Details of Disappearance
Vanderlei, his seven-year-old son Christopher, and his wife Jaqueline were last seen in Omaha, Nebraska in mid-December 2009. Different dates have been given for their disappearances, ranging from December 14 to December 18.
The family lived in the former Paul VI High School near 16th Street and Center Street. They were originally from Brazil and moved to Nebraska from Florida in 2005. They were renovating the former high school and St. Joseph Grade School for a Florida-based church, the Assembly of God Bethlehem Ministry, which had purchased the buildings to create a missionary training center.
The family's loved ones were initially not concerned about their absence, as they thought the Szczepaniks must have gone away for the winter holidays.
The Assembly of God pastor, Humberto Solano-Costa, got a call from a Szczepanik family friend on January 6. The friend normally spoke to the Szczepaniks daily, but she hadn't been able to contact them and she was concerned. Solano-Costa flew to Omaha on January 8 and filed a missing persons report with the police.
When they checked the Szczepaniks' home, they found all their belongings there, including clothes, hunting guns, furniture, computers and cellular phone chargers. Authorities stated it looked as if they had intended to leave home for only a few minutes or a few hours, but something prevented them from returning.
The family's gray Nissan pickup truck was found abandoned a few blocks from their home days after their disappearances were reported. In February, Jaqueline's beige 1995 Dodge Caravan with the Nebraska license plate number RHX-005 was also located.
In May 2010, police arrested Jose Carlos Oliveria-Coutinho, Elias Lourenco-Batista, and and Valdeir Gonclaves-Santos and charged them with unlawful use of a financial transaction device.
The three men allegedly used the Szczepaniks' personal and business cards to withdraw more than $4,000 from ATMs. The money was then spent on food and clothing. The financial transactions began right after the family disappeared.
The charges against Lourenco-Batista and Gonclaves-Santos had to be dropped in January 2011 for procedural reasons. All three men are illegal immigrants from the same Brazilian town and had worked for the Szczepanik family. They were reportedly angry at Vanderlei for not paying them enough.
At his murder trial in August 2011, Gonclaves-Santos's wife testified against him, as did the wife of Oliveria-Coutinho. The two women traveled from their homes in Brazil to report statements their husbands had made to them around the time of the Szczepaniks' disappearances; they were the star witnesses.
Right before the end of his trial, Gonclaves-Santos admitted his guilt and said he would confess and testify against Lourenco-Batista and Oliveria-Coutinho in exchange for a plea to a single count of second-degree murder and a twenty-year sentence; he may serve only ten.
According to his testimony, the three men beat Vanderlei to death in front of his wife, hanged Jaqueline and Christopher later that day, and threw their bodies into the Missouri River. It wasn't until after Gonclaves-Santos's confession that authorities had enough evidence to charge the other suspects with murder.
By that time, Lourenco-Batista had been deported to his native Brazil. It may be impossible to extradite him; the Brazilian constitution forbids it, with a few exceptions. He could be tried on Brazilian soil, however.
Authorities believe Oliveria-Coutinho was the ringleader in the plot to kill the Szczepanik family. They plan to seek the death penalty against him.
Christopher's skeletal remains found in the river in October 2011, after Goncalves-Santos led police to the disposal site. Authorities believe they will be able to locate Jaqueline and Vanderlei's bodies too, but they have yet to be recovered.
Jaqueline has an adult daughter who lives in Brazil, who she was in close contact with. The entire family is described as religious, with close ties to the community, and unlikely to leave of their own accord.
Foul play is suspected in Jaqueline and Vanderlei's cases due to the circumstances involved.