Translation: The Contestant
Daniel Alarcón: Thanks for listening to Radio Ambulante. I want to tell you about a new program on NPR, a new way to keep up with the day’s news. It’s called “Up First”. In 10 minutes, give or take, you can get a sense of the important news stories of the day. Those things you really need to know. Start your day with “Up First”, available Monday through Friday at 6am, on NPR One or any podcast app.
Voice: Thalía will lay bare all her secrets. Thalia’s confessions will devastate her family.
Daniel Alarcón: This story begins on July of 2012, with the premiere of a TV show in Peru. Up to that time the show had been in 100 countries, and in Peru, immediately, it became a total success, the leader in ratings.
Beto Ortiz: Today a Peruvian is 21 questions away from winning 50,000 soles in cash. Will there be any honest person left in Peru? It’s time to find out The Value of the Truth.
Daniel Alarcón: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, form NPR, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Today, we’re going back to our archives, to a story we reported back in 2013. It’s the story of Ruth Thalia, a young Peruvian woman, and what it cost her to tell the truth.
If you are Peruvian, then most likely you recognize this voice.
Beto Ortiz: I am Beto Ortiz, forty five years old, journalist, mostly reporter, sometimes I write and lead some TV shows.
Daniel Alarcón: In Peru, people know him simply by Beto, that’s all. He’s been on television for twenty years, and if it’s true that he polarizes public opinion, it’s also true that people love him. I’ve seen it myself. Everyone knows who he is. I once asked him what it was like being famous, and he laughed. That’s like asking me what it’s like being fat, he said. I don’t remember what it was like being skinny.
When he took the job as host of El Valor de la Verdad, he was already considered the most powerful journalist in the country. And he liked the format, immediately.
Beto Ortiz: I found its formula to be an auspicious way to get what most journalists have a hard time getting: a little more of the truth than usual, right? So by making the interview into a show, and by making the encounter with the character into a gameshow, the challenge was posed in a starker and direct way.
Daniel Alarcón: The best way to understand what the contest is about is by hearing the description Beto gives during the show.
Beto Ortiz: Before participating in this show, each one of the contestants has passed a rigorous polygraph test or lie detector test. They will be here answering the same questions done before through this device.
Daniel Alarcón: And if they answer 21 questions truthfully they can win 50,000 soles. Almost 20,000 dollars.
The first person who participated in this show in Peru was…
Feminine voice: Ruth Thalía Sayas Sánchez. Call operator at a call center. 19 years old. She lives with her parents in Huachipa, Lima.
Daniel Alarcón: If you aren’t from Lima, let me set the scene. Huachipa is an area that’s sort of rural, sort of urban, on the outskirts of the Peruvian capital. It’s bordered by the Central Highway, which takes you out of the city and into the mountains. There are dusty, unpaved streets, small farm plots and half-built houses. All over the neighborhood, at any hour of the day or night, you see mototaxis coming and going. The whizz of their motor can be heard day and night.
This is the neighborhood where Ruth Thalía lived, with her parents, her sister Eva, and her younger brother, who was only eight. To her family, Ruth Thalía was brave, funny, charismatic, intelligent.
But when Beto met her on the set of the show, his first impression was a little different.
Beto Ortiz: The truth is that she was an average girl. She was an attractive girl, but not a person who stood out… of rather low profile, timid.
Daniel Alarcón: But when the cameras came on…something changed.
Beto Ortiz: Good evening, are you nervous Ruth Thalia?
Ruth Thalía: Yes, a little. But it’s normal.
Beto Ortiz: Is there something you want to reveal to your family and loved ones today?
Ruth Thalía: Today, yes.
Beto Ortiz: Very well. Are you ready to tell the truth in front of your family, to yourself, and all of Peru?
Ruth Thalía: Yes, I am ready.
Beto Ortiz: Have a seat please.
Daniel Alarcón: And that’s how it all started.
Ruth Thalía, according to the rules of the game, had to bring three guests. She chose her parents, and her boyfriend. This is her mother.
Vilma Sánchez: My name is Vilma Rosario Sánchez Rojas, I am huancavelicana, I am 42 years old. I came to Lima for a better future for my girls.
Daniel Alarcón: Huancavelica, the province where Vilma was born, is about 14 hours overland from Lima. Ruth Thalía and her sister Eva were born there, in the countryside, but the family moved to Lima when they were very small. She and her husband, Leoncio, have a band that performs traditional Andean music. She sings and he plays harp. They also own a glass shop.
The day of the taping, Vilma went with her daughter to the station. Ruth Thalía hadn’t told her mom much about the show. The questions, as far as Vilma understood, had to do with how they’d come to the capital, where they came from, that sort of thing.
Vilma Sánchez: And so I asked her, but, you are going to win money just by answering those questions? And she said, yes mom, I am going to win money doing that. And so I said, okay, I am going to tell them the whole story.
Daniel Alarcón: How they survived those first difficult days in Lima, selling watermelon, pineapples, anticuchos. It’s a common story, but that doesn’t make it any less heroic. When I talked to Vilma, I asked her if she was happy that day of the taping. She told me she was.
Vilma Sánchez: I went there so happy, ready to talk proudly about all that, about being from the province…I am a proud huancavelicana mister Beto.
Daniel Alarcón: They put on makeup, gave her a microphone, and sat her onstage next to her daughter.
Leoncio Sayas: Yes, from the moment my daughter…what was it, said she was going to the show, I was destroyed.
Daniel Alarcón: This is Leoncio Sayas, Ruth Thalía’s father. He also went to the taping that afternoon. But without the same enthusiasm as his wife.
Leoncio Sayas: I also told her, don’t go, I told her not to go. My wife said, you, you just don’t support her…I thought, what if I stop her doing this and I trump the rest of her life. So I said, okay then, it’s fine…
Daniel Alarcón: On the set, his anxiety was palpable.
Beto Ortiz: Are you worried?
Leoncio Sayas: Yes.
Beto Ortiz: What worries you?
Leoncio Sayas: The things I can find out about my daughter.
Daniel Alarcón: Ruth Thalia’s third guest that afternoon of the taping was a young man named Bryan. This is how Beto remembers him.
Beto Ortiz: He was almost a child, right? He was a really young man…a mototaxi driver, the typical neighborhood boy that is resourceful, trying to survive, has his girlfriend, goes out to have fun on the weekend…
Daniel Alarcón: Bryan was introduced as the boyfriend. He lived in the same area of Huachipa, not far from Ruth Thalía’s family. He was a serious kid, not very talkative, but handsome. You could tell immediately that he was uncomfortable.
Leoncio Sayas: He was a quiet young man, who didn’t look you in the eye. He spoke kind of looking down…
Vilma Sánchez: I don’t know why, forgive me young man, but I hated that guy.
Daniel Alarcón: This is the first time we hear Bryan on the show.
Beto Ortiz: And finally…
Bryan Romero: The boyfriend.
Beto Ortiz: Are you the boyfriend?
Bryan Romero: Bryan Romero Leyva.
Beto Ortiz: Bryan Romero, give Bryan an applause. Thank you for accepting to come and for accompanying Ruth Thalia in this challenge she has decided to go through. How are you? I see your right leg moves on and on, on its own. Are you nervous?
Bryan Romero: Yes, worried. “I was taken around”, right.
Daniel Alarcón: Maybe this Peruvian expression doesn’t make sense in other countries. “I was taken around”. What Bryan is trying to say is that he’s worried to find out that Ruth Thalia has been unfaithful.
Beto Ortiz: Everything else doesn’t matter, right? OK. Then, relax, we are just starting, don’t forget this is a game, let’s take it slowly.
Daniel Alarcón: The Value of the Truth is taped at the studios of Frecuencia Latina, Channel 2, in Lima. It looks out of place, like a military bunker dropped in the middle of a residential neighborhood. To get in, you have to make a line in front of mirrored glass window, and show your ID.
It doesn’t matter what time you go, day or night, you’ll almost always find crowds of people at the entrance, waiting for the security guard to let them in.
They go to the station to denounce some injustice, or to ask help for a family member. They go to see their idols, or to test their own dreams of stardom. Ruth Thalía was one of these people. She had tried out for soap operas before. She was a dreamer. And perhaps this is what she had in common with Beto, when he was her age. And with millions of Peruvians. Something very simple. Ruth Thalía wanted to be famous.
Beto Ortiz: Curiously when we started taping, she kind of woke up and started being very charming and funny, with a true desire of being the center of attention, right?
Daniel Alarcón: The first questions were simple. Even funny. That’s part of the structure of the show, of course.
Beto asked Ruth Thalía if she’d ever skipped class without permission. If she believed it was more important to be pretty or to be good a person. If she’d ever gone without showering for a long spell.
Laughing, Ruth Thalía copped to these minor transgressions, and with each question she won a little money, and everyone was happy.
That afternoon of the taping, the guy backstage, communicating with Beto over the headset, was this guy.
David Novoa: I am Luis David Novoa Jimenez. I have to say what I do, and all that stuff?
Daniel Alarcón: David worked as a producer on The Value of the Truth. He was the one who’d done the preliminary interview with Ruth Thalía, and he knew her story well. He’d visited her in Huachipa, he’d spent time with her family. And he knew, better than anyone, what was in store for Bryan and Ruth Thalía’s parents.
David Novoa: But I wasn’t the one who made the decisions, I was just a worker there. I didn’t press the trigger directly on decisions of where this people come in…that would be a surprise and perhaps an awkward moment and an embarrassment for them.
Daniel Alarcón: I asked him what his first impressions of Ruth Thalia were.
David Novoa: The reality is that I saw her lying, right? Deep down I knew she lied. I knew she was hiding stuff.
Daniel Alarcón: And those secrets, the drama of her situation, made Ruth Thalía the perfect contestant for the show. The day of the taping, David’s job was to make sure those secrets got out. Unpleasant, uncomfortable details.
Beto Ortiz: When you look at yourself in the mirror what do you see? do you see a Chinese girl, an Indian girl, or a mestiza?
Ruth Thalía: Well, I see myself a bit on the dark side.
Beto Ortiz: Would you like to be white?
Ruth Thalía: Yes.
Beto Ortiz: OK!
Daniel Alarcón: Beto asked her about her relationship with Bryan, and she seemed uninterested in his feelings. She made fun of him, and the audience laughed.
Beto Ortiz: Do you think Bryan is a handsome guy?
Ruth Thalía: … Ah, yes.
Beto Ortiz: That didn’t sound very convincing. Is Bryan a smart guy?
Ruth Thalía: Kind of…
Daniel Alarcón: On question 12, Ruth Thalia revealed that she was only with Bryan until someone better came along. Bryan looks stunned. Here is David Novoa.
David Novoa: I saw the kid looking stunned, like a zombie.
Beto Ortiz: Bryan, are you in love with Thalía?
Bryan Romero: Yes.
Beto Ortiz: It shows.
Bryan Romero: Yes, I am in love.
Beto Ortiz: How do you feel with such a harsh answer?
Bryan Romero: I don’t know what to say.
Beto Ortiz: Evidently that answer hurt you, right? Thalia, that was a cruel answer.
Ruth Thalía: I am not trying to make him feel bad, I don’t want to excuse myself either, but…
Daniel Alarcón: But there was more. Ruth Thalía revealed that she was embarrassed by her parents’ manners. That she had taken the morning-after pill on three occasions. That she had sexual fantasies about women.
With the 17th question, Ruth Thalía admitted she didn’t really work at a call center, as her parents believed. The truth was that she danced at a nightclub.
Beto Ortiz: Bryan, what do you want to say to Thalía? Stop or continue?
Bryan Romero: I don’t want to hear anymore.
Beto Ortiz: You don’t want to hear anymore…
Daniel Alarcón: But Ruth Thalía decided to continue. With the 18th question, she had the opportunity to win 15,000 soles, around $5,000.
Beto Ortiz: Question 18: Have you ever accepted money in exchange for sexual relations?
Daniel Alarcón: This long silence, full of tension, is one of the innovations in the Peruvian version of The Value of the Truth.
Ruth Thalía: Yes.
Voice: The answer is… True.
Ruth Thalía: Two times, only twice, and since then it hasn’t happened again, nor will it happen again. I think it was because of financial reasons, meaning, we were in a tough financial situation and..
Daniel Alarcón: Beto asked Ruth Thalía if she wanted to quit, or stay on and try for the 50,000 soles. Ruth Thalía thought awhile, but before answering, she turned to her parents.
Ruth Thalía: Well, I came with the objective to tell the truth because it was hard to tell them. I regret a lo. My dad, my mom and my siblings are the most beautiful thing I have in my life, I love them with all my heart. Bryan, forgive me, forgive me for making you go through this.
Daniel Alarcón: And after this brief speech, Ruth Thalía withdrew.
Beto Ortiz: But before ending this show I want to go home with the certainty that the truth is always luminous, the truth never harms even if it hurts.
Vilma Sánchez: I went outside with such anger. And I asked my daughter: “What happened to you?” and she answered, as always in a flirtatious smiley manner, “No, mommy, forget it. Those are things I told him, but, mommy, you know the truth in your conscience, yes or no mommy?” She gives me a kiss, gives me little pats in the face, “I am going to class.”
Daniel Alarcón: That night Vilma didn’t talk about it with Ruth Thalia. But the next day she asked her:
Vilma Sánchez: “What happened, why have you done this?” “No, mommy, because, we could win money and stuff.” “And what are people going to say, our families, everyone in the country who might have seen it?” “I don’t care, it doesn’t matter to me.”
Daniel Alarcón: The show aired on Saturday, July 7, 2012, and it was a complete and total success. It was first in the ratings, beating out one of Peru’s legendary television personalities, Gisela Valcarcel. At the studios of Frecuencia Latina, the production team celebrated.
David Novoa: Meaning it was a complete success right? At the office…it was an absolute celebration, we had beaten Gisela, that’s all that mattered, the ratings.
Daniel Alarcón: That week, Ruth Thalía was all over the news, photographed with a manager from Channel 2, both holding one of those huge checks. They’re both smiling. Fifteen thousand soles, a little over $5,000 dollars.
She went on a few different shows, and said she felt liberated after being on the gameshow. She apologized to Bryan for making him go through this, and revealed that they’d broken up. Here she’s with Beto, on his morning show, Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes):
Beto Ortiz: Now, everyone is asking, what happened with Bryan?
Ruth Thalía: Well, the truth is that we don’t even talk to each other anymore, because when I call him he doesn’t even answer.
Daniel Alarcón: She looks weak, tired. A few days later, she gave another interview to a different show from Channel 2 and there, she commented one more time about her ex-boyfriend, and her family. But she used a different tone.
Ruth Thalía: I am also having a hard time, and he should understand it. I am not the only one who is to blame. He is also to blame, and he knows it, but I would rather leave it at that. I don’t want to have any more problems with him, or with his family.
Daniel Alarcón: By this time, the problems had already began.
Leoncio Sayas: Here, this neighborhood where we live, is a hellhole of gossip.
Daniel Alarcón: What Ruth Thalía had told her mom, that everything just slid off her… Well, it wasn’t exactly true. She wasn’t doing great. She felt her neighbors were talking bad about her. That they didn’t see her like they used to.
Eva Sayas: After the show came out my that sister was not doing well, she was in a bad, bad state, she didn’t even want to go out, doing terribly…
Daniel Alarcón: This is Eva, Ruth Thalía’s sister. Unlike her parents, Eva knew some of the secrets that Ruth Thalía revealed on the show. She knew her sister danced at a nightclub, for example. And she tried to keep everyone in the family calm.
Eva Sayas: So, I would tell her to calm down, right? “It’s done and that’s that.” But she was depressed, saying, “What have I done?” or, “what have I said? And now dad and mom are in the eye of the storm,” like they say, you know?
Daniel Alarcón: One day, Ruth Thalía confessed to her mother that she’d had thoughts of suicide.
Vilma Sánchez: She told me: “Mommy, yesterday I wanted to kill myself.” That’s how she told me. “I don’t know what I have done.” So from then on I constantly took care of her because I was afraid she was going to try and kill herself.
Daniel Alarcón: If Ruth Thalía was having second thoughts about going on the show, she wasn’t the only one. Bryan was in a similar position. In the neighborhood, he was a laughing stock. He also gave a few interviews in those days, trying to explain his side of things.
Journalist: How do you feel?
Bryan Romero: Embarrassed. Embarrassed with my family, my friends. I started finding out everything she had done to me. How can I feel? You are a man, how would you feel?
Journalist: Yes, I can imagine, and I try to put myself in your place. But they say that when you love, you forgive, right?
Bryan Romero: Yes, but it also depends, depends on what they have done to you. The things she shared that day…I can’t forgive.
Daniel Alarcón: According to Bryan, he’d been the victim of an ambush. He revealed that he and Ruth Thalía had agreed to pretend to be a couple, but the truth was that they’d broken up months before. He never knew what he was getting into, and Ruth Thalía had promised him money for doing her this favor. And she still hadn’t paid him.
But there was more. Bryan accused Channel 2 of being accomplices in this whole charade, something Beto and everyone on the production team denied. But the story was already in the press.
Beto Ortiz, and in particular his controversial reputation, has a lot to do with how things played out from here. His career has been one of great success and even greater scandals, and it’s fair to say that he’s accumulated as many enemies as admirers. And those enemies saw an opportunity with this new show. Beto was attacked, and the critics eviscerated El Valor de la Verdad, as the worst example of trash television.
But in spite of it all, the show stayed number one in the ratings. And Ruth Thalía, the young protagonist of the show’s debut, was closer to her own dream. She was almost, almost famous.
Meanwhile, in Huachipa, the problems between Bryan and Ruth Thalía got worse and worse. One day, someone broke into Ruth Thalía’s house, and stole her laptop. They suspected it was Bryan, but there was no proof. The Sayas Sánchez family felt they were under siege from Bryan. Here’s Eva.
Eva Sayas: After the show, he started asking for money, first 500, and then he went up to one thousand, and then to two thousand.
Daniel Alarcón: One afternoon, Eva found Bryan at the door of the house. He was drunk.
Eva Sayas: He tells me, “You know what, Eva? Your sister told me she was going to give me two thousand. But up till now she hasn’t given me anything,” he said. “That’s enough,” I told him, “You’re drunk. What if we talk tomorrow? And I will give you the money.”
Daniel Alarcón: According to Eva, Bryan responded: “Revenge is sweet.”
We’ll be back after a short break.
NPR has a new podcast for curious children and adults. It’s called “Wow in the World”, with Mindy and Guy. This podcast helps children of all ages understand the crazy and complex world we live in. Look for “Wow in the World” on NPR One or your favorite podcast app.
Daniel Alarcón: On the evening of September 11, 2012, eight weeks after Ruth Thalía had appeared on El Valor de la Verdad, Leoncio and Vilma went to sleep watching a soccer match. When Leoncio woke up the next day,
Leoncio Sayas: And then my wife said, “Listen, Thalia has not arrived,” she said. “What do you mean Thalia’s not home yet?”, “No, she hasn’t come home,” all desperate.
Daniel Alarcón: They tracked down a friend of Ruth Thalía’s who had been with her the night before. He had seen her outside the university. He said that while they were together, he had heard her get a call from Bryan.
Leoncio Sayas: “So Bryan must know.” Around 9 am or so, we knew that Bryan knew something, right? something about Thalia.
Daniel Alarcón: Vilma went to Bryan’s house, pretty shaken up at this point..
Vilma Sánchez: Crying, screaming. The whole street must have seen me. I was kneeling as if he was a God. “Bryan, give me Thalia back, I know you have her…” And the boy, “I don’t know,” he would cover his face, “No, not me, I don’t know anything about your daughter, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in touch with her.” And he turned around and went into his room.
Daniel Alarcón: In Peru, if you have no money, if you have no name, if you come from a place like Huachipa, and something terrible happens, you don’t have many options. You’d probably do what Leoncio did, on the morning on September 12. You’d go to the police, to file a missing persons report, but without much hope. Maybe the cops will treat you fairly, with respect, but let’s be honest — they might not. So you go where your misery is actually worth something. You go to the television stations.
Leoncio Sayas: Because here in the city, the only way to get help is with the media. Where can you go? What can you do to try to get help finding your relatives? You can’t do anything.
Daniel Alarcón: In the studios of Frecuencia Latina, Leoncio managed to speak to a producer of Abre los ojos.
Leoncio Sayas: She told me: “Tomorrow morning you are going to come, so you will be the one coming on air on Open your Eyes. We are going to help you with that. Don’t worry,” she said…
Daniel Alarcón: From there Leoncio went to another channel, where he was turned away, and finally to a local radio station. He spent the entire day looking for someone to help him spread the news that his daughter was missing, and when he got home he found his wife in terrible shape. He did what he could to calm her down, and told her that the next day they would go to Abre los Ojos, to denounce the disappearance of Ruth Thalía. They wondered together what might have happened to their daughter
Leoncio Sayas: Maybe she had gone somewhere…that’s what we were thinking; they got her drunk, or maybe they were going to let her go…basically, we didn’t sleep that night.
Daniel Alarcón: At five in the morning, they were up, getting ready to leave for the television station, when the producer from Abre Los Ojos called.
Leoncio Sayas: Se tells me, “Mr. Sayas, look, forgive us but it’s not going to be possible to do it today. Maybe tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, either way we are going to call you,” she said.
Daniel Alarcón: When I talked to Beto, I asked him if he remembered the moment he heard the news about Ruth Thalía’s disappearance.
Beto Ortiz: Yes, yes, of course I remember.
Daniel Alarcón: How did it happen?
Beto Ortiz: Well, the news had shown up in some newspapers and they called us to tell us about it.
Daniel Alarcón: What Beto is saying, is that he didn’t find out the day Leoncio went to the station. Nor the day after, when supposedly Leoncio and Vilma were going to be aired in Open your Eyes. But no, he found out days later, when the news had spread on other news media.
Well, and an even a further detail – when they found out – it wasn’t like they took the news seriously. Why? According to Beto, it wasn’t the first time Ruth Thalia and Bryan had caused them problems.
Beto Ortiz: We were a bit used to them calling us to tell us this happened, he stole from me, he took money from us, he stole some photos, this and that. So when they told us, hey, she hasn’t come home, it was like…okay, she hasn’t come home. It wasn’t like we were going to hold a national crusade or anything.
Daniel Alarcón: By the third day, Frecuencia Latina hadn’t called Leoncio or Vilma. And without media attention, the police were dragging their feet. Ruth Thalía’s parents went out every day, looking for help.
Vilma Sánchez: I went to channel 5, channel 7, channel 4…and at channel 7, the man, the watchman was kind of cold. He told me, “Lady, what do you want? just leave your complaint and leave.”
Daniel Alarcón: And there’s an important detail to mention here. In those first days, when Leoncio and Vilma showed up at the studios of Lima’s television stations, they asked for help without mentioning El Valor de la Verdad. Without mentioning Beto Ortiz. At Frecuencia Latina, they had, of course, but everywhere else, they told a very simple story. “We’re worried and we’re poor. We have nowhere else to turn. Our daughter hasn’t come home.” It’s a story, incidentally, that’s heard every single day at television studios across Peru.
But the third day, Vilma mentioned the key detail, the one that would once more put her daughter on the front pages of the newspapers.
Vilma Sánchez: To the man I explained, “My daughter, she was the girl from The Value of Truth,” I said. So right away he went to get the cameramen. “What? The girl from The Value of Truth?”
Daniel Alarcón: That same night, on September 14th, 2012, three days after she’d disappeared, the news of Ruth Thalía’s disappearance was broadcast on television, Channel 9, also known as ATV. As luck would have it, Vilma happened to see it herself, as she sat in the waiting room at the central offices of the police in downtown Lima.
Vilma Sánchez: I was sitting there and in the TV Ruth Thalia’s case came out, and I thought: Dear Sweet God, for sure my daughter will be found now, right?
Daniel Alarcón: But when they described Ruth Thalía, they didn’t call her “the girl from El Valor de la Verdad”. No. Instead the newscaster called her…
Vilma Sánchez: “The prostitute of the Value of Truth,” the lady or girl that was a prostitute. It broke my heart.
Daniel Alarcón: But at least the story was out there. Finally.
Newscaster: Ruth Thalía Sayas Sánchez,the first contestant of El Valor de la Verdad has disappeared.
Daniel Alarcón: And the main suspect –for Vilma and Leoncio, the police, the media– was, of course, Bryan.
Newscaster: …the same one who was with her in the show and was humiliated publicly…Ruth’s father suspects of her ex-boyfriend and is worried about his daughter.
Daniel Alarcón: And so now the story changes. We’re no longer talking about the disappearance of a young woman from some dusty district of the capital. No. We’re talking about a family trapped in a media storm. Everyone wanted the news, and everyone wanted the exclusive. The different stations fought each other for access to the family of Ruth Thalía, the girl from The Value of Truth.
Maribel Toledo: If the case didn’t get to the media, mostly to television, the authorities would have never paid any attention to it…never.
Daniel Alarcón: This is…
Maribel Toledo: I am Maribel Toledo Ocampo. I am a journalist. Since 15 years ago I’ve been doing journalism in television.
Daniel Alarcón: At the time Maribel was working in channel 9, hosting a news show called Día D. Her channel, like all media outlets in Peru, were following Ruth Thalia’s story, and were trying to pin down her family. And what she says is true. When the case got media attention, the police started to react. And her station took care of the Sayas Sánchez.
Maribel Toledo: It’s a custom of Peruvian journalism, that is not good, in my opinion, but…to have exclusives, the reporters, the channels, the producers, grab the people and almost kidnap them..I don’t know…three days or so..
Leoncio Sayas: On the sixth day, ATV came and went every day, they even slept here. They wouldn’t leave us alone.
Daniel Alarcón: Leoncio and Vilma went door to door, asking for help. They went, many times, in transport provided by the station. To the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. To police headquarters. To hospitals. To the morgue. As a family of such limited financial resources, they simply couldn’t have done all this without the help of a TV station.
Leoncio Sayas: The reality in this…in this…the news play a very important role, right? Very important. When they take you seriously, it becomes important. So for us, what was left to do? We didn’t have anyone, or family, or anything, nothing. We had to put faith in them, right?
Daniel Alarcón: And in the meantime, Leoncio couldn’t eat. Vilma couldn’t sleep. They received all kinds of calls, extortion attempts, false leads. They lived in this hell always under the watchful eye of the media. One day, Leoncio, who wanted to go to an appointment with the police by himself, had to run away from his own house because the ATV producers wanted to go everywhere with him.
On another day…
Leoncio Sayas: We were here, the whole family, and a guy on a mototaxi came: “You know what? I found your daughter.”
Daniel Alarcón: The mototaxi driver told him that their daughter was in a hotel, kidnapped, but he would only take him if he gave him some money. They negotiated and agreed on 2,000 soles. But when they arrived to the place, it wasn’t Ruth Thalia but another girl, who looked like her, who had escaped her home.
Leoncio Sayas: “Go back to your house,” I told her, you know? So the girl started crying. “Thank you Sir,” she said. Those were desperate days. I felt I was floating on air. There were moments where I asked myself, “Am I dead or alive? Am I asleep or am I awake? Or floating?” I don’t know…
Newscast: Today it has been a week since this 19 year old girl has disappeared, and nothing is known about her whereabouts.
Daniel Alarcón: The police and the news media knew that Bryan had been the last one to call Ruth Thalía the night she disappeared, but he continued to claim he hadn’t seen her. Still, there were other details that seemed incriminating, or at the very least, suspicious. A few days after Ruth Thalía disappeared, Bryan had sold his mototaxi, and moved out of the room he’d been renting.
And the investigators had found a witness, a minor from the neighborhood whose testimony was key: he said that the night Ruth Thalia disappeared, he had seen her with Bryan.
What’s more, according to this witness, Bryan paid him 50 soles to warn him when Ruth Thalia got off the bus. He said he saw Bryan and another man force her inside his mototaxi.
To the public and the police, Bryan continued denying everything. But nobody believed him.
And that’s where things stood, until the afternoon of September 22, ten days after Ruth Thalía’s disappearance, when Leoncio received a call from Channel 9.
Leoncio Sayas: “Mr. Sayas,” he told me, “don’t worry”, how do I say… “calm down,” he told me. “They have found a body,” he said.
Daniel Alarcón: The body was of a young woman, and they had found her in a piece of land on the outskirts of Lima which belonged to one of Bryan’s uncle. Everything was far, in a zone of dry hills, full of sand and yellowish looking. All dirt and dust. The body was buried in a well, covered by rocks and cement. They supposed it was Ruth Thalia for sure, but someone had to recognize the body, so Leoncio went.
And there he found all of Lima’s media. The rumor had gone all over the city and they were waiting for him.
Leoncio Sayas: Everyone who was there wanted to see something new, breaking news or something; the newspapers desperate, the radio desperate, and I was also growing desperate. It was all desperation. Me trying to find my daughter alive, and the media worried about their ratings, you know?
Daniel Alarcón: Not all the news went after the body. This is Maribel Toledo.
Maribel Toledo: I was at my house…and the producer called me, he said they had found Ruth Thalia. He confirms. They have found Ruth Thalia. Go quickly to the family’s house.
I remember vaguely that there was…dirt, like in a terrain, I don’t believe there was cement, and there was the mom with the neighbors, holding some signs and candles, praying for Ruth Thalia.
Daniel Alarcón: A somber, disquieting scene. Very different from what Leoncio was living in Huachipa. Maribel and her cameraman were the only journalists present. Maribel went up to Vilma.
Maribel Toledo: I gave her my condolences, and I asked her something…assuming she knew her daughter was dead. And I realize she doesn’t know. Not only she doesn’t understand me, but she doesn’t know. Because her answer is…“She still hasn’t turned up and something else.” And then I realized, this lady is in another place.
Daniel Alarcón: These are the situations you might face as a television reporter in a place like Lima. You might find yourself, suddenly, standing before a mother, who in her heartbreak, doesn’t know, or doesn’t understand that her missing daughter is no longer missing.
Maribel Toledo: And I told the woman, the only thing I could bring myself to tell her face to face was: “Ma’am, they’ve found a young woman’s body.”
Daniel Alarcón: Vilma went up to her room and locked the door. A little later, what the producers of Channel 9 and other local journalists knew was confirmed: Bryan had confessed. The body was Ruth Thalía.
Maribel Toledo: It was at that instant that I decide to do…I think the most uncomfortable and maybe the most morbid thing to do in that situation. Which is to go up to see the mother. And just as I went up and knocked on the door, I hear this heartbreaking cry, that says, “No, it can’t be her,” or something like that. The dog barked, the crying in the background of the mother, and me standing with the microphone in my hands without knowing what to do.
Daniel Alarcón: That night, Peruvian TV viewers were witness to the infinite pain of a broken family. They saw the young, confessed murderer, Bryan Romero Leyva, in handcuffs; they heard the pained cries of Eva and Vilma, and they saw Leoncio’s stoic expression.
The death of Ruth Thalía was the top story on every channel, except on Frecuencia Latina. It was a Saturday, and they stuck to their regular programming: El Valor de la Verdad.
Bryan Romero Leyva: My name is Bryan Romero Leyva. I am twenty years old. I live in Street 8, Niveria, in Huachipa. The 11th at approximately eleven at night, I called Thalia.
Daniel Alarcón: This is tape from Bryan’s confession. And from that moment on, the court has declared that almost everything he confesses to is false.
Bryan Romero Leyva: And I waited for her by the bridge. She came in her motorcycle. I told her, let’s go have some wine, and she said sure.
Daniel Alarcón: He doesn’t mention an accomplice. Nor how he tried to force Ruth Thalia into the mototaxi. His version of the homicide is trivial. She goes with him…without giving it a second thought. They buy a bottle of cheap wine and go to Bryan’s house. They have sex and then fight. Ruth Thalia insults him…
Bryan Romero Leyva: I changed, she changed. We drank some more. She tells me, “I don’t know what I am doing talking to a poor motorcycle taxi driver, a poor idiot.” And that’s when I grabbed her by the throat. I grabbed her by the throat.
Daniel Alarcón: And he chokes her.
Bryan Romero Leyva: I thought she had passed out. I listened to her heart. There wasn’t any sound. I grabbed her by the chest and moved her hard to see if she reacted. But nothing. I got scared. I didn’t know what to do at that point.
Daniel Alarcón: He got scared, said Bryan. He didn’t know what to do. They argued and he killed her. He didn’t plan it. Things just turned out that way.
Of his confession, the only thing the court accepted as truth was the following: after he killed Ruth Thalis, Bryan left the body of his ex girlfriend on the floor of his bathroom, closed the door of his rented room, and left to continue drinking at her mother’s birthday party.
The difference between a crime of passion and a planned homicide is the difference between spending a decade in jail or one’s entire life. The judge, in the case of the death of Ruth Thalía, later denied almost everything in Bryan’s testimony. He concluded that the crime was not casual, that it was planned, and that the motive for the crime was robbery. That Bryan and his uncle, Redy, had attempted to prise Ruth Thalía’s bank security code from her. They wanted her winnings from El Valor de la Verdad.
Lima’s media covered Ruth Thalia’s death with their habitual delicacy, going inside all the corners of the lives of the victim and its murderer. Beto’s enemies took advantage of this opportunity.
Peruvians will recognize this voice, it’s Magaly Medina, famous journalist of the showbiz, a controversial woman due to her reports sometimes sordid. And even she dares to criticize Beto.
Magaly Medina: If we all think about it shows like The Value of Truth, get to the point of bringing out people’s miseries…things that make you get goosebumps! Because one day a woman comes on TV to say she is a prostitute..and it’s like…WOW! What are we doing with television?
Daniel: Anyone who has ever seen Magaly’s show understands how cynic and hypocritical this comment is. Beto defended himself with everything. He declared a crusade against women’s violence, utilizing his news show to throw out any responsibility for the murder of Ruth Thalia.
Beto: During the last few days we have seen how the fault of the assassin has been going somewhere else, trying to take it out on a television show. This of course doesn’t hold to anything. The murderer of Ruth Thalia Sayas Sanchez is Bryan Romero Leyva.
Daniel: In legal terms, of course, he is right. But of course it’s not that simple. Maybe the question is this one, the one I asked David Novoa, the former producer of El Valor de la Verdad.
Daniel Alarcón: I have one last question: Do you think Ruth Thalia would be alive if it wasn’t for the show?
David Novoa: Of course. Well, I don’t know if she would be alive, maybe she would have died for a different reason.
Judge: Court sentencing: Having determined Bryan Baroni Romero Leyva and Redy Leyva Cerrón, as perpetrators of stolen property, aggravated offense and the subsequent death of Ruth Thalia Sayas Sanchez…
Daniel Alarcón: On February 27, 2014, the court declared that Bryan Romero Leyva was guilty for the murder of Ruth Thalia. It was determined that his accomplice on this crime was Redy Leyva, his uncle.
Both were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Vilma, Leoncio, and Eva attended the day of the sentencing, of course. After, in the midst of all the commotion, the three of them gave statements to the media, and said that justice had been served. But for Vilma:
Vilma Sánchez: Nobody understands my immense pain, it’s too immense. When I die is when I will stop crying. I will stop suffering.
Daniel Alarcón: There is no sentence that can close that wound. In total Frecuencia Latina produced 4 seasons of El valor de la verdad. The last episode aired October last year. Now Beto Ortiz has a new show called “Beto A Saber”, in ATV, channel 9.
When we decided to air this story again, we contacted Ruth Thalia’s family, to see how they were doing. So, our collaborator, Eduardo Garcia Peña, went to Huachipa to see visit them. He found their street completely flooded after strong April storms, the same that caused so much damage to the Peruvian coast.
Leoncio told us that they almost lost everything, but that they fought against the river and managed to stay safe and move most of their things to the second floor. These years have not been easy for them, particularly for Vilma. After Ruth Thalia’s death she stopped singing for a long time, until her daughter, Eva, encouraged her.
Vilma Sánchez: Eva told me: “Well, mom, Thalía must be crying in heaven: ‘Because of me my mom has stopped singing.’” She said, “Get back on the stage,” so…
Daniel Alarcón: And she was very scared, thinking about what people would say. But in the end, Vilma doesn’t sing for herself.
Vilma Sánchez: It’s mostly a kind of therapy. For me it’s been therapy to get out there with my musicians.
Daniel Alarcón: And of course she never forgets her daughter.
Vilma Sánchez: I’m with Thalía day and night. Her picture is here, and there in the books, in front of my room. I’m sleeping, looking at it. I get up, “Good morning, dear,” when I go out: “take care of your siblings,” “I’m on my way out.” “I’m sick, heal me,” “your grandmother is sick.” I mean, everything, I tell her about everything. That’s why I feel good. That’s why I realize that I’m not accepting her death. I mean, to me she’s alive, next to me. It’s just that… “Why don’t you talk to me?” I tell her sometimes. “Why don’t you speak? You have to speak!” That’s what I tell her. But she’s in a photograph, and doesn’t answer.
Daniel Alarcón: If you’re ok doing it…
Vilma Sánchez: OK, but with this raspy voice, because it sounds different on stage…
Daniel Alarcón: Of course.
Vilma Sánchez: Esta noche quiero bailar, quiero bailar contigo. Esta noche quiero bailar, quiero bailar contigo. Quiero que me digas todo lo que sientes si es verdad…
Daniel Alarcón: This story was written by me and edited by Camila Segura with support from Silvia Viñas and Luis Trelles. Thanks to Annie Murphy, Monica Campbell, and especially to Eduardo García Peña in Lima. Andrés Azpiri helped with the sound design.
We’re also grateful for the the support of the Investigative Reporting Program of the University of California Berkeley.
The song in the background is by Vilma Sánchez, Ruth Thalía’s mom. It’s called “Basta Carajo.”
The rest of the Radio Ambulante includes Desiree Bayonet, Andrea Betanzos, Melissa Montalvo, Caro Rolando, Barbara Sawhill, Ryan Sweikert, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern, and Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.