SAO PAULO, Brazil – In one murder after another, the Canal Livre TV show had an uncanny knack for being first on the scene, gathering graphic footage of the victim.
Too uncanny, say police, who are investigating the show's host, state legislator Wallace Souza, on suspicion of commissioning at least five of the murders to boost his ratings and prove his claim that Brazil's Amazon region is awash in violent crime.
"The order to execute always came from the legislator and his son, who then alerted the TV crews to get to the scene before the police," state police intelligence chief Thomaz Vasconcelos charged in an interview with The Associated Press.
The killings, he said, "appear to have been committed to get rid of his rivals and increase the audience of the TV show."
Souza's lawyer, Francisco Balieiro, said his client vehemently denies the accusations. Balieiro claimed political opponents were trying to smear him with false accusations, and that the only witness is a disgraced police officer hoping for leniency in nine murders he is charged with.
"There is not one piece of material proof in these accusations," Balieiro said.
Vasconcelos said the accusations, which have made headlines in Brazil, stem from the testimony of several former employees and security guards who worked with the Souzas, allegedly as part of a gang of former police officers involved in drug trafficking.
Souza's son, Rafael, has been jailed on charges of homicide, drug trafficking and illegal gun possession. Police said the father faces charges of drug trafficking, gang formation and weapons possession, but remains free because of legislative immunity. No charges have been brought against him in the killings.
Vasconcelos said the crimes appear to have served the Souzas in two ways: They eliminated drug-trafficking rivals, and they boosted ratings.
"We believe that they organized a kind of death squad to execute rivals who disputed with them the drug trafficking business," he said. Souza, he charged, "would eliminate his rival and use the killing as a news story for his program."
Souza became a media personality after a career as a police officer that ended in disgrace. Vasconcelos said he was fired for involvement in scams involving fuel theft and pension fraud. Souza's lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
He started Canal Livre (Free Channel) in the 1990s on a local commercial station in Manaus, the capital of Brazil's largely lawless Amazonas state. It became extremely popular among Manaus' 1.7 million residents before going off the air late last year as police intensified their investigation.
The show featured Souza, in a studio, railing against rampant crime in the state, punctuated with often exclusive footage of arrests, crime scenes and drug seizures.
"When I became a police officer in 1979, bandits weren't raised in this city — no way," he said. Brazil was then a dictatorship, whose police ruthlessly targeted criminals with little concern for civil rights.
One clip showed a reporter approaching a freshly burned corpse, covering his nose with his shirt and breezily remarking that "it smells like barbecue." Police say the victim was one of the five allegedly murdered at Souza's behest.
Souza parlayed his TV fame into a career in the state legislature, getting elected three times — twice with the most votes of any lawmaker in the state. At the same time, he remained a fixture on television.
Souza's biography on the state legislature's Web site says the show, which he ran with his brother, was investigative journalism aimed at fighting crime and social injustice.
"The courageous brothers, as they're known, bring hope to the less fortunate," reads the description, "showing a 'naked and raw reality' to call authorities' attention to social problems."