The Brazilian man was a confessed child killer. An admitted accomplice. A co-defendant who got a deal for a savage crime — effectively 10 years in prison in return for his testimony against the man on trial, Jose “Carlos” Oliveira-Coutinho.
On those points, there was little question Thursday.
But the critical question was this: Was co-defendant Valdeir Goncalves-Santos telling the truth?
Prosecutors and defense attorneys spent four hours Thursday debating that issue in closing arguments of Oliveira's 10-day trial.
Todd Lancaster, attorney for Oliveira, railed away at Goncalves — calling him a capitalistic killer who cut his losses at the end of his own trial and tried to pin the blame on Oliveira for the Dec. 17, 2007, murders of their boss, Vanderlei Szczepanik, his wife, Jaqueline, and their 7-year-old son, Christopher.
Prosecutors Jim Masteller and John Alagaban called Goncalves a confessed and, more importantly, corroborated killer.
They pointed to several items that they say corroborated Goncalves' story of the execution of a family inside the former Paul VI School in South Omaha. At Oliveira's instruction, Goncalves said, the workers beat Vanderlei Szczepanik to death, then hanged Jaqueline and Christopher.
Among the evidence prosecutors pointed to:
» Grainy surveillance photos from a Wells Fargo ATM and a Walmart that showed a man — either resembling Oliveira or wearing clothing resembling Oliveira's — using the Szczepaniks' credit cards in the hours and days after the killing.
» Bank records that showed Oliveira's account mushrooming from $250 to $6,000 in the few weeks after the killing — though he was laid off. Meanwhile, records showed the Szczepaniks' bank accounts shrinking.
» Comments Oliveira made to his wife, Patricia Barbosa Oliveira. The Brazilian woman said her husband had voiced his increasing frustration with Szczepanik over his pay. At one point in 2009, Szczepanik had laid off Oliveira after Oliveira referred to his boss as a “slave driver” to his fellow workers. A couple of weeks later, Szczepanik rehired Oliveira — cutting his pay from $18 an hour to $11 an hour. Patricia told jurors that her husband said he was so angry he wanted to kill Szczepanik.
» Comments not made to the defendant's wife. Tellingly, Masteller and Alagaban argued, Oliveira never told his wife that the Szczepanik family was missing.
“She learned about it on the news — in Brazil,” Masteller said. “Why isn't he telling her? The reason's obvious. He had told her he wanted to kill them. And he had.”
Perhaps the biggest corroboration, prosecutors said, was the discovery of little Christopher's body.
Goncalves led investigators to the point of the Missouri River where the bodies were dumped. Within a half-hour of the first dive into the water, a diver found a skull buried in the riverbed — right where Goncalves said the three workers dumped the family. DNA tests showed the skull and several remains were Christopher's. A Thomas the Tank Engine bedsheet — one that Goncalves had used to cover Christopher's head — still was attached to his body.
Masteller also pointed out several blood drops that were found in the lobby of the former Paul VI School — where Goncalves says Vanderlei Szczepanik was beaten to death. That blood matched Szczepanik's DNA.
“The remains of Vanderlei and Christopher Szczepanik speak louder than any live witness,” Masteller said.
Lancaster disagreed. He said those remains prove only that Goncalves was involved in the killings. No DNA evidence points to Oliveira as being involved.
Lancaster noted that investigators found no blood evidence in the back of Oliveira's work van — the van where Goncalves said the workers put the bodies before driving them to the Missouri River.
“Nothing he says should be taken at face value,” Lancaster said. “He's the king of lies.”
Lancaster noted that Goncalves tried to pin blame on a brother-in-law of Oliveira — a man who never has been arrested in connection with this or any other crime.
He also suggested that Goncalves was trying to minimize his own actions.
Goncalves testified that he walked Jaqueline and Christopher to their deaths but that a third worker, Elias Lourenco-Batista, put a noose around their necks and pushed them off a landing.
He also tried to chisel away at the purported motive. If Oliveira was so money hungry, Lancaster said, then why didn't he find
the $36,000 in cash that was underneath Szczepanik's coat in a closet?
That so much cash still was sitting in the bedroom indicates that someone less familiar with the house rifled through it — someone like Goncalves or Lourenco, the attorney said.
Lancaster further questioned why Oliveira would stick around the family's home for 40 days after the killings. He noted that Oliveira escorted church officials, a World-Herald reporter and photographer and even police through the house.
“If he's the mastermind — as the state wants you to believe — why is he letting the police into the crime scene?” he asked. “It doesn't make a lot of sense.”
And finally, Lancaster took aim at the deal prosecutors made with Goncalves. After Goncalves offered to turn state's witness at the end of his own trial last year, prosecutors allowed him to plead guilty to one count of second-degree murder. In turn, both prosecutors and the defense will recommend that a judge give him a 20-year sentence — which amounts to 10 years under state sentencing guidelines.
“Goncalves-Santos is a man who worked the system,” Lancaster told jurors. “I think he fooled (authorities). … Don't let him fool you.”
Contact the writer: