07.05.10

Brazil's Soccer Star a Murderer?

Fresh off its World Cup elimination, Brazil is rocked by allegations that the captain of its biggest national team killed his pregnant girlfriend. Dom Phillips reports from São Paulo.

For the past month, soccer-obsessed Brazil has been entirely fixated on the World Cup. But as the country's campaign came to a shuddering halt with defeat at the hands of Holland on Friday, a darker soccer drama was already unfolding.

Police investigating the disappearance and suspected murder of 25-year-old student Eliza Samudio, missing for almost a month, believe that one of the country's biggest soccer stars, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her baby son, is involved. It's a suspect that has the makings of a Brazilian OJ Simpson.

"If I kill you and throw you somewhere, you're not going to be found," she says Bruno told her.

Bruno Fernandes das Dores de Souza, also 25, is the captain and goal-keeper of the Rio de Janeiro team Flamengo—with 40 million fans, the country's most popular soccer club and the current national champions. In 2009, he had an affair with Eliza Samudio, a student from São Paulo, who got pregnant and, before her disappearance, was fighting to prove Bruno's paternity of her baby son, who she called Bruninho (Little Bruno).

Yet Bruno, who was not on the Brazilian World Cup squad, is married to Dayane Souza, with whom he has two children. As one tabloid reporter working the case put it: "It's a soap opera. But the problem is that no body has been found."

Eliza's father believes his daughter is dead. So do investigators in Belo Horizonte, a big city in the state of Minas Gerais, where Bruno grew up. "According to denunciations," officer Alessandra Wilke from the Homicide Division conducting the investigation told reporters, "he and two friends attacked Eliza, who probably came to die, and hid the body."

Police have made their suspicions public, and a horde of Brazilian media outlet have followed every step of the investigation, detailing the finds: the diapers and plane tickets—in Eliza's name—that were supposedly found at Bruno's ranch; the witnesses who claim to have seen her there, and the cell-phone call made on June 9 that supposedly confirms those witnesses' accounts; the traces of what might be blood found in one of Bruno's cars. As police searched a well on Bruno's property on Monday, June 28, a swarm of TV news helicopters filmed from overhead.

Yet this is a case full of contradictions. Bruno has not been arrested nor questioned. There is no body, no proof, just circumstantial evidence. Since the allegations surfaced, he has been separated from the soccer team and trains alone. And in a television interview this week, Bruno seemed remarkably relaxed for a man supposedly trying to cover up the murder of his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child.

"I leave it in the hands of God," he said serenely. "I am hoping that she will appear, that this situation will soon end, because it is annoying. I'm sad about it. I saw her father's interview, I'm hoping she appears."

Per his lawyer's advice, he declined to say much more. Nor did he explain how the baby Bruninho came to be in his possession at his ranch, hundreds of miles from the mother's home.

In a collective interview, his soccer club's president Patrícia Amorim said: "Flamengo understands that it doesn't have the competence to judge any situation, and until there is a judgment by the judiciary, Flamengo will take the [necessary] measures." She added that Bruno would continue training separately from the team.

As for a motive, it seems Bruno was not happy when his lover got pregnant last year. In a video interview Eliza gave to Rio tabloid Extra in October 2009 while four months pregnant, she claimed that she was coaxed into Bruno's car where he and three of his friends forced her to take the illicit abortion drug Cycotec.

"If I kill you and throw you somewhere, you're not going to be found," she says Bruno told her. She claims Bruno then persuaded her to meet him the next day at an abortion clinic. Instead, she went to the police.

The police officer who registered the complaint requested that Bruno be legally prohibited from coming near Eliza. This request was never fulfilled. And Eliza gave birth to her baby.

This version of events is corroborated by Eliza's friend Milena Baroni, a 25-year-old law student from Rio. "He wanted her to get rid of the baby, abort it. She didn't want to. She was against abortion," Baroni tells The Daily Beast. She says Eliza told her that Bruno "kidnapped her and tried to force her to abort. Including he put a gun in her face. She went to the police about this." Baroni adds: "In my opinion, something has happened to her, I wish it wasn't so."

Even if she hadn't been against abortion, a legal termination was not an option for Eliza Samudio. Abortion is still against the law in Brazil, and none of the three candidates for October's presidential elections plan on changing that law should they win. But illegal abortion is widespread: more than 200,000 women are treated each year in Brazil for complications arising from so-called back-alley abortions.

What kind of a person is Bruno? He grew up in one of the poorest areas of Belo Horizonte, the crime-ridden favela of Santa Matilde, located next to two prisons. And family say he is a good guy. He used to buy his wife teddy bears. But the tabloids have also been quoting friends and former neighbors, some of whom describe a hot-tempered man subject to explosions of anger. Milena Baroni says she met him once, in the Rio suburb of Barra da Tijuca, where Bruno lives. "He didn't seem to be well-balanced. He was tense, he was arguing with her," she said.

Much has been made of comments Bruno made to journalists in March after witnessing an argument between one of his Flamengo teammates and that teammate's on-off girlfriend.

"Which one of you who is married never argued with your wife?" Bruno demanded of the reporters. "Who has never got into a physical fight with the wife?"

Milena Baroni, friends with Eliza for a year and a half, describes a "tranquil, calm" person. "She suffered a lot in her life, but she was a good person. She was happy."

In which case, why did Eliza, as Baroni and other friends say, agree to visit Bruno at his ranch in another state? "She believed that he had changed since the child had been born, that he was happy about the baby," explains Baroni. "And because she liked him, she believed it."

Like rich and successful sportsmen the world over, Brazil's top soccer stars are frequently targeted by groupies—Maria Chuteiras, they are called: literally, "Maria Kickers." Which is not to say that Eliza Samudio was a soccer groupie. But she liked football, and supported São Paulo FC soccer club. In an internet video for Rio tabloid Extra that was shot before her disappearance, a smiling Eliza discussed her relationships and friendships with a number of other footballers. "It's the physical part which attracts," she said.

She met Bruno at a party at another player's house, says Barboni. "He wasn't the first professional footballer she had dated," Barboni says, "but it is better that I don't comment on this."

Complicating the plot even further, a Brazilian adult website is now claiming that Eliza was also a porn actress who performed under the names Fernanda Faria and Victoria Sanders. That website is offering a video download of what it says is Eliza having sex in an adult movie, identified by a tattoo.

A video on YouTube, said to be the preamble to the sex scenes, shows what appears to be a scantily-clad Eliza boxing provocatively. Her father Luis told Brazil's IG website that this is all an attempt to denigrate Eliza's good name. "We are prepared for this," he said. "She is not here to defend herself."

Should Bruno be charged, he will first appear before a judge who will decide if there is a case to answer. If the answer is yes, there will be a trial by jury. Murder carries a mandatory sentence of 12 to 30 years, plus there could be an additional sentence for hiding a body—if, indeed, a body is found.

But Bruno wouldn't necessarily be imprisoned during this lengthy process. "There is a possibility that he could respond to the process at liberty. If he has a secure address and no previous record, he has this right," says criminal lawyer Rodrigo Martinez. "In theory, this is a possibility."

Justice in Brazil can move glacially, with interminable appeals and decisions inching through different levels of courts. Cases can be tied up for years, and the notion that "rich people don't go to jail" is a truism in the minds of many Brazilians.

Rio Police have just announced that they will investigate the eight-month delay in results for the urine test that Eliza Samudio gave in October 2009 after being forced to take the abortive drug. Last month, the test results finally came out.

"The Civil Police Technical Science Department inform that a group of substances considered abortive were found in the urine of Eliza Samudio," said an official note. But even this was inconclusive. "The same mixture could be found after the simultaneous consumption of alcoholic drinks and smoking," the note added. "The final result will be ready on Monday July 5th."

But if no body is found soon, Brazil and its tabloids will likely move on to a scandal with more traction. By Saturday lunchtime, the firecrackers were already ringing out as Brazilians celebrated Germany's thrashing of their bitter rival, Argentina.

British journalist Dom Phillips moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2007 to write his book Superstar DJs Here We Go (Random House/Ebury 2009) and works as a correspondent covering news, economics, and celebrity. He now writes for The Times, People, Financial Times, and Grazia.