The disappearance of Joana Cipriano
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Missing persons cases are always sad, especially those involving children. But today’s case is also one of the more bizarre ones I’ve heard. It happened back in 2004 in Portugal, and, although it’s technically solved, the girl’s body has never been found and many questions remain. This is the story of Joana Cipriano.
Joana Isabel Cipriano was born around 1996, the result of a relationship that lasted just four months. She had at least five siblings and half siblings, and most of them lived with other relatives. From everything I can tell, Joana was close with her mother, but rarely saw her father. When she was three, her mother, Leonor, began a relationship with a man named Leandro Silva. Some sources refer to Leandro as Joana’s stepfather, but others say he and Leonor never married. It’s possible they weren’t married, but he was still referred to as Joana’s ‘stepfather’ because it was easier to say. Regardless, Leandro would be in Joana’s life until her disappearance.
Growing up, Joana was described as gentle, friendly and a good student. But teachers at her school noticed something was off. They said Joana had too many adult responsibilities at home, and often had an amount of chores far beyond what they believed any child should be given. They also said she would cry sometimes at school, but was very closed off and never told anyone what was wrong. Other teachers said Joana never showed signs that things were bad at home.
Sometime in 2004, a formal complaint was filed against Joana’s family due to concern for the now 8-year-old’s welfare. School officials were concerned about her “sub nutrition” and all the work she had to do around the house. As far as I could find, no action was ever taken.
There’s conflicting information about Joana’s living situation at the time of her disappearance. I’ve seen people say she lived with her grandmother, but most articles say she lived with her mother, stepfather and two younger siblings. But wherever she was living, Joana was last seen alive on the night of Sunday, September 12, 2004.
Around 8 pm, Joana headed out to buy milk and two cans of tuna. The shop she bought them from was about 500 meters from her home, and she was last publicly seen walking toward the village church about 200 yards from her house. I’ve seen people say the milk and tuna was found in the house later, but most sources said it was never found.
Joana was reported missing four days later, on September 16. Searches were conducted around the family home, in the woods close by and bodies of water. The search extended as far as Castro Marim, where Joana’s grandparents lived. The case gained national attention; Joana’s mother, Leonor Cipriano, distributed posters and made TV appearances, begging for the safe return of her daughter, who she believed had been abducted. Rumors flew that Joana had been killed or sold. But others looked in a different direction for answers.
Before the month was over, residents of the village of Figueira, where Joana lived with her family, already suspected Leonor and her brother, João. They speculated that Joana had been killed because she took money from Leonor, João or their mother, Joana’s grandmother. Either Leonor, João or both had a record of petty theft; due to poor translations I wasn’t 100 % sure which one. Because of Joana’s home life, a neighbor suspected early on that Leonor might be involved. A witness said she overheard two men talking near a church. One said “Tell me where you put the girl, or I'll kill you.” The other said “it was in a plastic bag” from a supermarket. It’s not clear what “it” is, but I think we can all make an educated guess.
But it wasn’t just gossip that made Leonor and João look guilty. Blood splatters were found on the wall of the family home, as well as the floor, a freezer, a bucket and a mop stem. Most of the blood was human, though it couldn’t be determined if it was Joana’s. Traces of bone, hair fragments and fibers similar to Joana’s clothes were found in a pig farm over 300 meters north of Figueira. (Other sources said the farm was *in* Figueira) Clothes belonging to João and a plastic bag used by Leonor were also found, I believe at the same location. This discovery led to police’s most prominent theory: That Joana had been killed and her body had been fed to pigs.
Leonor and João were both questioned in the weeks following Joana’s disappearance. Despite the evidence investigators already had against the pair, they soon got the break they felt they really needed: Confessions. Leonor confessed to murder on September 24th, João two days later. (Another source said Leonor confessed on October 13.)
One other thing I want to bring up was a quote by João that became well-known during the case. I’m not sure exactly when it was said, but in Portuguese it read: "Eu não lhe fiz mal, só a matei.” This roughly translates to: “I didn’t hurt her, I only killed her.”
Leonor and João were promptly arrested and eventually charged, first in relation to Joana's disappearance, then later with first degree murder. But before they could face trial, the story got even more twisted.
In March 2005, photos of Leonor appeared all over newspapers in Portugal. The photos showed bruises all over her body, as well as two black eyes. Leonor accused eight members of the Judicial Police — also known as the PJ — of torture. Leonor said she was forced to kneel on glass ashtrays with her head covered by a bag, then beaten in order to extract a confession. The PJ denied this, saying Leonor’s injuries had been inflicted from a suicide attempt in which she tried to throw herself down a flight of stairs.
And she wasn’t the only alleged victim of this torture. João and another brother of theirs, Nelson, were also reportedly assaulted by police. João’s injuries were so bad he had to go to the emergency room. That same month, it was speculated that Leonor might be released due to lack of evidence. But that never happened.
Leonor and João’s trial began on October 12, 2005. According to the prosecution, Joana had walked in on her mother and João having sex. She threatened to expose their incestuous relationship to her stepfather, who had been in her life since she was a toddler and who she regarded as a father. Not wanting this to happen, João killed his niece by bashing her head against a wall. Then he dismembered her, kept her body in a freezer for a few days and drove her out to the pig farm, throwing her body into the pigsty and allowing it to be consumed.
The theory that Joana was killed after witnessing a sexual encounter between her mother and uncle had been circulating for months, though I’ve never found any concrete evidence of this incestuous relationship. During the trial, the jury learned of João’s detailed confession to police and how he’d used a mannequin to show how he’d cut Joana’s body into three parts. Neither Leonor nor João actually spoke during the trial, but I believe video of the confession was shown. Jurors were also told about the forensic evidence that had been found.
In November, Leonor and João Cipriano were found guilty of first degree murder and concealment of a body. They were sentenced to 20 and 19 years in prison, respectively. These sentences were later reduced to 16 years each. Several Portuguese lawyers spoke out, saying there wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction. The jury disagreed, citing forensic evidence in why they’d found the two guilty. The trial made Portuguese history as the first murder trial in the country that took place without a body being found.
This case is already crazy enough, but it gets even crazier. Just over two and a half years after Joana’s disappearance, another girl would go missing in Portugal. And this one would make international headlines.
Madeleine McCann was a three-year-old British girl who vanished on May 3, 2007. At the time of her disappearance, she was vacationing with her family in Praia da Luz, about 24 kilometers from Figueira, the village where Joana lived.
Every source I’ve found said this was about seven miles. All my calculations said it was actually closer to 14 miles. I’m not sure which one of us is wrong. Nevertheless, there has been plenty of speculation in the years following that Joana and Madeline’s cases may be connected.
There are plenty of similarities between the cases, and not just on the surface. Both involved young girls who went missing. Both went missing from Portuguese towns that weren’t that far apart, and within a three year span of each other. In both cases, the parents of the children were suspected. And the investigations shared a common — and controversial — investigator: Gonçlao Amaral.
I didn’t follow Madeleine McCann’s case all that closely. But I’m sure those of you who did remember Amaral, as he apparently became well-known from it. Amaral was criticized in the British press for working short hours, taking long lunches, drinking quite a bit during said lunches and not following up on most of the tips that came up. His inexperience was also brought up, as he had only investigated two child murders over a 26 year career. He was also one of the officers accused of torturing Leonor and João Cipriano.
In September 2007, Amaral was arrested for falsifying evidence in Joana’s case. On October 1, he was removed from the McCann case and transferred to another city. On October 27, 2008, Amaral and four other officers went on trial. It took eight months for a judge to conclude that Leonor Cipriano had been attacked in the PJ’s headquarters, but it couldn’t be determined which of the officers accused had actually taken part. Amaral was found guilty of giving false testimony and given an 18 month suspended sentence. Another inspector, António Cardoso, was found guilty of forging documents and given a two year suspended sentence. After the trial, Amaral was also accused of assaulting Joana’s stepfather, Leandro Silva. Amaral allegedly grabbed Silva by the throat and punched him in the abdomen and face, all the while demanding Silva tell him where Joana was. Silva said he wasn’t able to work for five days after this incident.
So, this case is technically solved. Two people were tried and convicted for Joana’s murder, and those convictions have never been overturned. They’re still considered guilty under the law, though both have since retracted their confessions, saying they were coerced. But there’s so much more to this story. And the questions remain: Did Leonor and João Cipriano really kill Joana? Was she killed for witnessing incest? And if not, what happened to her?
First, let’s look at the possibility that the jury got it wrong, and Leonor and João are innocent. The first piece of evidence to suggest this is obvious: Police coercion. Leonor alleged that she was assaulted by police in an attempt to extract a confession, and presumably only confessed to make the beatings stop. After the trial, João said he only confessed and gave details of the supposed murder because the police were threatening to stab him. A trial did find the beatings occurred, at least in Leonor’s case. It’s never been determined who assaulted her, or if the assault allegations against João Cipriano or Leandro Silva are true. However, these allegations are worth knowing and, as always, I ask that you use your own judgement to determine if you believe them.
There’s one more related thing I find worth nothing. When police asked João where he’d disposed of Joana’s remains, he pointed out at least twenty different spots, but obviously her body wasn’t found in any of them. To me, this provides further evidence that he might be innocent — or it could just mean he wanted to lead police on a wild goose chase or was at least reluctant to come clean.
The next thing I want to talk about is contamination at the crime scene. Joana’s house wasn’t searched until September 22, five days after she was reported missing and ten days after she was last seen in public. Police had already walked in and out of the house, and family members had cleaned the entire home with bleach. Similar accusations of contamination came up in Madeleine McCann’s case, and I’ve seen them in other high profile cases like the JonBenét Ramsey case.
Neither police brutality or crime scene contamination can necessarily determine guilt or innocence on their own. But they are worth noting. Now let’s look at some of the theories as to what happened to Joana.
As I researched this case and watched the story unfold, I saw a lot of speculation in the media that Joana had been sold to another couple, presumably because her family couldn’t afford to care for her anymore. This is also the story João has insisted was true since retracting his confession. Even before the trial began, João said Leonor had sold Joana in Spain. In June 2007, there was speculation that Joana had been sold for 50,000 euros. In a letter written to his sister while he was in prison, João claimed Joana had been sold and said she would likely come back to Portugal when she was older. Other sources suggested Joana may have been sold to pay off a drug debt.
There’s one other incident from early on that suggests Joana may have been alive. Nidia Rochato, a local market owner and friend of Joana, talked to Leonor after Joana went missing. Rochato noticed Leonor wasn’t as visibly upset as one might expect, and he asked her why. She told him that, in her heart, she believed Joana was still alive. Rochato also recalled he’d never seen Leonor physically abuse her children.
Was Leonor innocent and truly believed Joana was still alive out there somewhere? Or was she simply trying to cover up for herself? I’ll let you be the judge.
After Madeleine McCann’s disappearance made international news, Joana’s family urged police to look into a potential connection between the cases. According to them, a white and brown van with a German license plate had been parked near the Cipriano home just days before Joana went missing. The van was found a week later, at an abandoned farm in Praia da Luz which is, of course, the city Madeleine disappeared from. Joana’s relatives urged police to look into the van and the man who owned it (and I believe lived in it), but they didn’t listen. The van was owned by a man who appeared to be in his forties and had short, curly brown hair. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any other information about this man or lead. It’s certainly possible he had something to do with Joana’s disappearance, maybe even Madeleine’s, but we can’t say for sure.
theory: someone else did it
The next theory I want to discuss is the theory that someone besides Leonor or João killed Joana, or that she was at least killed for a reason other than walking in on incestuous sex, as the prosecution suggested.
killed for money?
In the early days of the investigation, a prominent theory was that Joana was killed because of a dispute over money, either by her mother, uncle or grandmother. The amount was thought to be between five and twelve euros. In today’s money, that would be roughly between five and fourteen U.S. dollars.
In January 2005, Joana’s stepfather, Leandro Silva, was looked into. He would later say that he wasn’t at home the night she went missing. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence, if any, that he was involved at all, so I think it’s unlikely that he was. However, another man connected to him might have been, which I’ll get into in a second.
The last bit of speculation in this case I want to talk about is probably the most disturbing. During the investigation, police obtained DNA samples from all of Joana’s relatives, including her stepfather’s 23-year-old half brother, Carlos Alberto Silva. Carlos’s DNA matched traces of what’s believed to be semen found in Joana’s underwear. This lead police to think Joana had been a victim of sexual abuse, and that it might have led to her death. Police later said they couldn’t find absolute proof of sexual abuse since Joana’s body hadn’t been found.
In September 2007, Paulo Pereira Cristóvão, one of the investigators on Joana’s case (and one of the ones accused of torture) wrote a book about the case, The Star of Joana. Cristóvão believed Joana had been sexually abused and had been killed to cover it up. According to the book, unidentified “biological material” thought to be sperm was found on Joana’s bed covering, mattress and in her underwear. He also theorized that João would rather have admitted to killing Joana than to abusing her. Even if this theory is true, it’s still possible João was at least partially responsible for Joana’s disappearance and potential death, but would have had a different motive than the prosecution suggested.
In 2010, Leonor requested to leave prison to spend Christmas with her mother. Her request was denied because she had only served a quarter of her sentence. Leandro Silva also refused to accept her back in the home he still shared with their two younger children, who were eight and six at the time.
Leonor and João’s mother, Joana’s grandmother, had initially believed her children were innocent. But once the trial came around, she didn’t seem so sure. She said if any of her children had killed Joana, it would have been João, who had always been a “naughty” boy. She did, however, say she’d never seen Leonor treat Joana badly.
In 2011, Leonor’s lawyer submitted a complaint to the UN due the torture Leonor and (allegedly) João had undergone during the investigation. In 2013, Leonor was sentenced to another seven months in prison for making contradictory statements to police during the search for Joana.
On February 7, 2019, Leonor was released on parole after serving 14 1/2 years of her 16 year sentence. After her release, she once again claimed she was innocent and that she would now focus her efforts on finding Joana. She also asked whoever had Joana to please return her.
João was released in March 2019, his sentence complete (though he had only served 15 years). He too said he thought Joana was still alive. He wanted to live with his mother upon release but, of course, she refused to let him. She’s also implied since that she doesn’t want anything to do with Leonor either. João has denied sexually abusing Joana and sleeping with Leonor. He also said the family had financial difficulties and Joana had been sold for 50,000 euros. In the years following the trial, jurors have expressed their doubts about the verdict as well.
This is just about everything I have on the case up to the present day, and I’d love to know what you think. Do you think Joana was killed, kidnapped or sold? Do you think her mother and uncle are guilty or were their confessions coerced? Or maybe both? Let me know in the comments.