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SAO PAULO (Reuters) - With all the ingredients of the dramatic "telenovela" soap operas millions of Brazilians watch each night, the murder of 5-year-old Isabella Nardoni has gripped the country and sparked feverish media coverage.
A pretty girl who dreamed of being a ballerina, Isabella was found dead on March 29 after she was apparently thrown from the sixth-floor Sao Paulo apartment where she lived with her father and stepmother.
The father, who says an intruder must have killed Isabella while she was briefly alone in the apartment, and stepmother were detained but released on Friday without charge despite the prosecutor saying their story was a fantasy.
In a country where statistics show a child is killed every 10 hours, many of them black and living in the drug-plagued slums that surround most big cities, the murder of the light-skinned middle-class girl has become a cause celebre.
"Children die every day in Rio and Sao Paulo, but this case is different because it's playing out like a telenovela and people want to see the next episode," said Gloria Vanique, a reporter for Brazil's dominant Globo Television station who was camped outside the police station where the father was held.
Some coverage has drawn a link between the girl's death and the violence that children suffer every day throughout Brazil that receives little media or police attention.
For the most part, though, the media has focused on the case's titillating details and suspense over who killed the child. Adding to the drama have been apparent discrepancies in the couple's versions of events on the night of the murder. Witnesses reported hearing a girl shouting "Stop, Father!"
"The only thing that works in Brazil is the family -- the market doesn't work and the government doesn't work," said anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, explaining why the case was so shocking to many.
He also said it had shaken the common stereotype in fast-growing Brazil that "once everyone was middle class, there'll be no crime."
If nothing else, the case has shown few countries can put on as thorough a media frenzy.
Played out on live TV for two weeks, often backed by suspenseful music, the case has been analyzed endlessly by newspapers and the main news magazines.
TV shows that usually feature singers and cooking segments have switched to blanket Isabella coverage. Globo's Web site displays a 3-D model of her body, complete with "hotspots" to highlight her injuries.
Television helicopters hovered over Sao Paulo on Friday and hundreds of reporters and onlookers mobbed the stepmother and father as they were released from police custody. The crowd surged around the car carrying the stepmother, banging on the windows and shouting "murderer."
On the popular Orkut social networking Web site, several discussion groups devoted to the case each had more than 50,000 members. The most popular had 1.5 million.
"I think it was the father," wrote a member called Giuliana. "He must have a genetic illness that makes a person aggressive and not remember anything afterward."
Others were critical of the obsessive coverage.
"The question is how many Isabellas exist today in Brazil, but the sensationalist media has gone over the top because it's a well-mannered middle-class family," wrote Lucas.
Editing by Patricia Zengerle