Late on the evening of June 15, 2019, Flordelis dos Santos de Souza and her husband, Anderson do Carmo, left for a night out in Rio de Janeiro. They had been looking forward to a break, after an exhausting few months. Flordelis was a celebrity in Brazil: a gospel singer and the pastor of her own Pentecostal ministry, the Ministerio Flordelis, with six churches and thousands of followers.
Born in the favelas, she had become famous for adopting troubled kids left behind by the drug wars, and her life story, an archetypal Brazilian redemption tale, had been made into a movie starring some of the country’s best-known actors. That February, she had taken office as a new member of the National Congress. Anderson was busy, too. He managed the ministry’s affairs and Flordelis’s political career, and also oversaw their home: a compound with four separate structures, to accommodate their family.
The couple had fifty-five children, mostly adopted; twenty-two of them, ranging in age from three to forty, still lived at home. Flordelis was fifty-eight, Anderson forty-two. They had been together for twenty-six years, an inspiration to their followers.
From their house in Niterói, a sprawling port city across Guanabara Bay from Rio, they headed for the beach at Copacabana, an hour’s drive away. At the beachfront promenade, they strolled through the late-evening crowds, stopping at a sidewalk café for a snack of fried fish. Later, in a burst of romantic feeling, Anderson climbed on a chair and called out, “Te amo! Te amo! ”
Around two o’clock in the morning, they realized that church services would begin in just a few hours, and they headed home, with Anderson driving and Flordelis playing Pet Rescue on her phone. The streets were deserted as they came off the expressway. To her alarm, Flordelis recalled later, two people on a motorcycle drew alongside them, and then appeared again a few blocks farther on. Niterói had become more dangerous in recent years, after a drug-trafficking gang known as Red Command moved in from Rio. The neighborhood where Flordelis and Anderson lived was middle class, but much of the surrounding area was run-down, and a rough favela covered a nearby hillside.
When the couple pulled up to their house, at the dead end of the street, no one was around. Inside a set of wooden gates at the driveway entrance, Flordelis slipped off her heels to climb the stairs, while Anderson stayed in the car, e-mailing last-minute instructions to employees for the day ahead. From the stairs, Flordelis called out to remind him to close the gates behind him.
Before bed, Flordelis habitually checked on all the kids. As she made her rounds, she saw light under the door of a son’s room and went in to talk with him. Not long afterward, she was startled by what sounded like gunshots, followed by screams. She recognized the voice of a daughter calling out, “Meu pai, meu pai! ”—“My father, my father! ” Outside, a couple of her sons placed Anderson’s bloodied body in the car and rushed him to a hospital. Flordelis followed, but by the time she arrived Anderson was dead. In the autopsy, coroners found thirty bullet holes in his body, with many concentrated around his groin.
The tragedy was major news in Brazil: a celebrity’s husband had been brutally killed. Amid an outpouring of sympathy, Flordelis and her family held an overnight vigil in the largest of her churches, where Anderson’s body was displayed in an open casket, according to local custom. Flordelis appeared overwhelmed with grief, nearly fainting alongside the bier. The next morning, at a cemetery on the outskirts of Niterói, Flordelis and several of her daughters clutched one another at graveside, singing together as his coffin was lowered into the ground.
But the public’s concern for Flordelis was quickly overtaken by suspicion. By the time the funeral was over, police had arrested two of her sons. Within twenty-four hours, one of them confessed to buying the murder weapon, while the other admitted shooting Anderson. In the next few days, six more siblings were arrested.
That August, the police issued an indictment against Flordelis, charging her with involvement in the killing. There was an immediate uproar. Her political party suspended her. Actors who had appeared in the film about her life expressed regret for promoting her story. Five of her six churches closed; parishioners had already stripped her name from the last one, calling it the City of Fire Ministry. Throughout, Flordelis insisted that she was innocent, the victim of a conspiracy among “powerful interests.” She was fitted with an electronic anklet that tracked her movements, but when I arrived in Brazil, last December, she was still free, and determined to clear her name.
As Flordelis came to prominence, evangelical Christianity was booming in Brazil. In a country riven by poverty, corruption, and violent crime, evangelicalism holds a potent appeal: people with difficult lives can come to church and, with a few words, be converted and redeemed. A third of Brazil’s citizens have embraced Pentecostalism in recent decades; the number of evangelical parliamentarians has doubled. Evangelicals have been a major pillar of support for President Jair Bolsonaro. A former Army captain with severe right-wing views, Bolsonaro won office, in 2018, with an anticorruption agenda and a promise to fight “gender ideology,” a capacious term that includes same-sex marriage and other progressive causes. Though raised as a Catholic, he travelled to Israel in 2016 to be baptized in the Jordan River.
One of Bolsonaro’s main backers was Edir Macedo, a self-styled bishop of the Universal Life Church of the Kingdom of God, which has hundreds of branches around the world. Macedo is one of the wealthiest people in Brazil, and his influence has helped him escape prosecution for charges that include tax evasion, fraud, trafficking adopted children, and embezzling billions of dollars in donations.
Macedo is also a media entrepreneur, and his main outlet, RecordTV, is the country’s second most watched channel. During the 2018 election campaign, Bolsonaro boycotted a debate on Brazil’s largest television network, Globo, to give an interview on RecordTV. Bolsonaro’s slogan was “Brazil above everything, God above all,” and, in the end, more than sixty per cent of the country’s evangelicals voted for him. Flordelis won her seat in the same election, with close to a hundred and ninety-seven thousand votes, one of the largest totals for any female candidate in the country.
Bolsonaro appointed the evangelical pastor Damares Alves to be his minister for women, the family, and human rights. Known for her opposition to same-sex marriage, Alves was quickly embroiled in a scandal, involving an Amazonian indigenous girl whom she had raised as her daughter. In a report by Época magazine, Kamayurá tribal elders accused Alves of taking the child from her parents as a toddler, under false pretenses. She denied the charge, but suggested that she had saved the girl from “certain malnutrition and possible infanticide,” while conceding that she had been unable to formalize her adoption because of Brazil’s onerous laws.
In May, 2019, not long after Flordelis took office, she appeared with Alves at a forum in Brasília, where they advocated on behalf of Brazil’s orphans; there were an estimated forty-seven thousand of them, languishing in orphanages while prospective parents waited as long as a decade. Flordelis spoke emotionally of her own experience as an adoptive mother, and called for a process that would take no longer than a pregnancy.“Um, maybe we need to get you out of the house . . .”Cartoon by Lars Kenseth
At the event, Flordelis was hailed by Arolde de Oliveira, a former military officer and an evangelical senator. “Flordelis made her passion, love, and determination reach dozens of children,” he said. “Each adoption she and her husband have made is a story that can be used to write a reference book about what love is.” A month later, Anderson was dead.
The highway that Flordelis and Anderson took home from Rio that night winds past battered port facilities and gang-tagged buildings; one is entirely covered with fistlike black emblems and the message “The government is the vandal.” The bridge to Niterói crosses a blue expanse of bay, littered with rusting, half-sunken ships. On the other side is a welter of docks, cranes, favelas, and apartment blocks, marked with more gang tags and festering with uncollected garbage.
Flordelis’s home is built into a hillside, protected by the gates at the street. One afternoon in December, I rang the bell at a security door, and after a moment it unlocked. Inside, just past the spot where Anderson was killed, concrete stairs led up to a jumble of yellow-painted structures with terra-cotta roofs. On a terrace outside the main house, a tiny, ancient woman with long black hair and an expressionless face silently watched me pass. Workmen were banging away inside; everything was covered in plastic sheeting and dust. A young woman emerged and explained that they were in the midst of renovations. She promised to summon Flordelis and disappeared.
While I waited, a heavyset, goateed man wearing a black suit and a garish tie was buzzed in and plodded up the stairs. When I introduced myself, he laughed and said, “Watch out. She’s got a thing for men named Anderson.” He was Flordelis’s lawyer, Anderson Rollemberg. Before long, we were joined by a fortyish man with a military buzz cut—a recently hired bodyguard named Anderson Mello Vilela.
As we talked, Flordelis appeared in the doorway. A petite, dark-skinned woman, she wore a bold-patterned dress and a leather belt, and her hair swept down one shoulder in a ponytail. With a wide smile, she moved languidly from man to man, imparting kisses and coquettish looks. At her urging, we went from the crowded terrace and into her bedroom.
Flordelis had a king-size bed, with a white leatherette headboard and a scarlet spread embroidered with satin ribbons. She climbed on and propped herself up next to a large white Teddy bear, while her bodyguard sat protectively on a child’s bed nearby. Behind her hung a print by the popular Brazilian artist Romero Britto, depicting a cartoonish boy and girl holding a heart between them. On a dresser was a pencil drawing of Flordelis and Anderson do Carmo, next to a framed picture of Santa Claus. With the exception of Rollemberg, who interrupted to caution Flordelis not to spoil their hopes for a Netflix show about her, everyone fell silent as she proceeded, for the next two and a half hours, to tell her life story.
She had grown up in Jacarezinho—Little Crocodile—a favela on the Guanabara shoreline with a fearsome reputation. (I had passed it on the way to Niterói but had not driven through; the neighborhood is controlled by a drug gang that does not welcome outsiders.) The fourth of five children, she was born in 1961. When my translator learned her age, she exclaimed, “Fifty-nine! What’s the name of your plastic surgeon?” Flordelis laughed magnanimously; she’d heard this one before.
Her parents had been members of the Assembly of God, Brazil’s largest evangelical church. Her father, an artist, had painted angels on church ceilings, and she had felt the pull of God from an early age. As a teen-ager, she helped lead prayer sessions, and, when she saw “youngsters as young as eight working for the traficantes,” she told them to “come and pray,” she said.
At one point, Flordelis told me, she had rescued a young man from a “death wall,” where drug gangs torture and often kill people they suspect of betrayal. “A mother came to me to pray for her kid,” she recalled. “But I decided to go after him, because I knew he was still alive. I went to the place of execution. The traficantes recognized me from the work I did with the ministers, and they let me pass.” The boy had been tied up and badly beaten, she said. She asked for his release, and so the men brought her to speak to their chief at his home. “I traded my life for the boy,” she told me. “I said, ‘If he does something wrong, then you can come after me and kill me.’ He accepted the challenge and released the boy—and I took him home.”
Another day, she had gone to proselytize at Central Station, a stately Art Deco edifice that has become a hangout for addicts, criminals, and the homeless. “I met a girl who had just left her baby in a vacant lot,” she said. “That was Rayane, the first baby I took home. I left my address with the baby’s mother.” Not long afterward, there was a massacre of street children, and Rayane’s mother gathered up the survivors and brought them to Flordelis. “In a blink of an eye, I had thirty-seven children,” she said. “Fourteen of them were babies. I was thirty-three at the time.”
Since Anderson’s murder, many details of Flordelis’s story had been challenged, by critics who argued that her rescues were less dramatic than she made them sound. There was indeed a massacre around that time: the police killed a group of children who slept outside the eighteenth-century Candelária church, not far from Central Station. But no one could be sure whether Flordelis’s adoptees were survivors of that episode or just kids from the neighborhood. Public records in Brazil are chaotic, particularly among the poor and the disenfranchised.
Flordelis narrated her life as an epic, omitting obtrusive details. It was only later that I learned that the old woman on the terrace was her mother. Nor did she mention that, before Anderson do Carmo, she’d had another partner, with whom she had had three children. When I asked people around the house what had happened to him, they generally told me, with a disinterested shrug, that he had gone to northern Brazil.
In our conversation, Flordelis never said Anderson’s name, referring to him only as “my husband.” When I asked how they met, she said, “He came to know me because of the evangelism I did in the favelas.” He was one of the first kids she took in—an efficient, ambitious boy of about sixteen, who left his family to join hers. It remained unclear when their intimate relationship began, but Flordelis insists that it wasn’t until he was eighteen. She would have been thirty-four at the time. “He started by having a great admiration for me, and then it became love,” she explained. “And then we got married. Three months later, I gave him thirty-seven children.” She laughed; it was a practiced punch line. “I told him, ‘I will stay with the children, and I will understand if you leave. But my choice now is to stay with them, because they have already received a lot of no’s in life. And then he looked at me and said, ‘When I married you, I married your crazy things, too. So I will stay.’ ”
Flordelis didn’t formalize the early adoptions she made, and the Brazilian courts accused her of illegally harboring underage children. Initially, she kept her family in a tiny two-bedroom home in Jacarezinho, but after a judge ordered her to give up custody she fled. For a time, she claimed, they lived on the street, until a young man offered them the use of his modest apartment, where they stayed hidden for four months. She next found refuge in a favela controlled by a drug gang, but, after discovering that the newspapers were referring to her as “an abductor of children,” she decided to seek help.
She arranged a meeting with a United Nations official, who worked on youth issues, and with the head of a children’s advocacy group, who had lobbied the police to hunt her down. As Flordelis told it, the officials were so moved by her story that they decided to take her side. With help from the children’s advocate, she legalized her custody, creating the Flordelis Family Home Association as an umbrella group.
The meeting was an event: journalists came, and Flordelis recalled with a smile how they had fired questions at her. Afterward, two businessmen brothers heard of her work and agreed to rent a home for her, providing furniture, a washing machine, and groceries every week. Flordelis and her family were finally secure. Photographs from those days, published in newspapers and magazines, show her lying on a bed, with children arrayed around her like living toys.
Life was difficult, though. The family eventually moved from the house that the businessmen had rented for them, she said, because she felt embarrassed by their generosity. Four more places followed. Flordelis took on work to bring in extra money: cooking lunches for local security companies, stitching patches for military uniforms. She repeatedly fell ill, she said, “because of the stress I felt, having to give a bottle of milk to the babies every three hours, changing their diapers, and taking them to doctors’ appointments. My older children helped me. And my husband—my husband gave up his dream of pursuing a career at the Bank of Brazil in order to help me. In fact, from the beginning, my husband gave up his dreams to live my dreams.”
The Ministerio Flordelis began in the garage of one of their temporary homes, where Flordelis and Anderson held prayer sessions for the family. Neighbors started coming, and her businessman sponsors sent friends to hear her sing. As word spread, neighbors erected a stage where she gave weekly performances. She sang mostly about love, she told me, and demonstrated by crooning a song: “Love is a bonfire—it is a fire that lights the lamp of the heart.”
Flordelis and Anderson got a car with a loudspeaker, and drove it into tough neighborhoods, playing her songs, which combined popular rhythms with the northeastern-Brazilian sound of forró. “We entered the favelas through music, to evangelize, to attract traffickers, addicts, boys and girls from the drug trade,” she explained. “The idea was to try to rescue them through music.” They held monthly vigils—music-and-prayer events—which grew into an annual jamboree called the International Missions Congress.
In 2002, Flordelis and her brood appeared on one of Brazil’s top-rated talk shows, and the host, a buoyant former model and singer named Xuxa, lauded her as “the mother of the nation.” (Learning that Flordelis was forty-one years old, Xuxa told the audience, “See? Helping others is better than plastic surgery!”) The appearance made Flordelis famous. In 2006, a prominent Brazilian director proposed making a movie about her life. Twenty-seven actors took part in the production, and all waived their fees. The première of the movie, “Just One Word to Change,” thrilled Flordelis: “They dressed me in designer clothes, and there was a makeup artist and everything!”
The movie didn’t make much money, but it changed her life. Brazil’s biggest gospel label, MK, signed her to a recording contract. Money began coming in. “I was able to give my children a better life,” Flordelis said. She recorded albums, and travelled to Europe and to the United States, singing in “Boston, Miami, New Jersey, New York, and other states I don’t remember the names of.” By 2018, Flordelis said, “I had already conquered almost all my dreams as a singer. I just needed to be nominated for a Grammy.”
Then she had another dream, this one sent by God. She was alone on a road, when a profound voice told her to walk across a sheaf of papers that lay at her feet. “A strong wind blew from my back, and those papers flew around,” she said. “And then I saw my picture with four numbers.” In the elections for Brazil’s Congress, each candidate is identified by four numbers. “I woke up my husband and said to him, ‘I’m going to be a politician.’ ” Anderson gave his unstinting support.
The couple had become close to Arolde de Oliveira, the owner of Flordelis’s record label—a prominent evangelical who was also a nine-term federal deputy. Oliveira, who then belonged to the Social Democratic Party, encouraged Flordelis’s political ambitions. But he was planning to run for his seat again, so the Party asked Flordelis to run for the local legislature instead. It was a quandary, Flordelis said: “In the dream, I wasn’t a state deputy. I was a federal deputy.” The day before candidates were required to register, her phone rang. “It was the P.S.D. people, saying that Arolde had decided to run for the Senate, so I would be the candidate for federal deputy,” she said. “This was God saying, ‘It was me who gave you that dream.’ ”
By custom, federal-deputy candidates finance their own campaigns, and also subsidize the campaigns of local candidates they seek as allies. With Flordelis, things worked the other way around. “God started bringing state deputies who wanted me as a partner, so they financed my entire campaign,” she said. “I had thirty-six state-deputy candidates campaigning for me.”
For her campaign, Flordelis recorded a jingle, which became a huge hit. She sang it from her bed, with the ebullient bounce of samba. “Who will prevent the act of God?” she sang. “What has happened is over. No more crying. I’m going to go over the top!”“If you stay very still and don’t shift your weight at all, it’s really quite relaxing.”Cartoon by Maggie Larson
As Flordelis entered politics, Carly Machado, an anthropologist at Rio’s Federal Rural University, took notice. For several years, Machado had been studying the rise of evangelicalism, which provided a refuge for people living at the edges of society. “In Brazil, it’s all about the frontiers, the gray areas,” Machado explained. “These churches are the only ones operating on the periphery, and their potency derives from their being the open door to the rest of society. It gives protection for people living in these very dangerous situations. Pentecostalism opens doors some of us may not even want to be opened. It’s ambiguous, like life in the favelas, where moral choices are more complicated.”
Machado had followed along as prominent evangelicals endured a succession of scandals. In 2013, Marcos Pereira, the head of the Assembly of God of the Latter-Day, was convicted of serially raping women in his congregation in Rio. Pereira’s method was to tell his victims, some of them as young as fourteen, that they were possessed by Satan and could be exorcised only through sex with a holy man. (When I visited his church in 2009, Pereira summoned a group of teen-age girls, all wearing golden frocks, to sing for me. A few days later, I was in a favela controlled by the Red Command gang, and Pereira appeared in an S.U.V. with the gang’s boss. “Pastor Marcos,” as he was known, did not seem pleased to see me.) Police also suspected Pereira of involvement in drug trafficking, murder, and money laundering, but he evaded those charges and obtained an early release from prison. He has since reopened his church.
To Machado, Pereira represented “the masculine face” of Pentecostalism in Brazil. Flordelis had attracted her “because she was a woman, and because her emphasis was on family and the youth.” She had attended several of Flordelis’s International Missions Congress events and been fascinated by their combustible atmosphere. The audiences were in the thousands, with people bused in from all over Rio. The events lasted for several days, headlined by as many as twenty pastors, politicians, and singers. Flordelis often performed, reaching out toward her followers from the stage.
Machado said that Flordelis’s ministry appealed to Brazilians who didn’t feel represented by the traditionally rural Assembly of God or by the increasingly middle-class Universal Life Church. Something else seemed to be happening, too. At Flordelis’s events, Machado noted the presence of Marcos Feliciano, a São Paulo pastor who had become an influential congressman. She also saw Arolde de Oliveira, the czar of Brazil’s gospel-music business—an evangelical money machine. She realized that she was witnessing a fusion of politics, religion, and entertainment that was reshaping Brazil.
After the news broke of Anderson’s killing, Machado was curious enough to attend the funeral. At the Niterói cemetery, she noticed that Oliveira had come to pay his respects. Flordelis came late, and made “quite an entrance,” Machado recalled, arriving with an entourage, glamorously dressed and with sunglasses covering her eyes.
A human corridor, as long as a soccer field, formed to convey Flordelis from her parking spot to the grave site. “She was crying, but didn’t act desperate,” Machado told me. “When the time came to lower the coffin into the grave, she cried louder for a moment.” Throughout the ceremony, Flordelis’s son Flávio stood next to her protectively. Her family kept a distance from Anderson’s, and she left as soon as the proceedings were over, while Anderson’s mother lingered by the grave.
On the way out, Machado was stuck in a procession of cars leaving the cemetery. “I saw some police officers blocking the exit,” she said. “I assumed that they were directing traffic.” As she pulled away, she saw “strange movements” in her rearview mirror. She found out later that it was the police pulling over Flordelis’s car so that they could arrest her son.
The arrest was ordered by Reinaldo Leal, an investigator for the Niterói police homicide department. Forty-seven, with flame-red hair and a gym rat’s physique, Leal is a career detective. On the side, he is the lead singer of a heavy-metal band and has dabbled in acting, with a cameo in a 2017 telenovela based on his team’s pursuit of a Rio drug boss. When Leal started the investigation, he had never heard of Anderson, but he had a vague notion of who Flordelis was, having seen her once on television during her political campaign.
He’d arrived at Flordelis’s house about eight hours after the murder. Officers had gone to the scene to collect forensic evidence, and were still interviewing and identifying everyone who lived there. “From the start, it wasn’t a normal investigation,” Leal said. “The police had to figure out who the hell was who and go through twenty years of history, trying to figure out everyone’s names and the relationships between them.” Family members suggested that Anderson had been the victim of a bungled robbery attempt, but no one admitted to witnessing the attack. The mood in the house was unwelcoming. When Leal met Flordelis, he recalled, “I began to feel something was weird.”
As police ran background checks, an outstanding warrant on an old drug charge popped up for Lucas, one of Flordelis’s adopted sons, and they arrested him. Leal examined video footage from a security camera mounted on the entrance gates. The camera faced into the street, away from the place where Anderson had been killed, but it revealed that, about twenty minutes before the murder, an Uber had dropped off Lucas, waited a while, and then driven off with him inside.
In custody, Lucas told the police that his arrival that night was just a coincidence. He’d moved out of Flordelis’s place months earlier, but he had happened to be nearby that day, selling drugs in a favela. After work, he planned to go to an all-night dance party, a baile funk, and so he decided to drop his unsold inventory at the compound for safekeeping.
The police, suspecting that Lucas knew more, attempted an audacious bluff: they told him that they had apprehended the driver of the Uber who brought him to the compound. “We tricked him by telling him the driver was talking,” Leal said. The ploy worked. Lucas admitted that the same driver had taken him to a favela a few weeks earlier, to buy a gun. But he didn’t know that it would be used to commit murder, he said. He had bought it as a favor to Flávio, one of Flordelis’s two biological sons.
Leal looked at Flávio’s records and found that he, too, had an outstanding warrant, for domestic violence. On Monday morning, thirty-six hours after the murder, Leal sent officers to the funeral to arrest him.
In custody, Flávio quickly confessed to taking part in the killing. But the confessions didn’t end the investigation. “As a cop,” Leal explained, “I collect pieces to eliminate coincidences,” and many coincidences were still unexplained. For one thing, cell phones belonging to Anderson and Flávio were missing. “No one could tell us where they were,” Leal said. On June 19th, officers went to the compound to search for the phones. They didn’t find them. Instead, on the dresser in Flávio’s room, they found the gun that he had used to kill Anderson. It was a 9-millimetre Bersa, an Argentine-made semi-automatic. There were no fingerprints on the gun, but there was a pubic hair, which forensics traced to Flávio. “We knew it wasn’t a robbery now,” Leal said. “But we still couldn’t see the end of the road.”
From her bed, Flordelis told stories, sang, laughed, and cried. When she grew bored, she tapped at her phone, and gave orders to her children and to her bodyguard, who came and went with bottles of juice and a book about her life and a DVD of her movie, both of which she autographed for me. It was only after an hour or so, during which she recounted her upbringing, the adoptions, the movie, and her careers in music and in politics, that she finally came to Anderson’s murder, “the event that turned my life upside down in 2019.”
As Flordelis spoke, her lawyer began playing with his phone, and her bodyguard dropped his gaze and started rubbing his leg. The killing had nothing to do with her, she said. The children had planned the whole thing. As she told it, in early 2019 she discovered ominous text messages on her phone. The messages weren’t meant for her, she explained; everyone in the house used her phone, because she wasn’t possessive about material things. In the texts, a daughter and a son had discussed plans to kill Anderson.
When I asked why, Flordelis replied vaguely. “It was a disagreement . . . between children at home, with him,” she said. “When I saw the message, I showed it to my husband. So . . . but my husband didn’t take it too seriously. He thought he was going to solve it, because he was the type of guy who could solve everything, right? If we went to a police station, which was what I wanted him to do, our name would be exposed in the media. And then—imagine the media talking about a plot, a murder. He didn’t want that.” In March, Anderson discovered another threatening message, on his iPad. “And in June,” she said, “my husband was murdered.”
She recalled that she had gone out on errands that day, culminating with her big weekly grocery shopping. She reached onto her side table to retrieve a paper receipt as evidence. When she unfurled it, the receipt extended to the floor, three feet below. At nine that night, she had decided to cook for Anderson, who had spent the day doing administrative work and watching sports on TV. “In the kitchen, he turned to me and said, ‘Love, shall we go out?’ ” Flordelis was tired, but she said yes. “I was embarrassed to say no to him,” she told me. “I borrowed a dress from my daughter Isabel—a little floral dress with straps, you know. I didn’t need to dress up, because we were just going for a walk.”
At Copacabana, they’d flirted like young lovers. “He yelled, ‘I love you!’ ” she recalled. “I pretended I didn’t hear, then he yelled it very loudly. Then he sat me on the hood of the car, and we talked about our life. About our trips. We had travelled to Brussels, and I liked Brussels.”
There was a catch in Flordelis’s voice. “My husband was . . . was . . . romantic.” She paused. “We talked about our projects, our political project, too. You know, he was very excited that I had won with the number of votes that I’d won. We had this game of slapping hands and saying that we were an unbeatable pair.” Her voice broke again. “And that night we did, too, right? We played. Then there was a moment when I ran, he ran after me, I threatened to throw sand at him, then he stopped. And then I remembered the hour, and I said, ‘Love, we have worship today.’ It was already dawn. We got in the car and left.”
At home, the gate control had a glitch, so Anderson got out to hit it and make it open. As Flordelis climbed the stairs, heels in hand, she saw that he had lagged behind to peck at his cell phone. “I looked at him and said, ‘Darling, don’t forget to close the gate,’ ” she said. “It was the last time I saw him alive.” When she heard the gunshots, she had wanted to run to him, but, she maintained, some of her children surrounded her and held her back. Flordelis fell silent, and when she spoke again her voice was small and strangled. “I didn’t know it was going to happen. If I knew, for sure I wouldn’t have left him. Because we had . . . we had the dream of dying together. We thought we would die together on the roads of life.”
After Flordelis finished talking about the murder, the mood brightened quickly, and she took me on a tour of the compound. She seemed to want to show me that this was a happy, harmonious place. The children’s rooms were simple but tidy, with good hardwood floors; a bathroom had been freshly tiled. In one bedroom, a pair of girls froze in embarrassment as Flordelis opened the door and encouraged me to poke my head in. Back outside, Flordelis waved to two smaller houses just up the hill and explained that her older kids lived there. A woman leaned out a window and shouted a greeting. Flordelis waved and said, “You’re getting married soon, aren’t you? What’s the date?”
Up a flight of exterior stairs was an open-air kitchen, where two teen-age girls were cooking: feijoada, rice, and fried yucca. Flordelis stirred the pots for a moment and declared lunch ready. On a terrace next to the kitchen, kids were filling a small swimming pool with a hose; they said that they had drained it when their golden retriever became sick after swimming in the water. As I sat down to lunch and they went back to squirting one another with the hose, it felt like I was visiting with a normal family, as if no murder had occurred just down the front walk.
A few miles from Flordelis’s house, I visited Allan Duarte Lacerda, the homicide chief of the São Gonçalo and Niterói police. When I said that Flordelis had presented herself as an uncomprehending victim, Lacerda—an athletic, lightly bearded man of forty—shook his head. “She’s no altruist,” he said. “She is cold, calculating, and ambitious, capable of anything, and I have no doubt whatsoever that she ordered Anderson to be killed.”
The police’s suspicion of Flordelis was spurred by testimony from her adopted son Misael. One morning, I met him and his wife, Luana, at her parents’ home, in an upscale neighborhood overlooking the Niterói coastline. Misael, a boyish-looking forty-two-year-old, told me that he had left his family to live with Flordelis when he was twelve years old and spent much of his subsequent life in her orbit.“I do think it would speed things up if you followed my social media.”Cartoon by Hartley Lin
Misael explained that he was born in Jacarezinho, Flordelis’s old neighborhood. When he met her, he was overwhelmed by her presence, and by the permissive atmosphere of her house. She allowed him to play video games whenever he wanted; when he lost interest in school, she told him that he didn’t have to go anymore. He and a number of other adopted boys formed a tight clique around her. She told them that she had died and been reincarnated as an angel, and that they had been sent by God to protect her. She had given them Biblical names to show their status; Wagner became Misael. “What I felt for her was something like idolatry,” he said. Misael had eventually cut himself off from his relatives. “My biological mother tried to call me, but I wouldn’t receive her,” he said regretfully. “Flordelis told me I didn’t need that family anymore.”
In the compound, children referred to Flordelis and Anderson as their mother and father, but these terms didn’t entirely capture their roles. She was the charismatic central figure, and he was the all-seeing gatekeeper. As the family expanded, Flordelis instituted a kind of cell structure, in which newly arrived children were “given” to older ones for care. Some felt the lack of parenting keenly. One daughter recalled that Flordelis had never acted like a “real mother”—never showed her love or talked about intimate things. When she had her first period, her appointed “brother” had explained what to do.
Misael told me that he’d never had much time to think about how the house was run. He’d been busy looking after the younger children and raising money for the family; older children went out to work, and gave Flordelis and Anderson a portion of their earnings. His twenties and thirties had slipped by, he told me. If he hadn’t met Luana, he’d probably still be with Flordelis. Smiling at his wife, he said, “She saved me.”
He had met Luana through the family church—she was a young parishioner there—and they were married with Flordelis’s blessing. They had moved out of the compound a few years ago, but had worked for Flordelis until the day of Anderson’s murder. Luana had been close to Flordelis, serving as her driver and then her personal secretary, but she had only gradually discovered the extent of her psychological control of the family. “I once found a dagger in Misael’s closet,” she said. “When I asked what it was, he said that Flordelis had given it to him to kill the Beast.” (Flordelis denies this, calling it “crazy talk.”)
Misael recalled that prayer sessions with Flordelis were tinged with occult practices. “Whenever we prayed, it was for a purpose,” he said. “If you wanted to have control over someone, we put melon, honey, and crystal sugar in a pot, then left your name in the honey with the name of the person, with an engagement ring. And then we lit a candle and we all prayed together for seven days. If anyone asked why those rituals weren’t in the Bible, she would say that they had been professed by Christ in the past but been lost to history.” Once, Misael said, Flordelis had locked him in a room for twenty-one days to pray. “They only knocked on the door to deliver food, because according to her I needed to be purified.”
The night of the murder, Luana and Misael were asleep at home when her phone rang. It was Pastor Luciano, an adopted son who serves as one of Flordelis’s top political aides. “He said, ‘Anderson was shot, in a robbery attempt,’ ” Luana told me. “I woke up and said to Misael, ‘They did it. They killed your father.’ ”
The next call was from Daniel, another adopted son. He sounded panicked. Luana and Misael told him to take Anderson to the hospital, and then set out to meet him. “Forty minutes after we got there, Flor showed up, well dressed, saying, ‘Tell me my husband is alive,’ ” Luana recalled. “But, when you know someone, you know when she is pretending. She looked at me, faking tears. She knew he was dead.”
Two days after the murder, Misael and Daniel went to the police and named several family members whom they suspected of involvement. Leal decided to bring everyone into the station to be interrogated. “We wanted them all there, so they couldn’t compare notes,” he told me. Within a week, the police had gathered enough evidence to arrest six more suspects, and they began to build a theory of the case.
According to the narrative that the police assembled, the family had been trying to kill Anderson since at least 2018. One Sunday that March, several of the children had arranged for a hit man to ambush him as he drove away from church after services—but Anderson eluded him by leaving in a borrowed car. Afterward, the conspirators had begun lacing Anderson’s food with arsenic, sending him to the hospital six times. Luana, Misael’s wife, recalled that Anderson had vomited during meetings, and that Flordelis had said, “Anderson is going to die, because he’s in God’s way.”
Several family members later discussed the poisonings in testimony. Roberta, twenty-six years old, said that Cristiana, her “mother” in the house, had drunk some of Anderson’s juice and become so ill that she had to go to the hospital. An adopted daughter named Diana recalled that another daughter had put powder in Anderson’s drink, saying, “I’ll do anything for Mama.” The unsuccessful poisoning attempts bred frustration. According to a family rumor, one daughter complained that Anderson was “so rotten he wouldn’t die,” and Flordelis told her, “If you want to kill him, it will have to be bullets.” (Flordelis denies this.)
As evidence came in, the police theorized a more specific plot. A daughter named Marzy, they determined, had asked Lucas to arrange the killing and make it look like a bungled robbery; in exchange, she promised him five thousand reais, about eight hundred and fifty dollars, and Anderson’s collection of wristwatches. Flávio did the shooting; others helped with logistics and distracted potential witnesses. (Marzy, Lucas, and Flávio could not be reached for comment.) The police began to believe that the conspiracy spread through the family. The relationships were complex, but they all revolved around one person. “Once we understood the family dynamic, we began to suspect Flordelis,” Leal said.
Why would Flordelis have wanted Anderson dead? The investigation suggested that the motive originated in disputes within the family. There were conflicts over money, competition for the parents’ affection, and, especially, resentment of Anderson’s growing influence.
When the police couldn’t find Anderson’s cell phone, they asked the service provider for a chip linked to his number; after they cracked his password, they were able to download the entirety of his records from the cloud. “We understood a lot after that,” Leal said. “It was clear that he organized everything. He orchestrated everything, even her political meetings. We could see the power conflict.”
Flordelis and Anderson seemed caught in a marriage that, as the leaders of a prominent church, they couldn’t dissolve. She was the public face and the elected official; he controlled the money and seemed to be the driving intelligence behind her political career. Leal recalled an e-mail in which Anderson complained that Flordelis wasn’t giving him enough credit for his work. Other communications, he said, suggested a growing complicity between her and Pastor Luciano—the political aide who had called Luana to break the news. “It was possible to see she was planning to replace Anderson with Luciano,” Leal said. “She was able to manipulate the kids into killing Anderson, because of her great psychological power over them,” he added. “She knew how to exploit the fragility of each kid.”
In a series of court appearances this past winter, Flordelis did her best to confound the prosecution’s case. On December 18th, during my visit, she arrived looking like an Amish housewife, in an ankle-length print dress with her hair in a chaste bun. There was a buzz of excitement as she was shown to a wooden chair in the defendants’ gallery. While she sat demurely, guards led in her ten co-defendants, their manacled wrists held in front of them like penitents. Flávio, the son who had confessed to carrying out the shooting, was a short, bespectacled man in his thirties. He stared at the ground, until the detainees were led away. Cameramen crowded in for pictures and were shooed out again. When they were gone, the judge, Nearis dos Santos Carvalho Arce, read out the charges. Santos said that Flordelis had led a conspiracy to murder Anderson, “who was shot cruelly with many bullets in his genital area, causing him pain before he died.”
In previous testimony, several of Flordelis’s children had said that they believed she was behind the killing. Roberta recalled that, when she heard the news, her first thought was “It was her—Flordelis.” Diana said, “The only person I felt could be involved in this was my mother.” But, when Santos asked Flordelis if she had taken part in a plot, she denied it. “To do so would be to destroy myself,” she said, in a forlorn voice. “After God himself, he was the most important thing in the world to me.”
This was Flordelis’s fourth appearance in court, and the judge seemed to be losing patience with her. Not long before, she had revoked Flordelis’s right to visit her arrested children, suspecting that they were concocting an alibi. In court, she openly challenged the veracity of many of her statements. During testimony, Flordelis narrated the fatal night in dramatic detail, but, when she reached the point where Anderson declared his love for her, Santos interrupted: “So what then? You went home?” Undeterred, Flordelis went on, remembering how she left him toying with his cell phone in the car. She broke down, as she had with me, when she spoke of the last time she had seen him alive.
Santos, pushing for specifics, noted that Flordelis’s family had two dogs, but that they didn’t bark on the night of the murder. Had they been drugged? One of them, she observed, had been put down a month later.
Flordelis demurred, and the judge asked her directly, “Did you poison your husband?”
“Never,” Flordelis replied.
The children accused of taking part in the plot didn’t dispute the poisoning attempts. But they maintained that Anderson’s killing had been an act of revenge, driven by a daughter named Simone. I’d seen her in court: a pale, dark-haired woman in her late thirties who stayed close to her mother.
In Simone’s telling, Anderson had sexually assaulted her for years, even as she suffered from cancer. She said that she had endured the assaults only because he had paid for her medical treatment. A lawyer for Anderson’s family contradicted this assertion, producing a document showing that the treatment was paid for by insurance. The police say that they found no evidence of sexual abuse, and also point out that Simone had dated Anderson before he married Flordelis—a relationship that Simone says amounted to nothing more than a few kisses.
Simone admitted to authorities that she had supplied money to buy the murder weapon. But, she said, she had lost track of the plot afterward, and had been away from the compound the night of the killing, meeting a lover at a motel. She also denied taking part in the poisoning attempts, even though the police found records on her phone of Google searches for “someone bad ass,” “where to find killers,” and “easy-to-buy lethal poison to kill a person.” She maintains that a friend’s dog was sick, and she hoped to put him out of his misery.
In court, Flordelis denied knowing anything about sexual abuse. In a subsequent TV interview, though, she claimed that abuse had driven Simone to mastermind the killing. “She carried it alone, in silence, these harassments, these rapes,” she said, then hastened to add, “I’m not defending her, because I don’t agree with what she did. I disagree a hundred per cent.”
The witnesses who spoke on Flordelis’s behalf furiously proclaimed her innocence. The daughter named Cristiana disputed claims of a conspiracy; when Santos asked if there was a “law of silence” in their house, she called the story “an invention.” But the supporters’ testimony often led to more confusion. Another daughter, a twenty-one-year-old named Gabriela, spoke in an almost inaudible monotone, saying no to every question that Santos asked. As she contradicted earlier testimony, which had implicated Flordelis, people on the bench exchanged glances. Santos asked Gabriela if she had “taken something.” She said no, in the same flat voice. “You don’t seem normal,” Santos told her. Flordelis told me later that Gabriela had epilepsy, and had taken medicine for it before appearing in court. “I wanted the judge to see that her testimony couldn’t be relied upon,” she said.“Please—outside of work I’m not your boss. I’m just Dave with the nicer car, bigger house, and three-hundred-dollar haircut.”Cartoon by Brendan Loper
For the time being, Flordelis couldn’t be prosecuted; Brazilian lawmakers are granted immunity to criminal charges. But members of her party had called for her immunity to be revoked, and her case was pending before an ethics committee.
A few days after our first meeting, Flordelis flew to Brasília, to seek support from the head of the women’s congressional caucus. A legislator had launched a petition to have her case expedited, citing the grave charges. Flordelis argued that the urgency around her case was sexist: hundreds of Brazilian legislators have faced charges, ranging from graft and money laundering to slavery.
In Congress, we walked through empty hallways to the chamber where the legislature was in session. Flordelis went in and returned a few moments later with her party’s leader, Diego Andrade. As he scrutinized me, Flordelis introduced me as “an important journalist from the United States.”
While Andrade spoke, Flordelis’s eyes flitted from him to me. He offered politely that, after “the tragedy” of Anderson’s murder, Flordelis’s Party membership had been suspended until her name was cleared. He excused himself quickly, explaining that he was debating a budget bill. Politicians from other parties seemed equally reluctant to associate with Flordelis. A few minutes later, Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of the lower house, strode from the chamber, accompanied by aides. Flordelis called out and pushed me toward him. Maia shook my hand and then hustled off, too.
The next day, in Brasília, I went to see Damares Alves, the minister for women, the family, and human rights—Flordelis’s former ally. “Her life story was very beautiful,” Alves said. But now she felt deceived. Flordelis had taken advantage of the innocent hearts of millions of God-fearing Brazilians, Alves said, adding that she hoped that she would be sentenced to a “long time” in prison.
Flordelis was aware that she was being abandoned. Two months earlier, she had lost her political mentor, Arolde de Oliveira, who had died of COVID-19 after arguing against its risks. Brazil’s tabloids were portraying her as a scheming murderer, and as a cult leader who held orgies with her own children. When we spoke in her bedroom, she railed against Misael, the first of her children to turn on her in public. “My husband was buried on Monday, and on Tuesday my adopted son went to the police station,” she said. “He said I had my husband killed for power and money. And even today I ask, What power is that, what money is that? Because . . . I was the federal deputy, the renowned singer, we had the same powers in the church.” Misael had behaved suspiciously, she said. On the day of the funeral, he had gone to the ministry’s offices and removed the computers. “How cold is that?” she asked. “To lose someone you love and then worry about taking some computers?” Misael had helped manage the ministry’s finances, and she said that she had found papers suggesting that money was missing from the accounts. She had taken the papers to the police, she said, but they had ignored her. (Misael denies misusing funds, and says that the police removed the computers, which the police confirmed.)
“I couldn’t believe it,” she told me. “I was indicted without any evidence, just for messages on my cell phone.” Now, on top of everything else, politicians were taking action against her. “They’ve asked for my impeachment,” she complained. “But that’s unconstitutional, because I did not break any parliamentary decorum.” She went on, “I’m all alone—with my lawyer Rollemberg, with my work team, my advisers, my children. I have six children in prison, all because they knew about the message of my husband’s murder. But then I ask: And the others who also knew? Why aren’t they in jail? Of course, I wouldn’t want to see any of my children in jail. But the prosecutor’s office alleges that it arrested some because they knew and did nothing to prevent it. The whole family knew. Even my husband knew.
“It’s clear they want to arrest me at any cost. They want to make me the mastermind of this murder. That’s why I’m asking for help outside Brazil—I’m begging for help.” Flordelis crawled across her bed and handed me her phone. On the screen was an advertisement for “Deadly Recall,” an American television show hosted by Pat Postiglione, a celebrity detective with a purportedly photographic memory. “This is who I want to help me,” Flordelis said. “I found him on the Discovery Channel.”
One Sunday during my visit, Flordelis led morning services at her last remaining church, a hulking warehouse in São Gonçalo. Flordelis arrived in a black Toyota, with Simone’s husband driving and Anderson Mello Vilela, the bodyguard, next to him. When they pulled up, Anderson jumped out to open Flordelis’s door and help her from the back seat.
Flordelis was glamorous again, in sunglasses and a long white dress decorated with blue flowers. A group of older women were waiting near the car to greet her deferentially. As she bestowed hugs and kisses, Anderson gestured toward the empty parking lot and whispered to me that, in the old days, there would have been more than fifteen hundred people there. Through the church doorway, I saw barely a dozen.
Carly Machado, the anthropologist, has tracked Flordelis’s case closely. She noted that many followers had abandoned her, but very few seemed to have abandoned Pentecostalism altogether. Most had simply switched churches, and some had even remained with the Ministerio Flordelis. “Evangelicals don’t expect their leaders to be saints,” she told me. The Bible, she noted, is filled with stories of God’s followers falling prey to the Devil’s work. “God is there, waiting for the return of the lost sheep,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that each person will believe and follow the pastor, specifically Flordelis, again. But the final judgment is in God’s hands.”
Flordelis led me through the interior of the church: a shuttered nursery, an administrative office, and a café and gift shop selling Flordelis CDs and DVDs. In a sitting room upstairs, her disciples brought us coffee and cake. Flordelis spoke about the trial. “It’s a long road, but I feel that it’s coming to an end,” she said. “All things come to an end.”
We walked down to the sanctuary. The vast space had a white tiled floor and high gray walls and a large elevated stage, with “Jesus” painted on one wall and “Feliz Natal” on another. There were now about thirty people in the room, standing in front of socially distanced plastic chairs. They called out to Flordelis as she made her way toward the stage, where a man and a couple of young women were singing hymns, accompanied by electric guitars and drums.
In front of the stage were a pair of chairs decorated to look like thrones; one was hers, and the other had been Anderson’s. Flordelis knelt before them and prayed. Then she mounted the stage, set her cell phone on top of an arched golden lectern, picked up a microphone with a diamanté handle, and began to sing. On a huge screen behind her were images of blue sky and crosses, and the lyrics of her songs scrolled down, as in a karaoke club. To a samba beat, she crooned, “I am going to cross over,” while images of hellfire flashed onscreen. Between songs, she gripped the microphone and growled, “I am a soldier of Christ.” Her parishioners held their arms in the air, closed their eyes, and swayed in prayer.
After a half-dozen songs, Flordelis left the stage and sat in her throne. As she checked her phone, a man onstage asked for donations, calling, “God doesn’t want to feel your wallet, he wants to feel your heart.” Congregants lined up to place money in a donation box, or to hand over their credit cards to church employees with card readers.
Afterward, parishioners gathered onstage to present evidence of miracles. As the music swelled, a white-haired woman held up a sign that read “I’ve beaten COVID-19.” A pastor told a story about a woman who had undergone an abortion, but the child had lived anyway. As the pastor worked herself into a frenzy, Flordelis returned to the stage, where she was surrounded by women holding a red sheet. While the pastor shouted about the clash between good and evil, Flordelis collapsed to her knees, and the women covered her with the cloth. At last, the pastor’s voice softened, and Flordelis was helped back to her feet, smiling. She had been saved. God had beaten the Devil.
Flordelis sang her last song as a clip from the Hollywood film “David and Goliath” played behind her. As the song rose to a climax, and the shepherd slew the giant, Flordelis repeated the refrain: “The dream hasn’t died, the mourning will end.”
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