She hadn't seen her husband in more than seven years — ever since he left for the United States, leaving her and their two boys in Brazil.
When Patricia Barbosa Oliveira took the stand Tuesday in a Douglas County courtroom — as perhaps the key witness who broke open the case against her husband — there appeared to be little love lost.
Asked to identify him in court, Patricia barely looked at her husband, Jose “Carlos” Oliveira-Coutinho. Oliveira sat glumly, showing little reaction.
His wife's testimony, translated from her native Portuguese, was anything but expressive.
Patricia flatly denied having any jealousy or animosity toward her husband — despite defense lawyers' repeated questions about her resentment of his infidelity. A co-defendant had testified that Oliveira had begun an intimate relationship with a man named “Angel” — a man who dressed as a woman.
Patricia said she was fueled not by revenge but by a simple rationale:
“When you are made aware of a crime being committed and you don't report that crime, then you are just as guilty as the perpetrators of that crime,” she said. “And I did not want that guilt on me.”
Patricia's decision to testify — along with the same decision by the wife of another co-defendant, Valdeir Goncalves-Santos — was pivotal to the state's case against the three workers accused of killing Brazilian missionaries Vanderlei and Jaqueline Szczepanik and their 7-year-old son, Christopher.
Prosecutors are expected to wrap up their three-week case today, at which point the defense will present evidence. If convicted, Oliveira would face a life sentence or the death penalty.
After the wives' testimonies in the first trial a year ago, Goncalves admitted to his role in the killing and led Omaha police to the point in the Missouri River where he said they dumped the family's remains. Goncalves testified last week against his childhood friend — alternating between sorrow and sobs as he recounted the killings.
By contrast, Patricia Oliveira couldn't have been calmer. Her matter-of-fact facade was penetrated only twice Tuesday — when she acknowledged her shock at reports that her husband might be involved in a murder and when she discussed her fear that harm might come to her.
That fear began when Omaha Police Sgt. Teresa Negron contacted her in 2011 about comments Oliveira and Goncalves may have made to their wives.
Patricia Oliveira testified that she told Negron that her husband had become increasingly incensed with Vanderlei Szczepanik over pay cuts he had received. At one point, he was laid off, then hired back by Szczepanik at a lower rate of pay.
Patricia, 30, testified that she spoke with her husband via computer video conferencing every day.
“He used to get very upset,” Patricia Oliveira said. “He said he was very angry because he was working very hard and making very little money.”
Oliveira's attorneys, Horacio Wheelock and Todd Lancaster, dispute that. They have said Oliveira had patched things up with his boss. The attorneys suggested the other co-defendants — Goncalves-Santos and Elias Lourenco-Batista — were never rehired and thus harbored hostility.
Lancaster sharply questioned Patricia Oliveira about her feelings toward her husband.
She explained, step by step, how her husband came to the United States in 2005 to make money for his family. He originally had planned to stay five years. However, he hooked up with Szczepanik in Florida and eventually became his crew chief as Szczepanik moved to Omaha to renovate a former South Omaha school into a missionary training center.
By early 2009, there was little sign that he was coming back. Now in Omaha, his wife said, he began to talk to her about making arrangements to have his childhood friends — Goncalves and Lourenco — travel from their village of Ipaba, Brazil.
They eventually did. And as a result of their trip, they owed Oliveira money, Patricia testified.
Her husband was more obsessed with what Szczepanik owed him, she said.
Under questioning from the defense, Patricia said Oliveira told her he wouldn't want to kill Vanderlei Szczepanik because it would hurt Christopher.
Patricia testified that her husband was fond of Christopher, though she also said he drew a line.
“I believe that he liked (Christopher),” Patricia said. “I know that he did not enjoy having Christopher around too much because he said he did not want to take care of a child.”
Ultimately, the wives said they had no choice but to come to Omaha because of their horror over what may have happened to the boy and his family.
Patricia Oliveira said she thought she would come to the United States, testify and return to Brazil.
But it wasn't that easy. Before she even left Brazil, she said, she received threats from the families of Goncalves and Lourenco. The threats were so serious that she and Goncalves' wife moved into hotels before they left Brazil, she said.
Now in Omaha, they've lived in Omaha Housing Authority houses for more than a year. They work for a grocery store. And, Patricia said, they wonder if they'll ever be able to go home. The reason: Authorities deported Lourenco, the third defendant in the case, back to Brazil after prosecutors initially decided they didn't have enough evidence to charge him with murder.
Lourenco reportedly remains in Ipaba. The Brazilian Constitution does not allow its citizens to be extradited for trial in another country.
“I got very concerned because Elias is living in the same city where I used to live,” Patricia said.
A prosecutor asked her if she would like to be able to return home with her children.
“It is my dream,” she said. “(But) since the moment I left my home, I already was afraid of going back.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1275, firstname.lastname@example.org