Some cooperating co-defendants slip into the witness stand like an old man settles into his favorite recliner.
Whether it's because they've been there before, or know the task at hand, they look at home. Calm. Comfortable. Collected.
Valdeir Goncalves-Santos on Thursday wasn't that kind of co-defendant.
For starters, the Brazilian man with a kindergarten education had at best a primitive knowledge of the U.S. justice system.
He didn't even know how to take his oath to tell the truth. Told to raise his right hand, he shot it straight up above his head, as if he were a student answering a teacher's question.
Goncalves claimed to have no idea what his plea bargain was for — even though he had confessed to his role in killing Vanderlei, Jaqueline and 7-year-old Christopher Szczepanik, a family of Brazilian missionaries living in Omaha.
Although his attorneys negotiated a deal to have him testify in return for essentially a sentence of 10 years, Goncalves said he might be put to death for the murders of the family members.
“I don't trust my attorneys,” Goncalves said. “I don't trust anybody.”
He didn't just answer the questions posed to him, he volunteered information. At one point he interrupted an attorney's question to hold up his pinky finger and show a scar.
“I forgot to tell you — Jaqueline bit this finger” in the struggle, Goncalves said, his voice breaking. “I have the mark still today.”
The question is, what kind of mark did Goncalves make on jurors?
For three hours Wednesday, Goncalves took jurors through the excruciating details of the December 2009 deaths. He described how he, Elias Lourenco-Batista and the man on trial — Jose “Carlos” Oliveira-Coutinho — fatally beat their boss, Vanderlei Szczepanik. How they then hanged Jaqueline and Christopher, despite their pleas to be spared.
For four hours Thursday, Oliveira's attorney, Horacio Wheelock, grilled Goncalves on the varying stories he gave police, both before and after he confessed to the crime at the end of his own trial last year.
Wheelock and co-counsel Todd Lancaster have suggested that Goncalves decided to cut his losses and pin everything on Oliveira, his crew boss and the man they say is wrongly accused of being the ringleader.
Wheelock hammered away at Goncalves by pointing out his repeated defense of Oliveira to investigators.
In a March 2010 interview, Goncalves told Omaha Police Detective Chris Spencer that Oliveira never told him to do anything wrong on Dec. 17, 2009, when the family was killed.
Goncalves said he lied about Oliveira out of duty.
“I was practically obligated or mandated to do what he told me,” he said. “I tried to defend him.”
Goncalves said Spencer didn't believe his story.
“I don't know how to hide anything,” Goncalves said, waving a hand in front of his face. “My face — I can't hide anything.”
Wheelock also pointed to comments that a cellmate, Renan Diaz, claims Goncalves made.
Before Goncalves confessed at last year's trial, Diaz had testified that Goncalves often writhed in his cell and called out in Portuguese.
Diaz claimed that Goncalves admitted to killing the family, chopping them up and throwing them in the river.
“They are gone,” Goncalves said, according to Diaz. “They ain't never going to find those people.”
Goncalves pointed out that he could barely communicate with Diaz, who spoke Spanish. He suggested that Diaz made up those comments based on news reports.
Authorities initially believed the Szczepaniks' bodies were dismembered — mistaking comments that the workers made that they were “cut up.” Authorities later discovered that by “cut up,” the workers meant they sliced open the torsos so the bodies wouldn't float.
He suggested that Diaz was attempting to curry favor so Diaz wouldn't be deported.
“I never said (any of) that,” Goncalves said. “The man is a liar. He came to tell lies.”
Wheelock questioned who the liar was. He pointed out Goncalves' insistence that a fourth man — a brother-in-law of Oliveira — was involved in the “kill plan.” That man has never been arrested and never been handcuffed, Wheelock said.
Wheelock also noted that a neighbor saw only one man running from Vanderlei Szczepanik's truck after it was ditched in a neighborhood after the killing. That seemed to contradict Goncalves' account that both he and Oliveira moved the truck.
Wheelock homed in on Goncalves' claims to police that he could never kill a child and that he didn't kill any family members.
Goncalves stood by those comments. He cast Lourenco as the executioner, Oliveira as the ringleader.
“Because I was there and I saw what happened, I pleaded guilty to everything,” he said. “If I was there when the three killings took place, then I think I am guilty.”
Goncalves insisted he came forward because he wanted Jaqueline Szczepanik's daughter, Tatiane Klein, to find out what happened to her family.
Wheelock wondered if there were other motives. He said Goncalves' plea deal means he likely only has 7˝ years left in prison. Under state sentencing guidelines, his 20-year sentence will be cut in half.
Goncalves said he doesn't trust any plea bargain.
“I don't know what's going to happen to me,” he said. “To me, nothing matters. I gave my life so that Tatiane can find out. ... My only goal is that (she) knows the truth.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1275, firstname.lastname@example.org