1966, August 17: The Lead Masks Mystery

On Saturday, August 20, 1966, the bodies were discovered.

        The police in Niterói, a town less than five miles from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, had been informed that the Morro do Vintém, a nearby hill, had a powerful and unpleasant odor about it... and upon investigation, they found the bodies of two men lying in the foliage of the hill, decomposing. Both men were dressed neatly in suits, and both were wearing raincoats; and each man had an odd lead eye-mask lying on the ground next to their heads.

Mask 1

Mask 2
The lead masks found with the bodies. [Larger versions here]

        Each man had money on them, one man having Cr$4,000 in his pocket, and the other with Cr$157,000 in a plastic bag. Some notes were found with them, many identifiable as electrical formulae, but two were very strange. the first translated as: "Sunday, one capsule after lunch; Wednesday, one capsule at bed-time." The second: "Be at the place arranged at 16:30. Take capsules at 18:30. After feeling effects, protect half the face with lead masks. Await the agreed signal."

Morro 1
The police investigate. [Larger version and more pictures here]

        The bodies were removed from the hill and an autopsy proceeded as their identities and activities were investigated. The men were identified as Miguel Jose Viana (aged 34) and Manuel Pereira da Cruz (aged 32), both from the town of Campos about 170 miles [275 kilometers] away. Both were married with young families and "were highly regarded in the city," and both were described as electronics enthusiasts. The police fairly quickly determined when and how the men reached the hill, but the information didn't really answer any important questions.

       Viana and Cruz had last been seen by their familes on Wednesday, August 17, when they had boarded a bus at 9AM. They said they were headed to Sao Paulo (430 Miles [708 kilometers] away) to buy electronic equipment and a car, and they were carrying cash of about Cr$3,000,000 for these purposes. The bus arrived at Niterói around 2PM and the men got off. Because it was raining, the two bought raincoats for around Cr$9,400; they then went to a bar and purchased a bottle of mineral water, and kept the receipt so they could get back the refund on the empty bottle later. Around 3:15PM, they set off up the Morro Do Vintém on foot. Around 5PM, a boy saw the two men sitting at point high up on the hill.

        On the following day, August 18, the same boy saw the two men in the same place on the hill, but lying down this time.

        Two days later, on August 20, the same boy was hunting birds around the foot of the hill and ran across the foul odor... and it was his notice of this odor that eventually brought the authorities.

        Both Viana and Cruz had started to decompose by the time of the discovery and autopsy; despite this, it was determined that there were no signs of violence or evidence of burning, and no indication of poisons in their organs. It was generally assumed they had both had cardiac failures, but there was no explanation put forth for this.

        It seemed likely the men died sometime on the night on August 17, and nothing in the information police found indicated the men expected to die. There was now also the question of where most of their money had gone, as they had clearly not had a chance to buy the car or equipment in what was known of their last actions. Further, the police determined that the odd note mentioning the lead masks did not match the handwriting samples for either of the victims.

        It seemed that there was going to be no simple answers for the mystery... which soon complicated further.

Stranger and Stranger

        On August 17 -- the same day that Viana and Cruz had climbed up Morro do Vintém -- a lady of high social status named Senora Gracinda Barbosa Coutinho da Sousa, from the Niterói neighborhood of Fonseca, saw an unidentified flying object. Sousa had been driving that evening with three of her children when they all saw "an oval-shaped object, of an orangy colour, with a band of fire around its edges," hanging over the top of a hill and "sending out rays in all directions." Sousa stopped the car, and she and her children watched the object rise and fall vertically in the air for about four minutes. When she got home, she told her husband about the sighting; he drove back, but saw nothing himself... but a few days later, he was telling the police about the sighting.

        The hill his wife had seen the object over was the Morro do Vintém... where the bodies had been found.

        Sousa's husband had managed to keep his wife from seeing any of the articles regarding the matter, presumably to keep her from freaking out; but when he saw the story in the papers himself he felt the need to tell police of the strange sighting over the hill on the same day the two men had arrived. Fonseca is about 13.5 miles [22 kilometers] from the Morro do Vintém, so his wife would likely not have had any clue about the presence of Viana or Cruz there earlier in the day.

        Reports of this sighting appeared in local papers on August 25, along with some claims that further information from the Sousas was known and being kept secret by the police... which would, of course, be hard to prove true, but sounded sensational. After the report went public, the police had a number of other people call to confirm the sighting. They had all been afraid to report such a strange matter, because the topic of UFOs was being discouraged by the government at the time; but the fact that someone of Senora Sousa's status was willing to come forward gave the rest of them courage.

        About the same time another strange matter appeared in newspapers, but only in a very simple form. It was stated that four years earlier in 1962, a TV technician named Hermes had been found dead on a hill called Morro do Cruzeiro near Neves... and he, too, was found with a lead mask. The Morro do Cruzeiros is about 176 miles [284 kilometers] from the Morro do Vintém; but it's also 84 miles [135 kilometers] from Campos, the home town of Viana and Cruz. However, there was no more actual information about this matter; and there's no indication the story was double-checked at the time.

A Suspicious Character

        Police soon arrested a friend of the two dead men, a man named Elicio Gomes, "for making contradictory statements." Cruz's widow had told the police that Gomes and her husband had an argument, which is likely why they went looking for him to start with. What they got wasn't what they wanted.

        Gomes claimed that both he and the dead men, Viana and Cruz, were members of a secret society of "scientific spiritualists" who regularly attended seances; and that, apparently, almost all electronic specialists and enthusiasts in the area were scientific spiritualists as well. Gomes claimed that Viana and Cruz collaborated on many strange electronic experiments, and hoped to communicate with beings on Mars. A further statement by Gomez -- one confirmed by Cruz's father -- was that he and Cruz had worked on an experiment in Cruz's garden that had exploded violently.

        Gomes also talked of a strange incident that had occured on June 13 of the year, two months before Viana and Cruz died. On that day Gomes and some others had been invited by Viana and Cruz to visit the beach at Atafona, 24 miles [38 kilometers] from Campos. Just as Gomes arrived, an "intensely luminous object" came down from the sky to hover over the shore of the beach. It stayed for five minutes, then began to rise... when there was a blinding flash and an explosion that shook buildings 15 kilometers away. The papers reported that inquiries, presumably by the police, turned up fishermen local to Atafona who claimed to have seen a flying saucer fall into the ocean.

        Newspapers added that the Brazilian Navy and Air Force Intelligence were now interested in the matter of the mysterious deaths of Viana and Cruz. One paper, the O Cruzeiro of September 16, is said to have claimed the Navy had intercepted a strange set of messages on June 12, the day before the Atafona explosion, transmitted by stations using identifications that didn't actually exist. No details of what the Navy heard were reported, just a general implication that they must be connected to the explosion the next day.

        The same paper added two final details to the strange mystery. They claimed that the masks had been made in Viana's workshop where remnants of the process had been found, along with a book on 'scientific spiritualism' which mentioned masks, intense luminosity, and accompanying spirits. The newspaper also claimed Viana had told his sister a day or two before the June 13 Atafona incident that "he would soon be carrying out an important mission," and that it was a secret she could tell no one.

        The police later determined that Gomes, as well as other associates of Viana and Cruz, had been in Campos at the time that Viana and Cruz were climbing the Morro do Vintém, and so were not directly involved in the death of the men.

Strange Scoops

        For eleven months, there were no further public reports regarding the mysterious deaths... but in August 1967, the police apparently said some very confusing things to two newspapers.

        On August 19, the newspaper Ultima Hora announced that the police were trying to find a car they had the registration number for, that they believed had transported the bodies of Viana and Cruz from Campos to the Morro do Vintém. If they succeeded in finding the car, then the bodies were to be exhumed for further examination to determine if the two men died of violence, an overdose of "chemicals which they were using to make extraterestrial communications," or if they had enacted a suicide pact. So, in short, the police announcement said that the police had somehow either forgotten what they had determined before, or distrusted it... which is just strange.

        On August 26, the Ultima Hora announced that the bodies had indeed been exhumed and organs had been removed for examination. The Delegate of Police Sergio Rodrigues claimed that "important pieces of evidence were disregarded at the start of the enquiry," and that his team was now close to solving the case with expectations they would have the guilty party in just a few days.

        On September 3, the newspaper Correio da Manha stated that detectives were planning to investigate spiritualist circles. It was now being asserted that Viana and Cruz had stopped at an electronics store before they stopped to buy mineral water, and that they likely met their murderer at the electronics store before they climbed the Morro do Vintém. The newspaper also stated that the men had climbed the hill on August 21, 1966... which is a day after the bodies had actually been discovered!

        Did the police really forget most of the previous investigation, including the date the bodies were found? Or were the newspapers trying to get sales by adding new false details to a previously popular story? Or was someone trying to re-write the previous events to be less weird? It's hard to say in any direction; and no more was publically reported on the case that year, so it's clear that Delegate Rodrigues did not catch the anticipated guilty party.

Cold Case Revisions

        The case next resurfaced in newspapers on June 28, 1968. According to the Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Globo, police were now trying to find a foreign man with blonde hair seen talking to Viana and Cruz from a jeep on the road before the two men climbed the Morro do Vintém. Additionally, hair samples of the two men were specifically tested for signs of poisoning by arsenic, mercury, barium, or thalium... and none was found, killing that line of speculation. And then no more word on the matter for another eight months.

        Around February 23, 1969, a number of newspapers returned to the Morro do Vintém mystery, with claims that the case had been solved due to the confession of one Hamilton Bezani, an "underworld figure" already serving a sentence of over fifty years in a Sao Paulo prison.

        According to reports, a female relative of Bezani had told police the jailbird had admitted to involvement with the Morro do Vintém mystery, so he was questioned. Bezani stated that he had been asked by three other well-known criminals of the area to assist in a crime. All four had gone to a spiritualist center in Niterói run by a woman they knew; and there the four men were introduced to Viana and Cruz. It was signaled to Bezani by the other three criminals that Viana and Cruz were the intended targets of the crime. During the seance, the criminals determined that Viana and Cruz were both away from home and carrying a lot of cash, mostly in a briefcase with them. After the seance, Bezani himself drove the whole party, including the woman from the center, to the foot of the Morro do Vintém. Here, Viana and Cruz were forced out of the car and into the thickets of the hill by everyone except Bezani, who stayed with the car. A half hour later, all but Viana and Cruz returned... and the criminals were holding the briefcase. They stated they had forced the two men to take poison at gunpoint. The party planned a time for the next day to split the money, but Bezani gave it a miss on the intuition that they might kill him too.

        The newspaper reports then added that the police were looking to round up the three other criminals, and one press report claimed that the woman from the spiritualist center was already under arrest... all of which, once again, means a complete re-write of what was known after the first investigation in 1966.

        Bezani's story was so strange that many Brazilian UFO researchers assumed it was false from the start, and had been meant simply to de-mystify an unsolved case that had too much involvement with paranormal matters for the Brazilian government's taste. And so ended all the known public coverage of the strange Morro do Vintém case in the Brazilian press.

Sources, Sources!

        The above is a compilation of information reported in three separate articles from the British magazine, Flying Saucer Review [FSR], published in 1967, 1968, and 1971... so at some point in time, the original newspaper sources need to be checked to be sure what was sent to and translated by the FSR represents everything there is on the case. The FSR articles are the first presentation of the incident in English, but not the only one. The next most prominant cover of the story came in 1990; but more on that in a moment.

        As far as I have been able to search, the claims in the account above of a second body found with a lead mask in 1962, as well as the whole Atafona UFO incident on June 13, 1966, do not appear to have ever been researched and confirmed separately from the initial reports sent to the FSR. The Atafona incident especially -- with an explosion felt miles away and witnesses on boats -- would have to have made an appearance in newspapers, and could either verify or completely explode one early strange claim attached to the whole mystery... so I'll try to dig some on that.

        There are many questions I wish had been asked at the time, but will likely never be known now... perhaps the most telling would be to see if the men purposely got off at Niterói, or if they had to switch buses there for the longer trip. This could tell us if the men had a purpose in Niterói itself, or if they were just wasting time until their next ride came along.

        I also have some idea what may have happened to the missing money, if we stick to the initial timeline introduced at the start of the investigation... if two dead men have a wad of cash on them and someone finds them, the wad of cash may walk away with no report made. I'll also add to that my curiosity about a boy who sees the men on the hill two days in a row without asking why, and only reports something two days later when the bodies start to stink. Also, considering the picture above regarding the recovery of the bodies showing how overgrown the area is, exactly how close did the boy have to be to see the two men to begin with on the first two days?

        I'm posing these questions now for a reason; twenty-four years later, the story changed.

Vallée's Investigation

         In 1990 Jacques Vallée, well-known author and spokesman on the topic of UFOs, released his eighth book on the subject entitled Confrontations: A Scientist's Search for Alien Contact. Vallée started this book with the Morro do Vintém case, explaining how he investigated it personally in April 1980. He and his wife flew to Brazil and visited the hill. Along with his wife, Vallée climbed the hill with a local french teacher who volunteered to translate, a journalist, a photographer, and a detective who handled unsolved cases. Vallée was also accompanied by "the first adult who had seen the bodies that August day in 1966, when a group of boys came running to the house. He had accompanied them to the police station at the foot of the hill, where they described their grisly find to the officer in charge," which would be a very important new witness to interview except for one strange problem. Vallée never tells us this new witness' name!

       Vallée wrote that his unnamed tour guide led him to a spot on the hill where the ground was almost bare even though it was surrounded by tall leafy bushes; in fact, Vallée mentions the spot was bare of vegetation twice, implying this was significant. As Vallée told the story, the bodies had first been found by an 18-year-old 'boy' who was searching for his kite with his friends; they alerted the unnamed man who was serving as Vallée's guide because he lived nearby. The unnamed man stated that the bodies did not stink when found and that predators and vultures had not touched them.

        Vallée then reported that the skin of the two bodies when found were pink and showed signs of possible burns, but then asserted that decomposition "had progressed to the point where such a finding was not significant"... which doesn't seem to make sense. Clear evidence of burns that was still visible when the bodies were found would be important evidence; decomposition would not change the fact if the burns were that obvious. Vallée also states that the lead masks and notes were found lying by the bodies, along with some items that were never mentioned before: "crushed piece of aluminized blue and white paper, some cellophane soaked in a chemical substance, and a handkerchief with the initials AMS." He does not mention any of these new items in the book again.

        Vallée's description of the events around the deaths is equally odd. After briefly recapping who the two men were -- during which he distinctly describes Viana and Cruz as "electronics technicians," a detail that is now very common in new reporting -- he states how the men were traveling to Sao Paulo, stopped in Niterói, bought raincoats and mineral water, walked up the hill, and were last seen at 5PM on the hill... but he doesn't mention who saw the men on the hill. By doing so, Vallée skips all of the questions that I posed above regarding the strange behavior of the boy who saw the men by implying that the 5PM sighting was by someone else, again unnamed.

        Past these initial changes, most of what Vallée presents regarding the case is something of a mash-up of all the odd reports above, with no attempts to show how the differing details appeared at differing times. I do need to note a few other things, though.

        For some reason, Vallée renames Elicio Gomes, the talkative friend of Cruz, to 'Elicio Correa da Silva,' and says the incident at the Atafona beach was attended by both Elicio and another man named 'Valdir.' The explosion in Cruz's garden and at Atafona beach are attributed by Vallée to homemade bombs, "manufactured with pipes and wires," and Vallée states the families of the dead men testified to such at the inquests. Vallée never tries to explain why Cruz would be manufacturing bombs; and, despite claiming the explosion at Atafona is due to such a bomb, Vallée still states that local fishermen saw a flying saucer crash into the sea after the explosion at the beach.

       Vallée also asserts that a cousin of Viana, who tried to stop the men from making their proposed trip, was separately told that they were not actually going on the trip to buy anything... that this was in fact just an excuse, as their real purpose had something to do with testing their beliefs in spiritualiam. Vallée then ends his initial examination of the whole incident by adding a previously unreported UFO sighting that had taken place in Niterói on March 16, 1966, in which four people watched a luminous elliptical object flying about 100 feet above a different hill in the town.

        It's a very strange set of differences to the original reports, which is initially confusing... until Vallée expands on the actual topic of his book. Confrontations is meant to be an examination of dangerous UFO encounters, with an attempt to show commonality between the reports Vallée presents -- and it's only in this context that some of the changes to the Morro do Vintém story make sense, as he needed the initial case to match his later proposed ideas. This makes his new version of the story suspicious. Add to that the fact Vallée started his presentation of the Morro do Vintém account by stating that the information he initially had came from "the UFO rumor mill" and "notoriously unreliable" Latin American news media... which thus immediately insinuated that his personal investigation would be far more authoritative.

        While Vallée's version of the events is questionable, his version of the story was the most available when it next re-surfaced, on the internet.

Expansions... and Deletions

       The Lead Masks case reached the internet around 1999. While I will likely never know for sure who posted the story first, I do know which appearance proved the most influencial early on.

        On January 5, 1999, a Portugeuse language website called Portal Vigília, featuring UFO and related articles written by Redação Vigília, posted a version of the Lead Masks mystery. Vigília's account of the event was clearly based on Jacques Vallée's book (which had been translated to many languages), but included several new additions.

        For the first time the boy who found the bodies is given a name, Jorge da Costa Alves; he is described, as per Vallée, as an 18-year-old "boy" who was on the hill to either fly or retrieve a kite. When he encountered the bodies he ran home, and the authorities were alerted from there. The bodies smelled bad, were wearing suits and raincoats, and were on their backs. Next to them was an empty mineral water bottle and a packet containing two small towels. The bodies were wearing the lead eye-masks.

        The police identified the bodies, noted the odd notes and then reconstructed the movements of the men; Viana and Cruz were traveling to buy equipment, stopped in Niterói, bought raincoats and mineral water... and, we are told, the girl who helped them with the mineral water claimed that Viana looked nervous and kept checking his watch during the purchase. From there, the two were last seen climbing the hill; that was on August 17.

        Vigília mentions that the color of the skin of the bodies was pink, a detail from Vallée's version. Vigília also mentions the sighting by Sousa of the luminous oval object over the hill, and asserts it was seen at the same time that experts later estimated as being the moment of death for the two men.

        The Atafona incident is also mentioned, but we are told the two men in attendence besides Viana and Cruz are Elicio Gomez and Valdir -- the first being the earlier name for Elicio and the second being a new name from Vallée's report, which means that Vigília was mixing details from both earlier reports and later reports to make a new story. Notably, Vigília does not blame the explosion at Atafona on homemade bombs, as Vallée did; instead, Vigília leaves the implication of a UFO explosion.

        By now it should be obvious that Vigília's report of the case is a mix of several versions of the story with some new -- and likely invented -- details added in. Unfortunately, when Vigília's report was posted in 1999, people who had never heard of the incident before took Vigília's report as authoritative and largely correct... so much so, that his report heavily influenced the English language Wikipedia page on "The Lead Masks Case," which in turn made Vigília's version of the story the source used for most modern English internet accounts and memes regarding the case.

        Most of the modern versions of the story come in one of two flavors. Either the UFO aspects are stressed, with the idea that Viana and Cruz were killed while trying to make contact, or the UFO elements are left out and the case is presented as a straight-forward, though baffling, mystery. This second category of presentation speculates at Viana and Cruz being everything from murdered spies to accidental overdose deaths via psychodelics.

        The problem with all of this is that none of these new speculators are working from the original story; and, even at the time, researchers in Brazil remained convinced that authorities in the area were hiding uncomfortable facts that touched on UFOs and spiritualism. Sadly, we'll likely never know the full truth in this case because of the passage of time and the loss of the details... assuming, of course, that with all the missing pieces the matter would make sense.

       From what I've seen, it's quite possible that it still wouldn't.

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