By C.H. Gardiner
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The alleged triggerman behind the death of Councilwoman Marielle Franco gave testimony in court Thursday afternoon concerning 117 disassembled rifles found by police in an apartment in Méier in March of this year. He is expected to testify regarding the Franco case Friday.
Retired Rio police sergeant Ronnie Lessa is facing two separate criminal cases related to the Franco killing. The first is for the March 14 assassination of the councilwoman and her driver Anderson Gomes. Authorities expect the prosecution of the murder case to take longer than the weapons case, due to the complex circumstances of the investigation.
According to investigators, Lessa and an accomplice – retired police officer Elcio Vieira de Queiroz – followed Franco’s car after she left a debate for young black women in Lapa.
After following the vehicle for 30 minutes, Lessa and Queiroz are alleged to have pulled alongside Franco’s car, when Lessa allegedly shot 13 times through the window. Franco was shot three times in the head and once in the neck. Gomes was shot three times in the back. An aide to Franco, also in the vehicle, was injured from bullet fragments.
Rio’s public prosecutor’s office said in March that Lessa committed the crime because of his revulsion with Franco’s political activity in defense of minorities. Prosecutors said that this did not rule out the possibility that the crime was an ordered hit.
In the second case, prosecutors are moving forward with weapon charges for the 117 disassembled rifles. Because authorities were able to recover the weapon parts, the case is seen as less complicated to bring to trial by prosecutors.
The hearing held Thursday is the last step before the court will render a sentence next month. If convicted, this will be the first time that Lessa has been successfully charged with a crime.
Lessa’s lawyer, Fernando Wagner Pacheco de Santana, said that the parts found by authorities were in fact for bb guns–pressurized air guns that fire small round pellets.
Photos released by police at the time of the apprehension show the part of the gun containing mechanical components have semi-automatic hammers, something that would not be found in air rifles.
In 1988 Lessa joined the army; in 1991 he joined Rio’s state police. In 1997 Lessa acted as part of BOPE, Rio’s special operations unit. However, he failed to go through the rigorous selection and training process that became mandatory for the unit, and he was transferred from the group to a regular battalion in 1997. His career as a police officer ended in 2009 when he lost his leg to a bomb placed in his car.
An outpouring of national and international outrage followed the murder of Franco. Many Brazilians saw her death as an attack on Brazil’s democracy.
Rio de Janeiro has seen a spike in targeted assassinations against politicians in recent years, especially in the city’s suburbs which have become dominated by mafia-like criminal militias willing to use violence to achieve their goals.