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Murder at the Vatican leaves Pope baffled

Anne Hanley
Tuesday 05 May 1998 23:02 BST

PATHOLOGISTS yesterday removed two bullets from the body of Alois Estermann, 44, the newly- appointed captain commander of the Vatican's Swiss Guard who was killed on Monday night in what the Pope described as a "humanly incomprehensible" incident.

If the Pope was baffled by the killing, not so his spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls who broke with normal practice and offered an explanation at the same time at the deaths of Mr Estermann, his wife, Gladys Meza Romero, and a 23-year-old guard, Cedric Tornay, were announced. "The information which has emerged up to this point," Mr Navarro Valls told a midnight press conference, "allows for the theory of a fit of madness by Vice-Corporal Tornay."

Yesterday, evidence emerged to back up this theory. From such a traditionally secretive organisation as the Vatican, such openness left many commentators wondering what the Holy See was trying to hide.

The deaths, the first inside the walls of the Vatican in centuries, occurred at around 9pm on Monday. Seven hours earlier, Mr Estermann had been appointed commander-in-chief of the Swiss Guard, the military corps responsible for the Pope's personal safety and security within the Vatican state.

"The wife of another Swiss guard who lives in the apartment next door to the Estermanns heard loud noises, and ran out of her flat to find the door ajar," Mr Navarro Valls said.

Inside, she found three bodies. Vatican doctors and security forces were called, Mr Estermann, his wife and Tornay were declared dead and Tornay's service pistol was found beneath his body with five bullets missing.

As presented by Mr Navarro Valls, the case against Tornay seems watertight. In February, after three years in the Guard, the vice-corporal received a "polite but firm" letter from Mr Estermann - at the time the acting commander - reprimanding him for unacceptable conduct, and in particular for failing to show up in barracks one night.

This, the Vatican press office chief said, led Tornay to complain frequently to fellow guards about his treatment. Over the past few days, on discovering he was not included on a list of guards to be honoured by the Pope at a ceremony due to take place today, Tornay's lamentations became more bitter. On Monday evening, an hour and a half before the shootings took place, the vice-corporal handed a letter to a friend, telling him to make sure it reached his parents should anything happen to him. The contents were not disclosed by the Vatican.

Mr Navarro Valls suggested the vice-corporal's recent break-up with his Roman girlfriend, his difficult character, and other "small incidents" which can sometimes "explode into something illogical", could have affected his state of mind.

But this did not reconcile with statements from others who knew and worked with him. "Cedric Tornay was an extremely normal boy and I really find it very difficult to conceive of him having a fit of madness," said Jacques Antoine Fierz who served in the Swiss Guard until 1995.

The Holy See's uncharacteristic haste to provide a plausible explanation for the tragedy had Vatican old hands openly doubting the sincerity of the move.

Above all, it begged a worrying question: if the name of Cedric Tornay is being taken in vain, and he was not responsible for this "murder-suicide", the killer is still at large. And that killer, armed and dangerous, is wandering the corridors of the Vatican.

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