Man says he killed 20 boys

Brazil - Police have arrested a man in connection with the ritual sex slayings of 20 boys, bringing to end a macabre murder mystery that plagued the country for more than a decade.

Police in the northern state of Maranhao announced that Francisco das Chagas confessed to killing the boys between 1991 and 2003. They believe the 39-year-old bicycle mechanic may have killed three others during the same period. Police in neighboring Para state want to question him concerning the whereabouts of 10 youngsters who were either killed or disappeared there.

However, human rights groups following the case were reluctant to accept the police's version of events and expressed reservations over the tactics used to secure Chagas' confession. They also questioned previous police work and the future of three people already jailed or awaiting trial for carrying out some of the killings.

"We've been questioning the police's work on this for 13 years, so we are naturally still a little suspicious," said Nelma Pereira da Silva, head of a local children's rights group who took the case to the Organization of American States in Washington. "We need to wait and see if this is for real."

Police went to Chagas' residence Friday after neighbors alerted them to an odor coming from inside his ramshackle house on the outskirts of the Maranhao state capital of Sao Luis. Officers secured a search warrant and dug up a dirt floor to find two skeletons, one identified as that of a 4-year old boy named Daniel and the other of a child identified as Diego. Daniel's father recognized scraps of clothing as a T-shirt he was wearing when he disappeared in February 2003.

Police said that Chagas confessed to killing 18 other boys in several locations on the outskirts of Sao Luis between 1991 and last year. He told them he did not remember sexually abusing them because his memory went blank at the moment of killing. Police believe he may also be responsible for three other unsolved killings in the area.

In spite of the concerns from human rights groups, the state's attorney general said the detailed evidence provided by Chagas showed "strong signs" he was responsible.

"We need to carry out DNA and other tests, and we'd like to reconstruct the crime scenes because although he confessed to 20 murders we only have his statements to go on," said the official, Raimundo Nonato de Carvalho Filho. "But his detailed statements strongly suggest that he is the man responsible."

State psychiatrist Hamilton Raposo called Chagas "a psychopath with no sense of self criticism or blame."

The killings rocked Brazilians and focused international attention on a case that shocked observers as much for the police's inability to find the killer as for the brutality of his acts.

The OAS criticized the state government for failing to cooperate with their inquiry, and several foreign and Brazilian human rights groups petitioned the federal government to intervene in the investigation.

Pereira da Silva said her organization will focus its attentions on identifying the officers responsible for the imprisonment of Roberio Ribeiro Cruz, who was sentenced to 19 years after supposedly admitting to killing an 11-year old in 1998, and the arrest of two others who are awaiting trial for the slaying of another child in 1996.

Police, meanwhile, said they will quiz Chagas about a spate of similar unsolved killings that took place in neighboring Para state when Chagas spent time there. The slayings of six children and the disappearance of four others between 1989 and 1993 have been linked to the Maranhao crimes.

The Para slayings won particular attention because of black magic rites apparently used by the killer. The leader of a local sect was tried on and acquitted of several charges including murder. The case is still open.