This month marks the 30th anniversary of one of Italy’s most iconic, and mysterious, crimes: on 22 June 1983, a 15-year-old citizen of the Vatican, Emanuela Orlandi, went missing. The case has never been solved and, coming at the endgame of the Cold War and involving the secretive Pontifical state, it has generated plenty of conspiracy theories. There are at least a dozen versions of what might have happened to her, and each possibility seems simultaneously credible and incredible, plausible but somehow far-fetched.

The facts of the case are well-known. Emanuela was the fourth of five children born to Ercole and Maria Orlandi. Her father was, like her grandfather, a ‘commesso’, a clerk in the Vatican. Emanuela had just finished her second year of high school and had left home that evening to go to her music lesson elsewhere in Rome. A keen musician, she played the piano and the flute. She was wearing gym shoes, jeans and a white shirt. She took the number 64 bus to her music school, arriving late. Appearing distracted, she asked to leave the lesson early, at 6.50 p.m. A subsequent phone call to her sister, Federica, revealed that a man had offered her a lot of money to publicise Avon cosmetic products. Federica suggested her younger sister discuss the matter with their parents. As Emanuela’s friends got on their bus home, she was glimpsed talking to a woman with red hair. She was also seen near a green BMW, from which an Avon satchel was visible. But Emanuela didn’t keep her appointment with another sister, Cristina, outside the Tribunale della Cassazione. She was never seen again.

Three days after her disappearance, her family was called by a man who identified himself as ‘Pierluigi’. He claimed that his girlfriend knew a girl who matched Emanuela’s appearance: she was going under the name of ‘Barbara’, was selling cosmetics, wore glasses and played the flute in the Campo dei Fiori. Another man calling himself ‘Mario’ also phoned the family, claiming that a girl called Barbara was selling cosmetics with another woman.

Those phonecalls were just the start of hundreds of crank and cryptic messages that the family would receive over the next three decades. Thanks to a well-intentioned but ill-advised move by John Paul II, the case of Emanuela Orlandi became global news on 3 July 1983. At the conclusion of the Angelus, the Pope made an appeal to the young girl’s kidnappers: ‘I am close to the Orlandi family…’ he began. It was a move that exponentially increased the stakes, and he repeated his appeal another seven times. The world now understood the importance the young girl’s life had for the Pope, and the kidnappers realised their hostage was suddenly very high-profile, and therefore not easy to return to her family.

Two days after that public appeal, a mysterious character called both the Vatican and the Orlandi household. Over the next few days, he would phone the Italian news agency, Ansa, and the Orlandi house and Vatican again, using the code number 158 to identify himself. Nicknamed ‘l’Americano’ because of his allegedly Anglo-Saxon accent, he demanded the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who two years before had shot and wounded the Pope. That, it suddenly appeared, was the purpose of the Orlandi kidnap: she had been taken by the ultra-nationalist Turkish ‘Grey Wolves’ in order to effect a swap with their fellow militant.

The ‘American’ appeared to have proof that he did, indeed, hold the young woman. A photocopy of her registration card for the music school was, after an anonymous tip-off, found in the chapel of Fiumicino airport. On 4 September, a letter from the ‘American’ contained photocopies of sheet music for flute by the composer Luigi Hugues, a piece which Emanuela had been studying.

The ‘American’ was last heard from on 27 October 1983. Long before he fell silent, other organisations were muddying the waters, claiming to hold Orlandi. A group calling itself the Turkish Anti-Christian Liberation Front wrote two identical letters from Frankfurt, addressed to Ansa and a Roman newspaper, Il Messaggero, demanding the release of Agca and his accomplices. That group later made mention of Mirella Gregori, another young girl who had gone missing in Rome in the summer of 1983. The suggestion was that both girls had been kidnapped by the same organisation.

By this time the Orlandi case had become so notorious that it was being used by unscrupulous organisations to publicise their cause, or to send coded messages across the globe. A group called ‘Phoenix’ appeared, as did something called Nomlac (the ‘new Muslim organisation for the anti-Christian battle’), which again demanded the release of Agca.

In recent years, it’s become clear that various secret services were involved in the creation of those messages. The Italian magistrate Ferdinando Imposimato claims to have been informed by Günter Bohnsack, an ex-officer of the Stasi (the East German intelligence agency) that the Turkish group in Frankfurt was fabricated by the Stasi to give the impression that Agca’s attempt on the Pope was the responsibility of anti-Christian fanatics, rather than a Soviet conspiracy hatched in Bulgaria. The fact that Agca publicly declared he didn’t want to be released from his Italian prison certainly suggests that he knew the messages weren’t coming from his paramilitary comrades.

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Phoenix, too, appears to have been a creation of an intelligence agency, this time the Italian Sisde. Their messages were an attempt to clear the waters of all crank callers: ‘Pierluigi’ and ‘Mario’, said one message, ‘made a big mistake in boasting’ of their involvement; Phoenix criticised the ‘Turkish farce’. There were threats about the consequences for anyone else who interfered. Giulio Gangi, a Sisde operative who was close to the Orlandi family, once admitted to Emanuela’s older brother Pietro that Phoenix ‘is us’.

It was Gangi, in fact, who appeared to have made an early breakthrough in the case. Because Emanuela was seen talking to someone with a BMW, he trawled the city looking for the vehicle, and found a mechanic in Piazza Vescovio who had repaired a BMW window that had been broken from the inside, as if there had been a struggle within. The mechanic gave him the name and address of the woman who had brought it in. Gangi went there, to the Residence Mallia apartments in Balduina. An irate woman demanded he stop interfering; on returning to the Sisde office, Gangi was instructed never to disturb the woman again.

Over the years there were other leads. When a reward was offered for information, a woman called Josephine Hofer Spitaler went to the police. It was 4 March 1985. She claimed to have seen Emanuela being taken into the house of her neighbours, Kay Springorum and Francesca di Teuffenbach, in Bolzano in Alto Adige, near the Austrian border. Spitaler claimed that Emanuela was taken away in a Peugeot by Rudolf di Teuffenbach on 19 August 1983. The mention of di Teuffenbach was intriguing, as he was working for the Italian military intelligence agency, Sismi, in Munich. He and the others were cleared of any involvement at a later trial, but the so-called ‘Pista Bolzano’ has fascinated followers of the story; not least because a music teacher from Bolzano, Giovanna Blum, once picked up her phone to hear these words: ‘I’m Emanuela Orlandi. I’m in Bolzano. Call the police.’ It may have been the umpteenth crank call, or a genuine plea for help.

Over the years there have been faint hints that she was still alive. On 26 April 1984 the newspaper Corriere della Sera accompanied a piece about Emanuela with a photograph showing her next to John Paul II. Another young woman, Gabriella Giordani, was visible in the photo. The same morning that the photo was published, the phone rang in the Giordani household. Her mother answered: ‘Tell Gabriella that Emanuela is alive and well,’ said the anonymous caller. The speed at which Gabriella had been identified by the supposed kidnappers suggested to some that Emanuela had identified her friend for them. In the spring of 2009 an Italian woman, Rita del Biondo, came forward to say that her Turkish husband, Salin Sufurler, had seen Emanuela in Morocco. The Italian authorities, although initially energetic in following the lead, came to distrust the informer and the lead was dropped.

Another theory is that she was killed within hours of her disappearance. Pino Nicotri, a journalist with Espresso, has written a book suggesting that she was the victim of a satanic sexual orgy organised by certain priests, who then produced endless messages and clues as a distraction. One anonymous letter claimed to have seen Orlandi already dead on the night of her disappearance in the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare, a church belonging to Opus Dei and which was later to become central to the case. Many, indeed, have suggested that her disappearance was an ‘inside job’ organised by the Vatican: possibly an attempt to force the Pope to embrace ‘Ostpolitik’, meaning a rapprochement with the Soviet block. When in 1998 one of the Vatican’s Swiss guards, Alois Estermann, and his wife were murdered inside the Vatican, that added grist to the conspiracy theorists’ mill; Estermann was allegedly a Stasi spy.

What is certain is that numerous letters and calls regarding the kidnap displayed an intimate knowledge of the Vatican and its personnel. Over the years, it has become clear that the state was less than open in revealing all it knew about the kidnap. A priest who worked at the Central Office for Vatican Vigilance, Raoul Bonarelli, was overheard in a phone tap being urged by his boss to deny knowledge of Vatican investigations into the case. Pietro Orlandi told Spectator Life: ‘The behaviour of the Vatican makes me think that someone has responsibility, directly or indirectly. The Vatican has always tried to forget this story.’ He believes that the real ransom was demanded in secretive negotiations that the Vatican has never made public.

The last, and perhaps most plausible ‘pista’, however, is that of the Banda della Magliana. The Banda was a criminal gang in Rome who were extremely well-connected. Operating from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, they appeared, on occasion, to have links to the Mafia, to masonic lodges, to politicians and the intelligence services. The gang had invested its vast fortunes in the Mafia-linked Banco Ambrosiano, one of whose main shareholders was the Vatican’s IOR, the Istituto per le Opere Religiose. When the bank crashed, the gang lost millions and realised that the Vatican was the weak spot through which it could recoup its losses. Before Emanuela’s disappearance, the Vatican had, indeed, been warned by the French secret service, the Sdece, that it was being targeted by its enemies.

One of Emanuela’s close friends, Raffaela Gugel, who looked rather similar to her, felt she was being followed in the early summer of 1983; her family were sufficiently concerned to disconnect their phone. And a few days before Emanuela was taken, someone inside an Autobianchi A112 car apparently grabbed her and said, ‘Is this the one?’ Emanuela and her friends merely assumed it was the usual case of a couple of Roman men having a laugh.

There are many reasons why the Banda della Magliana link is believable. One of the gang’s leaders was called Enrico De Pedis. His former lover, the escort Sabrina Minardi, claims to have seen Emanuela in the hands of the gang, to have seen her hideout in the following months, and even to have seen De Pedis disposing of her body. Minardi’s reconstruction of events was hazy: a lifetime of drug abuse caused her to confuse dates, but her evidence was substantiated by other witnesses. The traffic warden who had seen Emanuela talking to a man in a BMW worked on a likeness of the man. The resulting sketch was strikingly similar to Enrico De Pedis. A repentant member of the gang, Maurizio Abbatino, once said: ‘I’ve always known that the kidnap of Emanuela Orlandi was our work.’ Amazingly, De Pedis was actually buried in the Basilica of Sant’Appollinare, a very prestigious resting place for a gangster.

What’s clear is that the gang had both the motive and the means to effect the kidnap. The fact that the Vatican’s IOR restored to Banco Ambrosiano creditors $440 million in an agreement in Geneva in May 1984 suggests to some that Orlandi was the bargaining chip in negotiations. Last year, De Pedis’s body was disinterred in the hope there might be clues to the case, but nothing emerged and his family afterwards cremated him.

Then, in April this year, there was another revelation. A man called Marco Fassoni Accetti telephoned an Italian programme which is dedicated to missing persons. He knew, he said, where Emanuela’s flute could be found. He led one of the programme’s reporters to the old headquarters of the De Laurentiis film production company, and revealed a flute wrapped in a paper containing an interview with Emanuela’s father from 1985. Tests are being conducted to determine whether it is, indeed, hers.

Accetti, a Catholic turned communist, has since identified himself as one of the callers to the family; he claims that Emanuela was living in Rome for many months after her kidnap. Accetti maintains that Orlandi’s disappearance was a work of counter-espionage from within the Vatican in order to exert pressure on the Pope. He claims to have made the revelations now because he trusts in the transparency of the new incumbent, Francis I.

Accetti’s lead may prove to be yet another depistaggio, a red herring. But many, like the investigative journalist Fabrizio Peronaci, believe that his story is convincing, and that pro-Soviet Vatican insiders may have temporarily allied themselves with Roman gangsters because of overlapping interests: the one providing intelligence, the other operational abilities.

Pietro Orlandi certainly believes that his sister was taken because she was a citizen of the Vatican. ‘She was a wedge in a system of blackmails, a system that included perhaps bits of the Mafia, the masons, the Vatican…’. The Agca connection, he suggests, was merely a means to give the case maximum visibility in order to obtain a direct line to the centre of the Vatican. ‘You know, it’s not easy to get that kind of line.’

As the 30th anniversary of her disappearance approaches, Emanuela’s face still haunts Italy. Almost every week there’s an article about her in the press, and the photograph used is usually the same: she’s smiling at the camera and wearing a red and yellow headband, the colours of her beloved Roma football team.

It’s likely that we will never know what happened to her. Perhaps the most we can hope to learn is what her disappearance says about those two complicated, sometimes conspiratorial states: the Vatican and Italy itself.

 

Tobias Jones’s Italian crime novel, Death of a Showgirl, has just been published by Faber.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated