Ruth Thalía, a teenager from the outskirts of Lima, Peru, became an overnight sensation on a hit television game show. Then, she disappeared.
By Daniel Alarcón
Photographs by Omar Lucas
The Peruvian version of the international television game show franchise The Moment of Truth arrived in Lima in mid-2012. By that time, the program had been produced in dozens of countries around the world, including the United States, where it aired on Fox in 2008 and 2009. In Peru, the show was called El Valor de la Verdad (“the value of the truth”), and the format was essentially the same as it had been everywhere else: A contestant is brought into the station and asked a set of questions, some banal, some uncomfortable, some bordering on cruel, all while hooked to a polygraph.
The answers are cataloged. Then, a few days later, the contestant is brought back to go through the questions once more, this time before a studio audience. The answers given are compared to the results of the polygraph, and for each truthful response, the contestant wins money. If she lies — or rather, if the polygraph says she lies — she loses it all. Naturally, the more money at stake, the more compromising the questions become. The contestant has the option of calling it off after each answer.
In Peru, the show’s host was Beto Ortiz, who in a recent national poll was named the country’s most powerful TV journalist. A balding, heavyset man in his mid-40s, Beto has long been one of the more successful and controversial figures in Peru. He is sharp, inquisitive, funny, and has gained millions of fans; the television critic Fernando Vivas, who writes for El Comercio, Peru’s most influential newspaper, described Beto as “a monster on the scene, with all the ambivalence implied by the word ‘monster.’”
When Beto first made the transition from print to television, he was known for his deeply reported stories about the seedier aspects of urban life: street kids, punks, prostitutes. He was unlike anyone else on the air. Today, in Lima, you need only say “Beto,” and everyone knows whom you’re talking about. When asked what it was like being famous, Beto responded: “That’s like asking me what it’s like being fat. I don’t remember what it was like being skinny.”
The show’s first contestant was a young woman named Ruth Thalía Sayas Sánchez. She was 19 years old, with shoulder-length brown hair and an easy smile. She and her siblings were born in the province of Huancavelica, hundreds of miles from Lima, but had been raised on the outskirts of the capital in a working-class area called Huachipa. Not long ago, this area was a provincial escape from Lima’s humid, miserable winters, but by the time the Sayas Sánchez family moved in, the neighborhood was in the midst of an unseemly transition, away from its agricultural past and toward its frenetic, urban future. And so both ways of life coexisted, sometimes uneasily: Young men tended to mototaxis; slightly older men grazed horses. Stray dogs lapped water from dirty puddles in the middle of rutted, unpaved roads, and large plots of farmland sat amid half-built houses, rebar poking out of the concrete, piles of bricks lying in the street.
This was where Ruth Thalía grew up, though she would admit to Beto that she longed for something better. For his part, Beto was, at least initially, unimpressed with Ruth Thalía: “Average,” he said, when asked to describe his first contestant. “Pretty, but nothing special.” When the cameras began to roll, however, something changed. Ruth Thalía brightened, carrying herself with the confidence of a young striver, comfortable under the lights, even playful. “She liked being on television,” her sister, Eva, would say later.
According to the rules of the program, every contestant could bring three guests. Ruth Thalía was accompanied by her parents, Leoncio and Vilma. Leoncio seemed worried from the outset. “I’m afraid of what I might learn about my daughter,” he told Beto when he was introduced on camera. Vilma was more optimistic. She was a small woman, with a wide smile and glowing light-brown skin. Ruth Thalía’s parents had an Andean pop band, Vilma Sánchez y los Chupachichis del Perú, that often performed in the dustier sections of the capital. Vilma sang, and Leoncio played the harp. As far as Vilma knew — as far as her daughter had told her — Beto would be asking about her arrival in Lima; about how the family had survived those first years in the capital, selling watermelon and pineapple in the market; about those days when the girls still spoke only Quechua, one of Peru’s indigenous languages, and were bullied at school for it. These were satisfying memories for Vilma. They’d worked hard, through difficult circumstances, and though they would never have a lot of money, their two daughters were studying at a local university. It’s the typical, heroic story of Lima’s hundreds of thousands of migrants, no less admirable for being common. “I was happy to go,” Vilma said later. “I was going to say, ‘I’m from Huancavelica and proud of it, Mr. Beto!’”
Ruth Thalía’s third guest was a handsome, timid young man named Bryan Romero Leiva. He wore his brown hair short and combed forward slightly. He was 20 years old, drove a mototaxi, and had been raised on a steeply sloping dirt road near Ruth Thalía’s home. He had soccer posters adorning the walls of his old room just off the dirt-floor kitchen, and he kept a cat and a rabbit as pets, both black, as was his preference. He wasn’t a dour or unpleasant boy, though; in fact, Bryan’s mother, Mery, described her son as helpful and kind. And he hadn’t had it easy, that was for sure. He’d stuttered, Mery said, ever since an old boyfriend of hers had pushed him down the stairs when the child was only 8. For years, Bryan had accompanied her to the market at dawn, helping her sell breakfast plates to the workers. At the time of the taping, he was renting a room in the neighborhood, just a few minutes’ walk from his mother’s house.
“I don’t know why,” said Vilma, “but I hated that kid.”
On the show, in front of the cameras, Bryan was tense, his right leg shaking anxiously.
“You seem nervous,” Beto said. “What are you so nervous about?”
“That she may have cheated on me.”
Everyone laughed, including Ruth Thalía.
Beto paused. “Let’s not forget this is just a game,” he said.
The show’s opening questions were light: Have you ever skipped school without your mother’s knowledge? If you found 1,000 soles, would you return them? Ruth Thalía’s parents joked along with Beto, as their daughter copped to these minor moral failings. There was more, of course. David Novoa, who was a producer with the show at the time, later admitted he felt bad. He’d done the initial interview with Ruth Thalía, had helped Beto formulate the questions that would be part of the show. He’d visited the Sayas Sánchez family in Huachipa and knew their story well. The afternoon of the taping, he was in the control booth, whispering into Beto’s earpiece. “I knew it was going to be a surprise, and a shameful moment for them.”
Which made Ruth Thalía a perfect contestant for El Valor de la Verdad. It all happened in a matter of minutes, a kind of onslaught. Ruth Thalía revealed that she’d had a nose job, that she didn’t like her body, that she wished she were white, that she was only with her boyfriend until someone better came along, that she was ashamed of her parents’ manners, that she didn’t work at a call center, that she danced at a nightclub. The result was undeniably riveting: this young, reckless woman sharing secrets with an entire country.
Reality television was relatively new on Peruvian airwaves. Peru’s economic growth in recent years had led to growing advertisement dollars for local television stations and growing budgets for bigger and more ambitious productions. For the region, however, Peru was still catching up. Formats like Big Brother, which had exploded across Latin America, skipped Peru for years. Importing an international format likeEl Valor de la Verdad would have been unthinkable until quite recently, and audiences were understandably drawn to shows like these. While Ruth Thalía answered Beto’s questions, her parents and boyfriend sat onstage. Over the course of the hour, they crumbled. Vilma all but begged her daughter to stop. Bryan was too stunned to offer much resistance, never stringing together more than a couple of sentences. At one point, he admitted he loved Ruth Thalía. “I don’t want to hear more,” he said.
She went on anyway. Beto asked Ruth Thalía if she thought Bryan was handsome.
“Uh … yes,” she said, hedging a bit.
“And is he smart?”
She laughed. “More or less.”
“Does he have a good heart?”
For this response, at least, she didn’t vacillate: “Yes,” Ruth Thalía said, and the studio audience applauded.
Then came question number 18: Have you ever accepted money for sex?
Vilma bent over, as if in physical pain.
Ruth Thalía answered yes, and the show’s announcer, a disembodied, almost robotically precise woman’s voice, called out:
“The answer is … true.”
There was a long silence.
“Just twice,” Ruth Thalía explained. “We needed money. We were in a bad situation. It hasn’t happened since, and it won’t happen again.”
For this truthful admission, Ruth Thalía had won 15,000 soles, or about $5,300 — almost ten months’ wages for someone living in Lima. Beto asked if she wanted to go on, in search of 50,000 soles. Before responding, Ruth Thalía said she was sorry for all this. “My mother, my father, my brother and sister are the most beautiful thing in the world to me. I love them with all my heart. Bryan, forgive me for making you go through this.”
Then she announced she was done. The audience cheered her decision.
“The truth is always illuminating,” Beto said to the cameras. “It will not do harm, even though it hurts.”
Ruth Thalía hugged Bryan. His face registered nothing. As the credits rolled, she got down on her knees before her ashen-faced mother and begged for forgiveness.
THE SHOW WAS taped in June and aired a month later, on Saturday, July 12, 2012. That month of waiting wasn’t an easy one. Something had been shattered in the Sayas Sánchez family. Vilma was moody and confused; Leoncio was distant. They couldn’t understand why their daughter had done the show. When Vilma asked, Ruth Thalía was almost flippant.
“For the money,” she said.
She had fantasized about being famous, to be sure, and had even auditioned for soap operas and other game shows — but her more immediate goal was practical. She wanted to open a salon. She’d already saved the equivalent of $7,000, and the winnings from the show brought her closer to that dream. If she had to make a spectacle of herself, perhaps this was the price to be paid.
Once the show aired, that position became harder to justify. El Valor de la Verdad was an instant success, knocking one of Peru’s television icons, Gisela Valcárcel, from her No. 1 spot. In fact, for the next 18 weeks that it aired, El Valor de la Verdad would win the ratings battle against Gisela 15 times. Ruth Thalía’s secrets were suddenly part of the national conversation. “It was a celebration,” said producer David Novoa. “We beat Gisela. That’s all that mattered. The ratings! They were drinking champagne up on the second floor” — the executive offices at the station, Frecuencia Latina. Ruth Thalía was the face of Beto’s new hit show. She was photographed with a Frecuencia Latina executive, grinning and holding one of those oversize checks, and splashed on the cover of newspapers across the capital.
Ruth Thalía’s notoriety, though, had come at a great cost. “This neighborhood we live in is a hellhole of gossip,” Leoncio said. It seemed everyone had seen Ruth Thalía on the show, and everyone had an opinion. Relatives the family hadn’t heard from in years were calling to say how ashamed they were. Ruth Thalía withdrew. “She didn’t even want to leave the house,” Eva said. Ruth Thalía confessed to her mother that she’d thought of suicide.
For Bryan, one could argue, it was even worse. He’d been exposed as a cuckold in front of millions, something unforgivable in Peru’s macho culture. One day, at the bridge in Huachipa, Bryan was taunted by a busload of high school students. He had to go hide in a nearby store. In the weeks after the airing, he showed up at the station a few times, demanding some kind of recompense for his public humiliation. He was accompanied by his uncle, Redy Leiva, who was studying law and did most of the talking.
One afternoon, just a few weeks after the show had aired, a television crew from Frecuencia Latina caught up with Bryan at the front door of his house. The host asked him how he felt.
“Ashamed. All the things I learned on that show,” Bryan said, eyes avoiding the camera. “How would you feel?”
“But they say that if you love someone, you can forgive them.”
“Depends what they did. The things she said that day, I can’t forgive.”
In other interviews, Bryan claimed that it had all been a setup. He and Ruth Thalía had broken up months before the taping. She’d approached him and asked him for a favor. Pretend to be my boyfriend on television, she’d said, and if I win, I’ll share the money with you. He’d agreed, with no idea what he was getting into. It had been an ambush. Weeks had passed, and he still hadn’t seen a cent. Then he went further: The producers of the show had known all along that he and Ruth Thalía weren’t together. Frecuencia Latina was complicit in the charade.
“After the show,” Eva said, “he started asking for money. First 500, then 1,000, then 2,000.” One day, someone broke into the Sayas Sánchez house and stole Ruth Thalía’s laptop. None of Eva’s things was taken. The family assumed that Bryan had stolen it, but he denied it, and in the end, there was no proof. Leoncio filed a police report, and that was that.
ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2012, eight weeks after El Valor de la Verdad debuted, Leoncio and Vilma went to bed watching a World Cup qualifying match between Peru and Argentina. When they woke up, Leoncio heard his wife say, “Thalía hasn’t come home.” Ruth Thalía had never done this before. Eva was out of town, but eventually, they were able to contact her. She called some of her sister’s friends and managed to reach a young man who’d seen Ruth Thalía the night before as she left the university. He said she’d gotten a call from Bryan. Vilma went straight to Bryan’s house for answers. She feared the worst. “I was crying, screaming,” she said. “Everyone in the street, the neighbors, they must have seen me. I was kneeling, as if he were a god. Bryan, give me back Thalía.”
But Bryan was unmoved. He said he hadn’t spoken to her in a while, and then he turned and went inside.
When faced with a situation like this one, people like the Sayas Sánchez family don’t have a lot of options. This is a fact of life in Peru, though not just there, of course. If you’re poor, if you come from a place like Huachipa, the authorities aren’t always on your side. The police can be slow to react, even negligent, and corruption weighs most heavily on those least able to withstand it. Leoncio filed a missing persons report on September 12, 2012, without much hope. Then he went to the one place where he felt he had a chance to be heard: to Frecuencia Latina, the station that had aired El Valor de la Verdad.
“Here in the city,” Leoncio said later, “the only way to get help is through the media. Where else can you go?”
The studios of Frecuencia Latina sit behind a high green wall in a residential neighborhood of the city called Jesús María, and look more like a military bunker than a television station. Still, on any given day, at any given hour, there are mobs of young fans out front, hoping to catch a peek of their idols or get picked to be in the audience at their favorite show. There’s another crowd, too, often older than the fans, people like Leoncio, who’ve come to the television station for help. Supplicants. They press their documents against the mirrored glass security window; they stammer their sad stories and ask to speak to a producer. They’ve suffered one of the many indignities that life in a city like Lima can deal to a person: They need work; they’ve been swindled; they have a sick child and no hope of access to health care. From a turret above the scene, a guard stands watch.
Leoncio was fortunate: He was able to speak to a producer from Beto’s morning news show, Abre los Ojos, who promised to get them on the air the next day, to publicize their plight.
When Leoncio got home, he found Vilma in anguish. He did what he could to calm her. They talked for a while, speculating where their daughter might be, trying not to fall into despair. Maybe she’d gone on a trip. Maybe someone had drugged her or was holding her for ransom. That night, Leoncio and Vilma didn’t sleep. Tomorrow, they hoped, after their daughter’s disappearance was made known, the search for her would begin in earnest.
The next morning at 5:00 a.m., the phone rang. It was the producer from Abre los Ojos. She was apologetic: Their appearance had been canceled. A problem with scheduling, she said, and promised to call again soon.
Three days passed, and no one from Frecuencia Latina had called. There was still no sign of Ruth Thalía, and the police hadn’t done much investigating. Vilma and Leoncio went out every morning, asking for help at all the television stations in Lima, with no results. During those first anxious days, while Ruth Thalía’s parents visited the local television stations, they never mentioned El Valor de la Verdad or Beto Ortiz. They were omitting the most crucial and valuable detail: that their daughter was famous. Or infamous. Instead, they told a simpler version of events. Our daughter hasn’t come home. We’re poor people, and we need help.
It’s a story, incidentally, that is heard every day at the door of every television station in Peru.
On the third day, at Channel 9, also called atv, Vilma finally shared the key piece of information that would once more land her daughter on the front pages of newspapers all over the country. “I explained it to the man,” Vilma said, referring to the security guard at atv. “I said, my daughter, she was the girl from El Valor de la Verdad. Right away he went to get the cameraman.”
That night, three days after Ruth Thalía’s disappearance, the case was mentioned for the first time on national television. Vilma happened to be watching atv while she waited to speak to a detective at police headquarters in downtown Lima. “I was sitting there, and on the television, I hear Ruth Thalía’s name, and I thought: Sweet Lord, for sure I’ll find my daughter now!”
There was only one problem: atv didn’t introduce Ruth Thalía as “the girl from El Valor de la Verdad.” Instead, the host called her “the prostitute from El Valor de la Verdad.”
“They killed me in my heart,” Vilma said.
NOW THE STORY had changed. This was no longer about the disappearance of a young woman from a faraway neighborhood of the sprawling capital. Everyone wanted exclusive access to Ruth Thalía’s family, and Vilma, Leoncio, and Eva found themselves under siege. Every station in Lima sent producers and cameramen to the family home in Huachipa. They took long panning shots of the unpaved street, the train tracks, the mototaxis. They talked to neighbors and passers-by and hounded Vilma and Leoncio wherever they went.
When stories like these happen in Lima, the competition between the various channels can be brutal. Every television news program — and there are dozens — peddles a steady diet of crime reporting. The morning news shows recount the overnight death toll from shootings, robberies gone awry, kidnappings, domestic disputes that escalate into violence. It’s not uncommon for the producers of a news show to buy their way into a wake, offering grieving families DVD players and stereos for exclusive shots of the tearful mother or the mourning husband. “There’s a tradition in Peruvian journalism, not a good one, in my opinion,” explained Maribel Toledo, a journalist with more than 15 years of experience working in television. “In order to secure exclusives, the reporters, the stations, the producers grab people and almost kidnap them.”
Every news program in Lima aired a story on Ruth Thalía, but atvhad the family. By the sixth day, Leoncio recalled, “atv was here all the time. They even slept here. They wouldn’t leave us alone.”
Leoncio and Vilma got up each morning to ask for help. This task — knocking on doors, hoping someone might listen — constituted the entirety of their lives in those days. They traveled in a car provided byatv, filmed by atv cameramen. They went to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, to police headquarters, to the hospitals, to the morgue. They knocked on the door of the presidential palace in central Lima and managed to get an audience with an adviser to the first lady. A phone call from the palace got some movement out of the police. Things were happening, and to be fair, for people like Leoncio and Vilma, much of this would’ve been impossible without the help of a station like atv. Leoncio was uneasy with the situation, but he knew there was no other way.
Leoncio didn’t eat; Vilma didn’t sleep. They received all kinds of terrifying phone calls, including extortion attempts traced to police officers in towns outside Lima, claiming they had a lead but needed money to investigate. One day, Leoncio recounted, “a mototaxi driver came and said, ‘You know what? I found your daughter.’” According to this stranger, Ruth Thalía was being held in a hotel not far from their home. He would take Leoncio there, for the right price. They negotiated and agreed on 2,000 soles, half upfront. Leoncio felt he had no choice, but he was afraid. He climbed onto the man’s mototaxi, and they headed toward an area called Carapongo. When they arrived at the hotel, the man told him to wait, and Leoncio was left alone. “I called Channel 9. I just let it ring a couple of times. In case I disappeared, too, my last call would be from there.”
A few minutes later, the mototaxi driver brought down a young woman, but it wasn’t Ruth Thalía, just another girl, a runaway, who looked like her. Leoncio was crushed. “Go home,” he told the girl, and she started crying. “Those were desperate days,” he later recalled. “I felt like I was floating. There were moments where I couldn’t tell if I was asleep or awake.”
By then it had been a week since Ruth Thalía had disappeared. The police and, crucially, the media knew that Bryan had been the last one to speak to her. On the morning of September 22, he was interviewed by Alejandra Puente, a reporter from atv. When asked if he’d seen Ruth Thalía on the night in question, Bryan said he couldn’t remember. He’d been drunk.
The reporter pushed him: “If you were me, would you believe yourself?”
“Like I said, I don’t remember that day.”
“But your conscience is clean?”
“Yes,” Bryan said.
THAT SAME AFTERNOON, 11 days after Ruth Thalía’s disappearance, Leoncio got a call from someone at Channel 9. The police, he was told, had found the body of a young woman, buried in a well and covered by rocks and concrete, on a piece of land on the outskirts of Lima. The land belonged to Redy Leiva, Bryan’s uncle, and they suspected it was Ruth Thalía.
Leoncio and Eva went to the scene and found themselves confronted with cameras and microphones and photographers from every media outlet in Lima. “The newspapers were desperate, the radio was desperate, and I was desperate,” Leoncio said. “It was all desperation.” For more than an hour, the police wouldn’t let Leoncio and Eva on the property, so they waited, surrounded by reporters. When it was confirmed that the woman at the bottom of the well was Ruth Thalía, the cameras filmed Leoncio and Eva sobbing, bent over, embracing.
Eventually Bryan was brought to the scene, and Leoncio pressed the police to let him see the young man. He was told he had to control himself, and Leoncio assured the officer he would, but he grabbed a rock and put it in his pocket. “And then Bryan started talking about my daughter. ... I just reacted.” Leoncio took out the rock and surged toward Bryan, swinging at his head. The police managed to hold Leoncio back.
Across town, in Huachipa, the reporter Maribel Toledo arrived at Leoncio and Vilma’s house. She had been at home when she got a call from her producer at Día D, a news magazine on atv, where she worked at the time. “He says to me, they found Ruth Thalía,” Toledo recalled. “Go to the family’s house as quick as you can.”
Toledo and her cameraman were the first journalists to arrive. Vilma and some neighbors were holding candles and signs. Toledo went up to Vilma. “I think I gave her my condolences,” Toledo said later, “and I asked her something, assuming she knew her daughter was dead. And I realized she didn’t understand what I was saying. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand me; she didn’t know.
“The only thing I could bring myself to say was, ‘Ma’am, they’ve found a girl.’” Vilma went inside the house, up to the second floor, and locked herself in her room. For the next few minutes, Toledo watched as people, friends of the family, she supposed, came and went from the second floor. She was so disconcerted that she called her producer again, just to confirm that it was true, that the police had found Ruth Thalía. Her producer assured her it was. Bryan had confessed.
“I decided to do the most uncomfortable and perhaps the most morbid thing possible in that situation,” Toledo recalled. She summoned her cameraman and headed up the stairs. “And just as I went up and was about to knock on the door, I hear this cry, something like, ‘No, it can’t be her.’” Toledo’s cameraman urged her to knock anyway, but she refused. “Another reporter might have insisted on an interview with the mother right then and there, but I felt I couldn’t do anything more.”
In the segment that aired on atv, you can hear a dog barking and Vilma’s anguished screams, muffled from behind the door. Toledo stands there, with a microphone in her hands, seemingly unsure of what to do next.
Not long afterward, Toledo quit working in television news.
That night, Peruvian television viewers saw the alleged murderer, Bryan Romero Leiva, being led away in handcuffs, surrounded by police in riot gear. The death of Ruth Thalía was the lead story on the evening news on every channel in Peru — except Frecuencia Latina. It was a Saturday, and Frecuencia Latina stayed with its regularly scheduled programming: El Valor de la Verdad.
IN HIS VIDEOTAPED confession, Bryan wore the same clothes he had worn in his interview with Alejandra Puente from atv: a black-and-turquoise hooded jacket and acid-washed jeans. He spoke firmly and told investigators a simple story. He called Ruth Thalía as she was leaving the university, and they made plans to meet. “I waited for her by the bridge,” he told police. “She got into my mototaxi. I said, let’s go have some wine, and she said, OK.” They rode to the house where he rented a room. Once there, he and Ruth Thalía drank a $3 bottle of red wine in the street and eventually went upstairs. They had sex and, afterward, started to fight. “She tells me, I don’t know what I’m doing talking to a poor mototaxi driver,” Bryan said. “And that’s when I grabbed her by the throat.” Bryan admitted to police that he choked her for 30 seconds or more. “I thought she had passed out,” he told police. “I listened to her heart. I didn’t hear anything. I grabbed her and shook her hard. But nothing. I got scared.”
The following day, Bryan took police to the scene of the crime, where the murder had occurred. He toured them around the small, unfurnished room and simulated carrying a woman’s body down the stairs.
The difference between a crime of passion and premeditated homicide is the difference between spending a decade in prison or one’s entire life. This question, then, became central to the case: Bryan had confessed to killing Ruth Thalía, but had he planned it? No, his lawyer, Felipe Ramos, would argue. Bryan had snapped under the pressure of his national humiliation. The crime could be traced directly to the show. “The format couldn’t have existed without Bryan,” Ramos said. “That’s the truth. The program had impact so long as you had a cuckold sitting up there, call him Bryan, Juan, Pedro. They needed a victim for Ruth Thalía’s lies.”
In a matter of hours, the story was all over the front pages. Every last detail of the murder was reported again and again on television. Beto’s rivals saw an opportunity to link Peru’s most powerful journalist to a scandal, and many called for Frecuencia Latina to cancel his show. The station refused. Fernando Vivas, the influential critic, described Ruth Thalía’s death as “an extraordinary case of televicide” and called on the trade group of television advertisers to withdraw its support for the program.
That evening, Sunday, the day after Ruth Thalía’s body had been found, Beto called a group of friends to his apartment to discuss his options. The guests were mostly journalists and television veterans of Beto’s generation, trusted confidants. One proposal was that Beto and the production team go to the Sayas Sánchez house and give their condolences. All dressed in black, very formal, very serious. A few of Beto’s closest friends supported the idea, but Beto wasn’t convinced. According to producer David Novoa, who was present at the meeting, Beto feared for his safety. “He thought they might attack him,” Novoa said.
Beto made no comment until Monday, on his morning news program,Abre los Ojos.He sat alone at a desk, wearing a black suit, a black dress shirt, a black tie, and black-framed glasses; Beto extended his condolences to Ruth Thalía’s family. Then he shot back at his critics: “Unfortunately, this case, which is all over the news, which happened to a person who was on television, has been used by some people for sinister purposes.” El Valor de la Verdad played no role whatsoever in the death of Ruth Thalía, he argued. “The murderer of Ruth Thalía Sayas Sánchez is Bryan Romero Leiva.”
Which is true, of course. But when asked if he thought Ruth Thalía would be alive if she hadn’t appeared on El Valor de la Verdad,Novoa didn’t hesitate. “Of course,” he said. Then he paused for a moment. “Well, I don’t know if she would be alive. Maybe she’d have died some other way.”
IN COURT, Bryan’s lawyer was determined to tie Beto Ortiz and El Valor de la Verdad to the crime. A few days before the trial began, Ramos read a handwritten letter to the press, in which Bryan asked Ruth Thalía’s parents to forgive him. “I want to confront Mr. Beto Ortiz and take off his mask,” Bryan said in the letter, “so that the people can understand his manipulative and frivolous attitude in the face of the harm he caused in our lives.”
Ramos petitioned to call Beto to testify, and the judge agreed, and so, on January 21, 2014, Peru’s most famous television journalist appeared in a courtroom inside the country’s largest penitentiary, on the outskirts of Lima. He wore a dark-gray suit, a blue dress shirt, and no tie. He spent most of his testimony standing, while Bryan and his uncle sat on the other side of a glass barrier.
Bryan accused Beto of peddling fake reality to his audience and attempting to buy his silence about the show’s manipulation with a job offer, then later going back on his word. He described the job, as Beto had allegedly explained it to him. “All you’ll have to do is get me water,” Bryan told the court.
Beto raised his eyebrows. “Get me water?” he asked incredulously.
“Tell the truth,” Bryan said. “Tell the truth.”
Beto denied it all.
When it was over, Beto was all smiles and asked the judge for permission to add one more thing. The judge agreed. Beto pointed out that Ramos had been the lawyer for another famous murderer. The animosity between them predated Ruth Thalía’s death. “I was very harsh with him,” Beto explained, “and now he’s trying to get back at me.”
On February 27, 2014, the court declared Bryan Romero Leiva guilty of the murder of Ruth Thalía. The vast majority of Bryan’s confession was found to be false. The police had tracked down a witness, an adolescent boy from the neighborhood, who said that the night Ruth Thalía disappeared, Bryan had paid him 50 soles to let him know when Ruth Thalía got off the bus. The boy claimed to have seen Bryan and another man force her into his mototaxi. The court determined that Bryan’s accomplice was his uncle, Redy Leiva, the owner of the property where her body was found. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment. The motive for the crime was robbery. They had attempted to get Ruth Thalía’s bank security code. They wanted her winnings from El Valor de la Verdad.
Vilma, Leoncio, and Eva were in court on the day of the sentencing. Afterward, they gave statements to the media, saying that justice had been served. Vilma, her voice cracking, told the press: “When I die, that’s when I will stop crying. That’s when I will stop suffering.” She visits her daughter’s tomb once a week to wash the gravestone and pray.
A few months after Ruth Thalía’s murder, Eva was invited to audition for a talent show called Rojo, broadcast on Frecuencia Latina. She accepted, and dedicated her performance to her sister, dancing to a mix of traditional music from Huancavelica and pop. The judges said Eva’s rhythm was “imprecise,” and she didn’t make it past the first round.
The second season of El Valor de la Verdad was produced with only celebrity contestants: politicians, showbiz folks, the kind of people who are used to dealing with the media. It was a hit. One highly placed source at Frecuencia Latina stated that this decision, to use only celebrities, was in direct response to the murder of Ruth Thalía, but Beto Ortiz denied it. “The show is entertainment, and I don’t lose sight of that. We need contestants whose stories are interesting enough that people will watch.”
DANIEL ALARCÓN is the author of At Night We Walk in Circles, a finalist for the 2014PEN/Faulkner Award, and the executive producer of Radio Ambulate. This piece was reported while Alarcón was a fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program.
OMAR LUCAS is an award-winning Peruvian photojournalist based in Lima, Peru. His work has appeared in El Comercio, Somos magazine, La República, and Correo Semana magazine.