Family grieves after Brazilian boy's remains found

October 22, 2011 - 3:45 PM
Missing Brazilian Family

Tatiane Klein, daughter of Jacqueline Szczepanik, second left, hugs south Omaha activist Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan, left, in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011, with Klein's husband Marcos, right, hugging family friend Joao De Brito. The body of Tatian's half brother, 7-year-old Brazilian boy Christopher Szczepanik, which was missing for nearly two years and believed to have been killed with his missionary parents Vanderlei and Jacqueline Szczepanik, has been pulled from the Missouri River, officials said Tuesday. DNA tests confirmed the identity Monday. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — When a Brazilian missionary family who came to work in the United States first vanished, family members thought they had gone on a spiritual retreat. But as months passed and no one heard from Vanderlei and Jacqueline Szczepanik and their 7-year-old son, they began to fear the worst.

Now, their fears have been realized. Nearly two years after the family disappeared from the school they were renovating into a church center in Omaha, the remains of their son, Christopher, were found at the bottom of the Missouri River, and authorities say they have more evidence he and his parents were killed in a dispute over money.

The discovery of Christopher's body last week has prompted a new push to bring one of the three suspects back to the U.S. to face charges and fresh grief for family members and friends who have waited years to find out what happened to their loved ones.

"We always had high hopes they would be found alive, but then the three men were arrested and we lost hope," Christopher's 20-year-old brother, Darcy Klein, told The Associated Press in Brazil.

"All I ask at this point in the name of the three who I will no longer see alive and who were tortured and killed, is that justice be done."

At the time of their disappearance in December 2009, the Szczepaniks had been living in Omaha for five years after moving from Florida to renovate an old school into a center for the Assembly of God church, said Joao de Brito, the site manager of the school where children participated in art and other social events.

De Birto, who also is Brazilian, described Christopher as a respectful child with a huge smile who struggled to carry his book-filled backpack and violin case.

"There was something about him, I don't know how to describe," de Brito said. "He was not like a regular kid."

After the family disappeared, anxious relatives and friends spent months trying to figure out what happened. Klein's sister traveled to Omaha to help with the investigation. Aside from finding their abandoned Nissan pickup truck and 1995 Dodge Caravan, search after search turned up empty.

The family had vanished and no one could explain why.

A break in the case came in May 2010, when three men, who were from Brazil and had worked for the family, were charged with running up thousands of dollars in charges on the family's credit cards. Eight months later, one of the men, Valdeir Goncalves-Santos, was charged with murder. He later made a deal with prosecutors in exchange for being sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Another of the men, Jose Oliveira-Coutinho, was ordered last week to stand trial on murder charges. His attorney declined to comment Wednesday. A warrant has been issued for the third man charged, Elias Lourenço-Batista, who is living in Brazil.

Investigators say Goncalves-Santo told them that the men beat Vanderlei Szczepanik to death with a baseball bat and hanged the boy and his mother, then threw the bodies in the river. Goncalves-Santos then led authorities to the point on the river where he said remains would be found.

Omaha police and Douglas County prosecutors did not immediately respond to questions from the AP on Wednesday.

De Birto said he believes the killings were over money. He said Oliveira-Coutinho used to play with Christopher and had been Vanderlei Szczepanik's "right hand man" overseeing other workers on the project, de Brito said. But Oliveira-Coutinho had grown angry at his boss after he was fired and later rehired him at lesser pay, he said.

In an interview in August with the Brazilian newspaper Estado de Minas, Lourenço-Batista denied any involvement in the slayings and said Goncalves-Santo's plea took him by surprise.

"Valdeir must be crazy. He must not be able to stand the pressure of being in jail," he told the newspaper from his two-room house in his hometown of Ipaba, located in the southwestern state of Minas Gerais. "We don't speak English very well, and the guards put you in a cell by yourself. They order you to confess, and turn one against the other."

Klein, who is an operator at a call center in Santa Catarina state city of Lages, said his mother, stepfather and brother first left Brazil 10 years ago to live in Miami where his stepfather opened a small construction firm. He said he and his sister, Tatiane, spoke to their mother at least three times a week, mostly about "our day-to-day lives." But about a month before they disappeared, Klein said he had the impression his mother was being threatened.

"She told me she was sorry we were not together and her voice sounded strange," he said. "She did not say she was being threatened but I had what you can say was a son's gut feeling that something was wrong."

On Wednesday, Tatiane Costa Klein said she would continue to search for mother and stepfather's bodies and implored the Brazilian government to extradite Lourenço-Batista to the United States.

"They are Brazilians who assassinated Brazilians," Klein said of the three men. "I want to see peace and peace for my family, so I can go back to Brazil and have my life back knowing that justice was done."

But it is unlikely that Brazil will extradite Lourenço-Batista to face charges. He said he's willing to help the prosecution but will not return to the U.S.

"If the authorities want to come here and hear what I have to say, I'll help as much as possible, but I am never going back there," Lourenço-Batista said.

Speaking to reporters in Omaha, Tatiane Klein said there is some peace in knowing her brother's body was recovered. But she bristles at the idea of the discovery providing "closure" for her and her family.

"I will never have closure," she said.

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Crumb reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press reporters Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo and Juliana Barbassa in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.