Deported first offender dies in a homeland he never understood
By Kevin G. Hall Fri, May. 28, 2004
CAMPINAS, Brazil - An Ohio man deported to Brazil four years ago for a minor drug infraction was gunned down here by drug-dealing teens this week. Friends say he'd sought the teens' help to smuggle guns into Brazil and use the proceeds to sneak back into the United States.
The case of Joao Herbert, 26, gained international attention in 2000, after his adoptive parents' inability to obtain citizenship papers for him, along with newly toughened immigration law and Herbert's first-offense conviction for selling marijuana forced his deportation.
Herbert left Brazil at age 8 and grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio. As an orphan, he had no family in Brazil and spoke no Portuguese. Sending him back there would be tantamount to "a death sentence," his adoptive mother, Nancy Saunders, warned at the time.
Herbert, in an interview with The Akron Beacon-Journal, responded that "God will help me wherever I go."
In Brazil, Herbert settled into a small brick house in Campinas, an industrial town 60 miles north of Sao Paolo. His house is neat and treed, but it's on the edge of Sao Pedro de Viracopos, one of the city's more notorious slums. At night, drug dealers are as common as ATM machines in the United States. In Campinas, a city of about 1 million, there were 192 murders from January through March, most of them drug-related.
Herbert taught English in Campinas and even opened a school, the English University. It advertised on its billboard that an "American professor" was the teacher. Herbert moved in with one of his pupils, Paula Alexandre, 30. They had a daughter in November.
Friends with Herbert when he died Tuesday said he mostly lived by the straight and narrow. Certainly, they agreed, he never had any street smarts.
At about 250 pounds, he was both heavier and taller than his Brazilian friends. He re-learned enough Portuguese to get by, but when stopped recently by police, he didn't understand the order to put up his hands. He drove a 1998 Volkswagen Gol - flashy for the slums - and wasn't always discreet about money.
"Greed kills," said an elderly neighbor after his death.
"He was a fish out of water," said Dodo Lopes, a friend.
"He never understood the ways of Brazil. Never," said Michael Miller, a Baptist missionary in Campinas for the past nine years, who befriended Herbert when he arrived in Brazil.
Herbert's life came apart early this year just months after his baby daughter, Nayrah, was born. He separated from his common-law wife, closed the school and was using drugs, friends said. He also concocted a desperate plan to sneak back into the United States and live under a new identity.
"He wanted to go to Mexico or to Canada. He couldn't stand it here and he thought it would be simple," said a friend in whom Herbert confided.
Herbert's idea was to purchase Tech 9 submachine guns in neighboring Paraguay, the source of much of the weaponry used by Brazil's notorious drug factions, and smuggle them back into Brazil.
"He said he could sell them here for 3000 reais (about $1000) and buy them in Paraguay for 700 reais (about $133)," said a friend who was next to Herbert as he died. This friend and others feared reprisals by Herbert's killer and asked not to be named.
Herbert planned to use the profits to cross into the United States illegally and start a new life.
Jim Herbert, the deportee's adoptive father, said in an interview that he helped the young man with occasional cash and kept in touch. He expressed surprise at the scheme to escape to Canada.
"About a month ago, I had offered to fly him to Canada where he could seek sponsorship" for Canadian citizenship, said the elder Herbert. "But he said he wanted to stay in Brazil. It was his native country."
On Tuesday, Herbert and some friends prepared for a barbecue and planned to watch the Brazilian national soccer team play a televised exhibition match.
Three teenagers from the neighboring slum knocked on his door around 1:30 p.m. local time. Friends say they warned Joao that the kids were trouble.
The youths had been driving with Herbert two weeks earlier when police stopped them, found two guns and confiscated the car. The teens now wanted Herbert to repay them for the guns' loss. He'd bought marijuana from the teens, Herbert's friends said, and intended to use them to take his weapons-buying plan to drug traffickers.
His friends stepped between Herbert and the teens, showing them the broken headlights and mirrors on Herbert's VW, which was damaged after police seized the vehicle. The friends argued that the police incident had cost Herbert more than it cost them.
Indeed, it had. Herbert, according to his adoptive father, phoned recently and said he needed $3,000 urgently. The elder Herbert wired $1,500 and his son scrounged up the rest. Friends say it was to pay off police and get the VW out of hock.
Herbert, trying to settle matters with the teens, walked off with them. Once they'd turned the corner, shots rang out. Someone shot him four times in the head and chest. Bleeding profusely, Herbert staggered about 50 yards down Sandra Brea Street, turned right onto Joaquim Lopes Gonsalves toward his one-story home and fell face-up onto red clay with his eyes wide open.
"I believe he came to Brazil to die," says Alexandre.
Six months after calling Herbert's parents with news of a granddaughter, Miller was asked by the parents to bury their son in Brazil since they could not.
Joao Herbert was laid to rest Wednesday afternoon. Fresh flowers adorn his grave in a private cemetery. There's no tombstone yet because his name was misspelled on his death certificate as Herbet. Cemetery directors insist on using the spelling on the death certificate.
The events that led to his tragic return to Brazil began in January 1996 when Jim Herbert and his wife filed an application for citizenship for Joao, then 17.
It was denied that May because Joao had turned 18 in March and was supposed to file for himself.
Had Herbert been a U.S. citizen in 1998 when he was placed in residential treatment and put on probation for selling 7 ounces of marijuana to an undercover policeman, he would have faced no further punishment.
By then, however, U.S. immigration laws had been stiffened to require deportation for all but the most minor of drug crimes. Herbert knew it, fled his residential treatment center and was later apprehended in Florida.
Ohio Gov. Bob Taft rejected a parole board's urging that he annul Herbert's conviction.