Skip to main content.


News Reports and Articles

The Incredible Saga of Joao Prestes


The Incredible Saga of Joao Prestes
by Pablo Villarubia Mauso

(translated by Scott Corrales, Institute of Hispanic Ufology)

In 1946, almost a year prior to the famous incident at Mt. Rainier (USA) which heralded the start of the modern UFO age, a farmer died in a most hideous fashion in Brazil's back country. Within a matter of hours, a strange light had brought about the death of Joao Prestes Filho by intense burns, according to some witnesses, or as a result of his flesh falling off from the bones, leaving bones and tendons exposed--as others would claim.

The answer to one of the most disconcerting and horrifying cases in the history of ufology started in the small, noisome "Minas Gerais" hotel where historian/ufologist Claudio Tsuyoshi Suenaga and I had lodged in order to research several alleged Chupacabras attacks in the region. We were in the town of Sao Roque--47 kilometers away from the city of Sao Paulo (Brazil) when my roommate called my attention, breaking the silence of night, to the pages of a newspaper he had found in the room's grimy bathroom.

With a mixture of ecstacy and emotion, stumbling over words, the young Japanese-Brazilian read out the paper's contents, dated April 12, 1997: "The esteemed Roque Prestes died at 91 years of age on April 6th, at his home in this city,...he was the brother of Joao Prestes (deceased)..." To our astonishment, we had stumbled onto the trail of the parents of Joao Prestes Filho, the man who died a terrible death on March 4th, 1946: after having been attacked by an unexplained light, his flesh began to fall of his bones in chunks, especially off his jaw, chest, hands, fingers, and feet, dooming him to die within a mater of hours. To the horror and helplessness of onlookers, some pieces of flesh remained dangling from his tendons.

The Hotel Minas Gerais was the mute witness to our insomnia and restlessness until dawn, when we contacted a son of the late Roque Prestes by phone. In a matter of minutes and at brisk pace, we reached the modest home of sixty year-old Luis Prestes on teh outskirts of Sao Roque. Luis was still in mourning for the recent death of his father, Roque -- a former soldier of the constitutionalist revolution of 1932.

"Up to very recently, shortly before his death, my father recalled his brother's tragic passing on that distant year 1946. I was small--some 9 years old--but I clearly remember what happened to my uncle Joao. It was carnival week and Joao, who loathed such festivities, decided to go fishing and drove off in his cart. He lived in Araçariguama, a little village only 7 kilometers away from San Roque and a hitherto isolated and quiet community. My aunt went off to the festivities with the children and left Joao's supper already made at home." Luis Prestes would explain as we looked on attentively.

"I was in Araçariguama when I learned that my uncle was dying at a relatives house. I wanted to go in, but it was forbidden, since I was too young and Joao's physical condition could have caused a traumatic impression. My father did see him, and Joao told him that upon returning home and opening the window, something resembling fire or a "fiery torch" entered the room in which he was standing. He fell to the floor and felt that his body was on fire. Wrapping himself in a blanket, he walked over two kilometers into the village. My father said that Joao was only burned from the waist up, with the exception of the hair on his head. I managed to see my uncle when they removed him from the house to take him to Santana do Parnaíba by truck, where the nearest hospital was located. I remember that the sheets covering him were blackened, perhaps by the burns on his body. Joao died shortly before being admitted to the hospital." Prestes related as we caught his account on tape.

"A number of books published in English, Japanese and even Russian have said tha Joao Prestes died in a hideous manner, with pieces of his body, such as his ears or parts of his face, melting off. Is this true?" I asked.

"No. His appearance, according to my father, who escorted him to the hospital, was truly ruinous, but it wasn't that extreme. He had serious burns all over his body. His flesh was dark and he presented no bodily injuries," explained our interviewee, making partial changes to the story which had appeared in books and hundreds of articles published on the case. "My father was a deputy policeman at Santana de Parnaíba and requested the assistance of the forensic unit to research the case, but I don't know anything about the results. The fact is that nothing burned in the room where Jose was when the fire appeared. He had no enemies or anyone who'd be interested in doing such a thing to him. Even as he died, he repeated that the light had attacked him and that it was "otherworldly"," explained our interviewee. The following item of information brought us back to reality with a start. " Back then, people would constantly see fireballs known as "assombraçoes" (ghosts) in Araçariguama and its vicinity. Some believed they came from the gold mine that's now closed. Other weird things would happen, too. My late father told us that around 1922 he was able to see a lobisomem (wolf-man) while with my grandfather and an uncle. My uncle apparently threw a rock at it and hit its hand. The next day, a neighbor turned up with his hand bandaged. Other people told similar stories," Luis Prestes informed us. The idea that that the Sao Roque area could be some fantastic "window area" through which an astonishing variety and quantity of anomalous phenomena jelled in our minds.

The theory seemed to match the following data imparted by our informer. "Something equally scary happened to Emiliano Prestes, my uncle and Joao Prestes' brother. A few months after his brother's tragic death, Emiliano was walking through an Araçariguama forest, in Agua Podre--the same one from which the lobisomen appeared in 1922 and where the light burned Joao. A fiery torch appeared above him, causing the terrified Emiliano to run to a canyon's edge when the thing fell on him. All he could do was kneel and pray for his life. He told us that he felt an intese heat, but luckily, the fiery torch moved away and vanished." Luis's account added even further mysteries to the area.

The "fiery torch" or "fireball" was also seen on several occasions by Luis's father. The object would frighten horses and riders alike as they made their way through Araçariguama's dark nights to reach their humble abodes. "The lights wwre seen most frequently between 3 and 4 in the morning, and were three or four times larger than the Moon. People would feel their heat even at a distance, and they were able to move amazingly fast. My father stopped going to parties at night because of these lights," Luis Prestes recalled.


Further Aggressions

Before ending our interview, feeling satisfied by the new information shedding light on the Joao Prestes case, just as we were thinking to add nothing further to the proceedings, Luis Prestes gave us a valuable clue: the possible existence of the last witness have seen Joao's dying moments. "He's an elderly gentleman, but very lucid and strong. He lives close to my neighborhood in San Roque. This is his address."

We immedately headed toward the residence of Vergílio Francisco Alves. Upon reaching it, his daughter advised us that her father was working in the fields in front of the house, clearing vegetation with a scythe. After some time had elapsed, Vergílio appeared. To our suprise, he produced his identity card proving his 92 years of existence in full health.

Seated on a threadbare sofa in his modest home, Vergílio explained that he was Joao Prestes's second cousin. "I was born and raised in Araçariguama. That's where I began working in the Morro Velho gold mine at the age of 15 o4 16. There was a British engineer who couldn't write my name and called me garoto de ouro ("golden boy"). But I'll tell you what I know about the horrible death of Joao Prestes. It was in 1946 during the carnival season. He went fishing in the nearby Tieté River, riding in his cart, while the wife and children went to the festivities. It was the dry season and there was no rain. When he got back, he stabled his horse and fed it some corn. He put the fish in a pot and heated some water with firewood to take a bath. When he changed clothing, a sort of beam of light or yellow light had appeared in his room. He felt his body burning and that his beard, while short, was burning. Panicked, and unable to move his hands, Joao raised the door latch using his teeth and ran into the street barefoot, since he never wore shoes. He ran screaming to his sister María's house, near the Araçariguama church. He dropped on a bed and said he'd been burned. The police chief, Joao Malaquías, went over immediately, who told him there was no one to blame for what had happened, because his attacker "had not been of this world". This was followed by lightning and thunder, and a powerful rainstorm..."

This part of Vergílio's story reminded me of the Varghina case, which occurred in 1997 in Minas Gerais. A rainstorm the likes of which had never been seen in Varghina occurred after the appearance and alleged capture of one or more supposedly alien creatures. Significant atmospheric changes tend to occur in "fortean" cases.

"So, you were able to see Joao Prestes on his deathbed?" Claudio Suegana asked Vergílio Alves.

"Yes. My cousin Emiliano Prestes, who was my neighbor, called me over. When I got to María's house, I found Joao Malaquías, the sheriff, speaking with Joao. He was in bed and having problems using his tongue. His skin, which was fair, was toasted, reddish, as if he'd been roasted. His hands and face had the worst burns. The hands were twisted. His hair didn't burn, nor did his feet nor clothing. He was only burned from the waist up. His feet were torn up from running barefoot on sharp rocks.

"Did you see Joao's flesh falling off in pieces at any time?" I inquired.

"No, no. His skin was burned, but it wasn't falling off. I think that the boitatá was to blame, since it had attacked him once before," Vergílio told us. Claudio and I exchanged looks of stupefaction as the lucid nonogenarian imparted his information.

"Please tell us about this other incident," we said, almost in unison.

"Well, when Joao was a tropero (cattle driver), he was still young and lived with his father in Araçariguama. One day at sundown, as he lead the donkeys over a hill, he saw a fire that fell from the sky--a fireball. He was near a chapel that had a cross, and he could feel the fireball passing him, almost knocking him down. Joao would tell me that at that spot you could sometimes see ten or twelve balls emerging from the sky. Some of them were red, others Moon-colored. Sometimes five or six of them would fall to the ground and explode. People would call them the boitatá lights..." Vergílio explained.

I would like to digress to explain that the word "boitatá" is of native origin and desgnated mysterious lights that would pursue and even kill the native indians, according to Portuguese colonial chronicles and the stories of Canarian priest José de Anchieta in the 16th century.

Vergílio himself witnessed the apparition of one of these lights, which emerged from behind the mountain were the gold mine was and landed on Mt.Saboao, another hill where strange lights always appear. "We also called those fireballs maes do ouro (mothers of gold). There was also the "golden lizard", an elongated tongue of flame that moved in a straight line, slowly, without making a sound."

The mysterious Morro Velho gold mine is currently abandoned. Canadian general George Raston, who founded the mine in 1926, lived there until it was closed in the late 1930's.

While we ate some delicious plantains grown by Vergílio on his own farm, he told us that wolf-men had also been seen in Araçariguama, thus confirming the information provided by Luis Prestes.

"Who took Joao to the hospital?" I asked Vergílio in order to resume and finish our interview on the case.

"Malaquías, the sheriff, wanted to take him to a hospital in Sao Paulo, but the road was in bad shape and they went to Santana do Parnaíba. An investigation was requested from the police but no answer was found for the case. They only said that nothing had burned in Joao's house, since some had said that he had burned himself with a candlestick.


Road to Araçariguama

Still stunned by the new information in our posession about the Prestes case, we got on the only bus that makes the trip between Sao Roque and Araçariguama. Since 1946, when it was a village without electricity, running water and sewerage, Araçariguama hadn't grown much and poisonous snakes were still abundant. It is one of the region's oldest towns and has 7000 residents. It was founded some 350 years ago, and was home to the bandeirantes, the conquerors of Brazil's vast interior.

According to a report published in the 1960's by the late Dr. Walter Bühler, the police condemned Joao Prestes's house and it was later demolished, since his family was apparently afraid to return to the house, perhaps considered an accursed location.

In Araçariguama we met with Fabiana Matias de Oliveira, head press secretary for the small township, and she led us to her uncle Hermes de Fonseca, nearly 70 years old and deeply knowledgeable about the history of the region and its occupants. As is the case with many Brazilians of his age, he continued working to earn a living, making small improvements to a farm close to the Town Hall. Hermes sat on a tree stump and told us about his life, his arrival in Araçariguama in 1945 and the fact that a rattlesnake had bitten his ankle--a scar he showed us proudly.

"I knew Joao Prestes. I remember the date of his death perfectly--it was March 5th, 1946. He left behind five or six children and a widow. I never got to see the body--only a few people did. But they said that it was burned. The press would later say that his body had melted, fallen to pieces," the septuagenarian told us.

"Weird things have always occurred here. A year after Joao's death, his brother Emiliano Prestes saw two fireballs rising and striking each other, rising again and repeating the same action, close to the cemetery. Suddenly the lights encircled him and he felt intense heat. He knelt and prayed until the lights left. Even today you can still see these lights, but with less innsity, over at Ibaté, between Araçariguama and Sao Roque. When they strike each other they let sparks fly, but don't disintegrate. Giomar Gouveia, a champion jockey and owner of some stables at Ibaté, saw a light hovering over his animals, giving off orange beams of light. This was in 1995." Hermes da Fonseca recalled.

Enthused by our interest, Hermes continued, rememebering dates and details worthy of his appointment as the "official chronicler" of Araçariguama. "In 1960, Celso Gomide, a bus driver, was on his way from Sao Roque when he saw a red light that caused him to stop the vehicle. The light approached the cabin and Gomide, frightened, began to pray. The passengers were stunned by the uncanny light, which encircled them for some 20 minutes."

"In 1955," he continued, "I worked on the construction of a cable car in the Santa Rita cement factory. It was supposed to be used to transport rock from a local quarry. It was August 24th of that year and the heat was unbearable when myself and other workers saw an object drifting in the blue sky as large as a truck tire, very tall, aluminum-colored, spinning and giving off smoke--circles of white smile. We saw it at a quarter past eleven, and by twelve o'clock, five or six FAB (Brazilian Air Force) airplanes arrived. They were smaller than the flying wheel, which distanced itself easily from the planes. On the following day, the "Folha de Sao Paulo" newspaper published an article about the fact that thousands of people in Osasco (near Araçariguama) had seen a flying saucer with the same characteristics."

Less than a kilometer away from the town is the graveyard. We found the local gravedigger, 53 year old Nelson Oliveira, who led us to the tomb where the mortal remains of Joao Prestes lay. On the cement box covered by earth there rose a crudely carved cross and an identification number. Claudio and I felt knots in our throats as we thought about the last moments of Joao Prestes' agony. Regaining our composure, we asked Nelson, who had been a gravedigger since 1976, if he had seen anything strange in the area.

"Around 1989 I saw something weird, round, flying over the cemetery. It was like an upside-down hat made of aluminum, shining when it moved in a straight line and balancing. It was headed toward Sao Paulo," the gravedigger told us, using his own hat as an example.

During a personal interview with ufologist Antonio Ribera in Barcelona, he expressed the belief that Joao Prestes could have been burned by an alien ship's propulsion system. "I don't think the aliens wanted to harm or kill the farmer. They simply didn't know what would happen if they came too close to human beings," Ribera said.

We had much time to reflect upon the tragic death of Joao Prestes Filho as a ramshackle bus took us away from Araçariguama. "What do you think the light that killed Prestes was?" I asked Claudio. "Maybe ball lightning," he replied. "But, how can one explain the other lights and creatures in the region?" I insisted.

Claudio Suenaga said nothing. He shrugged and cast a last glance on the church tower of that accursed village.


The Prestes Case: A Study in UFO Intrigue

The Joao Prestes Case only became known internationally as of September 1971, when ufologist Irineu Silveira announced the possible connection between the farmer's death and the UFO phenomen during the 2nd Symposium on Extraterrestrial Life, held in Sao Paulo.

A number of investigators examined the case. Walter Buhler, one of Brazil's best known ufiologists, believed that Prestes' burns were attributable to a candlestick. However, the majority begged to differ, accusing Bühler of belonging to the "angelical" party of ufology--the side that preaches that ETs have come to Earth to do good rather than harm. Others, such as premier ufologist Fernando Grossman, were able to interview direct witnesses to the case in 1974, such as former apprentice orderly Aracy Gomide. Based on information supplied by Gomide, Grossman and physician Luiz Braga reached the conclusion that Prestes' burns resembled "the indirect effects of a nuclear explosion, as occured with certain victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Radiation affected living cells but not the dead ones, such as hair and the fabric of clothing. But, who in 1946 would have had a directed beam of powerful atomic particles anywhere near Araçariguama?

"It's not an isolated case," Grossman commented during an interview he granted me in Sao Paulo. "There are many parallels between his death ant others which occured in the state of Pará (Brazilian Amazonia) in the late '70s and early '80s. The researcher pointed out that on the day of Prestes' death, an Aracariguama councilman named Alencar Martins Gonçalves saw a "fireball" near the cementary.

Gomide's statements were internationally echoed and the majority of the articles appearing in books, magazines and bulletins based the Prestes Case on this witness exclusively. Much of the information provided by the former ordely does not appear to coincide with the recollections of Luis and Roque Prestes and Vergílio Francisco Alves. According to Gomide, Joao, upon returning from fishing, jumped through a window to get into his house, given that his wife had locked the door upon leaving. It was at that moment that he would have seen the intense light that burned him. Gomide, who had worked as an Army orderly, was asked to care for Joao Prestes, with whom he held conversations during the latter's 6 to 9 hour agony.

The orderly disclosed that the flesh fell off the victim's arms, leaving exposed bones and tendons without any indication of pain. The most affected bodily parts were the face and arms, but without presenting any darkening--rather decomposition, an explanation that doesn't jibe with the ones given by Luis Prestes and Virgilio. On the other hand, all three accounts coincide in that Joao's shirt and trousers, as well as his hair, remained intact.

Claudio Suenaga managed to recover Joao Prestes' death certificate from the Bureau of Vital Statistics and Notary of Santana de Parnaíba. Gomide stated that Prestes had died between three and four o'clock in the morning on March 6, when in fact, the event occured on March 4 at 22:00 hours and not on the 5th as was hitherto believed. Physician Luiz Caligiuri indicated the cause of death in the document as "cardiac collapse, generalized 1st and 2nd degree burns." Joao's age was believed to be 39, but the document indicates 44 years of age at the time of death.


São Roque, Santana do Parnaiba y Araçariguama: Window Areas?

The region surrounding Sau Roque, Santana do Parnaíba, Araçariguama and other towns neighboring one of the most densely populated cities on Earth (Sao Paulo, with its 18 million inhabitants) has been the scene of unusual phenomena for many years.

The "Supysáua" Newlsetter (March '95), published by the Grupo Ufológico de Guarujá reported that three children had witnessed a glowing UFO on January 4, 1994 in Santana de Parnaíba, where Joao Prestes died. The object approached the backyard of the home in question and floated less than 15 meters over the witnesses. Its color was largely yellow and it posessed sparkling green and red lights. What was remarkable was that within the yellow light, the children could make out a semi-circular shape resembling a dome. The children were startled by the UFOs abrupt, zigzagging movements as it departed at high speed.

In that same year and region, a married couple witnessed from the "Lila" ranch on Km 41 of Castelo Branco highway a spherical object measuring three meters in diameter which floated between the trees and made no sound whatsoever. It was red in color and was darker at its core. Its periphery was surrounded by several smaller, blinking lights, alternating between blue and red.

In 1993, a 12-year old girl named Regiane Barbosa da Silva witnessed on the same ranch a spherical object measuring some 5 meters in diameter. The UFO suddenly fired a beam of yellow light that covered the girl's body and lit the surrounding area. After the event, Regiane experienced headaches and eye irritation. Three months later, another witness spotted the same object at the same spot. The watchmen of the "Lila" ranch claim having seen two humanoids floating over a brook on the ranch's property.

An elderly Japanese woman who spent her youth in Santana de Parnaíba told Suenaga that she had seen a half-wolfman, half-centaur being in the vicinity of Sítio do Morro. San Roque has also experienced one of the most intense waves of Chupacabras activity in all of South America.

UFOINFO would like to thank Scott Corrales (Inexplicata & Inexplicata Blog) and UFO UpDates for granting permission to use this article. To keep up to date with follow-up reports and discussions you are advised to subscribe to UFO UpDates by writing to Errol Bruce-Knapp at: ufoupdates@virtuallystrange.net