It was a crude re-enactment of a cruel act.
In their attempts to discredit a co-defendant's accounts of the hangings of a Brazilian woman and child, the defense team of Jose “Carlos” Oliveira-Coutinho called a private investigator who attempted to re-enact the hangings.
Private investigator Matt Schott said he tied a rope to the railing of what once was a South Omaha school — the building where authorities believe three workers beat to death their boss, Vanderlei Szczepanik, then hanged his wife, Jaqueline, and the couple's 7-year-old son, Christopher.
Schott then walked down a flight of stairs and attached the other end of the rope around the neck of his employee, Jason Owens.
With the rope around his neck, Owens then walked down a second set of stairs — toward the landing where Jaqueline and Christopher Szczepanik reportedly came to a stop.
The 5-foot-7 investigator was able to walk all the way to the bottom landing without the rope pulling him off the ground.
“It's hard to hang someone without that person being suspended,” defense attorney Todd Lancaster said.
A judge didn't allow jurors to see or hear about that re-enactment.
Douglas County District Judge Thomas Otepka said there were too many variables to accurately re-enact the reported hangings. The judge noted they had no idea about body position or exact location of the rope on the railing.
The co-defendant, Valdeir Goncalves-Santos, had described how he tied the rope, then held onto it while another man, Elias Lourenco-Batista, pushed Jaqueline from the landing. The two did the same with 7-year-old Christopher, lifting him up and then pushing him down the stairwell.
The best evidence against the re-enactment may have come from the defense witness.
Lancaster asked Schott, the investigator, why he didn't push Owens off the landing — to simulate Goncalves' account.
“We didn't want to injure him,” he said.
Prosecutor Jim Masteller said that comment may have been the best testament against the accuracy of the re-enactment. A man walking down stairs doesn't resemble a person being flung to their death, the prosecutor said.
Rebuffed on the re-enactment, the defense team continued to try to whittle away at Goncalves' account.
They called Oliveira's brother-in-law, who had been working with the three men charged in the deaths.
Goncalves had testified earlier in the trial that the brother-in-law knew of the “kill plan,” heard the three talking about it and even approved of it.
The brother-in-law sharply disputed that. He called Goncalves a liar — and said he knew nothing about the workers' plans.
In fact, he said: “If (Olvieira) would have told me, I would have called the cops on him. They (the Szczepaniks) were like my family. I cannot imagine.”
Prosecutors pressed him a bit. Masteller showed the brother-in-law a check for $1,000, written on the Szczepaniks' account, that was made out to a different man but deposited into the brother-in-law's account — after the slayings.
The brother-in-law said he never had seen the check — and had not benefited from the killing. He noted that Oliveira had access to his account.
The man said he had done nothing but cooperate with police.
“You've never been arrested for anything in connection with this?” defense attorney Horacio Wheelock asked.
“I've never been arrested in my life ... not even in Brazil.”
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