Net closes on satanic high priest

The monster of Florence who mutilated his victims for ritual Masses may not be the lowly farmhand tried for the multiple killings but a pillar of Tuscan society

The Monster of Florence, the murderer who preyed on courting couples in the Tuscan woods for nearly two decades and mutilated his female victims with a purposeful precision that long had investigators baffled, has returned to haunt Italy — and in a new, even more sinister, guise.

Three years after the presumed killer, a jobbing farm labourer called Pietro Pacciani died in mysterious circumstances, police in Florence have reopened the case “in the light of new evidence.” And the evidence suggests that while Pacciani may indeed have carried out the murders, or some of them, the real masterminds behind the gruesome killings were a group of “high society satanists” who carried out — and perhaps still carry out — “weird rituals that beggar belief” behind the respectable façades of their Tuscan villas, led by a “distinguished doctor” with a “sick and twisted mind”.

The eight double murders, carried out between 1968 and 1985, revealed the dark and seamy underside of the Tuscan countryside. Pacciani was found guilty of six of the eight double murders in 1994. The conviction was overturned on appeal, but he was about to be retried — which is possible under Italian law — when he died, supposedly of a heart attack, in 1998. When I interviewed him shortly before he died, at his squalid, run-down cottage in Mercatale, a workaday village near Florence, he insisted he was innocent. “I am not clever enough to be the Monster,” he kept insisting in his thick Tuscan accent.

The police now agree, and the hunt is on for the “evil mastermind” who ordered the killings. The police say they think they now have “a fair idea” of who decided which parts of the corpses to mutilate, when the jobs were done and who was ready to pay large sums of cash to Pacciani and his accomplices, Mario Vanni and Giancarlo Lotti — together known as the “Peeping Toms” or the “teatime companions” — an ironic reference to their habit of holding macabre drunken picnics in the woods around Florence, often with prostitutes for company. There were intriguing references during Pacciani’s trial, which was assiduously attended by Thomas Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lecter, to “professional figures” involved in the murders, but the trail led nowhere — until now.

The investigating magistrate in the case, Paolo Canessa, has refused to give up, and now says he has identified three suspects, including the doctor, but is not releasing their names until the investigation is complete. A key remark during the trial, little noticed at the time, came from Lotti, who said: “I don’t know what this doctor is called, but I do know that it was he who ordered the ‘jobs’.”

Canessa also refers to a “a mystery woman”, perhaps a member of the doctor’s circle, who beat up Pacciani’s elderly wife in January 1996, knocked her out with sleeping pills and searched the house from top to bottom.

Far from closing the file on the Monster, police have patiently combed through all of Pacciani’s acquaintances, medical prescriptions and clinical records, as well as his bank accounts, which show that he received cash sums totalling £300,000 paid into various accounts over the years.

What has puzzled police all along is why the left breasts and the genitals of the Monster’s female victims were taken after the murders. Whoever wanted these grim trophies, they say, may also have set about eliminating witnesses to cover his tracks, since there were six other mysterious deaths, including that of Pacciani himself. “It wasn’t a violent death like those he inflicted on his victims, but it was a slow and certain death as a result of taking the wrong medication for his diabetic and heart complaints,” Canessa says. “Someone was prescribing medicine that killed rather than cured Pacciani.”

Pacciani’s body was discovered on February 23, 1998, lying face down on the floor of his home. Police now think he was murdered because he “knew too much”. As Michele Giuttari, the head of the Florence detective force, points out, Pacciani observed that some of the murders happened while he was under arrest, so “he was not acting alone; there were others who the mastermind wanted out of the way”.

The trail of victims who knew too much started in in 1981, when Renato Malatesta, Pacciani’s close friend, was found hanging in a stable with his feet still resting firmly on the ground. Pacciani became the lover of Malatesta’s wife, Maria Sperduto. Twelve years later Malatesta’s daughter Milva was found dead with her three-year-old son in a burnt-out Fiat Panda. A few days later another burnt-out car was found containing the body of Milva Malatesta’s lover, Francesco Vinci, another Pacciani acquaintance who for a while was suspected of being the Monster himself.

A year later came the murder of Anna Milva Mettei, a local prostitute who had had an affair with Vinci’s son, whose body was also burnt.

“It can’t be a coincidence,” says one investigator. “We think these people not only knew the killers, but also knew who was acting in the shadows behind them.” Pacciani, he says, may have made the mistake of trying to blackmail “the doctor”, and was “eliminated” ruthlessly as a result.

According to Carmelo Lavorino, Pacciani’s defence lawyer during the trial, Pacciani “suffered from diabetes, had heart problems and high blood pressure, but he wasn’t in any danger. He had stopped taking the medication prescribed by the family doctor, but the last time I saw him he seemed very depressed and quite unlike his usual self. After his totally unexpected death, my first suspicions were on the medications he was taking. They weren’t the usual ones, and the strange thing was that when the body was found the doors and windows of the house were thrown open. The corpse’s trousers were slightly pulled down and his vest rucked up as if he had been pulled along by his feet.”

Lavorino, too, is convinced that there was “a mastermind behind all the deaths, a sort of high priest, whose personality and culture were far superior to those of the teatime companions.

“He created a whole organisation of Peeping Toms, of people studying the most likely spots in which to strike, with other as lookouts. They all took orders from one person who I believe then took part himself in the actual killings and mutilations.”

He and other investigators believe that the female body parts were used in black masses held at night in remote Tuscan farmhouses attended by the teatime companions. In addition to the doctor, police are looking for an artist who until the spring of 1997 lived between San Casciano and Mercatale, and for whom Pacciani worked as a gardener. He vanished days before the trial opened and when his house was searched police found drawings of mutilated women, as well as accurate portraits of the Monster’s victims.

They also found accounts of Pacciani’s trial culled from La Nazione, the local paper. And hidden in a drawer they found the same block of artists’ paper, made in Germany, that Pacciani is known to have stolen from Horst Meyer and Uwe Rusch Sens, two Germans killed in the woods near Galluzo in September 1983, one of whom had long hair and may have been mistaken for a woman by the killers.

In another farmhouse owned by the same painter on the Tuscan border with Emilia-Romagna, police found drawings by Pacciani himself that featured female corpses as well as mythical beasts that were half female, half animal. “We are looking for the painter in Belgium,” a police spokesman says. “We are certain that black masses took place in his properties and we want to know who attended them.”

The last of the monster’s crimes, the killing of a French couple, took place on September 8, 1985, at Scopeti, 15km from Florence. A farmhouse close by that had since 1981 been the meeting place of the teatime companions was owned by a magician who made potions using “pubic hair and vaginal secretions”, and who died of cancer in 1986, not long after the last murder.

“The pattern is becoming clear,” says Canessa. “Our net is closing in. Once we have got the doctor and the artist, we will know who else was involved in this grim business. The real Monster seemed to be two steps ahead of everybody during the original investigations. But now we hope to be two steps ahead of him.”

The real Monster, Giuttari says, was not the “rough peasant” Pacciani but a “cultured man of great professional success, rich, esteemed and powerful, but with psychopathic hidden impulses. It makes you wonder how many Jekylls and Hydes there are in civilised cities like Florence.”