The Monster of Florence

A true crime story
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My wife and I had always dreamed of living in Italy. Six years ago we finally made the move with our two young children. We rented a fourteenth-century farmhouse surrounded by olive groves and vineyards in the enchanting hills south of Florence. There were two famous landmarks near us: the villa La Sfacciata, once the home of Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine explorer who gave America its name; and the villa I Collazzi, said to have been designed by Michelangelo, where Prince Charles painted many of his watercolors of the Tuscan landscape.

The olive grove beyond our front door boasted a third landmark, of sorts. It had been the site of one of the most horrific murders in Italian history, one of a string of double homicides committed by a serial killer known as “the Monster of Florence.” As an author of murder mysteries, I was more curious than dismayed. I began researching the case. It didn’t take me long to realize I’d stumbled across one of the most harrowing and remarkable stories in the annals of crime.

I contrived to introduce myself to the journalist who was the acknowledged expert on the case, a former crime correspondent for La Nazione named Mario Spezi. We met in Caffè Ricchi, in Piazza Santo Spirito, overlooking Brunelleschi’s last and greatest church. Spezi was a journalist of the old school, with a handsome if cadaverous face, salt-and-pepper hair, and a Gauloise hanging from his lip. He wore a Bogart fedora and trench coat, and, knocking back one espresso after another, he told me the full story. As he spoke, he had his pocket notebook open on the table and he sketched his thoughts—I later learned it was a habit of his—the pencil cutting and darting across the paper, making arrows and circles and boxes and dotted lines, illustrating the intricate connections among the killings, the arrests, the suspects, the trials, and the many failed lines of investigation.

Between 1974 and 1985, seven couples—fourteen people in all—were murdered while making love in parked cars in the hills of Florence. The case was never solved, and it has become one of the longest and most expensive criminal investigations in Italian history. More than 100,000 men have been investigated and more than a dozen arrested, and scores of lives have been ruined by rumor and false accusations. There have been suicides, exhumations, poisonings, body parts sent by post, séances in graveyards, lawsuits, and prosecutorial vendettas. The investigation has been like a malignancy, spreading backward in time and outward in space, metastasizing to different cities and swelling into new investigations, with new judges, police, and prosecutors, more suspects, more arrests, and many more lives ruined.

It was an extraordinary story, and I would—to my sorrow—come to share Spezi’s obsession with it. We became friends after that first meeting, and in the fall of 2000 we set off to find the truth. We believed we had identified the real killer. We interviewed him. But along the way we offended the wrong people, and our investigation took an unexpected turn. Spezi has just emerged from three weeks in prison, accused of complicity in the Monster of Florence killings. I have been accused of obstruction of justice, planting evidence, and being an accessory to murder. I can never return to Italy.

It all began one summer morning many years ago in the Florentine hills. The date was June 7, 1981, a Sunday. Mario Spezi, then thirty-five, was covering the crime desk at La Nazione, Florence’s leading paper, when a call came in: a young couple had been found dead in a quiet lane in the hills south of town. Spezi, who lived in those same hills, hopped into his Citroën and drove like hell along back roads, arriving before the police.

He will never forget what he saw. The Tuscan countryside, dotted with olive groves and vineyards, lay under a sky of cobalt blue. A medieval castle, framed by cypress trees, crowned a nearby rise. The boy seemed to be sleeping in the driver’s seat, his head leaning on the window. Only a little black mark on his temple, and the car window shattered by a bullet, indicated that it was a crime scene. The girl’s body lay some feet behind the car, at the foot of a little embankment, amid scattered wildflowers. She had also been shot and was on her back, naked except for a gold chain, which had fallen between her lips. Her vagina had been removed with a knife.

“What shook me most of all,” Spezi told me, “was the coldness of the scene. I’d seen many murder scenes before, and this wasn’t like any of them.” Everything was unnaturally composed, immobile, with no signs of struggle or confusion. It looked, he said, like a museum diorama.

Due to the sexual nature of the crime, it was assumed that the killer was a man. And yet the medical examiner’s report noted that the killer had not sexually assaulted the woman. On the contrary, he had assiduously avoided touching her body, except to perform a mutilation so expert that the medical examiner speculated he might be a surgeon—or a butcher. The report also noted that the killer had used a peculiar knife with a special notch in it, probably a scuba knife.

Spezi’s article caused a sensation: it revealed that a serial killer was stalking the countryside of Florence. In a sidebar, next to the article, La Nazione pointed to something the police had overlooked: this killing was similar to a double homicide that had taken place in the hills north of Florence in 1974. The article prompted the police to compare the shells recovered from both crimes. They discovered that the bullets had been fired by the same gun, a .22-caliber Beretta “long barrel” firing Winchester series “H” copper-jacketed rounds, which, according to ballistics experts, probably came from the same box of fifty. The gun had a defective firing pin that left an unmistakable mark on the rim of each shell.

The investigation that followed lifted the lid off a bizarre underworld, which few Florentines realized existed in the beautiful hills surrounding their city. Because most Italians live with their parents until they marry, sex in cars is a national pastime. At night, dozens of voyeurs prowled the hills spying on people making love in parked cars. Locally, these voyeurs were called “Indiani,” or Indians, because they crept around in the dark, some loaded down with sophisticated electronic equipment like suction-cup microphones and night-vision cameras. Following a quick investigation, the police arrested and jailed one of these Indiani.

A few months later the killer struck again, on a Saturday night with no moon, this time north of Florence, using the same Beretta and performing the same mutilation. This third double homicide panicked Florence and garnered front-page headlines across Italy.

Spezi worked nonstop for a month, filing fifty-seven articles. The excellent contacts he had developed among the police and the Carabinieri ensured he had the breaking news first. The circulation of La Nazione skyrocketed to the highest point in its history. Spezi wrote about one suspect, a priest, who frequented prostitutes for the thrill of shaving their pubic hair. He wrote about a psychic who spent a night in the cemetery where a victim was buried, sending and receiving messages from the dead. Spezi’s articles became famous for their dry turns of phrase and that one wicked little detail that remained with readers long after their morning espresso. Florentines have a flair for conspiracy thinking, and the citizenry indulged in wild speculation. Spezi’s articles were a counterpoint to the hysteria: understated and ironic in tone, they crushed one rumor after another and gently pointed the reader back to the actual evidence.

Late that November, Spezi received a journalistic prize for work he had done unrelated to the case. He was invited to Urbino to accept the prize, a kilo of the finest white Umbrian truffles. His editor allowed him to go only after he promised to file a story from Urbino. Not having anything new to write about, Spezi recounted the histories of some of the famous serial killers of the past, from Jack the Ripper to the Monster of Düsseldorf. He concluded by saying that Florence now had its very own serial killer—and there, amid the perfume of truffles, he gave the killer a name: “il Mostro di Firenze,” the Monster of Florence.

The austere savagery of the crimes preyed heavily on Spezi’s mind. He began to have nightmares and was fearful for his young and beautiful Flemish wife, Myriam, and for their baby daughter, Eleonora. The Spezis lived in a converted monastery on a hill high above the city, in the very heart of the Monster’s territory. What frightened Mario most of all, I think, was that coming in contact with such barbarity had forced him to confront the existence of a kernel of absolute evil within us all. The Monster, he once told me, was more like us than we might care to admit—it was a matter of degree, not kind.

Myriam urged her husband to seek help, and finally he agreed. Instead of going to a psychiatrist, Spezi, a devout Catholic, turned to a monk who ran a small mental-health practice out of his cell in a crumbling eleventh-century Franciscan monastery. Brother Galileo Babbini was short, with Coke-bottle glasses that magnified his piercing black eyes. He was always cold, even in summer, and wore a shabby down coat beneath his brown monk’s habit. He seemed to have stepped out of the Middle Ages, and yet he was a highly trained psychoanalyst with a doctorate from the University of Rome.

Brother Galileo combined psychoanalysis with mystical Christianity to counsel people recovering from devastating trauma. His methods were not gentle, and he was unyielding in his pursuit of truth. He had, Spezi told me, an almost supernatural insight into the dark side of the human soul. Spezi would see him throughout the case; he would confide to me that Brother Galileo had preserved not only his sanity, but also his life.

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