Nation is convulsed with grief over baby killed by kidnappers

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The Independent Online

Football crowds across Italy stood in silence yesterday and the Pope and Italy's President declared their anguish after a drama that had gripped the nation for a month ended with the discovery of a small corpse in a field near a stream.

Tommaso Onofri was only 18 months old when he was dragged out of his high chair by intruders on 2 March. His parents, Paolo and Paola Onofri, were eating dinner in their farmhouse near Parma when the lights went out and Paolo went outside to investigate. He was jumped by two men who bound him and his wife with gaffer tape and ran off with the baby.

The baby's disappearance immediately dominated news bulletins, not only because little Tommaso was so small and cute but also because he suffered from epilepsy and required anti-convulsive medicine twice a day. His anguished mother went on television, appealing to his captors to give him the medicine and showing how it was to be administered.

But there was no news, not even a ransom demand. The appeal for the baby's release snowballed into a national campaign, with footballers and pop stars, politicians and priests adding their voices, and banners went up all over Italy demanding the baby's freedom.

On 7 March, five days after the baby's disappearance, Pope Benedict XVI called for the baby's "immediate and unconditional release", and said he was praying for the baby's suffering parents.

Paolo and Paola often said that they were banking on something happening by 2 April - not merely a month from the capture but the first anniversary of Tommaso's baptism and the death of Pope John Paul II. But yesterday's headlines were the nightmare they had dreaded.

"We killed him because he cried," read the banner headline on many Italian front pages yesterday. Mario Alessi, 44, a plasterer and his partner, Antonella Conserva, had been among local people appealing for Tommaso's release. He had been part of the crew which worked for 40 days refurbishing the Onofris' home, and Alessi's child had regularly played with Tommaso. "It's nothing to do with me. I'm a father too. I wouldn't hurt a child," he told the television crews camped outside his flat.

But on Saturday, Alessi, another man, Salvatore Raimondi, both of Sicilian origin, and Conserva were arrested. Alessi's alibi had collapsed, and Raimondi's fingerprints had been found on the gaffer tape used to bind the Onofris.

According to Italian press reports, Alessi confessed that Tommaso had been murdered a short time after his kidnapping.

Alessi and Raimondi had sped away from the child's home on a scooter with the baby between them, but they had fallen from the machine when they saw the flashing blue light of a police car and the baby - freezing cold, dressed in the light clothes he had been wearing inside the house - started crying. As he would not stop, they strangled him then beat him on the head with a shovel.

President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said yesterday: "Every Italian family is crying for the death of Tommaso. Since last night, when we learnt the terrible news, my wife and I have felt a bone-chilling horror that took our breath away."

Speaking to pilgrims in St Peter's Square from the window of his apartment, the Pope said: "We are all touched by the case of little Tommaso, barbarously killed. Let us pray for him and for all victims of violence."

Alessandra Mussolini, the far-right politician and grand-daughter of Il Duce, called for a national referendum to demand the return of capital punishment for the murder of children in the country.