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The mystery of a Brazilian called ‘one of the world’s most prolific serial killers’

Tiago Gomes da Rocha, alleged to have confessed to killing killing 39 people, is escorted by police officers at the Department of Security, a day after his arrest, in Goiania, state of Goias, Brazil, on October 16, 2014. AFP/Getty Images
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The man now called “one of the world’s most prolific serial killers” has sharp black eyes and a face patched in scruff. Trotted out before a phalanx of cameras on Thursday afternoon, 26-year-old Thiago Henrique Gomes da Rocha, who allegedly just confessed to killing 39 people, ignited a spectacle of self-congratulation among Brazilian authorities in the capital of Goias.

Pictures show police preening, laying out a series of grisly tools: a hammer, handcuffs, a rusty butcher knife and a serrated switch blade. Saying they found all those weapons on Gomes da Rocha, the cops reported their suspect had just completed a sprawling spree of killing that had gripped the city of Goiania with fear over the last year.

“I have received confirmation of an excellent piece of news, the identification, arrest and remand in custody of the killer responsible for the deaths of women and street people in Goiania who even confessed to his crimes,” Goias Governor Marconi Perillo said, according to the International Business Times. “I never doubted the investigation would lead to the solving of these crimes that affected the tranquility and integrity of families in Goiania.”

Gomes da Rocha, who was initially arrested for a minor offense involving his motorbike’s license plate, didn’t say much on Thursday — but was apparently awfully chatty with police. After police say they linked a gun found in his apartment to the murder of six young and beautiful women over the last year, Gomes da Rocha allegedly confessed to killing 33 other people as well. They included, police said, transvestites, homeless people and a 14-year-old girl.

Gomes da Rocha, depicted as feeling “fury against everything,” allegedly drove his motorbike around town “cruising the streets” until he came upon someone, shouted “robbery!” then open fire on a victim. Police called him a “cold and calculating person,” who “showed no remorse at any time,”  Fox News Latino reported. Authorities described him as someone who “felt a lot of rage” and when the “initial pleasure” of killing someone subsided, he was overcome by a “great depression that pushed him to those things again.”

If true, the murders would place Gomes da Rocha among the most infamous killers not just in Brazil but anywhere. If true.

But for a nation like Brazil, which employs a police force notorious for forcing confessions out of suspects, there is reason for a degree of doubt. Gomes da Rocha was brought in on a minor offense involving his motorbike’s license plate — and proceeded to confess to committing 39 senseless murders? Then there’s the fact that his lawyer told local media his client is innocent. According to the Associated Press, he says police arrested him then coerced him under aggressive questioning to confess.

This wouldn’t be the first time Brazilian police cajoled a confession out of someone, a problem on which Human Rights Watch has reported at length, finding 64 cases since 2010 in which “security forces or prison authorities engaged in cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment against people in their custody.” In one such incident, “detainees testified that the police severely beat and strangled them in an effort to force them to confess to having drugs and illegal firearms.”

Four separate men told the Brazilian Bar Association in June of 2013 that police, searching for suspects in a rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, had kidnapped them and took them to a police station. There, they said “they were beaten, suffocated and given electric shocks in an effort to induce them to confess.” The men did. And a week later, DNA evidence exonerated them.

So what to make of Gomes da Rocha, which the Daily Mail, calls “one of the world’s most prolific serial killers”? Who knows. It’s clear local officials in the state were under a great deal of pressure to make an arrest. For the last year, the Daily Mail reports, the families and friends of the murdered women had protested before municipal buildings, wearing all white and carrying photos of the victims as panic pervaded the community.

Or it’s clearly possible the charges against Gomes da Rocha are true, and he really did confess to dozens of murders when pulled over for a traffic stop. Either way, local officials seem keen to put the whole thing behind them. “I know this [arrest] won’t fill the hole left by the deaths of loved ones,” the Goias governor said. “But I am sure it will serve as some comfort to their families and society.”