The body of a 7-year-old Brazilian boy missing for nearly two years and believed to have been killed with his missionary parents in Nebraska was pulled from the Missouri River after one of three men charged in the deaths led authorities to the remains, an attorney said Tuesday.
DNA tests have confirmed that the body pulled from the Iowa side of the river on Thursday was that of Christopher Szczepanik, who was reported missing along with his parents in January 2010, Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes and Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine announced.
Vanderlei and Jacqueline Szczepanik and their son had been staying Omaha, where Vanderlei Szczepanik, a carpenter, was working on renovating a former school. Friends and relatives in Brazil accustomed to hearing from the family each day reported them missing after they last made contact Dec. 17, 2009.
Three men from Brazil, whom authorities say worked for the Szczepaniks and ran up thousands of dollars in charges on the family's credit cards, were later charged with murder, although the family's bodies hadn't been found. Christopher Szczepanik's body is the first to be recovered.
Officials said their break in the case came when one of the men, Valdeir Goncalves-Santos, made a deal with prosecutors to testify against the other two. In exchange, Goncalves-Santos pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
Investigators say Goncalves-Santo told them that the men beat Vanderlei Szczepanik to death with a baseball ball and hanged the boy and his mother, then threw the bodies in the river.
Goncalves-Santos' attorney, Kevin Ryan, said his client told investigators the bodies were anchored with rope and pieces of heavy metal from the school that was being renovated. Goncalves-Santos then led authorities to the point on the river where he said remains would be found.
"After he said he could point to the exact spot, neither of us really had any doubt that remains would be found, because it was so specific. It was just a matter of time," Ryan said.
"I would believe Jacqueline and Vanderlei would be found as well. It just may take a little time," he added.
In exchange for Goncalves-Santos' cooperation, prosecutors have agreed to request that he be sentenced to 20 years in prison for his guilty plea, meaning he could be released in 10 years, Ryan said.
Another of the men, Jose Oliveira-Coutinho, was ordered last week to stand trial on three counts of first-degree murder. A warrant has been issued for the third man charged in the case, Elias Lourenco-Batista, who is believed to be in Brazil.
The Szczepaniks' daughter, Tatiane Costa Klein, said during an Omaha visit in summer 2010 that Oliveira-Coutinho had worked with her father for five years and that he was almost part of the family.
An attorney for Oliveira-Coutinho, Horacio Wheelock, declined to comment Tuesday afternoon. Online court records do not list an attorney for Lourenco-Batista.