Investigators attempting to resolve one of Italy’s most enduring mysteries on Monday opened the tomb of a mobster in a Rome basilica for clues to the disappearance of a Vatican schoolgirl nearly 30 years ago.
Enrico “Renatino” De Pedis, the feared head of Rome’s Magliana gang which terrorized the capital in the 1980s, has been linked to the disappearance in 1983 of Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican employee.
Forensic officials, lawyers and members of the Orlandi family witnessed the exhumation on Monday.
Lawyers said the body found was that of a man who fitted De Pedis’ description.
Medical experts took samples from the remains of Enrico De Pedis and also took boxes of old bones from the nearby ossuary, according to a De Pedis family lawyer, as part of the investigation into whether Emanuela Orlandi may have been buried alongside him.
In a twist worthy of a Dan Brown novel, near the tomb in the Sant’ Apollinare basilica, investigators also found other bones, lawyer Lorenzo Radogna said.
He added that they were likely old bones since the church had been used for burials for centuries.
Orlandi was 15 when she disappeared in 1983 after leaving her family’s Vatican City apartment to go to a music lesson in Rome. Her father was a lay employee of the Holy See.
De Pedis, a member of Rome’s Magliana mob, was killed in 1990. His one-time girlfriend has reportedly told prosecutors that De Pedis kidnapped Orlandi, and an anonymous caller in 2005 told a call-in television show that the answer to Orlandi’s disappearance lay in his tomb.
Amid a new push to resolve the case, the Vatican said last month it had no objections to opening the tomb. On Monday, Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the inspection of the De Pedis tomb was “certainly a positive fact” aimed at carrying out “all possible steps so the investigation could be completed.
“The prosecutors’ office can continue to count on the full collaboration of the church authorities,” Lombardi said in comments to reporters.
Police and forensic experts will be checking the crypt further and examining De Pedis’ body and coffin as well as the other bones to see if they can shed light on the Orlandi disappearance.
In 2005, an anonymous caller to a television talk show said the secret to Orlandi’s kidnap was buried along with De Pedis. A woman who had a relationship with the mobster also claimed that he was involved in the Orlandi disappearance.
The Orlandi family then began legal proceedings to open De Pedis’ tomb to look for clues.
The Vatican’ spokesman issued a lengthy statement rejecting accusations by the Orlandi family that it had not fully cooperated with Italian detectives investigating the disappearance.
The scene Monday outside the Sant’Apollinare basilica was hectic, with television cameras jostling for views inside the chapel and the adjacent courtyard of the Opus Dei-run Pontifical Holy Cross University, where forensic vans came and went.
An overwhelming stench filled the air as medical personnel in white pantsuits and masks mingled with priests in black clerical garb and ducked into a blue tent where samples of De Pedis’ remains were believed to have been brought.
Lorenzo Radogna, a De Pedis family attorney, told reporters outside that investigators had found some 200 containers with bones near De Pedis’ tomb in the ossuary, and that they would be tested in the coming days and weeks. Initially, the ANSA news agency reported the boxes had been discovered in De Pedis’ casket itself but later said they were found in the nearby ossuary.
When De Pedis was gunned down in 1990 by a rival on a Rome street, his family asked if he could be buried in a crypt in the basilica because they feared his grave would be desecrated by gang rivals if he were buried in a public cemetery.
Church officials first said no but later changed their minds after the mobster’s family made a contribution of one billion lire, the equivalent of about 500,000 euros today, according to Italian media reports.
Orlandi’s brother, Pietro, said samples from De Pedis’ body had been taken for further tests and the tomb re-closed. He said the corpse was in relatively good condition, but there was only one body - that of a male - inside the casket.
Pietro Orlandi said the move to exhume the tomb was a step forward in the investigation, and he hoped it showed a new willingness on the part of the Vatican to cooperate fully and show full transparency about what it knows.
“I think it’s something very positive, both from the point of view of the Vatican and the prosecutors,” he told reporters.
There had initially been speculation that Emanuela Orlandi’s kidnapping was linked in some way to an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, which had occurred two years earlier, and the jailing of the gunman, Ali Agca.
In 2008, Italian news reports quoted De Pedis’ ex-girlfriend as telling prosecutors that Orlandi had been kidnapped by the Magliana gang on the orders of Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the late U.S. prelate who had headed the Vatican bank and was linked to a huge Italian banking scandal in the 1980s.
Marcinkus had always asserted his innocence in the scandal and the Vatican at the time of the allegation said the woman’s claims had “extremely doubtful value.”
Dan Brown fans might also be titillated by the fact that the basilica where the crypt was opened is right next door to a university run by Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic group that figured prominently in The Da Vinci Code.
Furthermore, both the basilica and the university are across the street from Piazza Navona, the square where in another Brown novel, Angels and Demons, the assassin tried to drown a cardinal in a fountain.