Colombian father finds his daughter’s killer after 26 years of searching

in his apartment in Barranquilla, Colombia, Martin Mestre looking forward to what could be the final chapter in a painful journey of almost 3 decades.

You have just signed the last appeal against a decision of the Supreme Federal Court (STF) of Brazil to deny extradition of the man convicted of killing his daughter.

Mestre spent much of his life investigating the whereabouts of Jaime Saadewho was sentenced to 27 years in prison in 1996, but was not arrested because he had fled Colombia shortly after Nancy Mestre’s murder 2 years earlier.

It took almost 3 decades of searching until he was finally found in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and arrested by Interpol in 2020.

The killer lived a normal and comfortable life under the false name of Henrique dos Santos Abdala. He is married to a Brazilian and has 2 children.

A few months after his arrest, the STF denied Saade’s extradition on the grounds that the crime had prescribed in Brazil.

Now, Martín Mestre has his last hopes in a challenge for judicial errors in which he asks the court to review the decision.

“I will only have peace when my daughter’s murderer is imprisoned in a Colombian penitentiary,” he says in an interview with BBC Brazil.

The crime

Mestre’s youngest daughter, Nancy, wanted to be a diplomat and move from Colombia to the United States to attend college.

The father joked that he would not leave her: “I want you close to us.” But in truth, he admired her daughter’s ambition and would do whatever he could to help her achieve that dream.

“She was a happy girl, very studious. She always read. She wanted to study international law and diplomacy”, says Mestre.

The main suspect in Nancy’s murder fled and spent almost 3 decades in hiding in Brazil. (Photo: PERSONAL FILE)

But all the 18-year-old’s plans were interrupted in the early hours of January 1, 1994. Nancy, her father, her mother and her brother toasted the new year at home.

Shortly after midnight, Mestre said goodbye to his daughter, who asked to continue with the New Year’s celebration with her boyfriendJaime Saade. The boy had gone looking for her at her house.

“Come back before 3 am,” Mestre asked his daughter. “Take good care of her”, she asked Jaime.

At 6 am, Mestre woke up with a start. “As soon as I woke up, I felt something,” he says. He went looking for Nancy around the house and found her room empty of her.

He went outside and searched nightclubs to see if the young couple were there, but he couldn’t find them. Her anxiety grew and she, as she inquired about her daughter whom she came across, silently prayed that she would turn up safe and sound.

Finally, he decided to go to Jaime’s parents’ house, where the young man also lived. There he met his mother cleaning the floor. “It was dark and I didn’t realize at the time that I was stepping on my own daughter’s blood. And that the murderer’s mother was raping the crime scene.”

“Your daughter had an accident and is in the Caribbean Clinic,” said the woman.

Mestre ran to the hospital and found Jaime’s father there. “Your daughter tried to commit suicide and she is in surgery,” he told her. In the emergency room, doctors were trying to stabilize Nancy, who was in a coma.

Mestre Family
From left to right, the father, the mother, the brother and Nancy. (Photo: PERSONAL FILE)

The young woman had been taken to the hospital by Jaime, her father and a woman who also lived in the family home. They wrapped Nancy, who was naked, in a sheet and put her in the bed of a pickup truck.

“It was little by little that I began to organize in my head what had happened. They raped her, beat her up, and threw her in the back of a pickup truck. I said: ‘My God, what did they do to my daughter!’” recalls Mestre.

That was followed by eight days of agony in the hospital. The young Ella never regained consciousness.

“The doctors told me that he was going to leave. I, Nancy’s mother and our other son, Martin, would gather in the hospital room and pray and sing songs that she loved to listen to as a child, ”says her father.

Suddenly, her heart stopped beating.

The escape

While Nancy’s parents suffered in the hospital and the police investigated what had happened to the young woman on January 1, the main suspect in the crime, Jaime Saade, fled Colombia.

“Jaime began his flight the same day of the murder and was never seen again in the country,” says Mestre. The police ruled out the thesis of suicide. Nancy died of a shot to the head, which entered her right temple.

Gunpowder residue was found on his left hand, an indication, according to Colombian authorities, that he tried to defend himself.

The young woman was right-handed and would have had to make a very unlikely move, according to the police, to shoot herself in the right temple while carrying the weapon with her left hand.

The investigation concluded that Nancy had been raped. She had wounds all over her body and her broken fingernails had bits of skin, another sign that she tried to defend herself against her.

In 1996, two years after the young woman’s death, a Colombian court sentenced Jaime Saade to 27 years in prison for murder and rape.

Jaime Saade
Jaime Saade fled to Brazil and lived under a false identity for more than 20 years.

According to the decision of the Colombian justice, after raping and shooting Nancy in the head, Jaime would have become desperate and asked his father for help. They wrapped the girl’s naked body in a sheet and took her to the hospital. Jaime’s father stayed at the clinic while his son hid.

From that moment on, the focus of Mestre’s life became finding Jaime, a hunt that would last 26 years. “I knew it might take a while, but I always knew I would find my daughter’s killer.”

The investigations

Since Jaime Saade’s conviction, Mestre asks the authorities for answers on investigations on a monthly basis and has established contacts with Interpol to share information that he himself found.

Nancy’s death forever changed the destiny of the family. Mestre and his wife separated. The couple’s only living child moved to the United States.

And Mestre, who is an architect and teacher, has focused almost all of his time and energy on the search for Jaime. He entered intelligence courses and retrieved the knowledge he had learned as a naval officer to use in his investigative efforts.

“I created four fictitious characters, two men and two women, and I began to establish contact on social networks with Jaime’s relatives to gain their trust and obtain information that could lead me to him,” he explains to BBC Brasil.

Mestre passed on all the details he could obtain to the Colombian police and Interpol. Over the course of the 26-year search, different officials took up the case.

“Every time the person responsible for the investigation changed, I went there with all the documents to update the person on everything.”

Jaime Saade
Interpol began searching for Jaime Saade and, with the help of clues provided by Nancy’s father, they located him in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.

From the conversations he had with Jaime’s relatives using the false profiles, Mestre found two clues that led him to believe that Jaime could be in Brazilian territory.

First, he found out that Jaime’s brother lives in Brazil. He then began to suspect the frequent mention of the word Santa Marta by his family. Santa Marta is a coastal city in Colombia, with a beach called Bello Horizonte.

From his investigation, he finally came to the conclusion that Jaime could be in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte (440 kilometers north of Rio de Janeiro) and not in Santa Marta, Colombia.

With this information, the Brazilian Federal Police and Interpol located a person with a profile similar to that of Jaime Saade.

the prison

The officers followed the suspect to a coffee shop and, after leaving the establishment, picked up the cup he used to drink. They wanted to verify that the fingerprints matched those of the Colombian convicted of Nancy’s murder. They were identical.

When Jaime was approached, he presented false documents and said his name was Henrique dos Santos Abdala. He lived a quiet life in Belo Horizonte, with a Brazilian wife and two grown children. He was arrested by the Federal Police and began to respond in Brazil for the crime of identity forgery.

Shortly after, the Colombian government submitted an extradition request so that Jaime could serve his 27-year sentence in the country.

“When the director of Interpol called me to inform me of the arrest, I knelt on the floor and began to thank God. OMG! After almost 27 years there will be justice”, he recalls.

“I called my other son, Martín, who lives in the United States, and his mother, who now lives in Spain, and we all started crying.”

For Mestre, it would be a matter of months before Jaime began serving his sentence in Colombia. All that was needed was the authorization of the STF for the extradition.

But something very different from what I expected happened.

the trial

Nancy Mestre as a child
According to her father, Nancy was a happy young woman who dreamed of being a diplomat. (Photo: PERSONAL FILE)

On September 28, 2020, Mestre received a call from a lawyer.

The STF had decided not extradite Jaime because the crime he had committed had prescribed in Brazil: the statute of limitations for the punitive claim in that case, a murder, was 20 years. Jaime had been found 26 years after Nancy’s death.

But the decision in the STF was not by majority, but by a tie. Two interpretations divided the ministers present.

Brazilian law prohibits extradition if the crime prescribed in Brazil. But the legislation also says that if the person commits another crime later, the prescription of the first one is interrupted.

Jaime had committed the crime of falsifying identity and documents, something he did in order to escape.

The ministers Gilmar Mendes and Cármen Lúcia understood that he could be extradited, because the suspension of the prescription is valid, in their opinion, from the commission of the second crime.

Edson Fachin and Ricardo Lewandowski, for their part, voted against Jaime’s extradition, arguing that the suspension of the prescription only occurs after the conviction and final sentence of the second crime.

“My client, Jaime, had not even been denounced by the Public Ministry at the time the STF was judging the case,” his lawyer, Fernando Gomes de Oliveira, told BBC Brazil.

One of Martín Mestre’s lawyers, André Luís Monteiro, criticizes: “If you accept this interpretation of the STF, you are giving incentives to all those convicted, saying: ‘get a false document, go to Brazil’. Don’t worry, the Supreme will say that there is no way to send you back, because we only discovered you now’”.

“It is something basic to the law, you cannot use your own scoundrel to benefit yourself,” he added.

Minister Celso de Mello, who could tie the tie, was not present at the meeting. The court then decided to apply a rule of criminal law according to which, in case of a tie, the decision that benefits the defendant is valid.

With that, Jaime Saade was able to stay in Brazilwithout any punishment for the death of Nancy Mestre.

For Mestre, after 26 years of incessant search for Jaime Saade, everything was resolved “as if it were a football match”.

“How can they allow a decision as important as this, where justice or impunity is discussed, to be resolved by lottery, as if it were a soccer game?”, he asks.

the last resort

Nancy Master
Martín Mestre ultimately appeals to the Federal Supreme Court to extradite the man convicted of killing Nancy. (Photo: PERSONAL FILE)

The STF’s decision became final and the Colombian government did not appeal. But Martín Mestre did not lose hope and found an international office that set out to find a last alternative.

“It is in the hands of Brazil to comply with this extradition request. If a convicted person can flee and finds a country where he hides, changes his identity and commits a series of other crimes to cover up the first one, it will be a very harmful message for Brazil and the issue of human rights not to extradite him”, argues lawyer Margarita Sánchez, from the law firm Quinn Emanuel Sullivan & Urquhart LLP, who took on the case to try to find legal tools for the extradition of Jaime Saade.

Now, Mestre files a challenge in which he asks the ministers to review the decision, and is based on two arguments.

The first is that the statute of limitations for the crime of homicide was interrupted when Jaime committed the subsequent crimes of fraud and forgery of documents.

“The decision of the STF violated the article of the Penal Code that deals with the interruption of the prescription in case of a new crime”, says the lawyer Bruno Barreto, who prepared the challenge.

The second argument is that the tie should not have benefited Jaime Saade, since the extradition process is not a criminal action.

“Minister Luiz Fux recently decided that the dead heat rule only applies to criminal actions stricto sensu and habeas corpus. It does not apply to actions that tangentially touch criminal issues. That is the case in extradition”, defends Barreto.

“The STF should have summoned a magistrate of another class to participate in the trial and tie the tie, or should have waited for the return of Celso de Mello, who was absent that day on medical leave,” he argues.

For Jaime Saade’s lawyer, his client will not be extradited. “There is no possibility that this decision will be reviewed, not even for the sake of consistency and legal certainty. He became firm in February 2020. Mr. Henrique is now taking care of his life. Almost three decades have passed since the event, so it is only fair that he can come back to life after so long,” Oliveira said.

Martín Mestre remains hopeful: “From the bottom of my heart, I hope justice is served. If he is extradited, I will be able to say that I have not lived in vain. My God, I need to see the murderer of my daughter in Colombia, arrested.”

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