The Monster of Florence

A true crime story

Vigna was already a celebrity in Italy when he assumed his role in the Monster case. He had ended a plague of kidnapping for ransom in Tuscany with a simple method: when a person was kidnapped, the state immediately froze the family’s bank accounts. Vigna refused to travel with bodyguards, and he listed his name in the telephone book and on his doorbell, a gesture of defiance that Italians found admirable. The press ate up his pithy quotes and dry witticisms. He dressed like a true Florentine, in smartly cut suits and natty ties, and, in a country where a pretty face means a great deal, he was exceptionally good-looking, with finely cut features, crisp blue eyes, and a knowing smile.

Mario Rotella, the examining magistrate, was from the south of Italy, an immediate cause for suspicion among Tuscans. He sported an old-fashioned mustache, which made him look more like a greengrocer than a judge. And he was a pedant and a bore. He didn’t like to mingle with journalists and, when cornered, answered their questions with unquotable circumlocutions. Under the Italian system, the prosecutor and the examining magistrate work together. But Vigna and Rotella disliked each other and disagreed on the direction the investigation should take.

The two suspects had been in jail when the French tourists were killed, and Vigna wanted to release them. Judge Rotella refused. He remained convinced that one of the clan members was the Monster—and that the others knew it. For a while Rotella prevailed. His focus turned to Salvatore Vinci, who had been involved with Barbara Locci and Stefano Mele in an elaborate sexual threesome, and who appeared to have been the prime shooter in the 1968 killing. Salvatore had been forced to leave Sardinia after his nineteen-year-old wife, Barbarina, was found asphyxiated by gas in their home. The death, in 1961, had officially been determined a suicide—although everyone in town believed it was a murder. Someone had mysteriously rescued their one-year-old son, Antonio, from the gas while leaving the boy’s mother to die. Rotella didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Salvatore Vinci for being the Monster, so he had him arrested instead for the murder of Barbarina. His plan was to convict him for that murder, and leverage it against him to identify the Monster.

The trial was a disaster: witnesses were vague, and evidence had gone stale. Antonio Vinci refused to testify against his father, at whom he glowered silently in court. Salvatore was acquitted, walked out of the courtroom, and vanished, slipping through the hands of the police, apparently forever.

This was the last straw for Vigna. He felt that the Sardinian investigation had led nowhere and brought nothing but humiliation. There was enormous public pressure to make a radical break. Vigna argued that the gun and bullets must have passed out of the hands of the Sardinians before the Monster killings had begun. He demanded that the investigation be started afresh. Rotella refused. He was supported by the Carabinieri, Vigna by the Polizia.

It was an ugly fight, and, as is usual in Italy, it devolved into a personality contest, which Rotella naturally lost. The Sardinian Connection was formally closed, and the suspects—including the men who had participated in the 1968 killing—were officially absolved. The problem was that, if Rotella was right, the investigation could now proceed in every direction except the correct one. Officers in the Carabinieri were so angry at this turn of events that they withdrew the organization from the Squadra anti-Mostro and renounced all involvement in the case.

Vigna reorganized the Squadra anti-Mostro into an all-Polizia force under the leadership of Commissario (Chief Inspector) Ruggero Perugini, later fictionalized as Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi in Thomas Harris’s novel Hannibal. Harris had followed the case while writing the novel, and he had been a guest in Perugini’s home. (The chief inspector was not altogether pleased to see his alter ego gutted and hung from the Palazzo Vecchio by Hannibal Lecter.) Perugini was more dignified than his sweaty and troubled fictional counterpart in the movie version of Hannibal. He spoke with a Roman accent, but his movements and dress, and the elegant way he handled his pipe, made him seem more English than Italian.

The new chief inspector became an instant celebrity when, on a popular news program, he fixed his Ray-Bans on the camera and spoke directly to the Monster in firm but not unsympathetic tones. “People call you a monster, a maniac, a beast,” he said. “But I believe I have come to know and understand you better.” He urged the Monster to give himself up. “We are here to help you,” he said.

Inspector Perugini wiped the slate clean. He started with the axiom that the gun and bullets had somehow passed out of the hands of the Sardinians, and that the Monster was unconnected to the 1968 clan killing. The forensic examination of the crime scenes had been spectacularly incompetent: people came and went, picking up shells, taking pictures, throwing their cigarette butts on the ground. What forensic evidence was collected—a knee print, a bloody rag, a partial fingerprint—was never properly analyzed, and, infuriatingly, some had been allowed to spoil. Perugini viewed this evidence with skepticism; he was smitten by the idea of solving the crime with computers.

He examined tens of thousands of men in Tuscany, punching in various criteria—convictions for sex crimes, propensity for violence, past prison sentences—and winnowed down the results. The search eventually fingered a sixty-nine-year-old Tuscan farmer named Pietro Pacciani, an alcoholic brute of a man with thick arms and a short, blunt body who had been convicted of sexually assaulting his daughters. His prison sentence coincided with the gap in killings between 1974 and 1981. And he was violent: in 1951 he had bashed in the head of a traveling salesman whom he had caught seducing his fiancée, and then raped her next to the dead man’s body.

Inspector Perugini had his suspect; all that remained was to gather evidence. In reviewing Pacciani’s old crimes, Perugini was struck by something: Pacciani had told the police he’d gone crazy when he had seen his fiancée uncover her left breast for her seducer. This statement, he felt, linked Pacciani to the Monster, who had amputated the left breast of two of his victims.

Perugini searched Pacciani’s house and came up with incriminating evidence. Prime among this was a reproduction of Botticelli’s Primavera, the famous painting in the Uffizi Gallery that depicts (in part) a pagan nymph with flowers spilling from her mouth. The picture reminded the inspector of the gold chain lying in the mouth of one of the Monster’s first victims. This clue so captivated Perugini that the cover of the book he would publish about the case showed Botticelli’s nymph vomiting bloody flowers.

Perugini organized a twelve-day search of Pacciani’s property. The police took apart the farmer’s miserable house and plowed up his garden. The haul was pretty disappointing, but on the twelfth day, just as the operation was winding down, Perugini announced with great fanfare that he had found an unfired .22 bullet in the garden. Later, in court, experts said it “might” have been inserted into the infamous Beretta and ejected without being fired—the ballistics report was inconclusive. In Pacciani’s garage, the police found a scrap of torn rag, which was duly cataloged. Not long afterward, the Carabinieri received a piece of a .22 Beretta wrapped in a torn rag, with an anonymous note saying it had been found under a tree where Pacciani often went. When the two rags were compared, they matched up.

Pacciani was arrested on January 16, 1993, and charged with being the Monster of Florence. The public, by and large, approved of his arrest. Spezi, however, remained unconvinced. He felt that a drunken, semiliterate peasant given to fits of rage could not possibly have committed the meticulous crimes he had seen. Spezi continued to feel that the Sardinian investigation had been prematurely closed. He laid out his views in a series of carefully reasoned articles, but few readers were persuaded: Pacciani’s trial was being broadcast almost every night on television, and the drama of the proceedings overwhelmed all logic. Florentines have never forgotten the sight of Pacciani’s violated daughters (one of whom had entered a convent), weeping on the witness stand as they described being raped by their father.

This was melodrama worthy of Puccini. Pacciani rocked and sobbed during the proceedings, sometimes crying out in his Tuscan dialect, “I am a sweet little lamb! … I am here like Christ on the cross!” At other times he erupted, face on fire, spittle flying from his lips. Thomas Harris attended the trial, taking notes in longhand on yellow legal pads. The prosecutors presented no murder weapon and no reliable eyewitnesses. Even Pacciani’s wife and daughters, who hated him, said he couldn’t have been the Monster—he was home drunk most of the time, yelling, hitting them, and acting the bully.

Pacciani was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. During the mandatory appeal, the prosecutor assigned to handle the case did something almost unheard of: he refused to prosecute. He became Pacciani’s unlikely advocate, decrying in court the lack of evidence and comparing the police investigation to the work of Inspector Clouseau. On February 13, 1996, Pacciani was acquitted. A higher court sent the case back to be retried, but Pacciani died in February 1998, before the new trial could begin.

On the very day of Pacciani’s acquittal, the police brought forward new witnesses and dramatically announced that they had a confession in hand, in an attempt to salvage their case. The judge refused to allow them to testify, and excoriated the police for the last-minute maneuver. But the investigation was far from over, and eventually their story would emerge. The first surprise witness had actually confessed to being Pacciani’s accomplice. He said that he and Pacciani had been hired by a wealthy Florentine doctor to “handle a few little jobs.” These “little jobs,” investigators later said, were to collect female body parts for Black Masses, to be used as offerings to the devil. The man made many odd claims and contradicted himself continually. He implicated a third man, and the two men were convicted, in a subsequent trial, of murder; one was sentenced to life in prison and the other to twenty-six years.

Thus began the investigation that remains open to this day: the search for the Florentine doctor and the other mandanti (masterminds) behind the killings. Inconveniently, the police’s self-inculpating witness said he didn’t know the doctor’s name—he claimed that only Pacciani did. But Pacciani denied the whole story to his dying day.

With the death of Pacciani and the conviction of his accomplices, the investigation receded into the shadows. Most people felt the case had been solved, and Florence moved on. And perhaps it was just as well. For over time, thread by thread, the web of evidence began to unravel. The rag and gun pieces were found to have been a manufactured clue, although by whom was not established. The expert who had been asked to certify that the bullet found in Pacciani’s garden might have been inserted into the Monster’s gun complained of pressure put on him. On assignment from a television station, Spezi videotaped a police officer, present at the search of Pacciani’s property, saying it was his impression that the chief inspector had planted the bullet. The television station refused to air the segment; Spezi published the allegation—and was promptly sued for libel. (He won the case, but not without further antagonizing the Squadra anti-Mostro and its boss.)

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