How Italy failed to trap its Monster

Fifteen months ago, Florentines believed their serial killer was caught. Now the case has collapsed and Italian justice is in the dock. Andrew Gumbel reports
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The Independent Online
One of the many books inspired by the gruesome serial killer nicknamed the Monster of Florence is a novel by Laura Grimaldi called Il Sospetto - The Suspicion - in which the heroine gradually becomes convinced that the man responsible for shooting and mutilating amorous couples in the Tuscan countryside is none other than her son. In a misguided attempt to protect the innocent she ends up killing her own progeny - only to stumble, too late, upon definitive proof that the Monster is in fact someone else.

There have been strange echoes of Grimaldi's book this week in the Florence appeals court, which decided to cancel a flurry of life sentences handed down 15 months ago to Pietro Pacciani, a semi-literate farm labourer with a history of sexual violence, declaring him innocent of all eight double murders that have plagued the Florence area since 1968. "My book is a bit of a metaphor for all the real investigations," Grimaldi said yesterday. "First the courts went for the kill, now they have discovered that their man was innocent."

The situation is more than just metaphorical. It is nothing short of a disaster for the Florence prosecutor's office, which has lived under the shadow of the Monster for longer than it cares to remember and has poured many of its best men and most precious resources into the hunt for Italy's answer to Jack the Ripper. Since the last double murder, in 1985, it has organised a special pool of magistrates and police (the Anti- Monster Squad) dedicated to the task. At the height of the investigation it offered a reward of half a billion lire (pounds 200,000) for anyone who could lead them to the killer. At various stages, prosecutors have favoured a Sardinian Connection, a Mob Connection, even a Peeping Tom Connection. They have weeded through mounds of anonymous mail, analysed the stomach- churning forensic evidence again and again, interviewed hundreds of sickos and perverts, but have next to nothing to show for their efforts.

Pacciani was only the most recent of a string of suspects, of whom five others also served time in jail. The evidence against him, like that against his predecessors, was never more than circumstantial, and most legal experts considered the state lucky to have obtained a conviction, much less a life sentence, in the lower court. By the time the appeal hearing rolled around, even the prosecution was admitting the paucity of its case. In an extraordinary address in court last week, the prosecutor Piero Tony described his colleagues as a bunch of Inspector Clouseaus who had failed to establish their case beyond reasonable doubt, and joined the defence's calls to quash Pacciani's sentence. The judge duly obliged.

The Monster first struck on a balmy night in August 1968, shooting a 30-year-old married woman, Barbara Locci, and her 26-year-old lover, Antonio Lo Bianco, while they made love on the front seat of a car parked on the banks of the river Arno, west of Florence. It looked like a straightforward, if perverse, crime of passion. Why else would the murderer spare Locci's six-year-old son, Natalino, who was asleep on the back seat when he struck? The police swooped on Locci's husband, Stefano Mele, who was known to be mentally unstable - he used to bring the adulterous couple coffee in bed without a murmur. Little Natalino was too traumatised to testify, but Mele eventually confessed and went to jail.

There the case might have rested but for a second outburst of violence six years later, when another couple were shot dead among the vineyards of Borgo San Lorenzo to the north of Florence. The weapon was the same - a .22-calibre Beretta pistol with type-H Winchester bullets - as were many of the circumstances. This time, though, the woman's body was mutilated with a knife. That was to become a trademark.

He struck twice more in 1981, and again in each of the following four years. His murders followed a routine. The victims were couples spending the night in fields or in the woods. He would riddle them with blasts from his powerful pistol, then mutilate the woman with a knife, usually slicing off her vagina and left breast - always the left - and taking them away as spoils. The only exception to the pattern came in 1983, when the Monster's victims turned out not to be a couple, but two German men sleeping in the same camper van. This appeared to be a mistake rather than a change of pace, since one of the Germans had long blond hair and may have looked like a woman from a distance.

By the early 1980s, prosecutors were forced to admit that they were dealing with a serial killer and quashed the conviction of Stefano Mele, who had been behind bars for 14 years. Mele withdrew his confession and pointed the finger instead at three men, all suspected of links with the Sardinian underworld. For three years, rumours flew that the Monster was the agent of an occult group of Sardinian shepherds whose motives were shrouded in the secrecy of their sect. One by one, the three suspects - who included Mele's own brother Giuseppe - were arrested and jailed; but all were released for lack of evidence.

The killer shepherd theory may not have carried much weight, but the Sardinian connection did not die. The man at the top of Stefano Mele's suspect list was a plasterer called Francesco Vinci; after the last of the murders, in which two French tourists were attacked and killed in their tent near San Casciano in September 1985, information reached the prosecutors that the killer might have been Vinci's brother Salvatore. A check of police files showed that Salvatore Vinci had come under suspicion for the murder of his wife in Sardinia in 1960, and in double-quick time he, too, was picked up and slung in jail. Again, no concrete evidence emerged, and he was released in 1988 after two years in custody.

By this stage, the prosecutors were getting desperate. Twenty years after the first murder, all they had to go on was the sketchiest of profiles - a footprint indicating a 44 shoe size, ballistic evidence suggesting their culprit was about 5ft 10ins, a button left at the site of one of the double murders, and a knee imprint left in the side of a car door. Meanwhile, the Monster was getting downright cocky. On one occasion he sent a female prosecutor the hacked-off genitals of one of his victims, along with an obscene note composed of words cut out of newspapers and magazines.

When the name Pietro Pacciani first crossed the desk of chief prosecutor Pier Luigi Vigna in 1991, he looked like an absolute godsend amid the chaos. After all, this was a man who in his youth had sliced up a rival for the affections of his 17-year-old girlfriend, and then raped the girlfriend next to the freshly slaughtered corpse. After a lengthy spell in jail, he had by all accounts become a Peeping Tom, porno freak, wife-beater and sexual abuser of his two daughters - the last offence landing him in jail again in 1987. He was said to be obsessed with left breasts.

Pacciani's name was mentioned in an anonymous package which also included a piece of a .22-calibre Beretta wrapped in a torn rag. When police swooped on Pacciani's house in the village of Mercatale, near the site of the last murders in San Casciano, they found a piece of rag fitting the one in the package, a soap container and notebook later identified by relatives as belonging to the German victims, and, in the garden, a spent Winchester cartridge.

Pacciani claimed the evidence had been planted and never wavered from his protestations of innocence. "I am a scapegoat, a poor wretch being crucified like Christ," he cried during his tear-stained testimony at the first trial. His lawyers pointed out that the prosecution had neither an eyewitness, nor any more than a trace of the murder weapon, but it did no good. On 1 November 1994, Pacciani was convicted of 14 of the 16 killings - the court ruling in its judgment that although it suspected him of committing the 1968 murders, it did not have enough evidence.

And so to the appeal hearings, in which Prosecutor Tony described Pacciani as "an obsessive dirty old man ... displaying much of the worst human nature has to offer" but urged the court to acquit him. Or so it seemed until the last day of the trial, when the prosecution announced that it had found four new witnesses, two of whom had seen Pacciani and an accomplice - the San Casciano postman who admitted going for "picnics" with the defendant - killing the French tourists in 1985. Tony said he could identify the witnesses only as Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta because they did not want to make themselves known to the public, but begged the judge to admit their evidence anyway.

Judge Francesco Ferri was not impressed. "This is not an algebra class," he intoned, and dismissed the case in record time after a hearty Florentine lunch. The Monster case has thus swung back to square one. The defence team is jubilant, but according to the prosecution the acquittal was a disastrous decision, interrupting the investigation as it was reaching its climax; the San Casciano postman, Mario Vanni, was arrested and thrown behind bars just 24 hours before his friend Pacciani was released and whisked off to a secret location in the care of a sympathetic nun, Sister Elisabetta of the Daughters of Charity.

It is too late now to introduce new evidence in the case against Pacciani: the only way the prosecution can take the case forward is to challenge the appeal ruling on grounds of jurisprudence.

In one sense, it may not matter any more who the Monster is. He has not killed in more than 10 years and may well be dead himself (Francesco Vinci, for example, was found dead in a burnt-out car near Pisa in 1993). Whatever the truth, the Italian justice authorities may take even longer to recover from the farce of the last 28 years than the relatives of the Monster's horribly mutilated victims. Norman Douglas had it about right when, writing about Italy more than 80 years ago, he railed that "rhetoric, and rhetoric alone, sways the decisions of the courts ... The rest is mere facts; and your penalista has a constitutional horror of a bald fact, because there it is, and there is nothing to be done with it. It is too crude a thing for cultured men to handle."

Twenty-eight years of unsolved murders

The first murders, for which Pietro Pacciani was charged but acquitted in his first trial in 1994, were of Antonio Lo Bianco and Barbara Locci, near Signa on the Arno, west of Florence, on 21 August 1968. Both were shot.

These are the crimes for which Pietro Pacciani was sentenced to life imprisonment but then acquitted on appeal this week:

14 September 1974 Pasquale Gentilcore and Stefania Pettini shot dead among the vineyards of Borgo San Lorenzo, north-east Florence. Woman's body mutilated with a knife.

6 June 1981 Giovanni Foggi and Carmela De Nuccio killed by repeated pistol blasts near Scandicci, west of Florence. Woman's genitals hacked out with a knife and removed.

22 October 1981 Stefano Baldi and Susanna Cambi killed in the same way near Calenzano, north-west of Florence.

19 June 1982 Paolo Mainardi and Antonella Migliorini shot dead in their car at Montespertoli, in Chianti country south-west of Florence.

9 September 1983 Horst Friedrich Meyer and Uwe Rusch, two German tourists, shot repeatedly in their camper van parked in the woods near Galluzzo, also south-west of Florence.

29 July 1984 Claudio Stefanacci and Pia Rontini trapped in a side-street in Vicchio, near Borgo San Lorenzo, and killed according to the same ritual as the others.

8 September 1985 Nadine Mauriot and Michel Kraveichvili, both French, murdered in their tent at Scopeti, near San Casciano, south of Florence.