Marissa Kennedy at the touch tank at the Maine State Aquarium in Boothbay Harbor, the August before she died. Credit: Courtesy of Debbie Ferris

BELFAST, Maine — Before her name became a byword for child abuse and neglect, she was a little girl who loved playing with LEGOs, visiting the aquarium and going to car shows.

Before the pain, fear and darkness of her last days, she was the light of her grandparents’ life.

Before all of the horror, Marissa Kennedy spent the first years of her life surrounded by love.

That’s something the grandparents who helped raise her and the great-aunt who loved her dearly would like the world to know.

“She was our baby,” said her grandfather, Joe Kennedy of New Windsor, New York.

“She was the love of our life,” her great-aunt Debbie Ferris added.

Details revealed about Marissa Kennedy’s torture and death during her mother’s nine-day murder trial were difficult for many to hear, including the Kennedy family. Joe and Roseann testified that while something seemed “strange” in the Carrillo home, their granddaughter’s abuse was kept secret from them.

Credit: Contributed

Marissa Kennedy never knew her biological father and grew up living with her mother and her grandparents at their home in New York state.

“We showered her with love. We adored that little girl,” Joe Kennedy testified last week in court. “She was very lucky to have three parents who raised her.”

Marissa Kennedy’s family life changed when her mother married Julio Carrillo in July 2015. A little more than a year later, the Carrillos moved to Maine, where Marissa and her two much younger siblings lived first in a Bangor apartment and then the Kennedys’ Stockton Springs condominium.

“When they moved to Maine, [Marissa] stood there with a sad expression on her face in the front yard,” Joe Kennedy said. “You could tell she didn’t want to leave.”

Marissa Kennedy was killed in February 2018 at her home in Stockton Springs, following months of torture. Julio Carrillo pleaded guilty to her murder earlier this year and was sentenced to 55 years in prison. Her mother — who gave birth to another child in jail after Marissa Kennedy’s death — was found guilty of murder Wednesday by a Waldo County jury. She faces as much as life in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced in February 2020. Her attorney said he will appeal the conviction.

The Kennedys say they hold on to their memories of Marissa in New York, where her life was very different. There, she loved going to the library with her mother and attending dance class. And when a brood of cicadas emerged during one spring she was enthralled by the noisy insects — not disgusted or afraid of them.

“They were all her buddies,” Roseann Kennedy said. “She’d say, ‘Hi buddy! Hi buddy!’”

That friendliness was a trademark characteristic. Although Kennedy has been described in court proceedings as shy, her family said she actually made friends easily.

“At dancing school, she went right up to the little kids and started talking to them,” Roseann Kennedy said, adding that one of Sharon Carrillo’s friends had a little boy who was, in fact, shy. “She went right up to him, grabbed his hand. They were bonded after that.”

Kennedy loved purple, the movie “Frozen” and had “every dollhouse in the world,” her grandmother said. But she enjoyed building things with LEGOs more than she liked to play with her dolls.

“She was very logical,” Joe Kennedy said. “She’d look at the drawing and put them together with minimal guidance.”

Marissa Kennedy also loved reading, and as a younger child enjoyed the Magic Tree House series. When she was older, she loved losing herself in fantasy stories such as the Harry Potter and Wings of Fire series.

But that didn’t stop her from taking delight in the world around her. At car shows, she would look under the hood of every engine and race from car to car.

“It was tough keeping up with her,” Joe Kennedy said. “All of them were her favorites.”

She loved to skip stones, and although she was a little reluctant when first sent to swimming lessons, eventually “she became a fish,” Ferris said. It was a skill they thought might come in handy later in her life.

“We wanted her to be an oceanographer,” Roseann Kennedy said. “She loved little sea critters. She loved the water.”

Marissa Kennedy used to visit Maine with her mother and grandparents, spending happy weeks there, her family said. She’d play mini golf at Pirate’s Cove in Trenton and visit the Maine State Aquarium in Boothbay Harbor.

“She loved the touch tank,” Joe Kennedy said, adding that they would spend hours waiting for her to get her fill of the sea cucumbers and other creatures. “She’d smile from ear to ear — look like the Cheshire cat.”

They have vivid memories of the last time they saw her. It was in August 2017, when they spent 10 days in Maine together, spending time doing whatever the girl wanted.

“It was Marissa’s week,” Joe Kennedy said.

Credit: Courtesy of Debbie Ferris

They revisited old favorite haunts and went back-to-school shopping where they scored a fancy purple outfit that Marissa was planning to wear for the first day of school at Searsport Elementary School. Joe Kennedy built a “wonderful castle” of LEGOs with her, and she designed a complex marble run that she demonstrated, grinning, for the family on a video that Debbie Ferris shared.

“She had a wonderful time in the week and a half she had,” her grandfather said.

But the vacation came to an end.

After the Kennedy family returned home, they did their best to remain in contact with the Carrillos, who were becoming harder and harder to reach. Julio Carrillo switched phone numbers every couple of weeks, the Kennedys said, and when they did manage to talk to Sharon Carrillo and Marissa Kennedy, he seemed to be always standing next to them and telling them what to say.

The Kennedys were aware that the Carrillos, who had financial problems and a baby, a toddler and another baby coming, seemed to be stressed. That’s why Sharon Carrillo’s brother invited Marissa to come live with his own family in New York, Joe Kennedy said. He mentioned the offer numerous times to Julio Carrillo, Kennedy testified in court, but in the end nothing ever came of it.

“If we had only known,” her grandfather said of what was really going on in Maine. “If anybody had contacted us, we would have been up here in a heartbeat.”

Credit: Courtesy of Debbie Ferris

In the end, time ran out for Marissa Kennedy. But she is remembered not just by her family but by her friends, teachers and others in Maine, New York and beyond. Memorials to her include a “buddy bench” in Cascade Park in Bangor erected by the Fairmount School Parent Teacher Organization and another memorial at a park she liked to go to in New Windsor.

The bench at Cascade Park was dedicated on a very rainy day, but the bad weather didn’t deter people from coming. It was a show of support that meant a lot to the Kennedys.

“There was a mass of people there,” her grandfather said. “People that came out to honor this little girl.”