids, please don't do this, you're better than this, what will your mom think? If you hate me, then hate me, but please don't kill me."
He eventually let her get up, Herrera said. She told police she did not report the attack because she feared losing custody of her children to the state Department of Social Services.
Instead, she called her sister-in-law, Maria Herrera, who came by with her husband. They spoke to Fernandes and "calmed Ashley down," according to a police report.
"I am afraid for my life," she wrote on Jan. 4, after finally reporting the attack. "I haven't been home in five days to give him time to move. But I am afraid for myself and my children and do not trust being home alone with him."
Police took photos of Herrera's bruises and her eyes — one of which appeared to be still filled with blood more than a week after the incident — to show the judge.
A week later, after a two-hour hearing on Jan. 10, Judge Robert Brennan denied a prosecutor's request to hold Fernandes without bail for 90 days as a danger to the woman.
Brennan did order Fernandes to have no contact with Herrera and granted her a restraining order barring Fernandes from contacting her or abusing her.
Brennan, through a court spokeswoman, refused to comment on the matter, citing the state Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits judges from speaking publicly on pending cases.
Then, a little more than a month later, on Valentine's Day, Herrera returned to court, this time telling Judge O'Leary she wanted to drop the restraining order.
"I don't feel like I am in fear of him any longer and we are going to get back together," she wrote. O'Leary granted her request.
Even though she had dropped the order, Burbine, the prosecutor, said yesterday that Herrera was still "on board" with the prosecution regarding the trial coming up on Friday.
Discovering the body
Fernandes, who was born in India but is of Hispanic descent, worked at Bostik in Middleton as an extruder.
On Saturday night, he apparently went to Anmol, an Indian restaurant on Rantoul Street in Beverly, where he met another patron named Kenneth Morse, 48, and struck up a conversation.
Morse would later call Beverly police about that bizarre conversation — which ultimately led to the discovery of Herrera's body.
Sgt. Scott Richards of the Peabody police interviewed Morse on Sunday afternoon.
Morse said Fernandes told him that "in the next 15 days Morse would be reading about him in the newspaper," Richards wrote.
He went on to tell Morse that "his girlfriend was dead and that she was in his apartment." He quickly added he was kidding. But later, he repeated the chilling statement, Morse said.
He allegedly told Morse that he had "too much freedom in this country and he was ready to die." Fernandes was also jotting notes on a piece of paper, Morse said.
Morse said he grabbed the note on his way out. It read in part, "(Expletive) the world," and included Fernandes' parents' address and number in India.
Morse identified Fernandes from a booking photo taken after his arrest in January. Meanwhile, police staked out the Oak Street apartment.
Because they knew Fernandes did not have a driver's license, police stopped him. Fernandes asked if this was about his girlfriend — then claimed that he had no idea where she was and offered to let police check his apartment, according to the report.
Fernandes went on to let police into the apartment.
Detective Ralph Scopa spotted something in a back room — a light-colored blanket tied with rope, the outline of a human body visible from across the room.
"He then asked me what we found," Richards wrote. "I said, 'I'm not sure, you tell me.'"
"I don't know," Fernandes is said to have responded. Richards led him to the body on the floor. Fernandes began shaking visibly and then began to cry. "'What is that?" Fernandes asked. "I said you tell me. He replied, 'I'm scared, I don't know,'" Richards wrote.
Police later found clothing in a Dumpster near the apartment.
State police Lt. Norman Zuk and Trooper Brian O'Neill showed up to participate in interviewing Fernandes, who told them he had strangled her on Saturday, then wrapped her body in the blanket, tied rope around it and put her body in a back room of the apartment.
He then placed a call to her cell phone and left her a message, he told police.
A probable cause hearing was scheduled for May 9, but it's likely that prosecutors will seek an indictment of Fernandes from a grand jury, moving the case to Superior Court.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Fernandes faces life in prison without parole.