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Officer Who Saved The Boy Later Helped Arrest The Man

July 24, 1996

BOSTON (AP) _ Eighteen years ago, a Brockton police officer arrived at the scene of a house fire and found himself cradling 18-month-old Wilfredo Rivera, who was unconscious and burned from head to toe.

This week, the same officer, Walter McGuinness, watched as the 19-year-old Rivera was sentenced to jail for several crimes, including assaulting an elderly woman.

The officer who had saved the boy had later helped arrest the man.

``It was like I was adding to his misery,″ said McGuinness, 61, a 28-year police veteran who plans to retire next month.

When the two first met, the Blizzard of ’78 was pummelling the region. It was Feb. 8, and McGuinness and his partner, Robert English, got called to a fire at a public housing apartment.

By the time the officers arrived, a neighbor had pulled Rivera and his brother, Elliot, then 3 1/2, from their burning crib. Their parents were not home.

McGuinness grabbed Wilfredo, English scooped up Elliot and together they ran through hip-deep snow to the cruiser. The two miles to the hospital seemed endless as the cruiser skidded along roads and bounced against snowbanks.

The children’s hair had been completely singed, and they were so still they looked dead, said McGuinness, who now lives in Westport.

Even today, the brothers have small bald patches where the hair never grew back and heavy facial scars.

``It’s something you don’t forget,″ McGuinness said Wednesday. ``I never saw skin fall off anybody before.″

Slowly, the boys recovered. Over the years, their father, Angel, would take them to the police station to show McGuinness each new skin graft.

The children were always friendly and would thank him for saving their lives. But, the officer said, ``I always wondered if they regretted being saved. They were so grotesque at early ages.″

After a while, McGuinness lost track of the boys. Their parents split up, and the father stopped bringing them by the station. The officer would still hear their names from time to time. The children were getting into trouble with the law.

On March 4, 1994 _ another snowy day _ McGuinness responded to a call that two men had knocked down an elderly woman and stolen her purse.

On his way to the scene, McGuinness saw the suspects speeding off in a stolen car. He chased them, stopping when the suspects slammed into a snowbank.

One of the two men was caught and is now serving an 8- to 15-year sentence. The other, Wilfredo Rivera, ran. He was picked up two weeks later on the arrest warrant McGuinness issued.

On Tuesday, Rivera pleaded guilty in Brockton District Court to assault, drug possession and other charges. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

The rest of the family has had problems with the law as well. Elliot Rivera faces drug charges. Angel Rivera is serving time for assault.

When he looks at Wilfredo and Elliot today, McGuinness said he still sees the tiny charred bodies he held nearly two decades ago.

``I liked the kids,″ McGuinness said with a sigh. ``I don’t know where they’re going to go in their lives. It’s a sad story.″

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