European Times Olot, Spain: Sinister saga of a Catalan shallow grave

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MILLIONS OF Spaniards have been transfixed in recent days by the unravelling of a mystery more gripping and bizarre than any of the televised melodramas to which they are so devoted. A rural crime that could have been created by Georges Simenon is unfolding in Olot, a small Catalan town in the path of the Tramontana, the wind that sweeps south from the Pyrenees and, they say, makes everyone a little crazy.

In November 1992, a young pharmacist, Maria Angels Feliu, was kidnapped at gunpoint from her car as she was driving into her garage near the chemists she ran with her mother. For 492 days she was held in an underground pit less than six feet square and infested with rats and scorpions. On Palm Sunday 1994, given up for dead, she was suddenly freed.

No one skipped town, no one said a word, and after the initial blaze of publicity, this closed mountain community where monotony is considered a measure of wellbeing slumbered behind a wall of silence. Five years of investigation turned up absolutely nothing. Suspects were detained, questioned and released.

British specialists hired by the family, Control Risks consultants, insisted this was a professional job. Others blamed a revenge operation against Ms Feliu's father, the richest man in the area, who had been implicated in a bank failure. Links with the Italian Mafia were suspected, or Basque separatists, or right-wing extremists. Perhaps Ms Feliu staged the whole thing to escape the amorous attentions of a Scandinavian English teacher.

All trails ran into the sand. Until last week, when Ms Feliu's tormentors were revealed to be her neighbours. Antonio Guirado, or "Toni", an Olot policeman, part-time coach to the school football team and a customer at the Feliu pharmacy, worked night shifts patrolling the town and protecting its 27,000 residents from petty crime. Toni, prone to migraines and depression, broke down last Tuesday and confessed he was one of the culprits.

Toni fingered a handful of local lumpens and bullyboys as conspirators in Ms Feliu's incarceration. Among them was Roman Ullastre, a woodcutter, sometime debt collector and bodyguard to the mayor of nearby Sant Pere de Torello.

Ullastre had led an 11,000-strong demonstration in December 1992 calling for Ms Feliu's release. But his wife, Montserrat, cashier at the Fox Trok discotheque, this week admitted - in the face of her husband's public denials - they had indeed dug a little cell beneath their garden, near his collection of snakes. A Moroccan labourer this week recalled digging a pit there, which he thought was for a gym.

The motive seems to have been money. Within days of her abduction, Ms Feliu's family received a ransom demand of pounds 200,000 or pounds 400,000. They went twice to pay up, but the kidnappers never showed.

Ms Feliu, a frailly pretty woman, married with three children, was never allowed to see the captors who kept her in the dark. But she distinguished eight of them by voice, and invented nicknames that police sought fruitlessly to match with people. This week, as detention followed detention, we put faces to some of the names.

Ullastre was Cortadedos, because he had threatened to "cut off her fingers". Sebastian Comas, a part-time barman and deliveryman recruited by Ullastre, was Inaki, a Basque name because he had told her (falsely) that he was from the north. There was also El Abuelo, El Loco, El Quemao, El Infelizote (Grandad, Crazyman, Burned-out, Miseryguts).

Inaki brought her food and other necessities, treated her kindly and talked about Pink Floyd and Mike Oldfield. Perhaps smitten by remorse or fed up with a situation that appeared to be leading nowhere, he eventually freed her. He took her to a deserted petrol station, pushed some banknotes into her hand and warned her not to remove her hood until she had counted 2,000. Ms Feliu reckoned he was the "least bad", prompting speculation that a "Stockholm syndrome" of sympathy had developed between them.

The big questions remain unanswered. Who orchestrated this bizarre conspiracy? Of the six suspects taken in this week, none admits to being the ringleader. Was the ransom paid, despite the family's insistence it wasn't? Did the gang leader use it to buy the silence of the others? What kind of community suppresses such a collective crime for so long?

Ms Feliu has so far said nothing. Police are reported to be preparing her to issue a statement, to relive her torment. A nation holds its breath for the next twist in the saga.