De Menezes: the real story

Ahead of the report into the London Tube killing, Chris Heath goes in search of the Brazilian mistaken for a terrorist. He found an ambitious young man and devoted son
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The Independent Online

On Thursday 7 July 2005 - 15 days before Jean Charles de Menezes was killed by seven bullets that were unloaded into his head and one into his shoulder, 15 days before the final moment of a countdown he was never aware of because it never had anything to do with him - Britain was shaken by the first suicide bombers in its history. At 8.50am bombs exploded on three Tube trains heading in different directions from King's Cross station; 57 minutes later, the top was blown off a bus in Tavistock Square.

In total, 52 innocent people died. It took several days to clarify that those responsible had not only been suicide bombers but also that they had been British citizens. There was terror in the air, but relief that these particular perpetrators, at least, could offer no further threat.

Jean Charles de Menezes, who had moved to London more than three years earlier, had been working late the night before and didn't wake until midday. He turned on the TV in the small two-bedroom flat in Tulse Hill he shared with his two cousins, and like the millions of Londoners who regularly travel the routes chosen by the bombers, he learned that today he had been lucky.

On Friday 8 July - two weeks before the police would announce that they had just killed a terrorist, a viewpoint they clung to until the following day despite the absence of explosives or anything suspicious on the corpse they removed from Stockwell station - Jean Charles de Menezes went into the centre of town and, as he often did, dropped by the Oxford Street restaurant Brasil by Kilo, a nexus for Brazilians living in London. Jean was friends with its two owners; he had done all the electrics when they had moved in 18 months ago, and they now called him whenever odd electrical jobs needed doing.

A few weeks earlier a boiler had gone wrong, and they'd called him at 10 o'clock that evening and asked him to come in; the fridges were down and the restaurant would have to close the next day if the boiler wasn't fixed. He was there in 26 minutes and stayed until 6am. Everyone said that was typical. It is natural, in the wake of tragedy, to exaggerate someone's finer qualities, but everyone who knew him convincingly insists that Jean was simply one of those good guys.

On Sunday 17 July - five days before London's Evening Standard carried the headline "Bomber is shot dead on Tube", detailed how the slain terrorist had vaulted the ticket barrier after being challenged by the police, and quoted a government spokesman as saying "the police and emergency services have acted superbly" - Jean Charles de Menezes went to a barbecue at his friend Gesio de Avila's flat in Dollis Hill in north-west London. Gesio, a Brazilian builder with a pierced right eyebrow, had been in London nearly three years and had been close to Jean since they did a job together two years earlier. Today's barbecue wasn't for any special reason, just because it was summer and a beautiful day; about a dozen people were gathered out in Gesio's small back garden, beef and chicken and chicken hearts on the grill, rice, beans, salad and cassava on the side, cans of Foster's in their hands.

Jean had arrived at 10 in the morning and didn't leave until just before midnight. He and Gesio talked about going to a rave the following month. Later, when most people had gone home and Gesio had sneaked inside for a nap, Jean and Milton, Gesio's brother, sat outside and talked. Jean wanted to talk about religion and life after death, about how upset he was about his last relationship, and about what he dreamed of doing when he left London.

When Jean was talking about religion, Milton pretended to be some kind of seer. He said he could see ahead in Jean's life and that he saw a lot of good things. He was just joking, though it was nothing he didn't also believe. Then Gesio woke up and cooked them dinner. Jean drank the last beer and headed home to his bedroom, where he'd watch action movies with the door open and porn with the door closed.

On Tuesday 19 July - three days before the police would suggest that the man they had shot that morning was wearing an unseasonably and suspiciously heavy jacket that might have been hiding a bomb, though Jean's friends would later insist that he must have been wearing the blue denim jacket he always wore - Jean Charles de Menezes went back to Oxford Street and stopped at Money Express, a money-transfer bureau above Brasil by Kilo. Typically, he would send home a few hundred pounds at a time, but today he picked up his fee for the late-night boiler job and, adding it to other money he had with him, transferred over £1,000 to his family.

Then he went to chat to one of the owners downstairs at Brasil by Kilo and mentioned that the bombs had scared him. Jean had ridden a red Honda C90 around London but had sold it the previous September before going back to Brazil for seven months. He told the owner he was now planning to get a new bike so that he didn't have to use public transport.

On Wednesday 20 July - two days before the undercover officers following Jean Charles de Menezes radioed back to Scotland Yard for instructions and were told to implement Operation Kratos, which called for a single gunshot through the mouth to sever the spinal cord and up to four more shots to the head, not only to kill instantly and prevent a suspect from triggering a bomb but also because shots to the torso could detonate a bomb hidden there - Jean Charles de Menezes went to see the building firm he worked for when he first came to London. He'd come to talk about a lucrative commercial job in the centre of the city. It was a big break for him: it was going to give him three or more months' work and potentially £11,000 to £14,000 in his pocket.

For several weeks, Jean had been doing a second job in the evenings, working as a kitchen porter at a restaurant in the back streets near Charing Cross station. The job belonged to a friend who had gone home to Brazil for a month; Jean agreed to fill in for him. The restaurant was at a private club for entrepreneurs, called Adam Street, which was on the site of vaults built in the 18th-century and, the club claims, Charles Dickens's inspiration for Fagin's den in Oliver Twist.

He should have been working there that Wednesday - he used to have to get away from whatever electrician job he was doing to present himself by 6pm and then would work until about 1am if the club was busy - but he had swapped it for Friday, which was his regular day off. Instead, he stayed home with his cousin Vivien, who had been in England only three months. (She was the fourth cousin to come in his wake, all of whom Jean had looked after so that their early months here wouldn't be as difficult as his had been.) She cooked dinner - beef, tinned red beans, rice and salad - and they stayed up until 12.30, chatting.

For some reason, Jean chose to talk to Vivien about the path of his life from its beginnings to now, the trail that had led him here from a small home in the middle of Brazil, far from the nearest paved road. That night he told Vivien the story of how he got interested in being an electrician, and he said that the first time someone gave him a lightbulb, it was the very best present he had ever received.

On Thursday 21 July - the day before he was killed for displaying somewhere between zero and seven of the Kratos protocol's indicators of the behaviour of a suicide bomber: bulky clothing not in keeping with the weather or event; sweating, mumbling, or possibly praying; recently clean-shaven; short hair; looking anxious; holding something in the hand or clenched fist; wire toggle protruding from overtly carried bag - a second wave of terrorism hit London.

That morning Jean travelled across London to Gesio's house, arriving at about 9.30am so they could go and look at a job fixing an alarm in the hallway of an apartment building in Kilburn. On the way back into town, they stopped at Gesio's for some coffee and some bread and butter. They were sitting in his kitchen when another friend called to say that there had been more bombs. It would turn out that four potential suicide bombers - again, three on underground trains and one on a bus--had tried to set off explosives, though none had succeeded in detonating the full charge, and there were no fatalities.

The Brazilians couldn't believe the news they were watching unfold on TV. Jean called his cousins Vivien and Patricia, told them what had happened, and asked them to be careful on their way home. Gesio asked if they could make an early start the next morning, but Jean demurred; he said that he'd be home late from his other job and would need to sleep, but that he'd be as early as he could be. He left his tools with Gesio. Vivien and Patricia were already sleeping when Jean got in. The three of them had a plan to go to the stony beachfront at Brighton that Sunday. By the time he was awake, they had left for work. They never spoke again.

On 7 January 1978 - 27 years, seven months, and 15 days before their son's death in a country they knew only from his fond descriptions of it - Maria Ambosia de Menezes and Matosinhos Otone da Silva welcomed their second son. The Menezes family lived - and still lives - at the end of a red-dirt track, reached by following eight miles of similar red-dirt tracks through valleys and over hills from the nearest small town, Gonzaga, until one makes a final right turn past the end of the lake Jean used to like jumping into at night, scaring everyone by launching himself from the bank high above. When Jean was growing up, the outside world seemed far, far away. They had no electricity, no TV, no car or motorbike. Maybe once a month they would make the journey into Gonzaga - three hours' walk there, three hours back - but they didn't need much. The only things they had to buy were salt and, when they didn't grow it themselves, rice. The rest they had here: cattle, chickens, ducks, bananas, avocados, corn, manioc, lemons, mangoes, guavas, sweet potatoes. This was the universe his parents knew. His mother came from about a mile away. His father, who occasionally would travel to do bricklaying but mostly tended their land and animals, had grown up a hundred yards up the hill, where the bananas now prosper, and said that he would only leave here in a coffin.

Much of the time, Jean played with his cousin Alex, who lived two minutes' walk away and was roughly the same age. They would climb up between the bamboo stalks, to the top, 10 yards up sometimes, and then, grabbing one stalk, they would leap, trusting the bamboo to bend under their weight and parachute them in a parabola back to the earth.

Everyone says that Jean was always a joker. One day he noticed that his mother seemed sorrowful. He asked her why she wasn't smiling today, and she told him that she wasn't happy.

"Mother," he asked her, "have you seen a baby chicken ride a bicycle?" She conceded that this was not something she had ever seen. He put his finger in a baby chicken's bottom and lifted it so that the chicken's legs pedalled helplessly as they looked for the ground, and his mother smiled.

When he was nine, he fixed his first real radio. To begin with, he was only trusted with radios that seemed busted beyond repair, but even these he would return fixed. The next year, he did a correspondence course and took it all in. One day he mashed up a banana with some charcoal and made a primitive battery that lit a bulb for two hours. Maybe it was the fact that his family didn't have it when he was young that made him so entranced by electricity.

His mother remembers the day they went into Gonzaga and Jean saw the local electrician climbing the wooden pole, his feet digging into the wood as he made his way up. After that, Jean declared that his dream was to be an electrician and that he wanted to bring electricity and light to his family's home.

When Jean Charles de Menezes was 14 - 13 years before his death, 13 years before eyewitnesses who had seen the supposed suicide bomber in his final moments would report "I saw him shoot him five times"; "a tall Asian guy, shaved head, slight beard, with a rucksack"; "four dull bangs"; "I seen this guy who appears to have a bomb belt and wires coming out" and "he basically looked like a cornered rabbit, a cornered fox - he looked absolutely petrified, and then he sort of tripped..." - he left home for the first time, to study in Gonzaga. For the next 10 years, he moved around, mostly between his family home, Gonzaga, and São Paulo. He concentrated on qualifying as an electrician and putting his skills into practice. It seems he did well enough, but in the modern age it is hard to earn the kind of living in Brazil to satisfy even modestly big dreams: of building a house and looking after one's parents, of setting up one's own business.

A tradition of going abroad to work, mostly to the US, established itself in Minas Gerais, the region in which Jean grew up, long before the rest of the country. (Locals estimate that about a quarter of Gonzaga's population currently resides in the United States.)

About four years ago, Jean paid for a language course in Boston, Massachusetts, and applied for a visa so that he could attend. After being questioned at the consulate about how he would support himself there, he was refused. Annoyed, he went back two weeks later, saying that he saw no reason why they should refuse him. They asked him what had changed in his circumstances over the past two weeks and confirmed their refusal. Jean said that, frustrated, he raised his voice; at this the official put a stamp in his passport and suggested that he try again in 2012.

Instead, a year later, he tried Britain. A girl who lived next to his girlfriend in São Paulo said that she had a brother there who would help him. He sold his bike, borrowed some money, and on 13 March 2002, flew to London on a six-month tourist visa. For several weeks he stayed with his friend's brother.

His first few weeks there weren't easy. To begin with, he washed dishes, but eventually he found some Brazilian builders who were renovating a £1.1m house in Clapham and who agreed to take him on as a labourer. They liked him, and soon he was asked to sleep on-site to look after everything at night. There was no hot water, so he rigged up an electric shower hanging by a wire over the bath.

It took him a while to convince his bosses that he was an electrician, but they quickly realised that he was a good one. By the time the house was finished, Jean was the person his boss trusted to change from boots to nice shoes and to go round the house with the client to do the final alterations. This same boss says he started to take Jean out on the town; they'd maybe meet some girls together, drink some whisky and Red Bulls, and see whether they'd all end up at the boss's place. His boss liked spending time with someone receptive to the lessons he had already learned, someone who might follow in his footsteps. After Jean died, this boss concurred with all the sweet testimonials to Jean's character but said that Jean was tougher than people thought. He said that you have to be tough to make it in London, that you have to be twice as tough if you're a foreigner, and that of all the Brazilians he had employed in London over the past 23 years, Jean was one of only two he could see making what could be made of it - and that the other is now driving a BMW and has four houses.

It's natural for people to project their own desires, and there are those of his friends who have made their home in London who wonder whether Jean would ever have been happy to settle back on the outskirts of Gonzaga; but most took him at his word. Two more years in London. Maybe three. And then he would have all the money he needed for himself and his family, his mission accomplished.

In late September - 10 months before he died and people started asking why oh why had he triggered this tragedy by running from the police, something the authorities seemed to be deliberately addressing a few days later when they leaked the information that his most recent visa had expired (though after that people still asked why a supposed suicide bomber was allowed on a bus, then off a bus, then into a train station, and the stories began to circulate that maybe he wasn't wearing a heavy coat and hadn't vaulted the barrier after all) - Jean went back to Brazil for seven months. The trip was arranged suddenly, a month after his ex-girlfriend Adriana had gone home.

He had been going out with her for four or five years, and she had lived the last year in London with him, but she wanted him to move to São Paulo, where she had a daughter from a previous relationship. He didn't want to, and they parted ways. Still, though his cousin Alex says that if Jean were alive he would punch Alex for suggesting that Adriana was the reason Jean went back home, he thinks it was. Though Jean spent time with her in Brazil, and though some people still believe they eventually would have worked things out, their break-up was reconfirmed before he went back to London. During his stay, he travelled around, went to the beach, did some fishing with his elder brother Giovane and sowed a few wild oats.

By now Jean's parents were living in their new house - a few feet in front of their old house - which had been largely paid for by Jean, who'd also bought the lights and would wire everything up. (Electricity had finally reached them in 1998.) They removed the kitchen from the old house, but the rest of it remained and was used to store dried corn. Next to it is the satellite dish that pulls down 22 channels, though not necessarily with the permission of their owners. Not long ago the first paved road also reached Gonzaga, from the east, though a piece of the mountain between Gonzaga and Sardoa soon slipped down and claimed a little of it back.

It sounds too apposite now, of course, but it really seems that on this visit Jean not only talked up Britain constantly but boasted to person after person about the wonders of the British police - about how they didn't have guns and would judge you on what you explained to them. He'd been stopped several times and never had a problem. Even while he was in Brazil, he worked on his English; people would see him wearing his Walkman and would lift the headphone to hear what music he was listening to, but it would be his language tapes. When he'd arrived back home, Jean brought presents with him. To his godfather, Adair Otoni, who lives between Jean's family home and Gonzaga, he gave a pair of leather boots and a bottle of whisky. His godfather had yet to open the whisky when the news came, and swears that now he never will. He has told his sons that even after he dies, the bottle of whisky must be kept unopened, to remind them always.

On 22 July - the day of Jean's death - the first blunder was made by those watching the front door, who were supposed to videotape anyone who left Jean's building. Perhaps this video could have quickly been compared with footage of the bombers from the previous day, but Jean was never filmed because as he exited the building, the man watching him was busy relieving himself.

Other errors piled up. According to police documents that were leaked from the ongoing investigation, one of the factors in Jean's positive identification as a bomber was the observation, radioed by an officer shadowing him, that Jean had distinctive "Mongolian eyes". When Jean reached the station, he wasn't approached by anyone, he didn't run, and he didn't vault the ticket barrier. Instead he walked through the station quite normally and used a travelcard to get through the barrier, and even stopped to pick up a copy of the free London newspaper Metro on his way. He descended slowly on the escalator until he heard the arriving train, and started to run. He walked inside the train car through its middle door, paused, looked in both directions, and took a seat to his right, facing the platform.

He wasn't alone. As well as members of the public, at least three members of one of the surveillance teams were in the carriage with him. Sitting to Jean's left was a man code-named Hotel 3. Two seats beyond that was Hotel 1. Hotel 9 was by the doors through which Jean had boarded. All of them watching while, it seems, Jean was still completely unaware of the storm that had been gathering around him, the storm that was about to lift him out of this world.

When the four armed plainclothes police, who had just been given a positive ID on the suspect and were authorised to shoot to kill if necessary, came along the platform, Hotel 3 stood up, put his left foot against the train door to keep it open, and shouted to them, "He's here," indicating Jean with his right hand. That was when the armed police saw their target for the first time. Jean stood up and walked toward them, and that was when Hotel 3 wrapped his arms around Jean, trapping Jean's own arms to his side and pushing him back into his seat. In the same instant, not one but two armed officers fired - not just the eight bullets that hit but three others that missed. A photograph shows his body lying face down on the carriage floor, the fingers of his left hand reaching out from the sleeve of his blue denim jacket.

Over the following days, the family was guided by an instant coalition of activists and lawyers, who liberated the British-based cousins from the suburban hotel where the police had sequestered them without incoming or outgoing phone service and who were now spearheading a campaign to find out what had happened, to force scrutiny of an apparent shoot-to-kill policy unprecedented in modern Britain, and to ensure that the family received appropriate compensation. Three of the cousins flew home to Brazil with Jean's body, and the fourth, Alessandro, spoke briefly at a memorial held for him in London's Westminster Cathedral. At the service, Gareth Peirce, the human-rights lawyer played by Emma Thompson in the movie In the Name of the Father, read poems of protest, and Bianca Jagger compared Jean with "the most famous of all the injustices in the Bible," ie, the death of Christ: "Both were innocent victims, and both died very publicly on a Friday in front of a crowd who were powerless as they bore witness."

At the same time as his London memorial service was taking place, Jean's body was being buried in the hillside cemetery which lies up the steep, snaking path that rises behind Gonzaga's church. Around town, banners proclaimed the locals' grief and anger. Along one side of the church square hung the most direct: "Jean, mártir do terrorismo Inglês."

Jean's 65-year-old father brings inside a heavy wide-brimmed pail of frothing milk, large bubbles on its surface, that he has just milked from the cows. On the stove of the new house that Jean helped to provide for his parents, food is cooking. Yesterday, one of the ducks killed a baby chicken and ate it, signing its own death sentence. Today, it is lunch. Out in front of the house sits Jean's motorbike, on its body, decals of the Union Jack. That, and a "Sex instructor - first lesson free" sticker.

His mother says that they last spoke on the phone a few weeks before. As usual Jean asked whether everyone was healthy; they don't have much else to worry about out there. She was planning to speak to him the Monday before he died, but the previous weekend she took ill. That was why, to begin with, she was so pleased when the doctor arrived unexpectedly at the house; the doctor the mayor had brought to give her an injection and some pills to soften the approaching news.

She says she can neither read nor write. But she thinks before she says anything. She doesn't just do something without thinking. And what she wants to know of the people who did this is, why didn't they think before they shot her son?

She goes into her bedroom and fetches the gifts that her son brought her from his adopted country. She carefully unfolds the red, white and blue Union Jack tea towel and hands over a snow dome showing the London Eye. As the snow falls in London, she starts weeping inconsolably, and her remaining son leads her away into the next room.

This is an edited extract of an article which appeared in American 'GQ' magazine