25 March 2013

Trials of the Decade

Headline-grabbing, shocking, all-consuming, gripping, engrossing, hypnotic, riveting . . . these are just some of the adjectives that describe the murder cases we’ve followed these past ten years in Brazil. From the moment of the crime to the moment the defendant is either freed or sent to jail, these stories have taken up chunks of our lives and our daily conversation. Woe to the person who isn’t "up" on the latest plot twist, because it’s sure to be argued and discussed ad nauseam at the corner grocery. Here’s a wrap-up of the most compelling cases . . .

Isabella Nardoni
The all-time shocker is "the Nardoni case," from 2008. People still talk about this one. Isabella Nardoni, the adorable, smiling 5-year-old shown here, was found on the ground underneath her father’s sixth-floor apartment by a building employee who had heard a "thump." One neighbor attempted futilely to revive her. Another called an ambulance. Passers-by stood around wringing their hands and lamenting the tragedy. Minutes passed — too many — and then all of a sudden Isabella’s father and stepmother were running around screaming, "There's been an intruder, there's been an intruder." So began their desperate attempt to divert everyone’s attention from what actually occurred, which was painstakingly pieced together by police, forensic experts, the prosecutor and, finally, a judge and jury. Isabella had been strangled in a moment of pique by her stepmother, and then to cover the first unspeakable crime, thrown out a bedroom window (still alive) by her father. If all that isn’t shocking enough, what chills the spine is the deliberateness with which her father took the time to cut through the window guard before throwing his child out the window. Plus, his next act was to call his father for advice. (God bless cell phone records, a real boon for prosecutors.) The intruder scheme was a good try on the part of the grandfather to protect his son, but nobody bought it for a nano-second. Using logic and a plethora of DNA evidence, a jury found Isabella’s father and stepmother guilty. They are both still in prison.

Suzane Richthofen
The 2002 "Richthofen case" is a classic "kill-your-parents-and-throw-yourself-on-the-mercy-of-the-court-because-you’re-an-orphan" story. Suzane von Richthofen, 19 years old, and a distant relative of the German World War I ace fighter pilot, planned and helped carry out the murder of her wealthy parents with her then-boyfriend and his brother. The two boys bludgeoned the couple to death in their bed while Suzane, who had turned off the security cameras in her parents’ mansion, waited patiently downstairs. Her brazen attempts at getting the court to show her some leniency as the orphaned daughter have been in vain, as if no one could see that all she really wanted was her slice of the von Richthofen family fortune. No, Suzane, your younger brother, orphaned thanks to you, gets the money. You get to stay in prison, along with your boyfriend and his brother.

Bruno Fernandes
Eliza Samudio
Brazil has its own version of the O.J. Simpson case, known as "the Bruno case," involving a famous and talented soccer goalie, Bruno Fernandes. Back in 2010 his sometime girlfriend, Eliza Samudio, disappeared, along with their small child. Eliza’s family began to question her whereabouts, and knowing there was bad blood between Eliza and Bruno they got the police involved. Sure enough, the child was soon found in the care of another of Bruno’s girlfriends. And where was Eliza? Bruno had no idea. Maybe she moved to Portugal? Long story short, this was indeed a murder case, with several of Bruno’s friends and cousins enlisted to do the actual dirty work. Arrests were made, and eventually those involved began to rat each other out. Eliza had been abducted to one of Bruno’s properties, held hostage, strangled, quartered and thrown to dogs. After two years of denying everything, Bruno’s trial has just ended with his admission that "yes, he did imagine that his friends had killed Eliza, and that yes, he accepted that." He was given a 22-year sentence, and continues to maintain from prison that he didn’t really do anything, or order that anything be done. Right.

Michael Kanaley
And then there’s one case that didn’t grab any national headlines, but remains a compelling topic at our dinner table. It’s an unsolved case involving the 2010 murder of Michael Kanaley, a young American software executive, right here in Búzios. Kanaley lived in Rio with his common-law wife and their two daughters. He had come out to Búzios with his daughters to spend the New Year holiday, and had already sent them back home. A few days later, on his way back to Rio, he somehow ended up shot to death on a lonely, rarely-used road. His rental car was later found torched two towns away. Mark and I always think about this case when we drive to and from Rio — after all, there’s only the one road in and out, and it passes right by the road Kanaley ended up on — and we wonder how he was enticed so far off the beaten track, especially in high season, when the main road is heavily trafficked. Makes no sense. But without a single clue or a single witness, the police have more or less given up. On the Brazilian version of Crime Stoppers (Disque-Denúncia) they’re still offering 5,000 reais ($2500) for information.

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