MANCHESTER — Many still remember Fern Ornelas for his mean fastball 36 years after he graduated from Memorial High School. He remains tight with a circle of golf buddies at Derryfield Country Club. He was a familiar face behind the seafood counter at Shaw's until the South Willow Street supermarket closed last month. And he has a quirky habit of never forgetting birthdays.
Friends describe him as an "all-around good guy" well-known among the working middle-class on the city's east side.
"He wasn't in the hierarchy. But he is well-known and respected. He didn't have any enemies," Phil Provencher said of Ornelas, 54.
That's why the mysterious and tragic turn of events that left Fern paralyzed with a broken neck — unable to talk and on a breathing tube — that occurred between his being admitted to Elliot Hospital for a mental-health episode on Oct. 15 and being rushed back to Elliot Hospital from the county jail with a broken neck on Oct. 17 hit a raw nerve in the community.
"This could be anybody's brother or sister or son or daughter," close friend Robert Apostoles, 55, of Manchester said Tuesday.
Apostoles and several other friends vow to press for answers about who is responsible for inflicting the injuries during the approximately 38 hours he was in the care and custody of local institutions they say are intended to protect — not harm — the public.
"This could be your family...If it could happen to Fern, it could happen to anyone," explained Provencher, 65, a retired Youth Development Center employee who said his family has long been acquainted with the Ornelas family.
Ornelas remained in the intensive care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital Tuesday paralyzed from the neck down. He has been in the Boston hospital since Elliot Hospital transferred him there Oct. 17.
"We are very, very angry because the people who know Fern, know that he didn't deserve this. No matter what he did, he didn't deserve this," said Thomas North of Manchester, who describes his best friend as "a very quiet, mild-mannered person."
While they wait for criminal authorities to investigate, friends are planning fundraisers to help the family.
"We are all very concerned about him. We are putting on the fundraiser to ease the pain a little bit for when he gets out of the hospital," Apostoles said.
One fundraiser will be held Dec. 5 at P.J. O'Sullivan's. The event will run 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and includes a silent auction of items donated by local merchants. Tickets are available at P.J. O'Sullivans and cost $15 each; two for $25. Proceeds from the annual Point Invitational Golf Tournament held Saturday at Derryfield Country Club already were donated to the Ornelas family. Fern was supposed to have played in the tournament, friends say.
Efforts also are underway to set up a bank account to accept donations on behalf of Fern Ornelas and his family, North said.
Meanwhile, North said he and others hope the criminal investigation launched Friday by the state Attorney General and Hillsborough County Attorney will result in "justice for Fern."
"My first concern is for the welfare of Fern, but I'm concerned that everybody will try to cover their butt," he added.
Ornelas, who suffers from a mental illness, was brought to Elliot Hospital emergency department the night of Oct. 15 by his sister because he went off his medications. Ornelas was being held in the secure psychiatric evaluation unit while waiting for a bed to open at New Hampshire Hospital, the state's acute psychiatric facility.
Ornelas allegedly became agitated, disrupted other patients and attacked a hospital security officer about 7:25 p.m. Oct. 16. The security guard returned blows and subdued Ornelas with the help of other security officers, pepper spray and a Manchester police officer working a security detail, police say.
Both the security officer and Ornelas were treated in the emergency department for significant facial wounds, according to hospital and police accounts. Ornelas was "medically cleared" and taken into custody by Manchester police who booked him for misdemeanor simple assault at police headquarters. About an hour later, Ornelas was transferred to Hillsborough County jail about midnight Oct. 17. Jail medical staff returned him to Elliot Hospital about 9:30 a.m. by ambulance with a broken neck.