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On Saturday, May 23rd, 2020, Portuguese media was flooded with the following news:
“A 23-year-old woman, born in Elvas, has been missing since yesterday evening. The young woman currently lives in Lisbon and attends the University institute of Lisbon (ISCTE) where she is doing her master's degree in social and organizational psychology. The alert was given when the young woman had agreed to meet with colleagues and friends, but never showed up. The competent authorities have already been notified of the case while friends and family are gathering to look for the young woman.”
The young woman in question was Beatriz Lebre. The entire academic community and family members gathered and launched a search. They started with places she was known to frequent, but there was no sign of her. The streets of Lisbon were gradually filled with small groups looking for Beatriz, wondering what could have happened to her. Soon speculation began that Beatriz had met with foul play… And police began looking at her inner circle.
Born in 1997, Beatriz Lebre was a charismatic young woman who overflowed with happiness and talent. Daughter of Paula and Carlos Lebre, Beatriz loved music. This love was supported by her family, who saw to it that she took piano lessons from an early age. In addition, her taste for literature was awakened at a very young age mostly thanks to her parents, who always read to her every night before going to bed. This passion for reading stayed with her and growing older, she loved choosing her own books to read.
With a future career as an artist pretty much mapped out for her, Beatriz realised that she did not want to make a living from music. Instead, she preferred to play recreationally, for herself and for her family and friends. So, when it was time for her to decide what to study, she chose the field of psychology because she loved the idea of working with people, helping them. She was a humanitarian through and through, who placed other people's problems before her own.
So, to follow her dream of becoming a psychologist, she headed to Lisbon – about 125 miles away from home, where she lived for the three-year duration of her degree. She stayed at her uncle’s house with her cousin, also a student. After finishing the first part of her studies, Beatriz felt the need to specialize in an area of psychology and so she enrolled to complete a master's degree. Initially, she told her mother that she wanted to pursue something related to the study of psychopathy. But she ended up following the field of social psychology as the subject of psychopathy seemed too obscure at the time.
Beatriz, always studious and diligent, was one of the best students in her class. This work ethic has always been a part of Beatriz’s make-up. Playing the piano was challenging for someone with small hands, but she forced herself to practice for hours on end to overcome this obstacle.
Her master’s degree schedule left her with a lot of free time, so she decided to work to become financially independent and fulfill her lifelong dream of visiting France and learning French. Resorting to her childhood memories, Beatriz found the perfect job opportunity – working at the Disney Store. Besides all of her hobbies, she loved meeting new people and forging new friendships. She was such a charming person that her presence was noted at work and everywhere she went.
Her humanitarian side was also awakened at an early age. She wanted a dignified life for all people and despised abuse in any form. She had empathy for those who were perceived to be weaker, or at a disadvantage, and did whatever she could to help. When she was six years old, she began to show interest in learning sign language, so she could communicate with a classmate at school who was always alone because she had hearing problems and couldn’t make any friends.
Beatriz dreamed of a better world and she firmly believed that every attitude, no matter how small, could have an impact on other people’s lives. She meant a lot to many people, and when she did not show up for class on Friday morning, May 22, it did not go unnoticed.
Beatriz's college classmates knew that something must be wrong when she didn't show up to present a paper. Since Beatriz always put her studies first, it was very strange that she was a no-show. In fact, she didn't even send a message to let them know she wouldn’t be there. Worried, her classmates called Beatriz's mother to ask if she had perhaps gone home to Elvas. But her mom, Paula, said that she wasn’t there either. Paula immediately went to Lisbon to try and figure out what was going on. Still, she was not too worried. She remained calm because she firmly believed that her daughter was with someone who needed help with something. However, when Beatriz's friends informed her she had missed her assignment presentation, Paula grew concerned. No matter how serious someone’s issue was, Beatriz would always contact her mother or close friends to ask for help and let them in on the situation. And there is no way she would have neglected to go to her presentation.
Beatriz’s father, Carlos, joined his wife in Lisbon and they obtained keys to Beatriz’s apartment in Chelas, where Beatriz was living with her cousin. Despite living together, she had not been in contact with her due to the atypical situation the world has been facing since 2020 – Covid 19. Her cousin was in isolation at home in Elvas, which meant that Beatriz was home alone.
Accompanied by two of Beatriz's friends who was attending the same master's course as her, the concerned parents made their way to the house. When they arrived, the scenario was unsettling... The main light was on and on top of the dining table were Beatriz's belongings: her wallet with all her documents and her mobile phone. These were signs that Beatriz left in a hurry – at least this was the thought of the young girl's mother when she said:
"With the light on, the documents, and her mobile phone, I believe she left in a hurry to help someone, I just don't understand why she hasn't returned yet."
Rúben Couto, Beatriz's friend who was with her parents, immediately agreed:
"Going out to help someone. That's something Beatriz would do for any friend."
The reasoning behind Beatriz’s mother's thoughts was because the house was immaculate – it had not been broken into, and everything was clearly in place and tidy. This led them to believe that Beatriz was not forced to leave her house, judging by the scene, she had left of her own accord.
But Paula Lebre was not satisfied, she knew something was terribly wrong. She knew her daughter better than anyone. Even though Beatriz is in Lisbon and her mother in Elvas, they remained close and were in constant contact in a routine exchange of calls.
Carlos, Paula and Beatriz’s friends left the apartment and rushed to the police station, that was a few meters away from the apartment building. When they got there, Paula wanted to file a missing person’s report regarding her daughter's disappearance. But because Beatriz was of legal age, she was unable to do so. According to the Law and the Constitution, a person of legal age can disappear without having to announce their departure to anyone, and only if there is evidence of a crime, will the Public Ministry open an investigation to look for the person.
In Portugal, 4000 missing person cases are reported to the authorities every year. From all of these cases, there are very few who have not turned up or who were victims of crime. Beatriz’s case did not appear to be a ‘disappearance due to a crime’. There was also no probable cause for her being missing, seeing as since she had no enemies and was loved by all. It was predicted that in the 24 hours that followed she would be home again and that her absence would be explained.
After failing to file a police report, her parents and friends went back to the city to check other possible places they had missed in their search. Beatriz's mother was reassured by the police and wanted to believe what they communicated to them: "Your daughter will be home in a matter of hours," an officer had said. And without any trace of Beatriz, they had to trust that she would turn up soon. They went home for the first of many sleepless nights.
On the next day, May 24, the family tried to stick to their usual routine, anxiously waiting, hoping that Beatriz would resurface. Paula dealt with the household chores because she was sure that at any moment her daughter would call her as she had always done. But this was not the case. The day passed and there was no information about Beatriz's whereabouts – not from her friends, not from the police. It seemed that everyone felt that she would return at any moment, except for one person…. Her close friend, Rúben Couto.
Rúben wanted to continue searching for Beatriz in other places not yet searched. Therefore, Rúben had the idea to create a group on Whatsapp that included everyone Beatriz knew – family, friends, fellow students – this would be the most effective way to let everyone know if there was any news.
As the days dragged on with no sign of Beatriz, Paula began fearing the worst. What if she didn’t show up?
Without any answers, the local police passed the case to the criminal investigation police, who despite being silent, began to do investigative work in the background because they believed this could be a criminal case. Unlike countries like the United States of America, the Portuguese police do not share any information about the investigation while it’s ongoing. Not even to the alleged victim's own family. The Law states that information about the investigation should not be passed on to the public, because they believe that any information that is shared could damage the investigation and prevent the truth from being uncovered. That being said, no one knows what evidence the police have, let alone whether anyone is already a suspect in the case. Because they are kept in the dark, the families of victims are always desperate for answers, and wonders if enough is being done to solve the case.
As in many other cases where there is a disappearance, the investigating police follow the most logical and simplistic reasoning. The possibility of someone in Beatriz’s inner circle knowing her location was very likely and that’s where the first line of inquiry started. Who was she with on that day? Was Beatriz being threatened by someone for some reason and managed to hide it from everyone? Or did she just want to disappear without a trace? The latter did not seem likely.
Surprisingly, within 48 hours of the report being filed, the police claimed to have a suspect in the case, and this is where the story began to take an unsettling turn.
With Paula Lebre lost in her own thoughts searching for answers, a new day dawned with the police entering Rúben Couto's house to take him in for questioning at the investigating police station. Everybody was in disbelief at what the police had discovered that could make Rúben a suspect. Beatriz’s mother was confused. According to Paula, Rúben was a college friend of her daughter's, and they only exchanged messages mainly during the pandemic, as Beatriz did with all her friends. What did he have to do with her disappearance?
According to evidence that the police were able to obtain from the victim's mobile phone, they were, in fact, more than just friends – they were boyfriend and girlfriend. The problem was that nobody knew about this relationship, because Beatriz had a boyfriend in Elvas. Despite Beatriz being discreet about her relationship, her close friends and her mother knew about her boyfriend back home.
For some, the story was beginning to make sense, for others, like in Paula's case, it was even more confusing. Paula tried to explain that Rúben was a friend of her daughter's and that they had known each other since the beginning of her Master's degree. Moreover, Rúben seemed genuinely concerned about Beatriz and was also desperate to find her. According to Paula, Rúben was not to blame for anything and they simply wanted to name a culprit. Because he couldn't possibly be involved in her disappearance as he set up a whole search operation and kept in constant contact with family and friends for new information that could help finding her.
While Rúben was being interrogated by the police, fellow students began to reveal a little of what was left unsaid at the beginning. According to Beatriz's friends, Rúben was obsessed with her. It was bordering on an unhealthy obsession. They talk about a constant search for attention and desire for her. But reportedly, she never wanted anything to do with him and as her mother had said… "She will do anything to help a friend, no matter what problem." But apparently, the problem he had was with Beatriz herself – an unrequited love, still, why did they think he was the one behind her disappearance?
Rúben Couto was a bright 24-year-old young man with humanistic interests, known as the person who everyone liked. He had a friendly demeanour and was always ready to help. With a strong interest in music, literature and cinema, he was an aspirant for the master's degree course in social psychology. Using his writing skills, he even wrote two articles for a nationally renowned newspaper.
In the first text, published in November 2019, Rúben wrote a text dedicated to a national band that he had great admiration for. In that text, this passage stands out:
"The resonance of the best that is in you [that is the band leader] ... continues to make the monster in me tremble".
Rúben was referring to an album that the band released in 1999 under the name "The Monster Needs Friends". In a second article published in January 2020, the young man writes about Terrence Malick's film "A Hidden Life," a 2019 film that portrays the life in World War II of an Austrian peasant who refused to fight for the Nazi army, which led to his death sentence. In this text, Rúben gives an in-depth analysis and writes:
"When at first glance we see a battle against the regime in which the executioner is always the freedom to choose against the doctrine in force, more deeply, the film puts the viewer side by side with a story of free will and choice for human dignity, a struggle that should fill and be a compass for any life until its end, even if the course of history takes time to find its cardinal points."
Rúben didn’t just write about issues close to his heart or the ones that troubled him the most. Far beyond that, he acted and fought for what he truly believed in. After his return from a volunteer program, Rúben recorded a two-minute video in which he talked about his experience during his volunteer internship in Mozambique. Engulfed with joy and with a spirit of social responsibility, Rúben said:
"My big goal was to work toward quality education. But fortunately I was able to do much more than that. I ended up working with institutions in the fight against poverty where I raised awareness and housed children and young people who were homeless. And my whole project around these institutions was incredible, in the sense that we communicated with other volunteers from all over the world and created a community... All this allowed me to reflect on my existence. It gave me a different perspective on the values of life [...] seeing all those orphan kids running after us because the only thing they wanted was a little bit of affection."
This was Rúben's speech, grateful for the trip that changed his life. On his return he demonstrated a sensitivity that goes beyond borders. Africa showed him a reality that the modern West cannot replicate – the value of the little things. And this is how he intended to lead his life. His fellow university classmates described him as a charismatic and humorous person as well as flirtatious. This is why people found it so hard to believe he had anything to do with Beatriz’s disappearance.
Police interrogated Rúben for hours and confronted him with irrefutable evidence. Not only did Beatriz’a mobile phone prove that the two had been together for the past few days, but it also proved that Rúben was the last person to be with Beatriz. Furthermore, Beatriz’s apartment was not as clean as her mother thought at first. Upon closer inspection of the scene, the police collected traces of blood that belonged to Beatriz, enough to confirm that some kind of assault had occurred there. In addition, the car that Rúben was using, which belonged to his father, was also analysed and they uncovered blood evidence, blood belonging to Beatriz. They also realised that someone had tried to clean those blood marks – but blood is not so easy to clean up.
Rúben had his back against the wall. And without an alibi, he ended up confessing to the agents what Paula feared. Beatriz was dead. The agents quickly left with Rúben in the direction of the Tejo River, the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula. According to them, Rúben had thrown Beatriz's body into the river after killing her. As night fell, a cacophony of resources congregated on the riverbank. Police joined forces with the maritime police to conduct the search. Divers took the the water, underwater equipment was launched into the river and teams scoured the shore. All of this occurred with a handcuffed Rúben looking on, appearing to be shaken and bewildered.
Rúben was taken back to the police station where he would stay overnight while the authorities locate the body. The search carried on all night, but the next morning made things even more confusing – they had found no trace of Beatriz's body.
Although Rúben had confessed that he threw the body into the Tejo River, it had to be recovered to prove that Rúben was telling the truth. Because if the body didn’t turn up and despite the police having other evidence that pointed to him being a suspect, it could have hindered the investigation. There was the possibility that the court could exonerate Rúben if Beatriz’s body didn’t turn up. And what about her family – would they have closure with no body to bury?
In addition to the body not being found, the police told the media that Rúben had been urgently transported to the hospital. During the morning of Thursday, the 28th of May, Rúben managed to cut his wrists in the cell where he was awaiting trial and was taken for admission to the São José Hospital in Lisbon. His condition was serious and no one knew if he would survive his injuries.
Meanwhile, the authorities were still on the scene searching for the missing body and newspapers are already speculating that Rúben's obsession led to his killing Beatriz. Her mother was approached by a journalist and bravely said:
"We can only control what is in our power."
Paula knew Rúben as Beatriz’s friend from college, and added that he was nice, cultured, and intelligent. He was quite similar to her daughter and they had many shared interests. He was a normal boy who had no reason to hint that he would have committed this horrendous crime.
As police searchers still came up empty in the search for Beatriz, a call came in from Santa Apolónia. It was around 3:30pm on the Friday after her disappearance when a local resident was walking along the river and found a body floating in the river. The body was taken to the institute of forensic medicine for identification since it was already in an advanced stage of decomposition.
It was soon confirmed that the body was Beatriz Lebre. The forensic lab informed investigators that Beatriz did everything she could to save her own life. She had struggled with her killer and defensive wounds on her hands prove that she put them in front of her face to protect herself, but it was not enough.
At the scene in the river, a few meters away from the body was an iron rod that was to be analysed too. Rúben appeared in front of a judge the very next day and was charged with first-degree murder and concealment of a corpse, charged that could lead to a sentence of up to 25 years behind bars. The judge ordered Rúben to remain in pre-trial detention. Rúben's lawyer agreed since he was a suicide risk and he would be safer in jail where he could be monitored.
Still in shock with events unfolding regarding her daughter’s accused murderer, Paula Lebre spoke out publicly about the case and about being called to go to court to answer for her daughter's death:
"I don't know what I'm going to do there, my daughter is dead and the judge is the one who decides Rúben’s punishment."
She added that although Beatriz was her daughter, she was a girl of the world, she belonged to everyone and for this reason, she could not foresee that something like this would happen, even because she could not lock her up at home.
"I didn't want to keep my daughter locked up at home like some parents try to do when their children gain autonomy...that seems wrong to me...she belonged to the world...maybe now I think I shouldn't have given her so much space, but I did."
Paula said that her daughter was in Lisbon studying psychology to support her true passion – the piano. She believed that she was one of the last people Beatriz must have talked to on her mobile phone. That night, Beatriz said she was tired and that she was planning to improve her diet. When it came to Rúben, Paula added that she may have raised her daughter Beatriz wrong:
"I don't think I prepared Beatriz for evil."
But what exactly happened between Rúben and Beatriz that caused things to take such a dark turn? When Rúben was charged, a timeline of the crime was revealed. In the days leading up to Beatriz’s murder, the two of them spent a lot of time together. On May 18 and 19, Rúben spent the night at Beatriz's house. No one knew about this, not even her cousin who also lived there. They took advantage of the fact that Beatriz was home alone to be together. The next day, Rúben picked Beatriz up from home to go to his parent's house in Vale de Milhaços, where they spent the night. Rúben's parents were the only ones who knew about their love affair and believed that they were boyfriend and girlfriend. They had no reason to suspect that the relationship was a secret.
They left around 1:00 pm the next day, and Rúben took Beatriz back to her home in Lisbon. But they met again that night for a walk and were together until 03:00 in the morning. Beatriz had to go back to Elvas the following day, to see her parents. Rúben told the court how he wanted to be with her before she left, only it wasn't possible, since she had told him she was going to meet up with some friends. This was not what Rúben wanted to hear.
It was then that Rúben Couto, unable to take no for an answer, left the house with an iron rod and headed for Beatriz's house where he knew she would be alone. With his mobile phone in flight mode, Rúben headed to his girlfriend’s apartment with the worst intentions. When he arrived, he rang the bell, and Beatriz, surprised by the unplanned visit, let him in. This is why there was no sign of any kind of break-in at the door. From the moment the door closed, Rúben took out the baton he had hidden and struck Beatriz with several blows, including two head blows that proved to be fatal. Beatriz died on the spot and Rúben, suddenly in a panic, realised he had to dispose of her body.
He spent the next five hours at her house cleaning up the blood evidence. But the worst part was yet to come, Rúben needed to get rid of the body to throw the authorities off guard, but the building was too busy to leave at that hour, so he had to wait even longer. During this time, Rúben also took the opportunity to send a message from Beatriz's mobile phone to one of her friends saying that she wouldn't meet up with them because she was too tired. As soon as night fell and the noise took over the city, Rúben carried Beatriz's body on his back to his car that was in the parking lot outside. Nobody saw anything. He then drove about 4km to the Tejo River where he dumped the body. It was all over and it was time for him to return home as if nothing had happened. The next day, he managed to pull himself together and acted sufficiently concerned that he had not heard from her.
While Rúben was on remand in Lisbon Prison, facing a possible sentence of 25 years, an event changes the course of the case – Rúben ended his own life. Because he was on suicide watch, prison guards checked in on him every hour. He had been beaten by another inmate a few days earlier and was fragile as a result of all the events. His wounds had been bandaged, and this is where he saw an opportunity. In the hour between guards checking in, Rúben used his bandages to hang himself.
Upon receiving the news, Beatriz's mother wrote on social media to express her condolences to Rúben's family. She would later state that she did it because Rúben’s parents also lost a child, and she had empathy with their situation. In addition, she also realised the amount of hate that there was for Rúben on social media – since it was announced that Rúben would have put an end to his life, the messages of celebration for his death increased every second by the cybernetics. Paula's message served to neutralize the hateful reactions aimed at Rúben. She even went so far as to state that:
"Rúben is a normal boy, 24 years old, who could well be my son. I must therefore pay my respects to his family."
Beatriz’s mother commented on the fact that he had ended his life:
"I should have talked to him, it was the least he could have done. I needed answers."
But sadly it as too late. There was no longer anyone to blame or to judge. Rúben had inflicted justice onto himself.
It was a tragedy to everyone who knew and loved the two young and talented students. In hindsight, Rúben displayed characteristics that we now know are related to psychopathy. Up to the time of the murder, his life was going well, but since he was caught and arrested, nothing made sense anymore – because Beatriz was no longer alive. He could not cope with her choosing to see her friends over seeing him. And this inability to control his emotions lead to a fatal behavioural reaction on Rúben's part. Perhaps out of shame, and because he was aware that the act he committed was repulsed by society, he took his own life. Again, showing that he did not know how to face a difficult situation.
Beatriz's taste in music was well known to everyone – she wanted to be a pianist. Moreover, Beatriz drew great inspiration from Nick Cave. It should be remembered that Nick Cave also lost two sons. In 2015, 15-year-old Arthur lost his life when he fell off a cliff and the eldest, 31-year-old Jethro, passed away last year. A pain that cannot be shared, but that Nick believed there is always a way out of. After the death of his son Arthur, Nick began to receive hundreds of letters from fans who reported having been through the same thing and who felt his pain. In 2020, at a festival where Nick was performing, the singer said on stage that he had received a beautiful letter dedicated to Beatriz Lebre. It was her mother, Paula, who had sent it. Touched by the content, Nick dedicated the emotional song, Into My Arms to her.
In his texts, Rúben talked about choice, free will, and human dignity, perhaps all of which he did not do. By a twist of fate, Beatriz ended up dying in his arms. Although that day she realised that Rúben was not at his best, Beatriz opened the door for him, because despite everything, she believed in love. As her mom confirms:
"Even today, after 2 years, her friends come by the house to cuddle me. They even stay overnight in her room for days."
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