He sat down in court no more than 20 feet from his childhood friend — the man he would testify against in the killings of a family of Brazilian missionaries living in Omaha.
Valdeir Goncalves-Santos covered his eyes with his palms, dropped his head, then burst into rapid, staccato cries.
The rims of his eyes red, he traced his journey from the village of Ipaba, Brazil, to Omaha.
He came to America to work as a painter. He ended up a killer.
In the fourth day of the first-degree murder trial of Jose “Carlos” Oliveira-Coutinho, prosecutors abruptly shifted their focus Wednesday from the disappearance of the Vanderlei Szczepanik family to the men they say are the culprits in the killing.
Taking the stand in an orange jail jumpsuit, Goncalves burst into tears at the mere mention of Vanderlei, Jaqueline and 7-year-old Christopher Szczepanik.
His account only got more emotional. In three hours of testimony, Goncalves testified about Oliveira's frustration with their boss, the family members' brutal deaths and the cleanup and attempted cover-up of the crime scene inside a former school near 16th and Center Streets.
Goncalves, 32, is expected to face intense questioning today from Oliveira's attorneys, who have noted several inconsistencies in his statement. The lawyers also have noted
that he has made a deal with prosecutors. In return for his cooperation and guilty plea to one count of second-degree murder, Goncalves is expected to receive a 20-year sentence, which translates to 10 years in prison under state sentencing guidelines.
Goncalves described how Oliveira spoke with him through videoconferencing software on the computer — persuading him to come to America to work for Szczepanik in construction jobs such as the renovation of the former Paul VI High School.
Coming to America was “always one's dream,” Goncalves said.
With the encouragement of his wife and Oliveira's wife, Goncalves and a third man suspected in the deaths — Elias Lourenco-Batista — came to the United States in the spring of 2009 and initially lived with the Szczepaniks in the school. They worked for both Szczepanik and their childhood friend Oliveira, who served as crew chief.
By late 2009, Goncalves said, it became clear: Oliveira was furious with Szczepanik over pay cuts he had received.
“He would always bring up the subject of getting Vanderlei,” Goncalves said. “He would always say he wanted to kill Vanderlei, and he would ask me, ‘Are you going to help me? Are you going to help me?'”
In his native Portuguese, Goncalves detailed the grisly killings, breaking down several times.
The tears needed little translation. His testimony was translated by two Portuguese interpreters.
A summary of the graphic testimony:
On Dec. 17, Oliveira seemed hellbent on getting Szczepanik, Goncalves said.
He handed Goncalves an iron bar and Lourenco a baseball bat. When they arrived at the school, they went straight to Oliveira's room. Oliveira pulled up his bank statement on the computer.
“(Oliveira) said, ‘Look here, just take a look. I don't have money, I don't have any money,'” Goncalves said.
Then Oliveira reiterated his desire to kill Szczepanik. The three went to the entryway of the school to await their boss's return. They hid on a staircase in the entryway.
“Elias said, ‘Vanderlei's coming.' (Szczepanik) opened the door. Elias went down the stairs just like a cat ... hit Vanderlei on the head, and Vanderlei fell to the ground.”
Szczepanik sat up. Goncalves pounced, striking him in the head with the iron bar. He said Lourenco hit Szczepanik again with a bat, and he died.
By then, Jaqueline Szczepanik had heard her husband's screams and rushed to the staircase.
The men grabbed her and little Christopher and took them to Oliveira's room. Oliveira made her give him her PIN number, then had her sign several checks.
Goncalves said he and Oliveira drove to a bank ATM to test the personal identification number. Oliveira made at least two withdrawals of $300, Goncalves said.
They returned to the school to find that Lourenco had untied Jaqueline Szczepanik's hands. Oliveira ordered him to tie her back up — warning that she could punch one of them.
Goncalves described how he and Lourenco walked the mother and son to their deaths in a back stairwell on the other side of the school.
First was Jaqueline. They covered her head with a pillowcase.
“She started saying, ‘Please, for the love of God, don't kill me, don't kill me!'” Goncalves said.
They hanged her from the stairwell.
Goncalves began to bawl on the stand.
“What happened next?” prosecutor John Alagaban asked.
“Then Christopher,” he said.
As he described Christopher's hanging, Goncalves' chest began to heave. A couple of courtroom spectators sniffed away tears. A juror held her hand to her mouth.
Goncalves said the 7-year-old kept talking to him as they walked him, his head covered with a Thomas the Tank Engine fitted bedsheet. But Christopher's pleas were in English.
“I couldn't understand what he was saying,” Goncalves said.
Again, Goncalves said, Lourenco pushed Christopher off the stairwell, hanging him.
After cutting the rope they used to hang him, the boy seemed unconscious but his heart was still racing.
Goncalves said he felt for Christopher's heart. Gradually, the heartbeat slowed and eventually stopped.
So what did he do with Christopher?
“I put him close to his mother,” Goncalves said.
At that point, Oliveira walked down the hall and asked: “Is it over?”
Goncalves detailed how the men loaded the bodies in Oliveira's work van and drove to the Missouri River.
Using box cutters that Oliveira had given him, Goncalves said he slit the torsos in the hopes the bodies would not float to the surface. They then tied them to sewer grates and heaved them into the river.
At first, only one body sank: little Christopher's.
Nearly two years later, a dive team searched the Missouri River, acting at Goncalves' direction.
They found only one of the three bodies: Christopher's. The Thomas the Tank Engine bedsheet was still attached to him.
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