It was just after midnight on a Saturday. A light rain was starting to fall in the mostly empty town square by the church.
Evaldo Alves Feitosa was flipping his last burger of the night when he heard the gunshots outside his snack stand.
“I thought it was a firecracker from a party at the club over there,” Mr. Feitosa said. When he looked out, he saw Danelo Cavalcante jumping into a silver car and speeding away.
Left behind was Valter Júnior Moreira dos Reis, lying in a pool of blood after being shot six times
“It was the last time I saw Danilo,” Mr. Feitosa said, using the more common Portuguese pronunciation of his first name. “He disappeared.”
Mr. Cavalcante is now the subject of an escalating manhunt in the Pennsylvania countryside, where hundreds of police officers have been scouring the wooded terrain and farmland for almost two weeks, since he clambered out of the Chester County Prison on Aug. 31.
He was being held there for the murder of his former girlfriend, Déborah Evangelista Brandão, in April 2021. After killing her, Mr. Cavalcante had tried to flee, making it as far as Virginia before he was caught and sent to jail.
He was convicted and sentenced this August, and just days before beginning a life sentence in a Pennsylvania state prison, he made his next attempt to get away.
After more than a week of hiding out in the quiet communities south of the jail, he slipped through a perimeter set by law enforcement and stole a delivery van over the weekend. On Saturday night Mr. Cavalcante was seen on a doorbell camera miles away. Police are now searching an area deeper in the Pennsylvania countryside, where he abandoned the van, apparently after it ran out of gas.
But neither of those attempted escapes was the first time he had been on the run, and proven maddeningly difficult to apprehend.
He vanished from this remote stretch of northern Brazil, too, after Mr. Moreira was shot and killed in 2017, allegedly over an unsettled debt. State prosecutors said an arrest warrant against him was issued on Nov. 21, 2017.
The first time Mr. Cavalcante escaped justice, he found refuge in the rural outskirts of Figueirópolis, a town of about 5,000 people tucked deep in the Brazilian state of Tocantins. After fleeing the crime scene, he hid out on a ranch less than an hour outside town, according to local residents.
“Once you get out,” said Kelton Meneses, a priest in Figueirópolis, “it’s just ranches and bush beyond here. It’s not hard to disappear.”
The dusty, wild Brazilian savanna provided the perfect cover for Mr. Cavalcante. Here, cattle ranches stretch for miles, flanked by shrubs and parched forest. Barbed wire fences, some topped with cow skulls, mark the end of one lot and the beginning of the next. Dirt roads weave through jagged boulders, forming treacherous labyrinths that ward off outsiders.
Mr. Cavalcante was at ease in the Brazilian outback, said Raimundo Campos dos Santos, a longtime resident of the area. “When you’re used to the ranch, you know how to hide. He spent a lot of time in the bush.”
Mr. Cavalcante had moved to this region just over a year before the murder, arriving with his mother and brother from the neighboring state of Maranhão, according to four residents.
He worked on a nearby ranch called Mula Preta, managing livestock and machinery. His family bought a plot of land in a rural community next door, where they raised cattle and horses.
“They were hardworking people,” said Mr. Campos, who lives in the same community, which stretches across 12,000 acres. “A humble lot.”
The family’s farm sits on a remote corner of the rural settlement, reachable by a steep, rocky road. On a recent visit, barbed wire circled a modest farmhouse with a red-tiled roof. On the porch, saddles hung from hooks and a hammock swung in the shade. About a half dozen chickens and four pit bulls roamed around the dusty front yard. Vultures flew overhead.
Aroaldo Cavalcante, the fugitive’s brother, still lives on the ranch, according to neighbors. On Sunday afternoon he did not emerge from the farmhouse, and did not respond to text messages requesting an interview.
“Nobody really knew these people well,” said Darci Gomes Neve, 75, a neighbor who has lived in the area for two decades. “Danilo didn’t stay long. He took off; nobody heard from him again.”
But when he arrived in the area, he struck up a fast, unlikely friendship with Mr. Moreira, a popular figure in town.
“He was sweet,” said Mr. Feitosa of Mr. Moreira. “He talked to everyone. He liked to dance and to joke around.” Mr. Cavalcante was quieter. “He kept to himself, didn’t talk much,” Mr. Feitosa said. “He didn’t look you in the eye.”
Even before Mr. Moreira’s death, Mr. Cavalcante was feared by some around town.
“He had this reputation that he kept a lot of guns at home,” said Carlos Humberto Jacob, a friend of Mr. Moreira’s who knew Mr. Cavalcante. “People used to say he had heavy weapons at the ranch.”
The friendship between the two men apparently soured when Mr. Cavalcante lent a car to Mr. Moreira, who allegedly damaged the vehicle and never paid for repairs, according to police.
Mr. Cavalcante then began to send death threats to Mr. Moreira, said Mr. Moreira’s sister Dayane. “He kept saying, ‘I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you.’”
In November 2017, Mr. Cavalcante went to the square to confront Mr. Moreira, who had moved to a different city but had returned home to pick up a new driver’s license.
After the fatal encounter, Mr. Cavalcante allegedly hid out in the region for several weeks before leaving Brazil under a false identity. He has been considered a fugitive in Brazil since 2017, according to authorities in Tocantins.
As the manhunt in Pennsylvania intensifies, residents of the Brazilian town from which he vanished six years ago are also reeling, said Maria Cardoso, a retired schoolteacher who taught Mr. Moreira and is close to his family.
“It’s like a wound that was healing,” Ms. Cardoso said. “Now, it’s all coming back. People are shaken. People are scared.”
Campbell Robertson contributed reporting.