Murder on the 34th Floor

4 courtroom flatcolor Murder on the 34th FloorThe murderer was very good-looking. As he walked into the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel around 6 p.m. that Friday night, he was freshly showered and wore a dark suit and a purple tie. Though by no means the only young European man to stride through the lobby that night, he must have turned a few heads.

A woman waiting there recognized Renato Seabra. Wanda Pires, a friend of Mr. Seabra’s travel companion, Carlos Castro, stopped him to ask when Castro would be coming down. She and her daughter, Monica, had arranged to meet Castro at 6.

“He won’t be coming down anytime soon,” Mr. Seabra told the women in his native Portuguese. Then he walked out the hotel doors to the corner of 44th Street and Eighth Avenue, a block west of Times Square.

Mr. Seabra’s comment was as chilling in the moment as it now seems in retrospect. Immediately suspicious, Ms. Pires asked hotel staff to check Room 3416, where Castro and Mr. Seabra were staying. There they found Castro—one of the leading gossip columnists in Portugal—lying face-up naked on the floor in an expanding pool of his own blood. His face was bludgeoned. It had been slammed repeatedly against the television.

According to a confession by Mr. Seabra, a 21-year-old model and reality-show contestant, he placed Castro in a chokehold, stabbed him in the eye with a corkscrew and kicked him over and over. The medical examiner noted shoe impressions on the victim’s face, where Mr. Seabra had stomped on his cheek and chin. There were also signs of strangulation. Castro’s neck bone was fractured. According to a court report, the cause of death was blunt-force trauma and internal hemorrhaging.

Some of the blood on the floor came from the head trauma. But most of it flowed from a wound in the groin of the 65-year-old victim. His testes were found severed from his body. Using the small knife of a hotel corkscrew, Mr. Seabra had castrated Castro.

 

In Disneyfied New York, a case of gothic-style torture in a luxury hotel seems more suited to an episode of Law & Order than real life. Indeed, the city’s tabloids and bleed-leading local news channels initially couldn’t figure out how to play the story. Was it a return to Times Square’s bad old days? Or a sex romp gone bad? And how did an unrelated homicide at Soho House, only weeks earlier, play into the narrative?

By the time police and stunned hotel staff discovered Castro’s corpse, Mr. Seabra had hailed a taxi and directed the driver to go to the nearest hospital. At Roosevelt Hospital on 10th Avenue and 58th Street, he arrived at the emergency room with two slit wrists, the result of a presumed but unconfirmed suicide attempt. The taxi driver called the police after recognizing news photos of his passenger. Describing Mr. Seabra as “frantic,” the cabbie told the police, “I think I just dropped your guy off at the hospital.” Upon apprehension, Mr. Seabra was transferred to the Prison Ward of Bellevue Hospital, where he will remain under medical observation until his Feb. 1 Supreme Court arraignment.

Much of what happened that night remains a mystery. Some suggest that jealousy between Castro and the young model had poisoned their relationship. Castro, known for his gay activism and flamboyant public escapades—one journalist called him Portugal’s Michael Musto—was in the end murdered by a man whose closest family and friends insist he was straight.

The issue is further confused by Mr. Seabra’s confession to the police that he mutilated Castro “to rid him of his homosexual demons.”

 

Last Friday on the fifth floor of Manhattan Criminal Court at 100 Centre Street, Mr. Seabra was arraigned via video conference from the Bellevue Prison Ward—in a Skype-like version of the traditional bedside arraignment. On a television screen before a packed courtroom, the defendant sat in pajamas next to his lawyer.

A crowd of Portuguese journalists gathered outside the courtroom. According to the writers, it would be difficult to live in Portugal and consume popular culture and not know who Castro was. He had enjoyed a long career, published several books and made constant appearances on television morning shows.

Still, the Portuguese contingent, among them more than half a dozen journalists who had flown in from Lisbon to cover the story, agreed that in their culture, a gossip journalist was not a real journalist.

“He was well known, but it’s not like he was respected or renowned; there’s a difference,” explained a reporter who preferred not to be named.

“He was like Perez Hilton,” said another. “Even in the feminine way.”

“Everyone wanted to be friends with him,” said a writer from Caras, the Portuguese equivalent of People, for which Castro wrote, “because he could help people going up. He could put someone really down or put them up, so he was kind of influential. He was in a lot of newspapers and magazines.”

Sara Oliveira, a TV reporter who flew to New York for the arraignment and Castro’s funeral, was more charitable. “He was very sensitive; he was always very nice to me, always. He was very funny but he was difficult to handle because his job was to criticize things.”

Eventually, the press secretary for the district attorney’s office, Joan Vollero, addressed the group. She dispelled a rumor that the arraignment room had been moved. Another official rejected out of hand a last-minute effort by Portuguese TV to televise the proceedings.

Once the arraignment began, Mr. Seabra sat silently on his plastic seat staring downward, his hands in his lap. His defense attorney, David Touger, a pasty man with deep-set eyes, spoke for his client.

A translator could be heard off-camera as the young man in Bellevue nodded meekly after each proceeding was explained to him.

In front of the bar were two court officers, Assistant District Attorney Maxine Rosenthal and another woman from the district attorney’s office.

Ms. Rosenthal—tall, with shoulder-length ash blond hair and wearing a pantsuit—ignored the fake wood table and blue nylon upholstered chairs set up for her use and instead stood directly in front of Judge Anthony Ferrara. “It’s a very serious and violent crime,” she said, arguing that Mr. Seabra be remanded without bail. Mr. Touger lifted his hand onscreen to note that, actually, the defendant was not seeking bail. The judge swiftly brought down his gavel. “One charge, murder in the second degree.” The case will be arraigned in Manhattan Supreme Court on Feb. 1.

After the hearing, Mr. Touger told the Associated Press that while Mr. Seabra did confess to police, “all the facts are not out there, by any stretch of the imagination. … What’s great about our system of justice is that he’s presumed innocent at this point.”