YASMIN, THE HEROINE OF THE BRAZILIAN prime-time soap Of Body and Soul, had reached a crucial point in the plot: She would break off her affair with the insanely jealous bus driver, Bira, and give her heart instead to the more reliable Caio, a doctor. As Bira slipped an engagement ring onto her finger, Yasmin, a sexy fare collector on his bus, gently told him no.

The most popular show in the country, Of Body and Soul had hooked some 40 million viewers—almost a quarter of the population—six nights a week after just five months on the air. But nothing could have prepared the audience for the real-life twist that occurred Dec. 28, just after Yasmin's scene with Bira was filmed at the Globo Television studio in Rio de Janeiro. That night, Daniela Perez, the petite, 22-year-old actress who played Yasmin, was murdered. Stabbed 12 times in her chest, she was left in a vacant lot in Barra da Tijuca, a chic seaside residential area. Within 24 hours police announced that they had a confession. The killer was the actor who played Bira, Guilherme de Pádua, 23.

In the weeks since, Brazilians have been obsessed with the murder. Magazines published special editions devoted to the crime, and a dramatic re-creation was broadcast on the evening news. Not surprisingly, the size of the TV audience viewing Of Body and Soul rose almost 10 percent, even though Perez's remaining scenes alone with Pádua have all been cut. "People were revolted that the soap would continue," says Of Body and Soul scriptwriter Ana Maria Moretzsohn, "but I know a lot of people who started watching it just to see who 'that killer' is."

And, as soap opera plots will, this one has thickened. Some insiders speculated that Pádua, a onetime male stripper who grew up hustling on the streets of Brazils third largest city, Belo Horizonte, was taking the part of the jealous Bira too seriously, turning poor Perez—a leading TV star who was also the daughter of the show's head writer, Gloria Perez—into a personal obsession. Pádua argues that it was her obsession, not his. Stranger still, elements of black magic have surfaced in the case. "The only thing we're sure about," says Mauro Magalhães, a police detective on the case, "is that Daniela died and Guilherme killed."

Pádua—who had consoled Daniela's husband, soap actor Raul Gazolla, 37, the morning after the crime—owned up to the killing after police investigated a tip from a suspicious Barra da Tijuca resident who had jotted down the license plate numbers of two cars that had lingered in the neighborhood on the night of the killing. But Pádua claims he killed Perez in self-defense. He has told police that the actress insisted that if he did not have an affair with her, she would kill his pregnant wife, Paula Thomaz, 19. According to Pádua, he convinced Perez to follow him in her car so they could talk. When a heated discussion between the costars escalated into a fight, Pádua says that Perez attacked him with a pair of scissors. Trying to fight her off, he claims, he killed her.

The day after Pádua's confession, Thomaz admitted she had hidden in the back seat of his car and had in fact participated in the killing. However, her lawyer now says this confession was coerced from her by police.

Although some Of Body and Soul cast members consider Pádua incapable of murder, no one seems to buy the idea that Perez was obsessed with him. "It's absurd that Daniela was chasing him," says Moretzsohn. "She was married to a desired and handsome man. They made a beautiful, interesting couple." According to Marcela Honigman, a stage manager and friend of the couple's, "They talked to each other 10 times a day. Raul worried a lot about Daniela because she was a small woman. Rio is such a violent city, and she drove alone at night."

If anything, Pádua's professional relationship with Perez suggests another scenario. "I think Pádua confused the character with himself," says scriptwriter Flavio de Campos. "I think he was in love with Daniela and took advantage of their scenes together to see her, smell her hair." The day Yasmin rejected Bira, say members of the Body and Soul crew, Pádua wept hysterically off-camera. He had begged Gloria Perez not to end the romance of Bira and Yasmin, but the elder Perez, who has said that she was made uncomfortable by Pádua's aggressiveness, refused. After the breakup scene, he waited nervously outside Daniela's dressing room, asking, "Is she coming out? When is she coming out?" Perez's dressing assistant says that after the final Yasmin-Bira scene, Perez showed her a handful of notes, said they were from Pádua, and muttered, "He's getting things all confused." (The notes, which the assistant didn't read, haven't been recovered.)

In the days after the murder, police revealed an even darker aspect of the crime: Several objects used in black magic rites had been discovered at the murder site. Officials won't divulge what the objects are, but have said they involve an offshoot of a Brazilian folk religion called Umbanda. a fusion of African, Catholic and occult practices. Searching Pádua and Thomaz's home, investigators also came across a statuette of a slave spirit that figures in Afro-Brazilian cults; Pádua sometimes kept the statuette in his dressing room.

Although Paula Thomaz's lawyer denies any black magic activities, the police have speculated that she and Pádua, by killing Perez, were executing some kind of grisly compact with demonic spirits. In fact, the Rio coroner has determined that the as-yet-unrecovered murder weapon was not, as Pádua claims, scissors, but a dagger.

But how would the couple have expected to benefit from earning out a diabolical pact? So far they haven't reaped any rewards. Pádua is now under lock and key at the jail in Barra da Tijuca, awaiting formal charges. Thomaz, meanwhile, is in a women's detention center; her doctor says stress might cause her to miscarry the child she expects in five months.

As for Perez's husband, Gazolla, on New Year's Eve he tossed a white rose into the Atlantic Ocean in Daniela's memory. "The love I have for [her] is going to stay with me the rest of my life," he told a TV interviewer. Gloria Perez, for her part, has decided to remain on Of Body and Soul's writing staff despite her daughter's death. The story is being reworked to deal with all of this. The hot-tempered Bira will simply vanish from town. Yasmin's disappearance should be more poetic. According to Moretzsohn, Brazilians' last glimpse of their beloved bus-fare collector may be of her in a small boat (shot from behind, with a double), heading out to meet a yacht that will take her out of the country and away to the dance career she always dreamed of. Then a storm will come up...and what will become of the little boat? "For some, it will be like Yasmin died," says Moretzsohn. "For others, it won't."

TOM GLIATTO
KARLA BRUNER and STEVE YOLEN in Rio de Janeiro

  • Contributors:
  • Karla Bruner,
  • Steve Yolen.