The fugitive heiress next door: Why Brazil is fascinated by Margarida Bonetti


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Apr 10, 2024

The fugitive heiress next door: Why Brazil is fascinated by Margarida Bonetti

In SÃO PAULO, Brazil In this traffic-choked megacity, a grand old house rots on a quiet side street, shoulder-to-shoulder with the luxury high-rises that replaced its grand old neighbors many years

In SÃO PAULO, Brazil

In this traffic-choked megacity, a grand old house rots on a quiet side street, shoulder-to-shoulder with the luxury high-rises that replaced its grand old neighbors many years ago.

Ferns punch through balustrades gone moldy and black. A thick skin of curling paint peels away, exposing disintegrating concrete walls. Sun and rain course through wounds in the eaves.

On an afternoon not long ago, little boys scrabble atop a stone ledge bordering the sidewalk that has kept the world away during the home’s long, sordid decline. They strain on tiptoes, squinting through gaps in the metal sheets and iron fencing that buttress the wall. They hope to catch even the most fleeting glimpse of the last remaining inhabitant of this creaky relic of a bygone era’s upper classes, a figure who sometimes appears, almost like an illusion, behind stained-glass windows that depict idyllic seascapes and pastoral vistas.

They call her “a bruxa”— the witch.

For more than two decades she has been an object of curiosity in this enclave called Higienópolis, a neighborhood whose name means the city of hygiene or cleanliness. She has ambled for years along its tree-cradled streets, walking her dogs (Ebony and Ivory), with her face obscured by viscous white cream. She could be cordial and unobtrusive but was also prone to outbursts over matters as mundane as city crews trimming branches from trees she liked.

Those who encountered her for the first time could feel pangs of sympathy. Here was a person who lived in squalor.

A neighbor, who works as a doula, instinctively wanted to reach out to the woman, to help her. An inquisitive journalist was also drawn to the woman and her story, in which he originally saw a tale of societal abandonment. Both wanted to know more about her.

What they learned is that she had a dark secret.

She’d been hiding in plain view for nearly a quarter-century, a fugitive from American justice, accused in a federal indictment, along with her then-husband, of not paying a servant they brought with them from Brazil, who lived under brutal and physically abusive conditions, essentially enslaved at their home in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

Prosecutors wanted to punish her for the crimes they were sure she committed. The FBI was on the chase. But Margarida Maria Vicente de Azevedo Bonetti got away.

Now, after so many years, the questions about her have answers, and with those answers come a troubling notoriety. All of Brazil is obsessed with her.

The many lives of Margarida Bonetti — privileged daughter, expat, accused criminal, international fugitive, internet sensation — first come to light in Brazilian journalist Chico Felitti’s blockbuster Portuguese-language podcast “A Mulher da Casa Abandonada” — “The Woman in the Abandoned House.”

Other details leap out from hundreds of pages of court records reviewed by The Washington Post, as well as new interviews with many of the saga’s significant players in Brazil and the United States. Even with that wealth of clues, Bonetti remains an enigma, an amalgam of evasions and lies and spin.

An array of notable names appear in the long trail Bonetti left behind. Among them are U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who represented her ex-husband on a pro bono basis while in private practice; Kavanaugh’s mother, Martha Kavanaugh, who served as a judge in aspects of a related civil lawsuit; and Steven Dettelbach, the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who, during his tenure as a federal prosecutor, tried Bonetti’s ex-husband on the same charges she was hiding from in Brazil.

Margarida Bonetti, who did not respond to interview requests made by phone, in writing and in person, has been shielded all these years by the Brazilian constitution’s ban on extraditing its citizens. Bonetti, who is approximately 70 years old, has said she did nothing wrong. In a rambling interview on Felitti’s podcast, Bonetti — periodically speaking in the third person, referring to herself as “the Daisy” — complained that the FBI “created a character” that was nothing like her in real life.

Bonetti, who is White, toggled between calling her former maid, a Black woman who grew up in rural poverty, a “friend” — indeed, her “best” friend — and smearing her as a supposed “liar and traitor.” Years earlier, her then-husband had testified in a court case that he never saw Bonetti hit their servant. He sought to cast doubt on allegations that his wife had beaten their servant, saying she was “frail” while her alleged victim was physically very strong.

In the eyes of some Brazilian legal authorities, Bonetti may herself now be a victim.

“I think she’s abandoned,” Roberto Monteiro, a local police chief whose officers have inspected her home, said in an interview with The Post at his São Paulo headquarters. “She’s not mentally well. She requires psychiatric care.”

Bonetti has been condemned in some corners of the country — with her story surfacing discussion of abusive labor practices and racism that have long stained Brazil’s history. The victim in her case is representative of a much larger problem that extends well beyond the borders of Brazil and persists to this day. At least 40 million people are estimated to live in slavery around the world, according to Mark Lagon, who directed the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department from 2007 to 2009. (A recent U.N. estimate put the number even higher, at about 50 million people.) The Bonettis were accused of an inhumane crime in an area thick with foreign delegations, some of which have been known to engage in unfair labor practices with little consequences.

“Diplomatic immunity can become diplomatic impunity all too quickly,” Lagon said.

But the Bonettis were different — ensconced on a typical street in Maryland, living what appeared to be a typical American life. In a sense, they were the enslavers next door.

When Margarida Bonetti’s past was revealed in the summer of 2022, alongside the criticism of her, there was also a spasm of support for her on social media. Online trolls besieged Felitti. They also went after Mari Muradas, who worked as a doula guiding women through childbirth and had provided the journalist with the original tip about Bonetti’s past. Millions downloaded Felitti’s seven-part podcast, a co-production with the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. It became a national obsession in Brazil, leading television broadcasts and topping news websites, but has drawn little attention outside South America’s largest nation.

LEFT: After Margarida Bonetti’s story resurfaced, the São Paulo house where she lives has become a tourist attraction. RIGHT: The home sits among high-rises that have long since replaced its neighbors. (Gui Christ for The Washington Post)

Some days news helicopters have hovered over Bonetti’s house. Crowds of gawkers have gathered in such large numbers outside the home that police have had to be called to clear the streets.

A plaque that still hangs outside the front door announces the property as the residence of Bonetti’s father, Geraldo de Azevedo, a prominent surgeon. Bonetti’s mother, Lourdes, told everyone she’d been born in Spain. She boasted of royal ancestry. Bonetti’s grandfather, a wealthy businessman, held the title of “baron” and his image has appeared on Brazilian stamps.

“Everybody knew them,” said Mariano Felix de Carvalho, a retired sexton who worked for six decades at the nearby Santa Teresinha Catholic church that the family attended.

As a young man, de Carvalho remembers the poor gathering outside the house to receive free bananas and avocados. The wealthy couple was conferred terms of respect: Don Geraldo and Doña Lourdes. Sometimes they threw parties and invited people from the neighborhood. De Carvalho remembers staring gape-mouthed at the richly appointed rooms — the elegant furniture, the thick drapery, the fine art. He would think to himself, “This is how kings and queens live,” de Carvalho told The Post.

He remembers the couple’s daughter, Margarida, as a prim, well-dressed teenager — skirts and dresses, never pants — with gorgeous, meticulously coifed hair. She was shy when her imperious mother was around; more outgoing when she wasn’t.

Inside the de Azevedos’ home there was a small room off the kitchen. One of the family servants lived there, according to court testimony many years later in the United States. Her name was Hilda Rosa dos Santos.

Dos Santos had been born into a grindingly poor family in Anápolis, a small town nearly 600 miles north of São Paulo. She was one of 12 siblings and never knew her father. When she was a child, she would later say in court testimony, her mother was forced to “scatter” her children because she couldn’t afford to raise them herself. Dos Santos was “given” as a servant, as she put it, to a family that operated a brothel. She was obliged to do hard labor, including tending livestock, and was beaten regularly, she has said. Dos Santos didn’t attend school. She was illiterate.

In the early 1960s, when she was about 19 (dos Santos later testified she wasn’t sure of her exact age), she began working for the famous doctor and his wife in São Paulo. The couple had three daughters, including a 9-year-old named Margarida. Over the next two decades dos Santos would be a fixture in the family’s life.

In 1972, Margarida married Renê Bonetti — an engineer with a bright future who would earn both master’s and doctorate degrees. In their first years of marriage, the Bonettis lived outside São Paulo while he worked for Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. As the decade ended, a golden opportunity arose: He accepted a prestigious one-year posting in the Washington area to conduct scientific satellite research at Comsat, a telecommunications company.

Margarida Bonetti’s mother suggested they take a maid with them, according to testimony given by Renê Bonetti in his criminal case. She offered the services of dos Santos.

In a way, the servant was a gift to the young couple: Margarida Bonetti’s parents promised to pay dos Santos’s salary.

It was a promise they would not keep.

LEFT: A street in Maryland’s Montgomery Village, where Bonetti lived with her husband and son before she fled back to Brazil. RIGHT: A view of the community’s Lake Whetstone. The Bonetti house in this tranquil area had another resident, the family servant. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In the United States, Renê Bonetti’s career thrived. He stayed for 17 years as a senior scientist for Comsat, followed by a three-year stint as a program manager at Hughes Network Systems. He won an award from NASA for his space research; there was a succession of promotions and pay raises.

The couple lived comfortably, with their son, Arthur, in a spacious home in one of the area’s first planned suburban communities, tranquil Montgomery Village, Md., just outside Gaithersburg. They also owned a rental property — a nearby townhouse where they’d lived before upgrading to a larger home. They sent their son to a private high school and then paid for his college, according to court documents.

Observant Catholics, the couple joined the Mother of God Community, which they would eventually dissociate themselves from amid a controversy over the group’s practices and leadership. Renê Bonetti attended meetings of the ultraconservative Catholic group Opus Dei, according to a Catholic priest who provided character reference testimony for Bonetti’s defense in a later court case.

“They stayed to themselves,” Kari Salmonsen, a neighbor, said in a recent interview. “I don’t think anyone really knew the Bonettis.”

Margarida Bonetti dressed well, giving every bit the appearance of a wealthy woman of refined tastes, according to Victor Ochy Pang, a family friend and work colleague of Renê Bonetti’s. She was clearly well educated and spoke English well, he said.

In Brazil, she’d had the imprimatur of her family’s generational prestige. In Gaithersburg, she wasn’t the instantly recognizable member of the elite that she’d been in Higienópolis. She was a nobody. Though she’d studied engineering in Brazil, according to her husband, she did not work outside the home.

“She became obsessive when she was alone,” Ochy Pang said. “She didn’t have anything to do.”

Neighbors sometimes wondered about the other woman who lived in the Bonetti home, though few got to know her well or asked many questions, Salmonsen said. Or even learned her name: Hilda Rosa dos Santos. They would see her shoveling snow or raking leaves in shabby clothes unsuited to the weather. During apple season, they’d casually observe her picking apples in the area. “We thought she was making pies,” a neighbor, Oliver Parr, said in a recent interview.

Sometimes she asked neighbors for food; some gave her a few dollars out of sympathy.

In early 1998 — 19 years after moving to the United States — dos Santos left the Bonettis, aided by a neighbor she’d befriended, Vicki Schneider. Schneider and others helped arrange for dos Santos to stay in a secret location, according to testimony Schneider later gave in court. (Schneider declined to be interviewed for this story.) The FBI and the Montgomery County adult services agency began a months-long investigation.

When social worker Annette Kerr arrived at the Bonetti home in April 1998 — shortly after dos Santos had moved — she was stunned. She’d handled tough cases before, but this was different. Dos Santos lived in a chilly basement with a large hole in the floor covered by plywood. There was no toilet, Kerr, now retired, said in a recent interview, pausing often to regain her composure, tears welling in her eyes. (Renê Bonetti later acknowledged in court testimony that dos Santos lived in the basement, as well as confirmed that it had no toilet or shower and had a hole in the floor covered with plywood. He told jurors that dos Santos could have used an upstairs shower but chose not to do so.)

Dos Santos bathed using a metal tub that she would fill with water she hauled downstairs in a bucket from an upper floor, Kerr said, flipping through personal notes that she has kept all these years. Dos Santos slept on a cot with a thin mattress she supplemented with a discarded mat she’d scavenged in the woods. An upstairs refrigerator was locked so she could not open it.

“I couldn’t believe that would take place in the United States,” Kerr said.

During Kerr’s investigation, dos Santos recounted regular beatings she’d received from Margarida Bonetti, including being punched and slapped and having clumps of her hair pulled out and fingernails dug into her skin. She talked about hot soup being thrown in her face. Kerr learned that dos Santos had suffered a cut on her leg while cleaning up broken glass that was left untreated so long it festered and emitted a putrid smell.

She’d also lived for years with a tumor so large that doctors would later describe it variously as the size of a cantaloupe or a basketball. It turned out to be noncancerous.

She’d had “no voice” her whole life, Kerr concluded, “no rights.” Traumatized by her circumstances, dos Santos was “extremely passive” and “fearful,” Kerr said. Kerr had no doubt she was telling the truth. She was too timid to lie. (Dos Santos, now approximately in her 80s and still living in the United States, declined The Post’s interview request through an intermediary.)

That September, the FBI showed up at the Bonettis’ house.

“You would never in a million years have thought what was going on in that house,” Don Neily, the FBI agent who questioned the Bonettis, said in a recent interview. He remembers Margarida Bonetti as a “sophisticated lady” with a warped view of the world shaped by her upbringing among Brazil’s upper classes.

“I got the impression you could slap your servants,” Neily said, “and nobody cared.”

The next month, after the death of her father, and knowing that she was under investigation, Margarida Bonetti flew to Brazil.

She would never return.

U.S. prosecutors spent months building a case, and in the spring of 1999 they succeeded in persuading a grand jury to indict Renê and Margarida Bonetti. The couple were charged with three immigration felonies related to harboring an undocumented person and causing her “serious bodily injury.”

Though Margarida Bonetti was more than 4,000 miles away when Renê Bonetti finally went on trial in February 2000, she still played a role in his defense. The couple talked by phone, and Margarida sent evidence to her husband’s defense attorney, according to a transcript of Renê’s trial that fills two large accordion folders.

During the trial, dos Santos testified that Renê Bonetti took her passport, effectively preventing her from leaving the country — a common tactic in human-trafficking cases. He denied doing so at his trial. (Renê Bonetti, now in his 70s, resumed his engineering career after being released from prison and remains in the United States. He declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Dos Santos said during the trial that she felt trapped, especially since she was illiterate in both Portuguese and English, and did not know how to use the bus system or navigate America’s immigration system maze.

So she remained through 19 long years, enduring beatings that sometimes took place on a daily basis, she testified during the trial. Though it was only Margarida who beat her, she said her complaints about the assaults were ignored by the man she called Dr. Renê. He would walk out of the room whenever his wife beat dos Santos.

When it was his turn to testify, Renê Bonetti called the charges against him “stupid and completely erroneous.” He portrayed dos Santos as a liar and testified at length about her supposed incompetence as a maid, accusations echoed by his wife’s mother and a sister, Rosa Campos, who flew from Brazil to testify on his behalf. Bonetti complained about “disorder” and a “lack of cleaning” in their home when dos Santos lived with them and said it was easier to keep the house clean after she moved.

Over and over, Renê Bonetti undermined his own defense. Questioned by prosecutor Steven Dettelbach — now ATF director in the Biden administration — he admitted to providing false information on multiple immigration forms related to dos Santos and to his own immigration paperwork. Bonetti had originally entered the country using a special visa for employees of international organizations that allows foreign nationals to obtain separate visas for their domestic employees. In the applications for those visas, Bonetti admitted to falsely stating that dos Santos had lived with him and his wife in Brazil.

And though he claimed that he was unsure about dos Santos’s legal status after the expiration of her original visa, he admitted that he enrolled her in a green-card lottery for people seeking legal immigration status a full eight years after they’d moved to the United States.

He admitted that he’d described himself as dos Santos’s “employer” on medical forms he filled out on her behalf during a doctor’s visit. In his testimony, he called that a “little white lie.” And he admitted dos Santos had never been paid, testifying that he believed his in-laws were responsible for paying her. In his version of events, after he and his wife had lived in the United States for more than four years, Margarida Bonetti’s parents ended their commitment to paying the servant’s salary. It was an action that now seems irrelevant — dos Santos had never received a dime anyway.

For the next 15 years, Renê Bonetti said, dos Santos remained in their home as a kind of family friend.

“We love her,” he told jurors.

He cast himself as a benevolent presence in her life, saying he supported her financially, paying for food and shelter, and wanted to shield her from “racism” that he was sure she’d encounter if she went out on her own in the United States.

Shortly before the trial began he tried to make amends — sort of. He was willing to pay her for those first four years when she was supposed to be getting a salary from his in-laws, but not for the other 15 years.

He testified it would be too much of a hassle to try to get the money from his father-in-law’s estate. So in preparation for the trial he calculated she was owed $4,050 for four years and eight months of work, amounting to 41.7 cents per hour for a 40-hour workweek, a rate he said was based on Brazilian standards, and that he’d be willing to pay her that amount.

In Dettelbach’s closing argument for the prosecution, he told the jury Bonetti needed a “geography lesson ... this isn’t Brazil.”

After the jury convicted Bonetti, the case might have been on a glide path to sentencing. Instead, chaos ensued.

Neily, the FBI agent, told the judge overseeing the case that he’d been contacted by the Bonettis’ son, Arthur, who feared he might have committed perjury while testifying at the trial by not being fully forthcoming about “unimaginable” abuses that took place at their home. He said he believed his mother had “psychological problems” and that “if she found out he was talking to the FBI he might be killed.”

Arthur Bonetti, who was in his 20s at the time, was a no-show for a follow-up meeting with investigators. Like his mother, he vanished. The FBI couldn’t find him. (Arthur, who lives in an apartment near his mother in São Paulo, declined through his father to be interviewed.)

Neily had also discovered that, operating from Brazil, Margarida had contacted a real estate agent and was secretly scheming to sell their house and have the proceeds transferred to Brazil to hide the money from any potential restitution payments to dos Santos. He alleged that Renê Bonetti was in on the scheme and was also trying to hide personal property, including an Alfa Romeo he owned. The judge in the criminal case froze his assets.

But that federal judge wasn’t the only jurist who took action. Alongside the criminal proceedings was a separate civil case in Montgomery County filed by dos Santos seeking restitution. One of the many judges involved in the civil case was Martha Kavanaugh — the mother of future Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Just a few days before Renê Bonetti’s sentencing, she also issued an order freezing his assets.

Renê Bonetti ended up with a 6½-year prison sentence. He appealed his conviction. Brett Kavanaugh, who was then in private practice, took on Bonetti’s appeal as a pro bono case the month after his mother had frozen his new client’s assets, according to court records that list him as Bonetti’s attorney and a Washington Post interview with Paul Kemp, the attorney who referred the case to him. Kavanaugh did not respond to questions about why he was willing to represent Bonetti for free, even though the freshly convicted felon had been a well-paid engineer, had owned a $250,000 house and a rental property, was being accused of trying to hide money from the authorities, and had a fugitive wife whose well-to-do family owned valuable property in Brazil. (Bonetti told The Post in a text message that the case had cost him all his personal possessions and retirement savings.)

Brett Kavanaugh ended his role in the appeal four months later in preparation for joining the White House counsel’s office in the George W. Bush administration. The conviction was later upheld in an opinion written by then-federal appeals court judge Michael Luttig, who recently drew national attention for his stirring testimony at televised congressional hearings about the threats to democracy posed by the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

[Michael Luttig helped stop Trump on Jan. 6. Now he wants to finish the job.]

Bonetti ended up serving five years in prison. He said in a text message that he paid $110,000 in court-ordered restitution in his criminal case. (Court records related to restitution are unclear and The Post was unable to confirm that figure.)

“Why keep digging into a over 20 year old case that caused me a lot of pain and loss?” Bonetti said in another text message to The Post. “Haven’t I paid enough in time, money and personal pain? Please let go of [picking] an old wound. The press can become very cruel when searching for sensation instead of real news, don’t you think?”

Kemp, who had been a defense attorney and referred the appeal to Kavanaugh, said in a recent interview that he felt some empathy for Renê Bonetti. He was a “fall guy,” Kemp said, for the misdeeds of his wife.

Back in Brazil, Margarida Bonetti eventually resurfaced at her family home. Her mother remained in the United States for months after testifying at Renê Bonetti’s trial because she fell ill and couldn’t travel. During that time, she stayed at Ochy Pang’s house, he said, and the Bonettis ignored his requests for help caring for her. When she finally returned, she lived with her daughter at the house in Higienópolis until her death in 2011.

The U.S. Embassy in Brazil contacted local authorities after Renê Bonetti’s conviction to say they planned to ask for Margarida’s extradition, despite knowing the request would be rejected. Even though she was protected by Brazil’s prohibition on extraditions, legal experts have said she could have been charged with the same or similar crimes in Brazil.

The Brazilians initially said they couldn’t find her, which is hard to believe given the fact she was appearing in newscasts and newspaper articles at the time. Later, according to documents unearthed by Brazilian media, authorities there requested information in writing from U.S. law enforcement over the course of several years in an effort to potentially build a case against Margarida. The Brazilians say they eventually closed the case because they never heard back from U.S. authorities. (The FBI declined interview requests regarding the assertions by Brazilian authorities, saying it does not discuss communications with foreign governments.)

“Both Brazil and the United States failed,” said Thiago Amparo, a Brazilian human rights scholar and international law professor.

One day in late 2021, while walking his dog in Higienópolis, Chico Felitti — an accomplished Brazilian journalist and author — came across a petite woman in dirty clothes screaming at a city work crew cutting down a tree in a park not far from his apartment.

A neighbor told him the woman, who’d introduced herself as Mari, lived in a crumbling mansion just down the street. Felitti — a buff and charismatic 37-year-old abundantly tattooed with roosters, a leopard, a ram and other animals — has a finely tuned radar for a good story. He began talking with her. Eventually, after getting to know her better, he decided he might be able to produce “something beautiful and poetic” about “someone who lost everything she had and was living in a really bad place.”

The reporting got off to a good start. But, without explanation, the woman he knew as Mari suddenly refused to talk to him.

Felitti, however, couldn’t stop thinking about that house. He found an article on a history website about it, and the prominent doctor who had lived there. Two comments appended to the article shocked him. One, from 2018 — three years earlier — identified the woman living in the house as Margarida Bonetti. The other, from 2019, said the doctor’s daughter was a fugitive wanted by the FBI. It took only a quick online search for Felitti to find an article dated 2000 about Renê Bonetti’s trial.

By coincidence a friend knew one of the commenters — Mari Muradas, the doula who lives in a building next to the dilapidated mansion — and introduced them. Muradas had been drawn to the house by an odd light she’d seen, something that felt almost supernatural. During a downpour one evening, she saw the mansion’s inhabitant drenched to the skin.

Muradas wanted to help. But when Muradas mentioned her desire to a neighbor, she learned about Margarida’s past. It had been big news in Brazil in 2000, the neighbor said, but was long forgotten.

“I could not believe I was feeling bad for her,” Muradas said in an interview in the community room of her apartment building. “No one caught her here in Brazil because she’s White, powerful and rich. ... I got so angry about this.”

She came to have practical concerns, as well. She was trying to get pregnant and suspected the ill-kept home had become a breeding ground for swarms of mosquitoes that she feared might be carrying dengue fever.

She would sometimes encounter Margarida while out for walks. She’d tell her: “I know who you are, and I know what you did.” Bonetti would deny her identity or respond with what Muradas described as “little tantrums.”

Muradas tried to talk to other neighbors, but few seemed to care. She became obsessed. She filled out an online form to report a fugitive to the FBI, but never heard back. Unlike everyone else, Chico Felitti was interested in what she had to say, for he was hooked now, too, setting off what became a months-long, bi-continental investigative journey.

Felitti knew it was an amazing story, but he never could have imagined what would happen when his podcast debuted. It wasn’t just the millions of downloads. It was the frenzy.

A woman stopped Felitti on his way to the gym one day and lectured him about “doing bad things to a good family — which means White, traditional, rich family,” Felitti said in an interview at his art-filled São Paulo apartment.

Yet there were also many who considered Bonetti a monster. The rage of some in the crowds outside Bonetti’s home made Felitti fear for her life. Graffiti screamed from the walls around her property: “Slaveholder.” Police and animal rights activists raided with news cameras rolling and seized her dogs, saying they were being mistreated. More than 40 police officers took part. They found a filthy, malodorous mess.

Heaps of empty dog food bags, countless water bottles, mountains of clothing, said Roberto Monteiro, the local police chief in charge of the operation. The woman who’d locked her refrigerator in the United States had six in Brazil — most didn’t work. In the live reports, Bonetti looks alternately furious and confused.

“In her thoughts, the house was clean,” Helena Monaco, Bonetti’s attorney, said in an interview at a São Paulo cafe.

Though she is still an accused criminal in the United States, she’s now viewed by some in Brazil as a possible victim. Monteiro has investigated the possibility of charging family members with failing to care for her but says he’s been stalled because Bonetti refuses to cooperate.

Margarida, divorced from Renê for many years, seems to prefer to stay in her squalid home alone. Vowing to live there for the rest of her life, she’s been waging a battle with a sister who wants to sell it, according to Monaco, Margarida’s attorney. She occasionally emerges to greet her public, Eva Perón-like, as Felitti puts it, or answer fawning questions for Instagram live feeds.

On social media, people have dressed like her, smearing white cream on their faces, hair pulled back with what has become her signature scarves. Someone came up with a Margarida Bonetti dance. An enthusiast of “The Sims 4” video game created a Sim character based on Margarida Bonetti and a depiction of her house to be used in a digital simulation of her life.

“It’s a tale of a country that looks at racialized violence as entertainment — that enjoys it in a very sadistic way,” Amparo, the human rights scholar, said.

Even now, months after the podcast concluded, people flock to the house to take selfies. On a recent afternoon, a 10-year-old boy draped himself on the fence as his cousin egged him on. “I want to jump inside!” he said. Once, the youth, who stops by every Saturday, taunted Bonetti into opening a window.

“She waved,” he said. “Still, I was scared.”

It’s not only that people want to gawk; it’s that they want to be a part of her life. Just touching her is an almost transcendent experience for some.

“I shook her hand,” a woman named Dircinea Maria Estouco said reverentially. “She asked me to pray for her. I think we are friends.”

All the attention has led to an uptick of abusive labor practice and domestic slavery complaints in Brazil, which was the last nation to abolish slavery in the Western Hemisphere. But few here see much in the way of major change.

“This is normal here — the slavery thing is everywhere,” de Carvalho, the church sexton, said.

He still thinks of Bonetti as a good person, someone who “shouldn’t have to be punished for what everyone does.”

Lots of people have enslaved people in the same neighborhood where Bonetti has become a tourist attraction, he said.

Sitting there in the foyer of his church, he pointed his right index finger north, where he knows one family has enslaved a person in their home. He pointed to another home to the northeast where a person is enslaved. Then another to the east and, before lowering his hand, he pointed west to a spot not far from a crumbling mansion, where the woman they call “the witch” lives. The one who got away.

Juliana Faddul in São Paulo and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report. Editing by Hank Stuever. Copy editing by Frances Moody and Panfilo Garcia. Project editing by Steven Johnson. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Design and development by Stephanie Hays. Animation by Anna Lefkowitz. Design editing by Eddie Alvarez. Audio production by Sabby Robinson and Eliza Dennis. Audio editing by Ted Muldoon and Maggie Penman. Audio mix by Sean Carter.