Search for Baby Bryan: Father to be deported, mother believes son will be found
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY
Posted May 31, 2010 at 12:10 p.m
FORT MYERS -- As a mother, she’s already lost a great deal. Now, Maria De Fatima Ramos Dos Santos is bracing to lose more.
The mother of infant Bryan Dos Santos, whose 2006 abduction at knife-point captured national attention, expects her husband to be deported to Brazil soon. Jurandir Gomes Costa, 29, was arrested last year for driving without a license, one week before the birth of his third child, Christopher. Today he’s in an immigration facility in Broward County.
Dos Santos, 26, is appealing to the public, and authorities, to ask that she and her husband be allowed to remain in the country until Bryan is found. If Gomes Costa leaves, she’ll have to leave, too, she said.
“If I leave this country now, it’s like I gave up my son,” she said.
She spoke at the home of a friend and translator in south Fort Myers, her two young children beside her. Pig-tailed Kimberly, 2, squirmed on the couch and played with her sandals. Christopher, 6 months, nestled into his mother’s lap and slept. Neither has met their older brother.
Baby Bryan was 29 days old when taken from Dos Santos, on Dec. 1, 2006. Under the pretense of needing directions, a woman driving a black SUV asked Dos Santos to enter her vehicle in Central Fort Myers. The woman drove south to Estero Parkway, where she forced the mother out at knife-point and sped away with Bryan.
The news spawned a media storm, and it was fed by a rapidly evolving investigation. Fort Myers Police detectives first called the kidnapping a random act. Days later, then-chief Hilton Daniels announced the kidnapping was linked to the smuggler who brought Dos Santos and her husband into the country in 2005. The parents denied it, but media reports focused on the story.
Bryan was never found. Media attention waned, and the case entered a lull, at least in the public eye.
Today, lead detective Matt Sellers says he’s confident the kidnapping was a random act, and he believes it can still be solved. He needs Dos Santos in the country as a witness, he said, but he isn’t sure about Gomes Costa.
“He’s not really a witness in the case, but I don’t know how immigration handles that,” Sellers said.
Gomes Costa was arrested on Nov. 29, 2009, after a Lee County Sheriff’s deputy stopped the family minivan for speeding. A license check ended with his arrest, and Dos Santos and Kimberly hitched a ride back home with a tow truck.
Christopher was born one week later. A family friend took the child to the jail so Gomes Costa could see it. The undocumented Dos Santos couldn’t make the trip.
On December 10, the jail turned Gomes Costa over to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency. The removal order was issued long ago, Dos Santos said, shortly after her husband entered the country.
“He’s being held there like anyone would be on immigration violation,” said ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett. She wouldn’t elaborate about deportation.
Dos Santos doesn’t have an order in her name, she said, but she’s still seeking a special visa. Known as a U Visa, it applies to undocumented crime victims, permitting them to stay in the country for four years if they can prove they’ve suffered serious harm.
Maria Jose Fletcher, director of the Lucha Project at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami, said the visas are typically used in domestic violence and human trafficking cases but apply to most violent crimes. She said both parents sounded eligible.
“It’s not about witnessing the crime,” she said. “It’s about being the victim of a crime.”
Applicants must be certified as victims by a law enforcement agency, and they must be able to prove physical or psychological harm, typically through medical or counseling records. The crime doesn’t have to be recent, Fletcher said.
Gomes Costa has an attorney, but it’s unclear if he’s applying for a U Visa. Dos Santos said Fort Myers Police promised a certification for her husband, although Sellers declined to say.
Dos Santos said she knows she and Gomes Costa did something wrong by arriving illegally, but she hopes sympathy can outweigh the transgression.
“The people who make the decision, if they could put themselves in our place--to have a son kidnapped and have to leave him behind,” she said.
She knows sympathy has been rare in her case.
When Dos Santos talks about the scrutiny she’s faced, the young mother twists the gold chain around her neck, and at times her voice grows angry and her words flow fast. The translator asks her to slow down.
“I think the majority doesn’t believe us,” she said.
The Brazilian community doesn’t trust them, she said. New friends made in the wake of the kidnapping disappeared after the media left. Investigators still come by with questions, she said, and they try to trap her every time.
They point out renovations to the trailer and ask where the money came from; they say they have a letter from a smuggler; and they say the parents failed a lie detector in 2006. But they won’t show them the test, she said.
They suggested a confession could spring Gomes Costa from custody.
“If my husband being released depends on what I say, then he will not be released, because I’ve told them everything,” Dos Santos said.
Sellers, the Fort Myers detective, said he’s had strict control of the case for years now, and he believes no one from the FBI or Florida Department of Law Enforcement -- both heavily involved in the early days -- would visit the couple without his knowledge. He also said he wouldn’t pressure the family in such ways.
“If that is happening, it shouldn’t be happening,” he said.
Sellers is apologetic about the case’s history, particularly Daniels’ announcement about a smuggling link. From the beginning, he said, Dos Santos’ account divided investigators within his agency and others.
“There were times when tensions were high as far as who believed her and who didn’t,” Sellers explained.
Those battles are over, he said. The clincher for him came days after Daniels’ announcement, when a Fort Myers woman reported that she, too, had been approached by a woman in a black SUV who needed directions. The potential victim was a grandmother strolling her infant on Metro Parkway, hours before Baby Bryan was kidnapped.
Her details meshed well with Dos Santos’ account. At one point, both women picked the same mugshot from a photo lineup. The woman in the photo was later weeded out as a suspect, but Sellers was excited by the identical results.
“I was happy,” he said. “It was like, finally, something I can stand on.”
He thinks Bryan is no longer in Southwest Florida. Dos Santos thinks otherwise. She and her husband have posted signs in LaBelle and Immokalee, she said. She wants a friend to start a blog about the search.
“Because he went missing here, I believe he is here,” she said.
She wants to be here when he’s found, she said, but she’ll leave if her husband is deported.
Gomes Costa paid the bills as a construction worker. She’s getting help now from a church and a government program for rent and utilities.
“What’s harder is not having him for emotional support,” Dos Santos said.
He calls every day from the facility. She can’t visit due to her legal status. Dos Santos instead remains with the children for 24 hours, and she said her thoughts often turn to Bryan. When she had Christopher, she saw Bryan.
They could put an ankle bracelet on her husband, she suggested. Whatever keeps him in the country while the search goes on. Dos Santos appeals to anyone in charge.
“We have no place to run,” she said.
Those with any information about the Baby Bryan case should call the Fort Myers Police Department at 239-321-7700 or leave an anonymous tip at Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers, 1-800-780-TIPS (8477).http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2010/may/31/search-baby-bryan-father-be-deported-mother-fears-/