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No Business Like News Business

No Business
    Like News
    Business

The Brazilian press was among the victims of a serial killer on the
loose. From the most prestigious weekly magazine to the sleaziest sheet no one could
resist the smell of blood.
By Roberto Espinoza

In Brazil’s recent serial killer case—the scariest in recent memory—the
victims were not only the girls killed and their bereaved friends and relatives. There
were casualties all over. As the episode demonstrated, the police are ill prepared to do
any meaningful work and even what’s considered the pick of the press in the country was
not able to escape the sensationalistic, yellow journalism tone.

The case that broke in the news in early July when over a period of three days, four
young female bodies were found at a forest reserve on the skirts of São Paulo became a
free-for-all after Veja, Brazil’s leading news magazine, scooped the competition
giving its cover to a close up of the suspect dubbed the "park maniac" with the
quote: "It was I." It is hard to separate what it was sincere indignation from
jealousy from being beaten at the news race. But the rest of the media were fast in
condemning Veja for lack of scruples in obtaining privileged lawyer client
information and then splashing it over its cover. To obtain the information the magazine
infiltrated a woman reporter who presented herself as a law intern. Given the opportunity,
however, it is probable that anyone of the accusers would have done the same, some experts
pondered.

The police story introduced a new word to the Brazilian-Portuguese language: `motoboy.’
The word `boy’ is used in Brazil to designate an office worker, often a young one, in
charge of doing errands and small office tasks like serving coffee. The suspect in the
case, Francisco de Assis Pereira, 31, is a motorcycle courier who confessed to raping and
killing nine women.

He was arrested near the Brazil-Uruguay border, when a fisherman with whom he was
staying denounced him after having seen his picture on TV. Pereira had left the country
for a short stay in Argentina and passed several police barriers without being identified.
To arrive at the suspect police were helped in their investigation by a partially burned
ID card that was found in a clogged toilet where Pereira worked. The document was from
18-year-old basketball player, Selma Ferreira Queiroz, one of the murderer’s victims.

The finding on July 4 of two female bodies at Parque do Estado (State Park)—a
550-hectare forest park on São Paulo’s southern border—was the first hint that there
was a serial killer on the loose. Two days later two other bodies were found on the
vicinity of the first ones. All four bodies were naked, lying face down, with their legs
spread.

On July 7 the police had identified one of the bodies, that of Selma. On July 9,
authorities added to the list of victims another young lady whose body was found in
January in the same area and then another found in May. Before the end of the month the
list would grow to include eight dead girls.

By July 15 several ladies had told authorities about their experience with the same
man. They all had been approached by the maniac with the story that he was a talent scout
looking for models and that he wanted to take their pictures.

After divulging drawings of the suspect based on the recollection of witnesses, the
police, thanks to an anonymous tip, were able to get a picture of Pereira on July 17. The
discovery of semen in Selma’s body on July 30 made the police believe that they were close
to getting serious evidence against the criminal. It was revealed a little later though
that the semen sample was mishandled and could not be used.

Luck and Lack

The São Paulo police revealed that they have no laboratory to examine such samples and
have to count on the good will of college labs to do the work. Some police officers used
the occasion to complain that they didn’t have enough vehicles to go out on patrol and
that they had sometimes to make a collection among themselves to buy material for
fingerprinting, for example. On August 4 the suspect was arrested in Itaqui, state of Rio
Grande do Sul, after being denounced by fisherman João Carlos Villaverde. During a press
conference in São Paulo on August 7 the police indicted Pereira as the murderer of Selma
Queiroz. Pereira denied being a murderer and launched a challenge to his accusers:
"You have to prove it!" The phrase became the headline of Jornal da Tarde,
sister publication of traditional O Estado de São Paulo.

That same night, talking to his lawyers and police officers, the suspect confessed to
having killed nine women. The Veja cover story was based on transcripts from this
candid talk. The self-confessed murderer then took police to a still-undiscovered body as
evidence that he is saying the truth.

The press didn’t omit the most clinical details often identifying victims and witnesses
with full names. Folha de São Paulo, the leading paper in São Paulo, which had
one of the less sensationalistic approaches, so described a police finding: "The
spermatozoids were found in the rectum channel of Selma Ferreira Queiroz whose body is
among those found at the park. They indicate that she had maintained anal sexual
relations" "What if the girl did not maintain anything and was simply raped? She
is not here anymore to tell her story," wrote Folha ombudswoman Renata Lo
Prete, on her Sunday column, criticizing her own paper.

Jekyll and Hyde

Pereira was living in Santo André, the A of the ABCD region in the Greater São Paulo.
The suspect had been investigated at the beginning of the year after a girl he was going
out with disappeared and he was even jailed after being accused of rape in São José do
Rio Preto—interior of São Paulo—in 1995. He posted bail and was let go at that
occasion.

On explaining why he committed the crimes, Pereira told judge José Rui Borges: "I
was possessed by an evil force." and added that he had a double-sided personality and
that the "bad side" sometimes took over. Pereira’s lawyers decided for a plea of
insanity, hoping for a lighter sentence than 30 years in prison, which is the maximum
sentence allowed under Brazilian law.

The suspect also confessed using shoelaces to strangle his victims after sexually
abusing them. On his initial approach he was a charming seducer, who praised the prey and
talked about their bright future as models. In the park he became a monster, strangling
and biting their victims, sometimes taking pieces of their vulva.

Born and raised in an extremely religious family, Francisco de Assis, was named after
the Italian saint Francis of Assisi. He explained: "I am a person with a good and a
bad personality. Sometimes I am not able to dominate this dark side. I pray, I pray, but I
cannot resist and then I chase after women. I wished that they would not go with me into
the park, that they would run away."

Question of Properness

The Park Maniac episode served to illustrate how Veja, a press powerhouse, which
with more than 1.2 million copies a week—it is the world’s fourth largest
newsmagazine right after American Time, Newsweek and US News and World
Report— besides having no scruples in order to get a scoop, has feet of clay and
a heavy hand. The magazine summarily—and by e-mail, mind you—fired its TV
critic, Eugênio Bucci, after— according to the publication—the contributor
failed to defend forcefully the role of the magazine covering the whole episode.

Bucci appeared on cable TV Globonews’s N de Notícia (N for News), a program in
which was discussed how the media had (mis)behaved in the case. Journalist and former Veja
editor Augusto Nunes, one of the guests on the show, contended that the newsweekly had
mangled law and ethics to get its scoop. Fact is that even if Bucci wanted to defend his
bosses he wouldn’t be able to unless he had a crystal ball. Nunes’s remarks were made
three days after Bucci had talked and added to the program on the editing room.

Nunes himself came in defense of Bucci writing: "How could he guess what somebody
would say 72 hours later? This clarification being made, Veja has no reason not to
bring Eugênio Bucci back to the page he used to sign. The time for a magnanimous gesture
never ends."

Ironically, over the years, Veja has adopted a posture of arbiter of good taste
and probity in every field of Brazilian life. The magazine once again gave proof that it
believes to be beyond any criticism or reproach. As a popular Brazilian saying goes:
"Pepper on somebody else’s eyes is eye drop."

But there was more in store. On its August 26, 1998 issue, two weeks after the "It
was I" edition, Veja published a clone of the criticized cover. So close were
the two versions that at first blush a subscriber would think there had been a snafu at
the magazine’s mailing department and that he was receiving the old copy again.

The super close up of a face in a picture taken from the same angle was again on the
cover as well as the confession in large capital letters. "It was I." Only, this
time the photo was that of US President Bill Clinton. It was clear the equation: the
rapist murderer crimes were the same as the Yankee president’s sexual escapades. Odd black
humor. Has the magazine gone the Mad way?

Veja did not explain, but it published reader Evandro Paes dos Reis’s protest in
its letter section: "It was in supreme bad taste this week’s Veja cover. In
using the same layout of issue 1559, where the highlight is the park’s
"monster", Veja has placed Bill Clinton in a situation in which none of
us would like to be: to be compared to a rapist and maniac. We know Mr. Clinton made some
mistakes, but to use the cover of Veja to make this kind of insinuation does not
befit a magazine of such weight and prestige."

The letter appeared after another one celebrating the magazine’s comparison and signed
by Adriano Alves Gomes: "I thought it was a superb stroke of genius and made a lot of
sense the comparison between Bill Clinton and the "maniac of the park", as
presented on Veja’s covers. Congratulations, it is good to know that we still have
serious and concise journalism in this country." The reader might be just be playing
a trick and being ironic. Veja would never notice that, however.

Albert Dines, a Brazilian press guru and arguably the highest authority on media in
Brazil, wrote in his column at the Observatório da Imprensa (Press Observatory), a
media watchdog publication: "The Editora Abril magazine will be 30 years old in a few
days, but lately it is behaving as if it were only one year old…. The manipulation would
work on a humor or satire newspaper…. In the most important Brazilian weekly and the
fifth in circulation in the world it is unacceptable."

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