The Monster of Florence

A true crime story

For years, the Sardinian had been living a quiet life in a working-class area west of Florence. We arrived at his apartment building at 9:40 p.m., when we would be most likely to find him home. His neighborhood was neat, even cheerful, with tiny garden plots in front of modest stuccoed apartment buildings. There was a grocery store on the corner, and bicycles were chained to the railings. Across the street, past a row of umbrella pines, lay the skeletons of abandoned textile factories.

Spezi pressed the intercom, and a woman’s voice asked, “Who is it?”

“Marco Tiezzi,” Spezi replied.

We were buzzed in without further questions.

A man greeted us at the door, wearing only a pair of tight shorts. He recognized Spezi immediately: “Ah, Spezi! It’s you!” he said with a smile. “I must’ve misheard the name. I’ve wanted to meet you for the longest time.” He invited us to be seated at a small kitchen table and offered us a glass of Mirto, a Sardinian liqueur. His wife, who had been washing spinach in a sink, silently left the room.

Our host was a strikingly handsome man with a dimpled smile. His curly black hair was lightly peppered with gray, his body tanned and heavily muscled. He projected a cocky air of working-class charm. While we talked about the case, he casually rippled the muscles of his upper arms or slid his hands over them in what seemed an unconscious gesture of self-admiration. He spoke in a husky and compelling voice that reminded me of Robert De Niro’s.

Spezi casually slipped his tape recorder out of his pocket and laid it on the table. “May I?”

The man flexed and smiled. “No,” he said. “I’m jealous of my voice.”

Spezi took notes in longhand, slowly working his way from generic questions toward his real objective. (The quoted passages below are from his notes.)

“Your father had strange sexual habits,” Spezi said. “Perhaps that was a reason you hated him?”

“Back then I knew nothing about it. Only later did I hear about his … tics.”

“But you and he had some really big fights. Even when you were young. In the spring of 1974, for example, you were charged with breaking and entering and theft.”

“That’s not correct. Since he didn’t know if I had taken anything, I was charged only with violation of domicile. Another time we had a big fight, and I pinned him, putting my scuba knife to his throat, but he broke free and I locked myself in the bathroom.”

“When did you leave Florence?”

“In the beginning of 1975. First I went to Sardinia, and then to Lake Como.”

“Then you returned and got married.”

“Right. I married a childhood sweetheart, but it didn’t work. We married in 1982 and separated in 1985.”

“What didn’t work?”

“She couldn’t have children.”

Spezi did not mention he had learned that the marriage had been annulled for non-consummation. “Can I ask you a rather direct question?” he said.

“Sure. I may not answer it.”

“If your father owned the .22 Beretta, you were the person in the best position to take it. Perhaps during the breaking and entering in the spring of 1974.”

He didn’t answer immediately. “I have proof I didn’t take it,” he said at last.

“Which is?”

“If I had taken it, I would have fired it into my father’s forehead.”

Spezi pressed on. He pointed out that our host had been away from Florence from 1975 to 1980, when there were no Monster killings. When he returned, they began again.

The Sardinian leaned back in his seat, and his smile broadened. “Those years were the best of my life,” he said, “up there at Lake Como. I had a house, I ate well, and all those girls …” He whistled and made a vulgar Italian gesture.

“And so,” Spezi said, “you’re not … the Monster of Florence?”

There was only a brief hesitation. The Sardinian never ceased smiling, not even for an instant. “No,” he said. “I like my pussy whole.”

We rose to go. Our host followed us to the door. Just before opening it, he leaned toward Spezi and spoke in a low and casual voice. “Ah, Spezi, I was forgetting something.” He leaned even closer and smiled. His voice took on a hoarse, gravelly tone. “Listen carefully: I never joke around.”

Spezi and I agreed that we would publish our book first in Italian, and then I would rewrite it and publish it in English. The publisher of my murder mysteries in Italy, Sonzogno, a division of the Italian publishing house RCS Libri, gave us a contract and an advance. The book, which was titled Dolci Colline di Sangue (Sweet Hills of Blood, a play on the phrase Dolci colline di Firenze), was scheduled for publication in April 2006.

Meanwhile, the search for the hidden masterminds began to intensify. Time had passed, and the old investigators had retired or been promoted. Vigna was appointed head of Italy’s anti-Mafia unit, while Perugini went on to become the liaison officer with the American FBI. A new investigator rose to the fore: Chief Inspector Michele Giuttari, who had organized and headed an elite police unit known as GIDES (Investigative Group for Serial Crimes), heir to Perugini’s Squadra anti-Mostro. The newspapers dubbed him “il Superpoliziotto,” because he was, in practice, answerable to nobody.

In the summer of 2001, the case once again hit the front pages in Italy. GIDES had focused its attention on a villa in Chianti where Pietro Pacciani had worked as a gardener. This villa, which the papers dubbed the “Villa of Horrors,” was suspected of being the meeting place for the cult of devil worshippers who had supposedly hired Pacciani to do their bidding. One important clue that a satanic sect was behind the killings was a rough, hexagonal stone in the form of a broken pyramid found at the site of one of the crimes. Only Giuttari realized its significance. “I hypothesized that it was an object connected to the occult,” he would later explain in one of his many books on the case, “and that, for some reason, it had been left there deliberately.”

Spezi ridiculed this conclusion in the media and produced a similar stone, which a friend had given him. He pointed out that it was not an esoteric object at all, but a type of doorstop commonly found in old Tuscan farmhouses. On May 14, he appeared on a popular TV show with an explosive allegation: he had shown the photographs of the murdered French tourists to one of Europe’s leading forensic entomologists, and the entomologist had concluded, by examining the larvae on the corpses, that the lovers could not have been killed any later than Saturday night.

This determination, if true, was fatal to the satanic-sect theory: Pacciani’s supposed accomplice swore the French tourists were killed on Sunday night. If the crime had occurred Saturday, all his claims would be thrown into question. What’s more, Pacciani had an ironclad alibi for Saturday night.

Much to Spezi’s dismay, Giuttari dismissed the entomologist’s findings and pressed ahead with his investigation. Spezi’s appearance on television had another effect entirely from that intended: it seemed to have inspired the chief inspector’s undying hatred.

In June 2004, I moved back to the States with my family, into a house we had built on the coast of Maine. When I left Italy, Mario gave me a pencil drawing he’d made of Pacciani during the trial and a caricature of myself, spying on my wife through a keyhole. I hung both on the wall of my writing shack, in the woods behind our house, along with a photograph of Spezi in his fedora and trench coat, standing in a butcher’s shop under a rack of hog jowls.

Spezi and I spoke frequently. I missed my life in Italy—but Maine was quiet, and quiet is what a writer needs. We continued to work on the book by e-mail and telephone. Spezi did most of the actual writing, while I made suggestions and contributed a few chapters, which he had to rewrite (I write in Italian at about a fifth-grade level). He continued to keep me abreast of the “Pista Satanica,” which, curiously, seemed to be heating up.

That summer, Spezi called me with a strange bit of news. An old friend of his, a pharmacist, was being investigated for the death of Francesco Narducci, a gastro‑enterologist whose body had been found floating in Lake Trasimeno some twenty years earlier. The original investigators had considered it a suicide—Narducci had been heavily into drugs and was known to be depressed—but GIDES suspected that the doctor may in fact have been murdered by the Monster’s satanic sect. This brought into the investigation the public prosecutor who has jurisdiction over Lake Trasimeno: the pubblico ministero of Perugia, Giuliano Mignini.

On November 18, 2004, at 6 a.m., Spezi and his family were awoken by the sound of their door buzzer. Polizia!” screamed a voice. Perquisizione!” The police were from GIDES, Giuttari’s squad. Their warrant gave two reasons for the search: Spezi had “materially damaged the investigation by casting doubt on the accusations through use of the medium of television,” and he had “evidenced a peculiar and suspicious interest in … the investigation.” He was served with an avviso di garanzia, one step short of a formal indictment. It listed seventeen crimes for which Spezi was being investigated, all undisclosed.

For seven hours the police searched the apartment, while Spezi, Myriam, and their daughter looked on. Officers pulled books off the shelves and rummaged through photos, letters, and schoolbooks, scattering things on the floor. They took everything Spezi had that related to the case: his computer, disks, archives, clippings, interviews, even our notes and drafts of the book. They found Spezi’s old doorstop, which a document would later describe as having been “secreted behind a door.” To Giuttari, this became one of the most important fruits of the search.

Twelve months later, Spezi opened the newspaper and read a headline about himself: “Narducci Murder: Journalist Investigated.”

“When I read that,” Spezi told me, “it was like a hallucination. I felt I was inside a film of Kafka’s Trial, remade by Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.” Spezi had gone from journalist to suspect.

It was in this climate that I arrived in Florence on February 14 of this year. The kids were on winter vacation, and plane tickets were cheap. I was anxious to see my old friend. Our book would be published in two months, and Spezi hoped we might do some preliminary publicity and line up an evening presentation at Seeber, one of the best bookstores in Florence.

I visited Spezi on February 15. He told me he had recently heard from a source that during the Monster killings and afterward, a group of Sardinians had frequented a run-down outbuilding on the thousand-acre estate of a grand villa outside Florence. The source claimed to have a friend who had been at the building a few months earlier, with the Carabinieri’s suspect (the man I’ve been calling “the Sardinian”). He had seen six locked iron boxes and two guns: a machine pistol and a .22 Beretta.

“What are those boxes?” the friend had asked.

“That’s my stuff,” the Sardinian allegedly said, slapping his chest.

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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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