Game shows are supposed to be fun. After all they are called games. The Peruvian version of the international television game show franchise The Moment of Truth was first aired in Lima in mid-2012. By that time, the program was aired in dozens of countries around the world, including the United States. The way the show worked involved a contestant who was brought into the station and asked a set of questions, some banal, some uncomfortable, some bordering on cruel, all while hooked to a polygraph. Then the contestant was brought back to go through the questions once more before a studio audience. The answers given were compared to the results of the polygraph, and for each truthful response, the contestant won money. If she lied she would she lose it all. In this case, the teenaged contestant didn’t lose her money. She lost something much more valuable – her life.
Ruth Thalia Sayas Sanchez was 19, a reasonably attractive brunette from a nice family and the first contestant on the show. Sanchez grew up in an impoverished area of Peru. She saw the game show as a way out. The show’s host, Beto Ortiz, was unimpressed with Sanchez. He described her as “Average. Pretty, but nothing special.” When the cameras began to roll something changed. Sanchez brightened carrying herself with the confidence of a young striver, comfortable under the lights even playful. “She liked being on television,” her sister, Eva said. According to the rules of the program every contestant could bring three guests. Sanchez was accompanied by her parents, Leoncio and Vilma. Leoncio seemed worried from the outset. “I’m afraid of what I might learn about my daughter,” he told Beto when he was introduced on camera. Vilma was more optimistic. She was a small woman, with a wide smile and glowing light-brown skin. “I was happy to go,” Vilma said. “I was going to say, ‘I’m from Huancavelica and proud of it, Mr. Beto!’”
Sanchez’s third guest was a handsome, timid young man named Bryan Romero Leiva. He wore his brown hair short and combed forward slightly. He was 20 years old, drove a mototaxi, and had been raised on a steeply sloping dirt road near Sanchez’s home. He’d stuttered ever since an old boyfriend of his sister’s pushed him down the stairs when the child was only 8.
“I don’t know why,” said Vilma, “but I hated that kid.” On the show, in front of the cameras, Bryan was tense, his right leg shaking anxiously. “You seem nervous,” Beto said. “What are you so nervous about?”
“That she may have cheated on me.” Everyone laughed, including Sanchez. Beto paused. “Let’s not forget this is just a game,” he said. Words of wisdom that wouldn’t hold true for Sanchez or Leiva.
The opening questions were light: Have you ever skipped school without your mother’s knowledge? If you found 1,000 soles, would you return them? Sanchez’s parents joked along with Beto, as their daughter copped to these minor moral failings. There was more, of course. David Novoa, who was a producer with the show at the time, later admitted he felt bad. “I knew it was going to be a surprise, and a shameful moment for them.”
This made Sachez a perfect contestant for El Valor de la Verdad. Unabashedly, Sanchez revealed that she’d had a nose job, that she didn’t like her body, that she wished she were white, that she was only with her boyfriend until someone better came along, that she was ashamed of her parents’ manners, that she didn’t work at a call center, that she danced at a nightclub. The result was undeniably riveting: this young, reckless woman sharing secrets with an entire country.
While Sanchez answered Beto’s questions, her parents and boyfriend sat onstage. Over the course of the hour, they crumbled. Vilma begged her daughter to stop. Bryan was too stunned to offer much resistance, never stringing together more than a couple of sentences. At one point, he admitted he loved Ruth Thalía. “I don’t want to hear more,” he said. She went on anyway. Beto asked Sanchez if she thought Bryan was handsome.“Uh … yes,” she said, hedging a bit.
“And is he smart?” She laughed. “More or less.
”Does he have a good heart?”
For this response, at least, she didn’t vacillate: “Yes,” Sanchez said, and the studio audience applauded. Then came question number 18: Have you ever accepted money for sex? Vilma bent over, as if in physical pain.
Sanchez answered yes, and the show’s announcer, a disembodied, almost robotically precise woman’s voice, called out: “The answer is … true.” There was a long silence.
“Just twice,” Sanchez explained. “We needed money. We were in a bad situation. It hasn’t happened since, and it won’t happen again.”
By now Sanchez had won 15,000 soles, or about $5,300, almost ten months’ wages for someone living in Lima. Beto asked if she wanted to go on, in search of 50,000 soles. Before responding, Sanchez said she was sorry for all this. “My mother, my father, my brother and sister are the most beautiful thing in the world to me. I love them with all my heart. Bryan, forgive me for making you go through this.” Then she announced she was done. The audience cheered her decision. “The truth is always illuminating,” Beto said to the cameras. “It will not do harm, even though it hurts.” His prophecy would prove to be completely wrong.
Sanchez hugged Bryan. His face registered nothing. As the credits rolled, she got down on her knees before her ashen-faced mother and begged for forgiveness. That month in the Sanchez household wasn’t an easy one. Vilma was moody and confused; Leoncio was distant. They couldn’t understand why their daughter had done the show. When Vilma asked, Sanchez was almost flippant. “For the money,” she said. She fantasized about being famous and had even auditioned for soap operas and other game shows but her more immediate goal was practical. She wanted to open a salon.
Once the show aired, that position became harder to justify. El Valor de la Verdad was an instant success. Sanchez’s secrets were part of the national conversation. “It was a celebration,” said producer David Novoa. “We beat [the rival television program] Gisela. That’s all that mattered. The ratings! They were drinking champagne up on the second floor”
Sanchez’s notoriety, though, had come at a great cost. “This neighborhood we live in is a hellhole of gossip,” Leoncio said. It seemed everyone had seen his daughter on the show, and everyone had an opinion. Relatives the family hadn’t heard from in years were calling to say how ashamed they were. “Ruth Thalia didn’t even want to leave the house,” Eva said. Sanchez confessed to her mother that she’d thought of suicide. For Bryan, one could argue, it was even worse. He’d been exposed as a cuckold in front of millions, something unforgivable in Peru’s macho culture.
One day, at the bridge in Huachipa, Bryan was taunted by a busload of high school students. He had to go hide in a nearby store. In the weeks after the airing, he showed up at the station a few times, demanding some kind of recompense for his public humiliation. He was accompanied by his uncle, Redy Leiva, who was studying law and did most of the talking. One afternoon, just a few weeks after the show had aired, a television crew from Frecuencia Latina caught up with Bryan at the front door of his house. The host asked him how he felt.
“Ashamed. All the things I learned on that show,” Bryan said, eyes avoiding the camera. “How would you feel?”
“But they say that if you love someone, you can forgive them.”
“Depends what they did. The things she said that day, I can’t forgive.”
In other interviews, Bryan claimed that it had all been a setup. He and Sanchez had broken up months before the taping. She approached him and asked him for a favor. Pretend to be my boyfriend on television, she said, and if I win, I’ll share the money with you. He agreed, with no idea what he was getting into. It had been an ambush. Weeks had passed, and he still hadn’t seen a cent.
“After the show,” Eva said, “he started asking for money. First 500, then 1,000, then 2,000.” One day, someone broke into the Sayas Sánchez house and stole Ruth Thalía’s laptop. None of Eva’s things was taken. The family assumed that Bryan had stolen it, but he denied it, and in the end, there was no proof. Leoncio filed a police report, and that was that.
On September 11, 2012, eight weeks after El Valor de la Verdad debuted, Leoncio and Vilma went to bed watching a World Cup qualifying match between Peru and Argentina. When they woke up, Leoncio heard his wife say, “Thalía hasn’t come home.” Sanchez had never done this before. She called some of her sister’s friends and managed to reach a young man who’d seen Sanchez the night before as she left the university. He said she’d gotten a call from Bryan. Vilma went straight to Bryan’s house for answers. She feared the worst. “I was crying, screaming,” she said. “Everyone in the street, the neighbors, they must have seen me. I was kneeling, as if he were a god. Bryan, give me back Thalía.” But Bryan was unmoved. He said he hadn’t spoken to her in a while, and then he turned and went inside.
When faced with a situation like this one, people like the Sayas Sánchez family didn’t have a lot of options. This is a fact of life in Peru, though not just there, of course. If you’re poor, if you come from a place like Huachipa, the authorities aren’t always on your side. The police can be slow to react, even negligent, and corruption weighs most heavily on those least able to withstand it. Vilma and Leoncio went out every morning, asking for help at all the television stations in Lima. During those first anxious days, while Sanchez’s parents visited the local television stations, they never mentioned El Valor de la Verdad or Beto Ortiz. They were omitting the most crucial and valuable detail, that their daughter was famous. Or infamous. Instead, they told a simpler version of events. Our daughter hasn’t come home. We’re poor people, and we need help.
On the third day, at Channel 9, also called ATV, Vilma finally shared the key piece of information that would once more land her daughter on the front pages of newspapers all over the country. “I explained it to the man,” Vilma said, referring to the security guard at ATV. “I said, my daughter, she was the girl from El Valor de la Verdad. Right away he went to get the cameraman.” That night, three days after Sanchez’s disappearance, the case was mentioned for the first time on national television. Vilma happened to be watching ATV while she waited to speak to a detective at police headquarters in downtown Lima. “I was sitting there, and on the television, I hear Ruth Thalía’s name, and I thought: Sweet Lord, for sure I’ll find my daughter now!” There was one problem: ATV didn’t introduce Ruth Thalía as “the girl from El Valor de la Verdad.” Instead, the host called her “the prostitute from El Valor de la Verdad.”
“They killed me in my heart,” Vilma said. Now the story had changed. This was no longer about the disappearance of a young woman from a faraway neighborhood of the sprawling capital. Everyone wanted exclusive access to Ruth Thalía’s family, and Vilma, Leoncio, and Eva found themselves under siege. Every station in Lima sent producers and cameramen to the family home in Huachipa. They took long panning shots of the unpaved street, the train tracks, the mototaxis. They talked to neighbors and passers-by and hounded Vilma and Leoncio wherever they went.
When stories like these happened in Lima, the competition between the various channels can be brutal. Every television news program held a steady diet of crime reporting.Every news program in Lima aired a story on Ruth Thalía, but ATV had the family. By the sixth day, Leoncio recalled, “ATV was here all the time. They even slept here. They wouldn’t leave us alone.” Leoncio and Vilma got up each morning to ask for help. This task, knocking on doors, hoping someone might listen, constituted the entirety of their lives in those days. They traveled in a car provided by ATV, filmed by ATV cameramen. They went to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, to police headquarters, to the hospitals, to the morgue. They knocked on the door of the presidential palace in central Lima and managed to get an audience with an adviser to the first lady. A phone call from the palace got some movement out of the police. Things were happening, and to be fair, for people like Leoncio and Vilma, much of this would’ve been impossible without the help of a station like ATV.
Leoncio didn’t eat; Vilma didn’t sleep. They received all kinds of terrifying phone calls, including extortion attempts traced to police officers in towns outside Lima, claiming they had a lead but needed money to investigate. One day, Leoncio recounted, “a mototaxi driver came and said, ‘You know what? I found your daughter.’” According to this stranger, Sanchez was being held in a hotel not far from their home. He would take Leoncio there, for the right price. They negotiated and agreed on 2,000 soles, half upfront. Leoncio felt he had no choice but he was afraid. He climbed onto the man’s mototaxi, and they headed toward an area called Carapongo. When they arrived at the hotel, the man told him to wait, and Leoncio was left alone. “I called Channel 9. I just let it ring a couple of times. In case I disappeared, too, my last call would be from there.”
A few minutes later, the mototaxi driver brought down a young woman, but it wasn’t Sanchez, just another girl, a runaway, who looked like her. Leoncio was crushed. “Go home,” he told the girl, and she started crying. “Those were desperate days,” he later recalled.
On the morning of September 22, Bryan was interviewed by Alejandra Puente, a reporter from ATV. When asked if he’d seen Sanchez on the night in question, Bryan said he couldn’t remember. He’d been drunk. The reporter pushed him: “If you were me, would you believe yourself?”
“Like I said, I don’t remember that day.”
“But your conscience is clean?”
“Yes,” Bryan said.
That same afternoon, 11 days after Ruth Thalía’s disappearance, Leoncio got a call from someone at Channel 9. The police, he was told, had found the body of a young woman, buried in a well and covered by rocks and concrete, on a piece of land on the outskirts of Lima. The land belonged to Redy Leiva, Bryan’s uncle, and they suspected it was Ruth Thalía.
Leoncio and Eva went to the scene and found themselves confronted with cameras and microphones and photographers from every media outlet in Lima. “The newspapers were desperate, the radio was desperate, and I was desperate,” Leoncio said. “It was all desperation.” When it was confirmed that the woman at the bottom of the well ws Sanchez the cameras filmed Leoncio and Eva sobbing, bent over, embracing. Eventually Bryan was brought to the scene, and Leoncio pressed the police to let him see the young man. He was told he had to control himself, and Leoncio assured the officer he would, but he grabbed a rock and put it in his pocket. “And then Bryan started talking about my daughter. … I just reacted.” Leoncio took out the rock and surged toward Bryan, swinging at his head. The police managed to hold Leoncio back. Eventually Bryan confessed to the murder.
In his videotaped confession, Bryan wore the same clothes he had worn in his interview with Alejandra Puente from ATV: a black-and-turquoise hooded jacket and acid-washed jeans. He spoke firmly and told investigators a simple story. He called Ruth Thalía as she was leaving the university, and they made plans to meet. “I waited for her by the bridge,” he told police. “She got into my mototaxi. I said, let’s go have some wine, and she said, OK.” They rode to the house where he rented a room. Once there, he and Ruth Thalía drank a $3 bottle of red wine in the street and eventually went upstairs. They had sex and, afterward, started to fight. “She tells me, I don’t know what I’m doing talking to a poor mototaxi driver,” Bryan said. “And that’s when I grabbed her by the throat.” Bryan admitted to police that he choked her for 30 seconds or more. “I thought she had passed out,” he told police. “I listened to her heart. I didn’t hear anything. I grabbed her and shook her hard. But nothing. I got scared.”
The difference between a crime of passion and premeditated homicide is the difference between spending a decade in prison or one’s entire life. This question, then, became central to the case: Bryan had confessed to killing Ruth Thalía, but had he planned it? No, his lawyer, Felipe Ramos, would argue. Bryan had snapped under the pressure of his national humiliation. The crime could be traced directly to the show. “The format couldn’t have existed without Bryan,” Ramos said. “That’s the truth. The program had impact so long as you had a cuckold sitting up there, call him Bryan, Juan, Pedro. They needed a victim for Ruth Thalía’s lies.”
Beto made no comment until Monday, on his morning news program, Abre los Ojos. He sat alone at a desk, wearing a black suit, a black dress shirt, a black tie, and black-framed glasses. Beto extended his condolences to the Sanchez family. Then he shot back at his critics: “Unfortunately, this case, which is all over the news, which happened to a person who was on television, has been used by some people for sinister purposes.” El Valor de la Verdad played no role whatsoever in the death of Ruth Thalía, he argued. “The murderer of Ruth Thalía Sayas Sánchez is Bryan Romero Leiva.”
When asked if he thought Sanchez would be alive if she hadn’t appeared on El Valor de la Verdad, Novoa didn’t hesitate. “Of course,” he said. Then he paused for a moment and made the ludicrous statement, “Well, I don’t know if she would be alive. Maybe she’d have died some other way.”
On February 27, 2014, the court declared Bryan Romero Leiva guilty of the murder of Ruth Thalía. The vast majority of Bryan’s confession was found to be false. The police tracked down a witness, an adolescent boy from the neighborhood, who said that the night Sanchez disappeared, Bryan paid him 50 soles to let him know when Sanchez got off the bus. The boy claimed to have seen Bryan and another man force her into his mototaxi. The court determined that Bryan’s accomplice was his uncle, Redy Leiva, the owner of the property where her body was found. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment. The motive for the crime was robbery. They attempted to get Sanchez’s bank security code. They wanted her winnings from El Valor de la Verdad.
The second season of El Valor de la Verdad was produced with only celebrity contestants: politicians, showbiz folks, the kind of people who are used to dealing with the media. It was a hit. One highly placed source at Frecuencia Latina stated that this decision was in direct response to the murder of Sanchez, but naturally, Beto Ortiz denied it. “The show is entertainment, and I don’t lose sight of that. We need contestants whose stories are interesting enough that people will watch.”
Apparently the murder of a young woman trying to escape a life of poverty doesn’t qualify as interesting enough to Ortiz.