The Monster of Florence

A true crime story

The next killing took place eight months later, in June 1982, again on a Saturday night with no moon. The same gun was used and the same inexplicable mutilation performed. Twelve days later, an anonymous letter arrived at police headquarters in Florence. Inside was a yellowed clipping from La Nazione about a forgotten 1968 double murder—of a man and a woman who had been having sex in a parked car. Scrawled on the article was a bit of advice: “Take another look at this crime.”

Investigators rifled through their old evidence files and found that, through a bureaucratic oversight, the shells collected in 1968 had not been disposed of. They were Winchester series “H” rounds, and each one bore on the rim the unique signature of the Monster’s gun.

The police were confounded, because the 1968 murders had been solved. It was an open-and-shut case. A married woman, Barbara Locci, had gone to the movies with her lover; afterward, they had parked on a quiet lane to have sex. They were ambushed in the middle of the act and shot to death. The woman’s husband, Stefano Mele, an immigrant from the island of Sardinia, was picked up the following morning; when a paraffin-glove test indicated he had recently fired a handgun, he broke down and confessed to killing his wife and her lover in a fit of jealousy. But Mele could not be the Monster of Florence: he had been in prison at the time of the 1981 killing, and had lived since his release in a halfway house in Verona.

Overnight, every crime journalist in Italy wanted to interview Stefano Mele. The priest who ran the halfway house in Verona was equally determined to keep them away. Spezi arrived with a filmmaker on the pretense of shooting a documentary on the halfway house’s good work. Little by little, after taking generous footage of the priest and conducting a series of fake interviews with inmates, he reached Mele.

His first glimpse was discouraging: the Sardinian walked around in circles, taking tiny, nervous steps. An expressionless smile, frozen on his face, revealed a cemetery of rotten teeth. He mumbled rambling answers to Spezi’s questions, his words defying interpretation. Then, at the end, he said something odd: “They need to figure out where that pistol is,” he said. “Otherwise there will be more murders … They will continue to kill … They will continue.”

Spezi grasped something the police would also learn: Stefano Mele had not been alone that night in 1968. It had not been a spontaneous crime of passion but a delitto di clan,” a clan killing, in which others from Mele’s Sardinian circle had participated. Investigators theorized that one of the killers had enjoyed the experience so much that he had gone on to become the Monster of Florence—using the same gun.

This stage of the investigation became known as the “Pista Sarda,” the Sardinian Connection. It focused on three Sardinian brothers: Francesco, Salvatore, and Giovanni Vinci. All three had been lovers in turn of the woman murdered in 1968, and one or more had been present at her killing.

The police first arrested Francesco.

In September 1983, with Francesco Vinci in jail, the Monster struck again. This was the killing that took place in the olive grove beyond our front door. A German couple had parked their Volkswagen camper in the grove for the night. It was only after killing the two lovers that the Monster realized he had made a mistake: both were men, one of whom had long blond hair. Instead of performing his usual mutilation, the Monster tore up a homosexual magazine he found in the camper and scattered the pieces outside.

The authorities refused to release Francesco Vinci. They believed one of his relatives had tried to throw them off by committing a new murder using the same gun—or, at the very least, that Francesco knew who the Monster was. Investigators became suspicious of another member of the clan, Antonio Vinci, and arrested him on firearms charges. They grilled the two men relentlessly, but were unable to break them, and finally were forced to release Antonio. Francesco remained in custody.

Four months later the police electrified Florence with an announcement, and once again Spezi had the scoop. La Nazione carried the banner headline: I Mostri Sono Due”—“There Are Two Monsters.” Two other members of the Sardinian group—both suspected of having been present at the 1968 clan killing—were arrested and charged with being the Monster of Florence. Francesco Vinci was released.

All winter the police worked on the two men, desperately trying to extract confessions and develop their case—with no success. Summer arrived, and tensions rose in Florence, even though suspects were in prison. Then, in July, the Monster struck again. Again he left the empty shells, which had become, perhaps intentionally, his calling card. He mutilated the woman and, adding a new horror, amputated and carried away her left breast.

This killing, which had occurred outside Vicchio, the birthplace of Giotto, triggered a nationwide outcry and generated headlines across Europe. Six times the Monster had attacked, killing twelve people, while the police had arrested and then been forced to release a steady stream of suspects. A special strike team was formed: the Squadra anti-Mostro, composed of both Polizia and Carabinieri. (Italy has two police forces that investigate crime, the civilian Polizia and a branch of the military known as the Carabinieri; they operate independently, and often antagonistically, especially in high-profile cases.) The government offered a reward of roughly $290,000 for information leading to the capture of the Monster, the highest bounty in Italian history. Warning posters went up, and millions of postcards were distributed to tourists entering Florence, advising them not to go into the hills at night.

For Mario Spezi, the case had become a career. His colleagues at La Nazione affectionately referred to him as the paper’s “Monstrologer.” He wrote a highly regarded book about the case that was made into two films. He often appeared on television, and his soft voice and highly developed sense of irony were not always pleasing to investigators, especially those with whom he disagreed. Spezi had a perverse passion for needling people in positions of power, and he developed a second career as a caricaturist for La Nazione, which regularly printed his outrageously funny cartoons of politicians, officials, and judges in the news.

At the same time, he continued to see Brother Galileo, who helped him make peace with the physical horror of the murder scenes and the metaphysical evil behind them. Galileo spent a great deal of time probing Spezi’s nightmares and his childhood, forcing him to confront his own inner demons.

In the summer of 1985 the Monster resurfaced in what would be the most terrible killing of all. The victims were two young French tourists who had pitched a tent in a field on the edge of a wood, not far from the villa where Machiavelli wrote The Prince. According to the reconstruction of the crime, the killer approached the tent and, with the tip of a knife, made a twelve-inch cut in the fly. The campers heard the noise and unzipped the front flap to investigate. The killer was waiting for them and opened fire, hitting the woman in the face and the man in the wrist. The woman died instantly, but the man, an amateur sprinter, dashed out of the tent and fled toward the trees. The killer raced after him, intercepted him in the woods, and cut his throat, almost decapitating him. The young man’s blood stained the tree branches above to a height of ten feet. The killer returned to his female victim to perform the usual ritual mutilation—and again, he carved out and carried off her left breast.

This killing occurred on either Saturday or Sunday night; the date would become a matter of the utmost importance. The bodies were discovered by a mushroom picker on Monday at 2 p.m. At 5 p.m. the police took a detailed series of photographs, which showed the bodies covered with centimeter- long blowfly larvae.

On Tuesday, one of the prosecutors in the case, Silvia Della Monica, received an envelope in the mail. It had been addressed like a ransom note, with letters cut out of magazines, and inside was the victim’s left nipple. As with everything else, the killer had been careful not to leave fingerprints; he had even avoided sealing the letter with his tongue. The experience shattered Della Monica: she withdrew from the case and, soon after, abandoned her career in law enforcement.

This, so far as we know, was the Monster’s last killing. Over eleven years, fourteen lovers had been shot with the same gun. But the investigation had hardly begun. A judicial storm was mounting that would change its course and perhaps guarantee that the truth would never be known—and the killer never found. There were two key players in the coming storm: the chief prosecutor in the case, Pier Luigi Vigna, and the examining magistrate, Mario Rotella.

Presented by

Douglas Preston has published four nonfiction books and a dozen best-selling mystery novels, including The Relic, Dance of Death, and The Book of the Dead; the novels were co-authored with Lincoln Child. He is currently working on the English version of Dolci Colline di Sangue.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus