The Monster of Florence

A true crime story

Six locked iron boxes. Six female victims. A .22 Beretta. It was almost too perfect to be true.

I asked Spezi what he planned to do. He said he had been agonizing about this. He smelled a scoop—the scoop of a lifetime. He had driven past the villa a couple of times, but in the end he had decided that he had no choice but to call the police.

I had never seen Mario so excited. “This could be it,” he told me. “The culmination of all my years on this case. And you’ll be here to see it.” He said the villa was open to the public for sales of wine and olive oil, and that it was rented out for parties.

I asked if I could see it. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?” We couldn’t go to the outbuilding, but we could at least see the part open to the public.

We decided to go the next day, accompanied by a friend of Spezi’s who owned a security firm in Florence and from his days as a cop knew the source, an ex-con. Driving over to his friend’s office, Spezi apologized for the state of his car: a few days earlier someone had wrecked the door and stolen his radio.

It was raining when we arrived at the villa. A woman leaned out a window and said the salesroom was closed for lunch. We took a desultory stroll along the drive and returned to the car. We had been there about ten minutes. It was a disappointing visit, at least to me; something about the whole story didn’t feel quite right.

Two days later, Spezi called me on my cell phone. “We did it,” he said. “We did it all.” He didn’t go into details, but I knew what he meant: he had given the information to the police. He also said, before I could ask too many questions, “The telephone is bad.” For two years he had been complaining that the police were tapping his phones.

On February 22, as I was heading out for a morning coffee, my cell phone rang. A man speaking Italian informed me that he was a police detective and that he needed to see me—immediately. No, it wasn’t a joke. And no, he couldn’t tell me what it was about, only that it was obbligatorio.”

I chose the most public place possible, the Piazza della Signoria. Two plainclothes detectives from GIDES took me into the Palazzo Vecchio, where, in the magnificent Renaissance courtyard, surrounded by Vasari’s frescoes, I was presented with a legal summons to appear before Judge Mignini. The detective politely explained that a no-show would be a serious crime; it would put him in the regrettable position of having to come and get me.

I asked, “Is this about the Monster of Florence case?”

Bravo,” said the detective.

The next day, I was ushered into a pleasant office in the Procura della Repubblica, just outside the ancient city walls of Perugia. Present were one of the detectives from the previous day, a small and very tense captain of police with orange hair, a stenographer, and Giuliano Mignini, sitting behind a desk. I had dressed smartly—Italians judge harshly in such matters—and I had a folded copy of the International Herald Tribune under my arm as a prop.

Mignini was a small man of indeterminate middle age, well groomed, with a fleshy face and thinning hair. His voice was calm and pleasant and he addressed me with elaborate courtesy, bestowing the honorific of dottore, which, in Italy, denotes the highest respect. He explained that I had the right to an interpreter, but finding one might take many hours, during which time I would be unpleasantly detained. In his opinion, I spoke Italian fluently. I asked if I needed a lawyer, and he said that, although it was of course my right, it wasn’t necessary; he merely wanted to ask a few questions of a routine nature.

His questions were gentle, posed almost apologetically. The stenographer typed the questions, and my answers, into her computer. Sometimes Mignini rephrased my answers in better Italian, checking solicitously to see if that was what I had meant to say. He asked me about Spezi’s lawyer, Alessandro Traversi, and wanted to know what I could say about Spezi’s legal strategy. He named many names and asked if Spezi had ever mentioned them. Most were unfamiliar. The questions went on like this for an hour, and I was starting to feel reassured. I even had a glimmer of hope that I might get out in time to join my wife and children for lunch at a nearby restaurant, which came highly recommended in the guidebooks.

At this point the conversation turned to our visit to the villa. Why did we go? What did we do there? Where exactly did we walk? Was there talk of a gun? Of iron boxes? Was my back ever to Spezi? Did we see anyone there? Who? What was said?

I answered truthfully, trying to suppress a damnable habit of over-explanation, but I could see that Mignini was not happy. He repeated the same questions, in different forms. It began to dawn on me that the previous line of inquiry had been nothing more than a few balls lobbed in the bullpen. Now, the game had begun.

Mignini’s face flushed as his frustration mounted. He frequently instructed the stenographer to read back my earlier answers. “You said that, and now you say this. Which is true, Dottor Preston? Which is true?

I began to stumble over my words (as I’ve noted, I am not fluent in Italian, especially legal and criminological terms). With a growing sense of dismay, I could hear from my own stammering, hesitant voice that I was sounding like a liar.

“Listen to this,” Mignini said. He nodded to the stenographer, who pressed a button on her computer. There was the ringing of a phone, and then my voice:

Pronto.”

Ciao, sono Mario.”

Spezi and I chatted for a moment while I listened in amazement to my own voice, clearer on the intercept than in the original call on my lousy cell phone. Mignini played it once, then again. He stopped at the point where Spezi said, “We did it all,” and fixed his eyes on me: “What exactly did you do, Dottor Preston?”

I explained that Spezi was referring to his decision to report to the police what he had heard about possible evidence hidden at the villa.

“No, Dottor Preston.” He played the recording again and again, asking repeatedly, “What is this thing you did? What did you do?” He seized on Spezi’s comment that the telephone was bad. What did he mean by that?

I explained that he thought the phone was tapped.

And why, Mignini wanted to know, were we concerned about the phones being tapped if we weren’t engaged in illegal activity?

“Because it isn’t nice to have your phone tapped,” I answered feebly.

“That is not an answer, Dottor Preston.”

He played the recording again, stopping at several words and demanding to know what Spezi or I meant, as if we were speaking in code, a common Mafia ploy. I tried to explain that the conversation meant what it said, but Mignini brushed my explanations aside. His face was flushed with a look of contempt. I knew why: he had expected me to lie, and I had met his expectation. I stammered out a question: Did he think we had committed a crime at the villa?

Mignini straightened up in his chair and, with a note of triumph in his voice, said, Yes.”

“What?”

“You and Spezi either planted, or were planning to plant, false evidence at that villa in an attempt to frame an innocent man for being the Monster of Florence, to derail this investigation, and to deflect suspicion from Spezi. That is what you were doing. This comment—We did it all’—that is what he meant.”

I was floored. I stammered that this was just a theory, but Mignini interrupted me and said, “These are not theories. They are facts!” He insisted I knew perfectly well that Spezi was being investigated for the murder of Narducci, and that I knew more about the murder than I was letting on. “That makes you an accessory. Yes, Dottor Preston,” Mignini insisted, “I can hear it in your voice. I can hear the tone of knowledge, of deep familiarity with these events. Just listen.” His voice rose with restrained exaltation. Listen to yourself!”

And, for maybe the tenth time, he replayed the phone conversation. “Perhaps you have been duped, but I don’t think so. You know! And now, you have one last chance—one last chance—to tell us what you know, or I will charge you with perjury. I don’t care; I will do it, even if the news goes around the world tomorrow.”

I felt sick, and I had the sudden urge to relieve myself. I asked for the way to the bathroom. I returned a few minutes later, having failed to muster much composure. “I’ve told you the truth,” I managed to croak. “What more can I say?”

Mignini waved his hand and was handed a legal tome. He placed it on his desk with the utmost delicacy, opened it, and, in a voice worthy of a funeral oration, began to read the text of the law. I heard that I was now “indagato” (an official suspect under investigation) for the crime of reticence and making false statements. He announced that the investigation would be suspended to allow me to leave Italy, but that it would be reinstated when the investigation of Spezi was concluded.

The secretary printed out a transcript. The two-and-a-half-hour interrogation had been edited down to two pages, which I amended and signed.

“May I keep this?” I asked.

“No. It is under seal.”

Very stiffly, I picked up my International Herald Tribune, folded it under my arm, and turned to leave.

“If you ever decide to talk, Dottor Preston, we are here.”

On rubbery legs I descended to the street, into a wintry drizzle.

I left Italy the next day. When I returned to my home in Maine, which stands on a bluff overlooking the gray Atlantic, and listened to the breakers on the rocks below and the seagulls calling above, I felt tears trickling down my face.

But it was not over—not at all.

After I left, Spezi brought his car to a mechanic to get the broken door and radio fixed. The mechanic emerged holding a few thousand dollars’ worth of electronics: a sophisticated GPS, microphone, and transmitter, which had been carefully attached to the old radio wires. Spezi filed a complaint, and a week or two later, his crappy radio was returned to him by GIDES.

For Spezi, the wrecking of his car was the last straw. He asked his lawyer to file a civil lawsuit against Chief Inspector Michele Giuttari. The suit was dated March 23. Spezi wrote the introductory statement himself, every word perfectly pitched to infuriate his foe:

For more than a year, I have been the victim not just of half-baked police work, but of what could be said to be authentic violations of civil rights. This phenomenon—which pertains not just to me, but to many others—brings to mind the most dysfunctional societies, such as one might expect to find in Asia or Africa.

Spezi proceeded to deliver an uppercut to Giuttari’s soft underbelly—his literary talent. In February, Giuttari had published his second book (there had also been several novels) on the Monster of Florence case, The Monster: Anatomy of an Investigation, in which he had taken several jabs at Spezi and others. In the lawsuit, Spezi quoted extract after extract, savaging Giuttari’s theories, his logic, and his writing ability.

On Friday, April 7, eleven days before the publication of our book, a squad of policemen arrived at Spezi’s apartment, lured him outside under false pretenses, arrested him, and hustled him into a car. He was driven to GIDES headquarters and taken from there to prison in Perugia. The Italian papers reported the charges against him: “calumny,” “disturbing an essential public service,” and “attempting to derail the investigation into the case of the Monster of Florence.” A number of other people were named by the police as being involved in these crimes; I was one of them. The final charge, the papers claimed, was complicity in murder.

The day of the arrest, Mignini asked for and received a special dispensation to invoke a law that is normally used only for terrorists or Mafia dons who pose an imminent threat to the state. For a period of five days Spezi was denied access to his lawyers, kept in a tiny isolation cell under conditions of extreme deprivation, and grilled mercilessly. It was noted in the press that Spezi’s treatment was harsher than that of Bernardo Provenzano, the Mafia “boss of bosses” captured in Sicily a few days later.

Spezi spent three weeks in Capanne, one of Italy’s grimmest prisons. On April 29, a three-judge panel in Perugia surprised everyone by annulling his imprisonment and setting him free. It was a decisive slap in the face for Mignini and Giuttari. A week later, Florence hosted a demonstration for freedom of the press, and Spezi was the guest of honor. That same day our book hit the best-seller lists across Italy.

When Spezi returned home from prison, a crowd of journalists greeted him. “No, I’ll not deal with the Monster affair anymore,” he told one. “I’ll write books, but not about that.” Twenty-five years after that perfect summer Sunday in June when the bodies of two lovers were first found, Mario Spezi had finally declared his emancipation from the Monster of Florence.

Spezi’s legal problems will likely drag on for years. He has been summoned back for another round of interrogation, and fresh charges are reportedly in the works. And yet, the tide may be turning. Mignini’s fellow judges have severely criticized his conduct of the case, and, in early May, Giuttari himself became the target of an investigation, accused of falsifying evidence in the case. And so the investigation grinds on, voracious in its appetite for new victims.

People have often asked me if the Monster of Florence will ever be found. I once believed that Spezi and I could find the truth; now I am not so certain. Any crime novel, to be successful, must contain certain basic elements: there must be a motive; evidence; a trail of clues; and a process of discovery that leads, one way or another, to a conclusion. All novels, even Crime and Punishment, must come to an end.

But life, I have learned, is not so tidy. Here were murders without motive and a trail of clues apparently without end. The process of discovery has led investigators so deeply into a wilderness of falsehood that I doubt they will ever find their way out. Spezi and I used to laugh at their elaborate theories, but ours may not be much better. It wasn’t based on what a good criminal investigation should be: the nitty-gritty of blood, hair, fibers, fingerprints, DNA, and reliable eyewitnesses. In the absence of solid forensic police work—which, in the Monster case, was shockingly deficient—any hypothesis will remain like something dreamed up by Hercule Poirot: a beautiful story in search of a confession. Only this is not a novel, and there won’t be a confession—and without one, the Monster of Florence will never be found.

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