By Stuart Grudgings
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - With all the ingredients of thedramatic "telenovela" soap operas millions of Brazilians watcheach night, the murder of 5-year-old Isabella Nardoni hasgripped the country and sparked feverish media coverage.
A pretty girl who dreamed of being a ballerina, Isabellawas found dead on March 29 after she was apparently thrown fromthe sixth-floor Sao Paulo apartment where she lived with herfather and stepmother.
The father, who says an intruder must have killed Isabellawhile she was briefly alone in the apartment, and stepmotherwere detained but released on Friday without charge despite theprosecutor saying their story was a fantasy.
In a country where statistics show a child is killed every10 hours, many of them black and living in the drug-plaguedslums that surround most big cities, the murder of thelight-skinned middle-class girl has become a cause celebre.
"Children die every day in Rio and Sao Paulo, but this caseis different because it's playing out like a telenovela andpeople want to see the next episode," said Gloria Vanique, areporter for Brazil's dominant Globo Television station who wascamped outside the police station where the father was held.
Some coverage has drawn a link between the girl's death andthe violence that children suffer every day throughout Brazilthat receives little media or police attention.
For the most part, though, the media has focused on thecase's titillating details and suspense over who killed thechild. Adding to the drama have been apparent discrepancies inthe couple's versions of events on the night of the murder.Witnesses reported hearing a girl shouting "Stop, Father!"
"The only thing that works in Brazil is the family -- themarket doesn't work and the government doesn't work," saidanthropologist Roberto DaMatta, explaining why the case was soshocking to many.
He also said it had shaken the common stereotype infast-growing Brazil that "once everyone was middle class,there'll be no crime."
HOW MANY ISABELLAS?
If nothing else, the case has shown few countries can puton as thorough a media frenzy.
Played out on live TV for two weeks, often backed bysuspenseful music, the case has been analyzed endlessly bynewspapers and the main news magazines.
TV shows that usually feature singers and cooking segmentshave switched to blanket Isabella coverage. Globo's Web sitedisplays a 3-D model of her body, complete with "hotspots" tohighlight her injuries.
Television helicopters hovered over Sao Paulo on Friday andhundreds of reporters and onlookers mobbed the stepmother andfather as they were released from police custody. The crowdsurged around the car carrying the stepmother, banging on thewindows and shouting "murderer."
On the popular Orkut social networking Web site, severaldiscussion groups devoted to the case each had more than 50,000members. The most popular had 1.5 million.
"I think it was the father," wrote a member calledGiuliana. "He must have a genetic illness that makes a personaggressive and not remember anything afterward."
Others were critical of the obsessive coverage.
"The question is how many Isabellas exist today in Brazil,but the sensationalist media has gone over the top because it'sa well-mannered middle-class family," wrote Lucas.
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)