PARENTS SEARCH FOR ANSWERS, CLOSURE IN SON'S DEATH
Marilyn Miller and Gina Mace
Akron Beacon Journal
The boy with the impish grin surrounded by his soccer pals. The handsome young man with the ear-to-ear smile, standing in his tuxedo. The proud father beaming at his baby girl.
More than 100 people paused to look at photos as they filed into Sacred Heart Catholic Church for a Mass remembering Joao Herbert's short life.
His mother, Nancy Saunders, hoped the service would provide closure. His father, Jim Herbert, vowed to seek the truth about his son's death.
Joao Herbert was adopted from a Brazilian orphanage at the age of 8. Because he was not an American citizen, he was deported to Brazil in 2000 after a conviction on a minor felony drug charge that resulted in a sentence of probation in Medina County Common Pleas Court. He was murdered May 25 in Campinas, Brazil, where he taught English.
Family and friends have had a difficult time accepting the official explanation of Joao Herbert's death -- that he had formed an alliance with his murderers in a plot to import guns from Paraguay and sell them on the streets so that Joao Herbert could earn money to sneak back into the United States.
That sounds preposterous to Jim Herbert, who said he had found a sponsor for his son in Canada and the family was planning to spend Thanksgiving there this year.
"I'm going to talk to people in Brazil," Jim Herbert said. "I'm going to find out what really happened."
The Rev. Robert Jackson, who first met Joao Herbert when he was 11, celebrated the Mass. He recalled the young man's love of life, his family and soccer and his acceptance of the tragic events that sent him back to Brazil.
"Joao was always enthusiastic and optimistic," Jackson said. "When I visited him in jail I was amazed at his calm and peacefulness. He said 'I will be all right because God will take care of me.' "
Jackson told Herbert's parents that they were doing God's work when they adopted him from Brazil.
"When you brought him here, you gave him a future and hope for a better life."
Jackson recalled Jim Herbert's words on the day that Joao Herbert was deported -- he knew his son was going to die.
"Evil did a great injustice to this young man," Jackson said. "He lacked street smarts. He lived in a different world. Joao never understood that Brazil was not Wadsworth, Ohio."
A lifelong friend, Steve Jewell of Wadsworth, asked mourners to remember his friend for how he was in life -- his courage, his smile, his personality and his work ethic.
Jewell met Joao Herbert shortly after he arrived from Brazil.
"Mr. Herbert called me because Joao needed to learn how to dress and how to put on socks because he didn't wear them in Brazil," Jewell said. "I taught him how to wear socks the cool way -- to be a cool American kid."
The two boys did everything together after that -- they played soccer and basketball and hung out with friends at Hinkley Ledges when they were teens. "We called each other brother," Jewell said.
"He was the first of our friends to turn 16 and get a car. He would pile 8 or 9 of us in his lime green car," Jewell said. "We went everywhere together -- that is until he started charging us gas money."
After the service, Jewell said he last spoke to Joao Herbert two months ago.
"He was doing fine with his school. We talked about his daughter and me coming down to visit," Jewell said. "I was having family problems and he listened, despite his own problems. He told me to make things right with my mother. He said you never know how much you miss someone until you don't have them around anymore."
Jewell and another of Joao Herbert's friends, Jered Cundiff, played a video tape of Herbert's life from his first days in Wadsworth as an 8-year-old through the birth of his daughter in November.
"He went through more in his 26 years than most of us will ever know in our lifetime," Jewell told mourners.
Mother tries to heal
Saunders, Herbert's mother, said she was overwhelmed by the number of people who took time out of their workweek to pay tribute to her son.
"Some of these people we haven't seen in years," she said. "Some of them were there when we brought him from Brazil."
Joao Herbert was buried in Brazil the day after he died.
"I'm going to go home and be by myself and keep absorbing this," Saunders said. "The healing is what I really needed, and I felt it."
During the service, Jewell emphasized the qualities he admired in his friend. "He was the type of kid you'd want to be around . . . " Jewell said. "I love Joao. I will miss his friendship, his strength and his magnetic smile."
Jackson and Jewell both remembered Joao Herbert's love of soccer. "We played every day," Jewell said.
"I don't know if there's soccer in heaven," Jackson said. "But if there is, he'll be organizing it."