The Monster of Florence

A true crime story

Spezi was by now exhausted—by the case, which he had covered for more than fifteen years, and by the grueling life of a crime correspondent. Brother Galileo had urged him to quit his job. Spezi’s daughter was growing up, and he was feeling the pinch of his journalist’s salary. When his wife’s cousin offered him a lucrative partnership in his luggage business, he jumped. La Nazione agreed to keep him on a freelance contract. It would leave him time to fulfill a longtime dream of writing mystery novels, and to embark on his own counter-investigation, which became a hobby of sorts.

Around this time, Spezi received crucial help from a high-ranking official in the Carabinieri whose identity he has never revealed, not even to me. This man was part of a group of officers who had continued a secret investigation into the killings after the Carabinieri officially withdrew from the case. His clandestine group had identified a possible suspect as the Monster, a man who had previously been arrested and released.

One of Spezi’s big scoops had been the discovery of a report prepared for Inspector Perugini by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia. It had been commissioned in secret and then suppressed, because it didn’t describe Pacciani. The report cataloged the killer’s likely characteristics, explained his probable motive, and speculated as to how and why he killed, how he chose his targets, what he did with the body parts he collected, and much more. Its conclusion was that the Monster was of a type well known to the FBI: a lone, sexually impotent male with a pathological hatred of women, who satisfied his libidinous cravings through killing.

The FBI report said that the Monster chose the places for his crimes, not the victims, and that he would kill only in familiar locations. The murders had been committed in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, over a large area encompassing the hills south, east, and north of Florence. The police had stared at pins in maps for years, never finding a pattern. But when Spezi mapped the life and movements of the Carabinieri’s suspect to the locations of the killings, he found surprising overlaps.

After that first meeting at Caffè Ricchi, Mario Spezi and I became friends. He often talked about the case, and I began to share his frustration at its unsatisfying conclusion. I cannot remember exactly when my curiosity became more than idle speculation, but by the spring of 2001, Spezi and I had agreed to write something together—a collaboration that would eventually take the form of a book. But first, I needed a crash course from the “Monstrologer.”

A couple of days a week I would shove my laptop into a backpack and bicycle the six miles from our home to Spezi’s. The last kilometer was a bear, almost straight uphill through groves of knotted olive trees. I would find him in the dining room, thick with smoke, with papers and photographs scattered about the table. Myriam, Spezi’s wife, would check in on us every now and then and bring us cups of espresso or fresh-squeezed orange juice. Spezi was always careful to keep the strongest details—and the crime-scene photographs—well out of her sight.

He went through the entire history chronologically, chain-smoking all the way, from time to time plucking a document or a photograph from the heap by way of illustration. I took notes furiously on my computer, in an almost indecipherable mix of English and Italian (I was still learning the language then). Bello, eh?” he often said when he had finished recounting some particularly egregious example of investigative incompetence.

We visited the crime scenes together and tracked down, where we could, the family members of the victims. We went to Vicchio to visit the mother of one of the female victims. She was living a hollow existence in what had once been an imposing house in the center of town. Her husband had squandered the family fortune on his futile search for the killer and had dropped dead of a heart attack at police headquarters during one of his many visits.

I began to understand, in a small way, the immensity of the evil that Brother Galileo—now dead—had helped Spezi to accept. And yet, despite the darkness of our hunt, my days with Spezi were my happiest in Italy. My wife and I enjoyed many elegant dinners with Mario and Myriam on their terrace overlooking the hills, where they gathered writers, photographers, countesses—even, one night, a woman who was half Apache, half Florentine. Spezi had a seemingly inexhaustible store of outrageous tales, which he recounted with the quiet delight of an epicure serving a mossy bottle of Château Pétrus. As he told a story, he often imitated the players, speaking in flawless dialect. Sometimes he would require each guest to bring a story to dinner, in lieu of flowers or wine.

Spezi’s view of the case was not complicated. He had nothing but contempt for the conspiracy theories and heated speculation about satanic sects. The simplest and most obvious explanation, to his mind, was most likely the correct one. He had always believed—and I came to share his conviction—that the Monster of Florence was a lone psychopath, and that the key to finding him was the gun used in the 1968 clan killing. Every cop, Spezi often told me, knows that a gun used in a homicide—especially a clan killing—is never disposed of casually. It is either destroyed or kept in a safe place. One of the killers had taken the gun home.

Spezi believed that the Monster must either be Salvatore Vinci, the man Rotella had had his eye on, or someone close to him—someone with access to the gun and the box of bullets. It was that simple. He turned to the crime-scene evidence. It suggested that the Monster was a tall, right-handed man in excellent physical condition who acted with almost preternatural sangfroid (ruling out Pacciani, who was short, fat, old, and usually drunk). The killer was an expert shot and skilled with a knife.

When we had chased down every other person we could find with some connection to the crimes, I pressed Spezi on the subject of the Carabinieri’s suspect, who he told me was the son of one of the original Sardinians. He was still alive and living in Florence. (I will not mention his name, since the evidence against him remains circumstantial.) The stumbling block was Myriam, who had begged her husband not to approach him. Alone, Spezi had heeded her pleas, but there were two of us now, and I goaded him on. Without telling Myriam, Spezi and I began to plan our visit. We developed a cover story—that I was an American journalist and Spezi my translator, and we were conducting a series of interviews about the Monster of Florence case. Out of deference to Myriam’s fears, we decided to use false names.

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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.

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