Manuel “Toothpick”, crime and punishment

He took a shotgun and shot four women: his ex-wife, his daughter, his ex-mother-in-law and his ex-wife’s aunt. Two of them died. After the crimes, Manuel Baltazar, “Toothpick”, disappeared in the Douro hills. He was chased by GNR and PJ agents, as well as dogs and drones. After 34 days, he stopped running and returned home.

Maria José Oliveira

Translation by Paulo Montes

July 2014

Easter was in three days. On the morning of April 17, 2014, Manuel Pinto Baltazar was in São João da Pesqueira court, an eighteenth century well maintained baroque manor house located just outside the village. Manuel, 61, known as “Toothpick” – a nickname he inherited from his father – was waiting to be heard by a judge. Less than a year before, the same court had sentenced him to three years and two months in prison for the crimes of domestic violence, assault and aggravated threat, perpetrated against his ex-wife, Angelina, her aunt, Elisa Barros, and his son, Rui. However, Manuel was lucky. Instead of going to prison, other measures were applied: he couldn’t go near Angelina (the minimum distance was 400 meters) and he had to wear an electronic bracelet. But, recently, he had violated the restraining order twice – one time, he surprised his ex-wife in the cemetery and threatened her with a sickle.

On that Thursday, Manuel’s hearing was eventually postponed. There was no judge available to preside over the court session. In São João da Pesqueira, a village with about 2200 people located 850 meters above sea level in the heart of the Douro region, it was a day like so many others. The majority of the population are farmers, so, during the day, the streets are practically deserted. Only in the evenings do the cafes and bars came alive with some customers: in April, they are occupied tending to the vineyards and olive trees. After a few years working in construction in Switzerland and Libya, Manuel decided to take on farming. He had a piece of land of his own and rented a few more fields from his ex-mother-in-law, Lina Silva, where he had a vineyard (mainly for port wine, whose grapes he sold to local cooperatives) and some olive and chestnut trees.

After the hearing with the judge was postponed, Manuel entered his car and left São João da Pesqueira. We don’t know if he drove the 20 kilometers to his house in Trevões, a village dating back to the thirteenth century and included in the “Wine Producing Villages Route” that has a few palaces and manor houses, which still remain intact today thanks to their conversion into museums (there are two, a religious art museum and an ethnography museum), a library and a senior citizens home. Manuel’s house is not far from the center of this elegant village – it was built by him, with a ground floor where the iron gated garage is, a first floor for accommodation, and an attic. In the back, there is a small garden and enough room for his three hounds.

We know that, at 2 p.m., Manuel was 350 meters from Angelina who was in Valongo dos Azeites, her native village, with some relatives. The restraining order violation alerted the Rehabilitation and Prison Services (DGRSP) technicians who supervise electronic bracelet users and enforce that kind of sentence. Angelina noticed the warning coming from the device that she always kept with her, but didn’t pay much attention to it. She called the DGRSP and said she knew her ex-husband was near, but that she wasn’t concerned because she was with relatives.

Manuel would come back around 4 p.m., with a shotgun in hand.

From Valongo dos Azeites, Manuel went to Vilarouco, namely to the Sobreiro restaurant, owned by his hunting friend Norberto. When he entered the huge dining room overlooking the terraced vineyards, Norberto, his wife and cook Manuela, and another man, were about to have lunch, since the restaurant was now empty. Manuela invited him to the table and got him a plate. They had black-eyed peas and fried mackerel, talked about Benfica, and Manuel ended his meal with some lemon tea, which he drank at the restaurant counter.

Manuela didn’t notice anything different about her husband’s friend during the late lunch. Whenever he showed up, he appeared to be a quiet man, who didn’t drink and had little to say. When Manuela was told what had happened shortly after, she took pity on him. “We never know what life has in store for us.”

At 3:52 p.m., the alarm sounded on the DGRSP computers: Manuel Baltazar was once again less than 400 meters from Angelina, in Valongo dos Azeites. The technicians tried to contact Angelina and Manuel by phone, but to no avail. Neither one answered the phone. The alternative was to warn the GNR station closest to Valongo dos Azeites.

By then, Manuel, armed with a shotgun loaded with five cartridges, had already shot four women: Angelina, her daughter, Sónia, Lina Santos and Elisa Barros. The ex-mother-in-law and his ex-wife’s aunt, Lina and Elisa, died at the scene, the house of a friend who had lent them the woodstove for an afternoon so they could bake their Easter cakes. Angelina and Sónia were badly wounded, but they survived.

The people in Valongo dos Azeites, a small village with a few hundred inhabitants and many emigrant closed up houses, heard the shots and guessed what had happened. Everyone knew that Angelina had been persecuted for years; that, in 2009, she took refuge in a house from the Portuguese Association for Victim Support, from where she had to run and head to Lamego after Manuel found out her whereabouts. But her ex-husband eventually found her in Lamego – Angelina was waiting for the bus when she saw Manuel’s car.

He would chase her wherever she went, so she stopped running. She returned to Valongo dos Azeites and to the house where she had lived until her wedding day in December 1980. Their children, of legal age, were living in cities not far away.

When the police arrived in Valongo dos Azeites, Manuel had already fled. We know that he went to his house in Trevões, where he cut off the electronic bracelet that was attached to his ankle, but not much more. Only that he disappeared, armed with a shotgun, for 34 days, during which he was spotted three times. He was chased by 200 GNR agents, on foot and on horseback, sniffer dogs, drones and Polícia Judiciária operatives, who went through every village, hills, abandoned farm houses and caves in a 264 square kilometers area.

For over a month, there were those who feared to work in the fields; in Valongo dos Azeites, Angelina’s family feared more killings; there was a rumor that Manuel had a killing list of those who had testified against him in court; the villages were taken over by an unprecedented crowd of journalists and security forces, which temporarily revived the local economy.

Manuel was finally captured by Polícia Judiciária on the evening of 21 May, when he was about to enter his house. He was armed but offered no resistance. Later, he would say he already intended to surrender to the authorities. Like Angelina, years earlier, Manuel was tired of running.

The newspapers wrote he was very weak, that he had lost his toenails due to the long distances he ran, that he went many days without drinking, that he only ate roots and herbs. His hunter friends don’t believe that. He was a woodsman, a survivor, a boar scout, “he would go where the dogs refused to go”; he was able to spend hours lying in the mud so that the animals didn’t pick up his scent. He knew all the hills, cliffs and woods very well. That’s why he was able to remain hidden for so long. And they added that, between April and May, there are no fruits in the orchards or vegetables in the gardens, but there is drinking water in the Torto River, which, in some locations, resembles a brook. In a low voice, they guarantee Manuel had help, that someone gave him food, and that he was never far from his village, hiding in the “cardanhos” – old shacks, apparently lost in the middle of the fields where farming tools are stored – during the day and coming out at night, to meet those who helped him and change location.

In Trevões, almost nobody wants to talk about what happened, the people look suspiciously at the outsiders, and there is a rumor in the area that Polícia Judiciária (PJ) is looking for possible accomplices in “Toothpick’s” escape. Trevões seems to want to forget the days that shook the village. And, nonetheless, Manuel is still a native son, a brother, a hardworking man who they wouldn’t deny a bowl of soup, even if he was running from the authorities.

On the day he was present in court – where the judge decided on the maximum preliminary verdict of detention pending trial – there was a county fair in São João da Pesqueira. Uncommonly, the bustle was greater; many people from the surrounding villages flocked to the village to buy and sell goods and farming products. In front of the palace that houses the court, there was a road blockade and the place was surrounded by agents. Some students from the Alto Douro professional school that were near the court even thought the apparatus was due to a visit from the Prime Minister.

At 4 p.m., Manuel came out of a car that stopped in front of the large wooden door, flanked by the police and with his head covered by a jacket. The people that were waiting for him were divided between those who booed and whistled and those who cheered for him. The next day, the national newspapers highlighted the way he was received in São João da Pesqueira and interviewed those who applauded the murderer. The answers did not vary: they weren’t cheering for the crimes he committed, but for the way in which he was able to “fool” the authorities for so long. They claimed the applause was for the survivor, not for the killer.

When Manuel left the court, the applause had ceased. His head was uncovered, he was unshaven and had dark circles around his eyes that gave away his fatigue. In his cuffed hands, he was holding a bottle of water.

 ***

During the 34-day escape, Manuel showed himself to three people, in as many different places: José Costa, a hunter friend, in Penedono; João Pessoa, bread distributor, on the road from Trevões to Várzea de Trevões; and Fernanda Pinto, a housewife, in Vale da Vila. Each one told what had happened.

©osomeafuriaPenedono, April 18, evening

José Costa and Manuel Baltazar have long been friends; a friendship that was born during their wild boar hunts. Even after the court forbade Manuel from having any firearm, José and other friends continued to invite him to go hunting with them: Manuel occupied himself with other tasks, like roasting the meat that fed them before leaving for the mountains. After the long judicial process that culminated with his divorce, Manuel still didn’t forgive those who had testified against him, evoking the episodes of violence and harassment against his ex-wife. “One day I will kill that whole bunch,” he said, repeatedly. One day, José lost his patience and decided to test his friend. He asked him if he really had it in him to kill someone. “Manuel, kill that dog for me. He’s pestering me and I no longer need him,” he challenged him on a farm José has, two kilometers from Penedono. “You kill him,” Manuel replied.

On the day of the crimes, April 17, early in the afternoon, José called his friend several times. He wanted to inform him that he managed to get a lawyer interested in defending Manuel. But the phone was disconnected and José assumed the court hearing had not ended well: “Maybe he was arrested,” he thought.

The farmer went back to work – in his farm, he has cows, goats, sheep and an apple orchard. It is there he passes his days, returning home to Penedono on his tractor. In midafternoon, his phone rang: “José, Manuel killed his aunt, his mother-in-law, his wife and his daughter. He killed everybody.”

The following day, José chose the evening to kill a baby goat. The process requires precision and time: you insert a special knife behind the ear, while holding the animal’s mouth so that he doesn’t scream; after the goat is dead, you make a hole in one of the hind paws, stick a hose in it and blow for a few minutes; the air allows you to skin the animal more easily.

The light was starting to dim and night was setting in when José felt a presence behind him. It was Manuel, shotgun in hand, pants and a sweatshirt, about 15 kilometers from his house in Trevões. “What have you done?”, asked José. “You better turn yourself in to the authorities.” The murderer said he didn’t want to do that; he said he had no intention to shoot his daughter and begged his friend not to turn him in. “Promise me, on your son’s soul that you won’t turn me in.”

The conversation lasted no more than 10 minutes and, for José, ended in the worst possible way. As he looked at Manuel, who was running towards the hills, he was haunted by a dilemma: “Do I turn him in, or not?” If before there was no doubt he would do it if he found his friend, that last exhortation left him feeling uneasy. His son had died very young, just a few years earlier. Manuel knew how his friend had been affected by his death, he knew that pain was still alive, and tapped into his friend’s greatest weakness.

José sat on a bench, not knowing what to do, and thinking about the request “his son’s soul”. He was unable to make a decision and therefore called his wife. After hearing about the encounter and Manuel’s last request, she did not hesitate: José should not inform the GNR about what had happened. But the conversation with his wife did not solve José’s dilemma. What to do? What to do?, he thought, still sitting on the bench. “Some time later, I decided I had to call the police. It was imperative, he committed those crimes and had to pay for what he had done.”

GNR and PJ rushed to José’s farm and, the next day, the area was scrutinized by a great deal of agents. The farmer cooperated with the authorities: every night he would leave cheese and chorizo in one of his shacks, in an attempt to catch the fugitive or at least know if he was still in the area. Until May 21, the food was untouched.

Road between Trevões and Várzea de Trevões, April 25, midafternoon

João Pessoa is known in São João da Pesqueira, as well as in all surrounding towns and villages. He’s one of the many bread and cake distributors that roam the villages in their white vans announcing themselves through persistent honking. On that Friday, April 25, a national holiday, the bread did not fail to reach the most isolated places. For João, there are no holidays; he can only rest on Sunday afternoons.

Seven days after Manuel Baltazar had been seen in Penedono, João thought the farmer was already far away in Spain. That’s what he heard during his wanderings in Manuel’s native village, Trevões. The bread distributor knew “Toothpick”, he used to sell him bread, but they only exchanged circumstantial words. When Manuel was in the fields and needed bread, he would leave an open plastic bag hanging on his garage door. João would leave him two large loaves. Payment would take place the following day. If the bag was wrapped, he didn’t even stop the van.

That Friday afternoon, João was heading out to his final stop of the day, Várzea de Trevões, a village tucked away in a valley with few people and many empty houses. From Trevões to Várzea, the road is narrow and zigzagging, occasionally flanked by high stone walls. Strangely, it’s a two-way road. And that is why João drives more cautiously – when a car appears in the opposite direction, maneuvers require patience and skill. While going downhill, João saw a pick-up truck not far away. “I thought I should get close to it in order to avoid coming across cars in the opposite direction.” The driver barely had time to accelerate. Almost simultaneously, he saw a figure almost lying down a small hillside with wild vegetation. “What is this son of a bitch doing here?”, he thought, immediately realizing that it was the murderer.

Manuel stood in the middle of the road, facing João’s van, his hands in the air asking him to stop. He wore a waterproof suit, trousers and baggy jacket, in a faded green. His beard was long and his hair was dirty and unkempt; his hands were empty, no shotgun in sight.

João stopped. He barely had time to try to lower the passenger side window because Manuel entered the van, crouched down and asked him to drive a few more meters. “Toothpick” knew the safest place to stop: on one side of the road, there was a fig tree which prevented those who were working down below, in the vegetable gardens, from seeing who was on the road; on the other side, there was a slope of “carrascos”, wild shrubs that grow in uncultivated areas, between small cliffs.

“What are you doing here?”, João asked, still inside the van. Manuel, who knew that the bread distributor went down that road every day, almost always at the same time, replied laconically: he wanted bread and cakes. “What do you have to drink? Water or juice?”, he continued. João gave him a one and a half liter bottle of water to drink, assuming “Toothpick” was thirsty. But he was wrong. Manuel drank only two or three sips and handed him the bottle. And then he got out of the van. João did the same and repeated the question. “What are you doing here?”. Manuel, constantly looking around with a startled look, told him: “Just tell me how my daughter is. The only thing that’s preventing me from killing myself is not knowing anything about her.” João told him Sónia had survived. “You tried to kill her and now you’re saying she’s the only thing preventing you from killing yourself?” Manuel looked away and said: “That was something else.”

João thought there was no point in prolonging the conversation; by that time he was already wondering if he would turn him in or not. He opened the side door of the van, took out two large loaves and put them in a plastic bag. “How many cakes do you want?”, he asked Manuel. “I’ll take two.” João chose a chocolate napoleon and a palmier and put them in another plastic bag. Manuel immediately pulled out the wallet he kept in his breast pocket, and gave him 20 euros to pay the three euro bill.

João was not too surprised to see the money and, as he handed him his change, he asked Manuel to turn himself to the authorities. “You’re out here in the woods, you better turn yourself in.” “Don’t turn me in”, Manuel asked. “Okay”, João replied, even more anxious to leave. “I would like you to lend me a cellphone. I need to call someone to ask them to bring me clothes and dry shoes. I’m drenched. See? My boot is all wet.” João looked at his boot and replied without thinking – after all, that man could have a shotgun close by. “Look, I can’t lend you my phone. That’s the only one I have. And without it, I’m in trouble.” Manuel didn’t insist. “Okay, fine. But don’t turn me in, João.” And he climbed a cliff with extraordinary ease. A few hours later, that same cliff would be a difficult obstacle to overcome by the police dogs. João barely had time to close the door of the van. When he looked back, the fugitive was already on top of the hill, partially hidden by the thick vegetation.

On his way to Várzea, John tried to calm himself and avoided looking in the rearview mirror. He had just seen and talked to the man who everyone was looking for; he had sold him bread and cakes, and now he was alone in his van, wondering what he should do next. In the village, he told the first man he saw on the street he had just been with “Toothpick”. The man didn’t believe him. But when he told him his dilemma – “I don’t know if I should turn him in or not” – he urged him to call the police. By 4 p.m., about 15 minutes after seeing Manuel, he called the GNR, who asked for directions on where the encounter had taken place. With some difficulty, João returned to the place next to the fig tree and the “carrascos”. The dogs and the agents tried to climb the slope. “Then they told me they had recognized the place where he had been eating because of the plastic bags and the crumbs.” But the trail of Manuel “Toothpick” ended there. Not even the dogs could sniff out the path he’d taken.

Vale da Vila, May 7, between 9:30 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.

There are only two ways to reach Vale da Vila: a downhill road full of twists and turns which begins in São João da Pesqueira; and a dirt road which serves only those who work in the fortified wine vineyards. This village in the Douro Valley has less than 100 inhabitants, no pharmacy, health center, firemen, restaurants or post office. The narrow winding streets are populated by dogs, insistently barking at the outsiders. That’s what happened to Manuel Baltazar. Throughout the night, Fernanda and Leonel Pinto’s watchdog, which they had left guarding their daughter’s former house, didn’t stop barking.

The house is located some 200/300 meters from Vale da Vila and its construction was never completed: the Pintos’ daughter and son-in-law used to live on the ground floor, but the first floor has only the brick walls, the holes for the windows and no roof.

It was 12 days since Manuel talked to João Pessoa. As usual, between 9:30 a.m. and 10:00 am, Fernanda went down the slope to the land surrounding the house. She was carrying a bucket of food for the dog and as soon as she opened the gate, she saw a man walking down the stairs that give access to the first floor. Fernanda stopped, put down her bucket and stood there in silence, looking at the man she recognized as Manuel Baltazar. He saw her as he came down the stairs and put his finger to his lips telling her to be quiet. On the other hand, he had his shotgun. Fernanda did not move, terrified as she was. Manuel didn’t rush, he quietly left the grounds and walked towards a hill with neatly planted olive trees.

Fernanda left the bucket in the same place and ran home. She told what had happened to her husband, Leonel, and he immediately contacted the GNR. “I told them to surround the hill because he shouldn’t be far away, but instead they came here, to Vale da Vila”, told us this former football player from Sporting da Covilhã, who retired early due to various health problems. Leonel knew “Toothpick” from Bigodes café, in São João da Pesqueira, where all the hunters in the region use to meet. “Someone brought him to Vale da Vila. It was known that the house was abandoned and that he would be safe there because the GNR was not searching in this area. In fact, Trevões is at a walking distance through the hills.”

We don’t known how many nights Manuel was there, maybe just the one. And the traces he left on the first floor didn’t help either. He made a bed on the floor with some blankets that were covering a cot left there by Fernanda and Leonel’s daughter; there were two empty yogurt packages and sandwich leftovers.

 ***

Manuel Pinto Baltazar is awaiting trial in Vila Real prison, in Trás-os-Montes. He is charged with two counts of first degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. The prosecutor announced he will ask the court to revoke the sentence from his conviction in 2013, calling for an effective prison sentence for domestic violence. It’s also a way to prevent the period of detention pending trial from expiring before the actual trial. Angelina could be in danger.