Retracing a monster's steps

New forensic reports leave little doubt that José Bretón killed his two children This is an account of the facts that are known so far

José Bretón, pictured in front of a poster seeking information about his missing children, José and Ruth.
José Bretón, pictured in front of a poster seeking information about his missing children, José and Ruth.Francis Vargas (EL PAÍS)

This time, José Bretón did not plan his own death. This time, he planned to take revenge. But despite being such a conscientious man, he failed again. On that other occasion, in 1997, he took sedatives and was found unconscious inside his car next to three canisters of camping gas. That was at Las Quemadillas, his parents' rural property in Córdoba, and the setting that seems to stimulate Bretón into action after every disappointment.

It was in that same Andalusian property, filled with orange trees, that Bretón started a bonfire on Saturday, October 8, 2011 with the apparent purpose of eliminating all vestiges of his own children, Ruth and José, aged six and two. He tried to make them disappear forever, so that the woman who had left him would be forced to spend the rest of her life asking him where the children went. And even though he was close to succeeding, he eventually failed: the children's burnt bones were stored in a police warehouse, where they sat for 10 months in the erroneous belief that they belonged to rodents.

Bretón is a fussy, neat, obsessive kind of man. Physically he is short and thin, and he has a high, almost effeminate voice. He keeps little notes to capture the ideas going round in his head, but these scribblings are chaotic; one minute he writes about the separation from his wife - "She tells me she will be fair about the apartment if I am fair about alimony;" "She can ask for my family to pay because they have the resources" - and the next about the feelings that consume him: "Maybe I would rather hurt than be hurt." His annotations include enigmatic sentences, such as: "Would it be good to get rid of the things that remind me of her?" And crystal-clear assertions, such as: "I am a bad person."

Bretón admits that he was especially exacting with the children. It bothered him when they coughed, when they sniffed, when they made noise as they ate, and when they got their hands dirty. Even though he spent a year-and-a-half taking care of Ruth and José, while his wife worked outside the home, none of his writings betray any kind of loving feelings toward them; there is not one heartfelt sentence anywhere regarding his kids. In reality, what appears to have been tormenting Bretón for a long time is the possibility of a woman cheating on him or abandoning him. The first time it happened, he tried to commit suicide. The second time, he plotted his revenge.

Bretón admits that he was especially exacting with his own children

The actual events took place very quickly, and many of them have been documented down to the last detail. There is no other case of this magnitude in Spain's police files, where the movements of the alleged murderer at the scene of the crime are known down to the hour, minute and even second. Space and time are coordinates that work in favor of the police investigation.

A total of 23 days passed between the moment when Bretón's wife, Ruth, announced that she was leaving him, and their two children's disappearance. The only point of agreement between both was that the father could have Ruth and José every other weekend. That means there were three weekends in between. Bretón was scheduled to take the children on October 8, but it coincided with the wedding of one of his best friends. His wife offered to swap weekends, but he turned that down. All of his actions appear to have already been planned at this point.

On Friday, October 7, he drove to Huelva to pick up the kids, and presented his wife with a bouquet of flowers and a letter asking her to get back together with him. Loyal to his own methods, he tasked two other people with bringing his wife additional flowers throughout the day. The letter was meant as an entreaty: "Don't tell me that after so much time together there aren't the embers of hope; I'll take care to revive it, I have an eternity to do so... What it is that separates us? Am I so repellent to you?"

Bretón waited for an answer. He phoned Ruth repeatedly, but she did not pick up. Her doctor had recommended that she avoid conversations with her husband. Given the lack of a reply, Bretón moved into action the next day.

Almost all of his movements on that Saturday were recorded

Almost all of his movements on that Saturday were recorded. Up to nine cameras captured him as he went by a games arcade, a rehabilitation center, a business establishment and a theme park. His iPhone, onto which he had downloaded a map-based application called Latitude, offers precise data regarding his geographic location. At 1.31pm, a camera recorded his trip to Las Quemadillas, with his children sitting in the back of his Opel Zafira. At 1.46pm he was seen near the family estate. At 1.48pm he called his wife but got no reply. The police believe this was the last call before setting the final events in motion. It is worth noting, however, that at 10.46am Bretón turned off his smartphone, and only turned it on again to call his wife at 1.48pm and again at 4.15pm, to download music or a video.

Between 1.48pm and 5.30pm, something sinister must have taken place inside Las Quemadillas. Bretón had been to a pharmacy earlier to buy boxes of Orfidal and Motivan 20, two powerful sedatives. Their empty boxes were found by the police. It is also a known fact that at 5.15pm, two surveillance towers operated by Infoca, an Andalusian environment agency, reported seeing a "thick and powerful plume of smoke," but did not send out firefighters because of the low risk of wildfires in the area. This was the bonfire, which must have been going full blast at this point. A neighbor declared weeks later that he noticed a burnt smell that struck him as odd, and smelled very different from burning wood.

Bretón drove out of the property at 5.35pm, a camera shows. At 5.49pm his phone located him on the way to Cruz Conde Park in Córdoba. At 5.57pm he drove in front of Ciudad de los Niños, a children's theme park, according to footage from another camera. At 6.01pm he logged into WhatsApp, an online SMS service, and received an incoming message from his brother. At 6.02pm he read the message and replied one minute later. At 6.05pm he sent a new message: "It's packed with people here, I've had to park far away." There were four more messages. At 6.08pm he got a 137-second call from his parents. There were more calls and messages until 6.17pm, when Bretón informed his brother, Rafael, that he cannot find the children. At 6.39pm he called the emergency services.

In other words, 17 minutes elapsed between the moment that Bretón parked his car, allegedly walked with his kids to the park, answered calls and messages, and lost the children. A reconstruction of events rules out any possibility of someone with two small children covering that distance in such a short time. An analysis of the camera footage, carried out by companies specializing in digital imaging, concluded that Bretón was alone in the car, that there was nobody in the back seat on his way from Las Quemadillas to the park.

For 10 months, the police carried out a thorough, tenacious investigation

For 10 months, the police have conducted a tenacious, thorough investigation, with no expense spared. Investigators accumulated data and evidence that led to José Bretón and Las Quemadillas every time. They hired companies to bore holes into every square meter of ground; they went down every well in the area; they sent divers into the Guadalquivir river; they combed every inch of the neighboring estates with dogs and machinery; and they asked questions at the 21 business premises near Bretón's parents' property. They combined classic investigative work with the latest technological advances. And their conclusion was that there were no accomplices in the case, and that Bretón plotted to leave phony trails behind, such as garbage bags inside a container, a bed sheet on the banks of the Guadalquivir, and a pointless bonfire in the middle of an orange orchard. Just in case, though, they took samples from the ashes on Saturday night. The samples contained bones, a button and a piece of fabric. Only in the last couple of weeks have reports from the chemical lab of the scientific police emerged, showing that the fabric may belong to the clothes of a two- to four-year-old child. The forensic expert who erroneously talked about the bones belonging to rodents was, it has emerged, aware of this report.

Bretón was arrested on October 18. Both the judge and the police agreed that all the clues, combined with his cold, dispassionate attitude toward the loss of his children, pointed to him as the main suspect. They waited for the forensic report, which arrived on November 11. "All the analyzed remains were of animal nature and of varying sizes. [...] There was no cremation of any human body or human remains." This report was conclusive: the police had never before questioned any analysis by this forensic expert. "To us, her word is the word of God," admitted a high-ranking police official. That expert has since been removed from her post, and an investigation into her actions has been opened.

The bonfire thus seemed to be just another of Bretón's false leads for the police, who noticed that his behavior was getting bolder as the investigation proceeded without any conclusive progress. "Outside I'm a nobody, but at home I'm the boss," he once said. He started acting cocky in front of the police, barely paying any attention to their work. He told them about his alleged sexual prowess with earlier girlfriends, and provided ample details about his experience in a Córdoba brothel with a Romanian prostitute. He also began talking about his wife in pejorative terms, soon descending into outright vulgarity. He expressed no sadness and no pain. He said he hated his wife and never talked about his children, as if they had never existed. The police inspectors and captains who dealt with Bretón did not find any cracks: he never caved in, he never fell into their traps, and he barely contradicted himself. In fact, he seemed increasingly proud to be attracting so much police attention. He even tried to invite them over for some food and drinks at the estate. "Deep down, you have nothing against me," he told them.

There was nothing remarkable about his past other than his stint in the army, which saw him posted in Bosnia as an ambulance driver. He wanted to be a Civil Guard officer, but was not tall enough to make the cut. The truth is, he has never had a very stable occupation. He worked as a driver and as a construction worker, helping build his parents' property in Las Quemadillas. He worked a lot for his parents, managing their estate: his father had purchased several plots of land in Las Quemadillas, which he sold during the good times of the real estate bubble.

The bonfire seemed to be just another of Bretón's false leads for the police

Bretón is a neat, tidy little man who has led a mediocre life. He was disappointed in love once and tried to commit suicide. His parents disapproved of the relationship - he attaches great importance to his parents' opinion of women. Later came his relationship with Ruth, their wedding in 2002, and the birth of their children, in what was possibly a happy period in his life. "Let us give them an ideal life, to be able to go for walks, take them to school, take them to the doctor. Do you find me that repellent? To enjoy Christmas," he wrote in his last letter to his wife.

Bretón repeatedly quoted a book, The Knight in Rusty Armor. He even gave his wife a copy on September 23, a week after the separation. It is a self-help book written by Robert Fisher in 1994, which went on to become a best-seller. The book explores the change in a human being who has trouble expressing his feelings. And Bretón has a problem with his feelings: "I have notions that seem immovable so I'll have a pattern to follow, but sometimes I don't know if it's worth it. Maybe I need to be with someone who is exactly like me, or else not go out with anybody," he wrote in his notes. "Maybe I would rather hurt before being hurt. This woman said I made her suffer [a reference to an earlier relationship], I'm not saying I didn't, I don't know whether I do it subconsciously."

His own wife describes him thus in a letter: "José is jealous (pathologically so), envious, obsessive, sexist, intolerant, not at all understanding; he is not affectionate, he is not thoughtful, he does not make nice gestures toward others, he clearly perceives other people's weaknesses and shortcomings and highlights them."

Until October 7, the day before the children disappeared, Bretón had never given his wife flowers.

There was nothing remarkable about his past other than his stint in the army

The heads of the police investigation in Madrid, Seville and Córdoba met in late July to decide on the next step. Their efforts had been frustrated for 11 months, but they were all convinced that they had to return to Las Quemadillas for the umpteenth time. The children's remains had never left there, they felt. The tried with a geo-radar company this time. On one occasion they dug under the bonfire, thinking Bretón might have used military techniques to make bodies disappear and built a makeshift cremation oven below ground. This search, like all the others, yielded no results.

But then the course of events changed, with the two new reports by experts in bone analysis, which were made public in mid-August. The first was commissioned by the children's mother, and the second by the government. A third, also ordered by the state, has confirmed that the remains are clearly and visibly human, and belong to a child aged between two and three, and a child aged six.

The Interior Minister made the announcement: a major mistake had been made by the police. As a result, Police Captain Serafín Castro was ordered to appear on all the TV networks to discuss an investigation that is still ongoing, an unlikely occurrence that has caused amazement in police and justice circles.

A mistake nearly ruined a meticulous investigation, which in normal circumstances would have been solved within a month. This will lead to a review of the protocols used by the scientific police so mistakes like this do not happen again, police sources said.

He was disappointed in love once and later tried to commit suicide

Was everything really so well planned? Did Bretón know about the surveillance cameras and did he use them in his favor? Did he lay false trails by going on several random trips that made no sense? His attempt to fool the police with the story about losing his children in the park was very clumsy. If the point of his revenge was the complete disappearance of his children, then he failed. Bretón has become a celebrity thanks to a mistake that kept him on television screens for 11 months. Otherwise, he would have been just one more example of a wife abuser; just another mediocre person who has trouble expressing his emotions. Nothing new there.


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