The Journalist and the Murderer

Douglas Preston discusses his investigation of the "Monster of Florence"—and the strange plot twist that made him a suspect in the case

Between 1974 and 1985, seven couples were murdered in parked cars in the hills surrounding Florence. The police unearthed evidence dating back to a related 1968 crime, and the investigation has stretched forward to the present. Suspects in the case have included members of a clannish group of immigrants from the island of Sardinia, a “semiliterate” farmer who was tried and acquitted, and an as of now hypothetical, yet conniving, Florentine mastermind and his satanic sect.

Douglas Preston, a best-selling author of murder mysteries, moved with his family to Italy only to discover that one of these crimes had been committed just outside his Tuscan doorstep. Despite the spectacularly poor crime scene evidence, it was a mystery writer’s dream to stumble upon an unsolved murder. Preston quickly became acquainted with Mario Spezi, an Italian journalist who had covered the case for much of his career. As Preston writes in his July/August article “The Monster of Florence,” together the two writers “set off to find the truth.”

Preston’s account of the case is chock full of gory details and has a chilling page-turner of a plot, but it is not solely the stuff of sensational dime-store thrillers. Rather, “The Monster of Florence” is a real-life story about the myriad individuals swept up in the case and their clashes and collisions with one another. The investigation remains open to this day, and as the victims’ stories have to some extent faded into the past, the stakes for the individuals drawn into the investigation have only risen. The personalities Preston touches upon range from the flashy prosecutor Pier Luigi Vigna to the devastated mother of one of the victims to the tragicomical chain of suspects. Preston’s frank self-portrait and his portrayal of how he and Spezi themselves became mired in the investigation’s legal proceedings are the icing on the cake.

Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

Douglas Preston (right) with co-author Mario Spezi at one of the murder sites
(Photo by Christine Preston)

Based on appearances, Preston and Spezi are not a twosome one would expect to find on the wrong side of the Italian law. Preston writes and speaks eloquently and emphatically—his responses to questions often best captured in interspersed italicizations. In photographs he wears a neat blazer or comfortable sweater and glasses that lend him a studious and earnest air. Spezi’s white hair and his own pair of nearly identical corrective lenses suggest a similar gentlemanly demeanor. Yet Preston found himself interrogated about his own possible involvement in the case and forced to leave Italy. Spezi was arrested and imprisoned for three weeks for his meddling. Did Preston and Spezi go too far with their theories? Did the chief inspector in the case overstep the limits of his authority?

In April of this year, after being released from prison, Spezi told the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera “I never pretended to be an investigator. I don’t believe in investigative journalism. I’m simply a reporter. I went hunting for news. I tried to verify [the facts] while respecting the law. I never had theories. I only put together facts.” Whether you call it reporting or investigative journalism, Preston and Spezi’s actions and experiences raise questions about the relationship between a legal system and the press. Although the stakes for national security are clearly not as high as in the Valerie Plame affair, the severity of Preston and Spezi’s treatment anchors Preston’s article in topical questions about the responsibility of journalists and the reach of the law.

Finally, Preston asks his readers to think about how we can understand crimes that seem to defy logic and rationality. What could lead a human being to act out so violently against complete strangers? During our interview, Preston reminded me of a famous Florentine whose answers to similar questions made a lasting impression on the canon of Western thought. Dante’s journey in The Divine Comedy is one of personal discovery; an exploration of the real consequences of Christian morality. Yet in a day and age when some attribute psychological deviance to environmental factors or chemical imbalances (one forensic psychiatrist even sent Chicago serial killer John Gacy’s brain to a pathologist for thorough testing post-mortem), we may question whether the Monster of Florence has an unambiguous place in one of the rings of Hell.

Douglas Preston is currently working on an English version of his book Dolci Colline di Sangue, which is currently a number one bestseller in Italy. I spoke with him by telephone on May 18.

—Justine Isola

What drew you to the Monster of Florence story in the first place? Was there a point at which you knew you were hooked?

As a novelist, I’m always out there looking for stories. I think most novelists get their material from the real world. So I’m constantly looking for stories, everywhere from Scientific American, to The Wall Street Journal, to outrageous stories that friends tell me that may or may not be true, to the crime pages of the newspapers. When I met Spezi, he started telling me about the Monster of Florence case, and it was like being struck by lightning. It was the most incredible crime story I had ever heard in my life. It was so incredible that for a while I really wondered if it wasn’t just all made up. It couldn’t be true. But obviously Spezi was a distinguished journalist, and I accepted it as true.

So how did it go? We started talking about the story. I said, it’s incredible that this story has never been heard by Americans—that this story, which is so famous in Italy and also famous in Germany, France, and has in fact been covered very thoroughly by the British press, had never once broken in the American press. I scoured the newspapers and nothing had ever appeared. And so instantly I thought, well, we should be the ones to publish it. We should tell America this incredible story. And so that’s how we got started.

Can you tell me more about your research into the case and your collaboration with Mario Spezi?

First Mario had to educate me about the case. It was an extraordinary education because it’s an incredibly complex story and at the time my Italian wasn’t as good as it is now. So it was a marvelous lesson not only in the case itself but also in Italian because everything we did was in Italian. When you learn a foreign language you often learn specialized sub-vocabularies. For example, when my computer went down I had to learn all of the Italian words for dealing with computers. And when the car broke, I had to learn all of the Italian words dealing with the parts of a car and fixing a car and all of those verbs. With the Monster case I had to learn all of those words dealing with murder, investigations, and the police and judiciary.

There seems to be so much evidence to support the theory of the lone suspect, the Carabinieri’s theory. But there are police investigators who continue to pursue the satanic sect theory. Why do you think police investigators like Michele Giuttari are convinced that there is an occultist group behind the killings?

I have some theories in that regard. The first one is that, interestingly enough, serial killers are very rare in Italy. It’s a phenomenon that’s much more common in America, Germany, France, and some of the Germanic speaking countries—Holland, Belgium, places like that. In Spain and Italy, the phenomenon is extremely rare. So Italians aren’t really used to dealing with serial killers. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that I really think it has something to do with the Italian character. Dante tells you a great deal about how Italians think about good and evil—in the Inferno in particular. Although Italy has become a very modern advanced industrial country, like every country it retains ancient attitudes and beliefs that sometimes are completely subsumed in modernism, but still exist on a deep level in people’s minds. I think a lot of Italians look at these crimes and see that they are so horrible, so dreadful, that it’s not possible for a lone human being to have committed them. That they must in the end turn in some way to the Devil, to Satan. It’s a very Italian thing, and I think it comes out of a very ancient belief that the Italians have about the nature of good and evil.

I was recently talking to a friend of mine whose family is Italian. She suggested that the idea of Black Masses and satanic sects are more vivid in the popular imagination in Italy than in the United States.

That’s right. This belief in the prevalence of Black Masses and satanic sects in Italy is very common. People really do believe that there are satanic groups out there that are bent on committing great evil. What surprises me about the Monster of Florence case is that I, and I think most Americans, tend to dismiss out of hand the idea that a satanic sect could have been looking for female body parts for its Black Masses. That’s just absurd on the surface. And yet very intelligent, highly educated people—friends of mine in Italy—consider that to be a viable hypothesis.

It shocks me every time I talk to someone and he or she says, “Well, it could be. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be.” I go over the evidence and I say, “Now look, there’s all kind of evidence against that theory.” And they say, “Well, it still could be.” It’s like the evidence hasn’t made any difference. They want to believe it because it’s comforting, I think, to believe that the Devil in some way is behind this. The other explanation—that it’s a lone killer—is no explanation at all because there’s no motive.

Do you think that the investigation has become personal for Giuttari?

I think even more than for Mario and me. I mean, Mario has written several novels. He’s covered many newspaper stories beyond just the Monster case. And I obviously have a career as a writer and journalist beyond the Monster case as well. Giuttari really doesn’t have anything beyond the Monster case. His entire career rides on this case and solving it—or at least not making a fool of himself while he investigates. And in fact, Giuttari’s books on the case have been huge number-one bestsellers in Italy. I think his last book on the Monster case sold 80,000 copies in hardcover, which is a stunning amount for a book in Italy. So yes, it is personal. I think that everyone in Italy acknowledges that Giuttari seems to carry a great personal animosity against Spezi.

Judge Giuliano Mignini, the public prosecutor who interrogated you, is another important player in the case. Was Mignini just doing his job? How much weight do you give to the idea that Mignini had it in for Spezi and you?

First of all, as a novelist I’ve written about what it’s like to be interrogated. I understood that it’s a psychologically daunting experience, but you really can’t have any conception of what it’s like to be strongly interrogated until you undergo it. It’s a humiliating experience. You have no power. And it’s especially difficult in a foreign language. In order to speak well and to be convincing you have to have tremendous command of the language. And when you don’t you sound like a liar even when you’re not. I remember in this interrogation thinking, “My God, I sound like a liar. If I were Mignini, I wouldn’t believe me, stumbling, stuttering, and sweating, and using the wrong words, and backtracking, and saying things two or three times, and trying to explain what I meant.” I was thinking, “They’re going to take me from this room and put me in jail, and I’m not going to see my wife and kids again, or at least for a while.” I was terrified that I was not going to see the outside world again. Because of course the crimes they were accusing me of were very serious.

As for Mignini himself, I think he’s a sincere man and an honest and incorruptible judge. I don’t think that he’s a bad man. I think he really believed that I was guilty and that Spezi was guilty. I could see that in the interrogation he believed I was a liar. So, yes, I think he was doing his job the best he could. I think in many ways he was badly misled by Giuttari, the police officer who was running the investigation.

The relationships between the journalists and their sources and the police in Italy sound looser than they are in the United States. Is it common for Italian journalists to put together the facts the way you and Spezi did? Was the extent of your involvement in this investigation usual?

To answer your first question, yes, journalistic standards are much looser in Italy. And the idea of fact checking, which of course good American magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker are meticulous about, is completely unknown in Italy. The writer is just trusted that he got his facts straight. A lot of the time he didn’t. Journalists rush in. They grab a bagful of current facts and then try to make a story out of them. But if that bagful of current facts is only a tiny slice of an enormously bigger story then it’s very difficult for a journalist to even understand what he’s writing about.

In Italy, you read all these articles about the Monster case, and none of them even comes close to being true, because most journalists just do not have time to really understand the whole thing. We’re talking about a case that has lasted 40 years, with 100,000 people investigated, 14 killings, many, many different investigators. It’s such a big story that almost all journalists, especially daily newspaper journalists, are simply unable to understand it in order to write about it. So you’ve got tremendously inaccurate stories where the same inaccurate facts are repeated. For example, some stories say there were 16 killings as opposed to 14. I read in the Italian papers as recently as a week ago that the Monster had killed 16 people. Well, the Monster killed 14 people. The first two killings were absolutely determined not to have been done by the Monster.

I’ve heard that a specific section of Italian newspapers is devoted to crime. Are crime stories handled differently in Italy?

Italian newspapers do have a section devoted to crime. They call it the “Cronaca Nera,” the “Black Stories,” or “Black Tales.” The Italian newspapers, like the American newspapers, deal frequently in crime. That’s what people love to read about. It gives them a frisson to open their paper in the morning and read about some mother who has murdered her child. Or some beheaded body found in a field. When I lived in New York City, one day The New York Post had a wonderful headline: HEADLESS MAN FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR. And I thought, “Oh, what a fabulous headline—one of the great crime headlines of all time—ridiculous, absurd, and outrageous. Nobody can walk by that headline and not read that story.” Yes, crime is a very important part of Italian papers.

There’s a symbiotic relationship in Italy between crime journalists and their police counterparts. It’s probably much more than in America because I think that American newspapers really try to keep a distance between their reporters and their sources. None of this “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” But in Italy that’s very common. For example, during the Monster case at one point the prosecutor in the case asked Spezi to publish a false story in the paper as a way to try to trap the Monster.

Did Spezi go along with that?

Very willingly. The story was that one of the victims had survived the shooting and had spoken to the police. In truth, the victim had been killed in the shooting and had not spoken to the police, but they were trying to scare up something, trying to push the Monster into making a false move. And Spezi was happy to do that. It wasn’t considered journalistically unethical. And in return Spezi got information from them under the table. A lot of times the police give journalists information for specific reasons. They want that information to get out in order to further the case that they’re working on. For example, they might put information out to a journalist that they hope will further the investigation.

It seems that in certain cases Spezi also helped bring the police’s attention to various aspects of the crimes.

That’s right. Another thing that the police relied on journalists in general for, but especially on Spezi, during the Monster case was to help control rumors. Rumors ran rampant. Many people’s lives were being ruined. It was extraordinary. A very important gynecologist in Florence, who ran a clinic, was suspected. Rumors swirled around him. It ruined his career. Again and again and again, absolutely out of control rumors destroyed people. The police were being driven crazy following up on these rumors because no matter what the rumor was—no matter how ridiculous—they had to investigate. Spezi played a very important role, along with other journalists, in publishing stories that showed these rumors to be false. The police would call Spezi and say, “Look, you’ve got to write a story about this rumor to say that this rumor isn’t true.”

After Spezi was imprisoned, you campaigned on his behalf and asked members of the press and organizations that protect the freedom of the press to write letters to important figures in the Italian government protesting Spezi’s treatment. Could you talk more about why you were compelled to do this and what action the individuals and organizations you contacted took?

Italians are very sensitive to American public opinion. Italians love America. It’s exactly the opposite of the French. They have almost an instinctual love for America, for American values. Older Italians remember American soldiers liberating their country from the Nazis. They’re very grateful. I realized immediately that an uproar from America would have a big effect in Italy. The key was to embarrass the Italians over this outrageous arrest—and it really was outrageous, the arrest of a journalist for being a journalist. And so I contacted a number of organizations.

I have to single out the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City for being stupendously effective. Nina Ognianova and Alex Lupis, who were the European representatives, together jumped on this. They didn’t just trust my word; they actually conducted a completely separate investigation of what had happened to Spezi. They talked to a number of journalists in Italy about Spezi and about the climate and they wrote a fantastic letter that they sent directly to Silvio Berlusconi who, though he had basically lost the election to Romano Prodi, was still the prime minister and was still the effective head of government. So they wrote him a letter, a very good letter, and they copied it to Amnesty International, the American Consulate, the Italian Embassy, many important organizations. And copies also went to Mignini, to the Italian Minister of Justice, to the Italian Minister of the Interior who is in charge of the police force and law enforcement, and to the governmental office that oversees the magistrate system in Italy. This letter had a very big effect. It also induced a lot of other organizations and people to write letters.

A second organization that was extremely effective was International Thriller Writers, Inc., which is a group I belong to. It’s a small group, maybe three or four hundred people, but it includes all the top thriller writers in America: Clive Cussler, James Patterson, David Baldacci. And the reason this group was important is because these people are all huge best-selling writers in Italy. To have members of this organization writing letters to the Italian Minister of Justice, the Minister of the Interior, Mignini, and so forth was extremely effective.

So these letters helped bring the attention of higher-ups to the case?

There’s no question that these letters did bring attention to the case. In fact, after three weeks, Spezi’s case came up before a panel of three judges, all colleagues of Mignini. And the judges had to decide whether he was such a danger to the state that he had to remain in prison, or whether he should be released under house arrest, or whether he could just be released with no conditions.

The expectation was that they were going to keep Spezi in prison. Mignini had written a very strong opinion to this panel saying that Spezi was a grave danger to the Italian state. As evidence of this he cited that Spezi, while being kept in isolation at the Cappane prison, had somehow been able to organize an international campaign against Mignini and against the Italian judiciary. This was prima face evidence that Spezi was an extremely dangerous and powerful person who had somehow been able to create this tremendous international uproar. But to everyone else in Italy it was proof that this case was becoming a great embarrassment. So the judges released him with no conditions and basically said that there was no merit in the evidence that Mignini had presented against him.

My impression is that the Italian press was very supportive of Spezi and critical of his imprisonment.

They were. It was very strange. Right after he was arrested, there was kind of a period of silence in the Italian press because reporters were really frightened. It’s very difficult to be a reporter in Italy because Italy does not protect the press freedoms that we do in America, and journalists are definitely intimidated. But once one journalist started writing in protest, all the others followed. The letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists was published in Italy and was very important to show that in fact the international community was coming to the support of Spezi. So everyone gained confidence from everyone else. The tide turned dramatically after that.

This case has become in so many ways a personal story not only for Spezi and the police investigators, but also for you. Were there any decisive points at which you thought, “We’re really making progress,” or, “Wait a minute, we’re clearly heading down the wrong path”? What were the most satisfying developments or frustrating moments during your investigation?

Well there was a point that was kind of shocking for me. I’m a novelist, and tend to think of stories like this as being not quite real. I mean, these murders did happen a long time ago. You tend to think of the story novelistically. As Spezi was telling me the story I lost sight to a certain extent of the fact that we were dealing with human beings and enormous tragedy. That was really brought home to me when we went to Vicchio, the birthplace of Giotto, where the mother of one of the victims lived in a house just beyond the town square where they have this huge statue of Giotto.

It was a beautiful spring day, a perfect Italian town. We went to a shuttered house where this woman lived all by herself in severely reduced economic circumstances because her husband had basically spent all their money in a desperate attempt to try to find the killer of their only daughter. And then he had died of a heart attack in the police station. They had once been very wealthy and she was now living in this house by herself and had to rent out rooms. And it was dark. It was a beautiful day but the shutters were closed, and I walked into this house and instantly felt the enormous, overpowering weight of tragedy, of the most horrible thing that could happen to a mother. And I was physically staggered by it. I suddenly realized, this is a terrible, terrible story.

After visiting this mother, we went to the site where her daughter and her boyfriend were killed. It was a most beautiful spot. It was heartbreaking. It was almost magically beautiful. It was spring and the flowers were all coming up. And we could see beautiful meadows and an old stone farmhouse in the distance and the contrast again was staggering. It just once again brought home that this is not some story. This is not a plot for a novel. This is reality. And, having children myself, it just shocked me.

Did this experience affect how you think about and write fiction?

It has really helped my thinking as a novelist. I write thrillers, murder mysteries, but I suddenly found myself looking at a murder that I would write about, which was part of a plot in a different way. I thought, “My God, in a sense as a novelist I’m killing a human being in weird a way.” I suddenly felt a lot more ambiguous about what I was doing as a novelist.

Do you think any of the individuals or facts from the Monster of Florence case will ever work their way into your fiction? Or do you feel that you need to maintain a line between your journalistic investigation and your novels?

When I first started writing fiction, I drew a very clear line: I would never, ever put a real person into one of my novels as a fictional character. I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do. As you become better known as a novelist, your power to really harm somebody that way increases. So I would never do that. It isn’t to say that I don’t take pieces of real people. Obviously when I construct characters they’re based on real traits that real people have. But I’ve never taken a character wholesale.  However, everything else I touch, everything else I experience, and everything else I see goes into my novels. Certainly the Monster case has had a huge effect on my writing, a huge effect.

Can you elaborate?

It has affected everything. For example, I now understand the Italian criminal justice system and the way the Italian police and the Carabinieri work better than I understand the workings of the American police. Lincoln Child and I are co-authors of a series of thrillers, and we have since set parts of several of our books in Italy. And in fact the final quarter of The Book of the Dead, our book that will be published May 31, is set in Florence and then on the island of Stromboli, which is an island off the coast of Sicily that has a live volcano on it. It’s a very dramatic place.

Can you give us an update on your legal standing or Spezi’s legal standing? Has anything changed since we closed the piece?

No, the prosecutors don’t tell you anything about the process or what to expect or how long it will take. It’s just the opposite. They resolutely refuse to give you any information about that. The State department called me several times. They said I had to find a lawyer. They said, “They’re not dropping the charges against you, for God’s sake get yourself a lawyer.” I didn’t want to because it’s expensive. But I finally hired myself a lawyer in Italy at great expense to try to handle this situation.

And has your lawyer been more successful than you at accessing information about your case?

Well, Italian law does require the authorities to give my lawyer a certain amount of information. However, it’s quite clear that they’re going to give my lawyer the minimum amount of information necessary under the law. The entire investigation is secret. It’s all under seal. Nobody really knows what’s going on. There are leaks to the papers that clearly are coming from the prosecutor’s office, which I think is something that happens in the United States as well—leaks to favorite journalists. And that’s really the only source of information that I’ve got, the papers and the press. I didn’t even know that additional charges had been made against me until I read about them in the Italian papers.

Speaking of charges, now that Spezi has been freed, will anyone be blamed for his arrest?

Let me tell you something kind of interesting. I have a friend in Italy who comes from an ancient and noble family that predates the Medicis. He’s an extraordinary historian, and he really seems to have a tremendous understanding of the Italian system and how things work there.

I called him up right after Spezi was arrested and said, “What does this mean?” He said to me, “They’ve gone too far. They have made a very serious mistake in arresting Spezi. There’s going to be an uproar and what will happen is that the judge who arrested Spezi will not take the fall, but the policeman, Giuttari, is going to take a fall.” He said, “Mark my words, you will find that at some point they will take him down.” And I said, “Who is they?” And he said, “Well, the powers that be. This is an embarrassment to Italy, this arrest of Spezi, and if there is an uproar, believe me they will take him down.”

About a week after Spezi was released, all of a sudden there was news all over Italy that Giuttari was being investigated for falsifying evidence in the Monster case, not connected with Spezi but with something else. Judges in Genova had brought very serious charges against him. I called my friend and he said, “It’s exactly what I predicted, isn’t it? … It’s not a coincidence that this happened right after Spezi was released. Italy was embarrassed.”

So this is all still unfolding as we’re talking?

I’ll give you an example of a recent development. There’s a very important women’s magazine in Italy—it’s like Cosmo. They interviewed me and published the interview with quotes that were made up—incredible quotes! For example, they said that we’ve sold the film rights to the book and that I was demanding that Brad Pitt play me because he was “il più bello dei belli,” the most beautiful of the beautiful men. The article also quoted me: “Brad Pitt, sono io” meaning “Brad Pitt, that’s me!” Sean Penn was going to be the Monster of Florence and Giancarlo Giannini would play Spezi.

I read this article and I thought, “Oh my God.” Because this is such an important magazine and because Italy is Hollywood-crazy, all the newspapers in Italy picked up the story. So then there’s a huge story about a big movie that is going to be made in America with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt … and none of it is true. The magazine ran a picture of me right next to a huge picture of Brad Pitt with a quote saying, “Brad Pitt must play me because he is the most beautiful of the beautiful.” It was sort of a joke because, of course, I don’t look anything like Brad Pitt.

You never know. Maybe the rumors will turn out to be true.

Well, that’s sort of how things work in Hollywood. It’s a game they play. It often happens that someone makes a big noise about a project, the rights are being vied for by several top producers, when in fact none of it’s true. After they’ve gotten everyone excited, then they present the project and hope that someone will take it. But it’s all hype. They hype it ahead of time. The strange thing is that one of Italy’s top filmmakers now has rushed in and wants to buy the rights.

So it worked! Do you imagine that you will try to become less involved in the future? In the piece you quote Spezi’s comment: “No, I’ll not deal with the Monster affair anymore.”

Sometimes it’s impossible not to be involved. There is interest in doing a movie in Italy, and so I think that our involvement is probably not at an end, despite what we might want. Who knows, the article in The Atlantic may sell to Hollywood as well. Dateline NBC wants to do a two-hour program on the whole case, which is very important. It’s a great news program. So, like it or not, we’re going to be involved in the case for a while longer.