Fernando Pucci recently died at age eighty-six. He was the last of the serial killers collectively known as the “Mostro di Firenze,” the Monster of Florence, or “i compagni di merende,” the “picknicking friends,” as they started to be called during trials after one of the convicted killers, Mario Vanni, described his relationship with the others: “We were just picknicking friends.” This is considered one of the most heinous stories of violence in Italian history, and in the 1997 trial of this bizarre case, it was Pucci who placed the murderers at the scene of some of the crimes, helping to condemn them.
So the curtain falls on a story in some ways still obscure: fifty years after the first crime, the figure of the Monster of Florence, a mysterious serial killer who up until 1985 terrorized the Tuscan hills, killing young couples and mutilating their bodies. Perhaps most familiar to American audiences as the subject of a best-selling book by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, the case has now entered the collective imagination of Italians.
But is the case really closed? And what of the claims of a mysterious satanic cult that some thought was commissioning the acts of violence to the “picknicking friends”? Let’s examine this strange tale from the beginning.
The Monster’s Crimes
Fear of the Monster actually came with time: only after several victims were killed did the idea of an alleged serial killer start to circulate. The first murders connected to the Monster of Florence date back to August 21, 1968, when in a white Giulietta car, in Castelletti Signa, Barbara Locci and her lover, Antonio Lo Bianco, were killed with eight gunshots from a .22 caliber pistol. For this crime, Stefano Mele, a Sardinian shepherd and Locci’s husband, was sentenced with the murder, which was labeled an act of jealousy. Mele had confessed but later retracted the confession.
Six years went by and on September 14, 1974, in Borgo San Lorenzo, Stefania Pettini and her boyfriend Pasquale Gentilcore were killed inside a blue Fiat 127. The boy was murdered by gunshots using the same weapon that had been fired in 1968. The killer didn’t use a gun on the woman but instead stabbed her ninety-six times and violated her with a tree branch.
Seven years passed until the killer returned: between June 6, 1981, and September 8, 1985, six young couples who had gone to the hills around Florence at night were slain. In each case, the boys were killed with .22 caliber bullets fired from the same gun used in 1968. Moreover, almost always the girls’ genitals were excised and in a few cases their left breasts were taken. There is only one exception in the type of victims: on September 9, 1983, two Germans, Friedrich Wilhelm Horst Meyer and Uwe Jens Rusch, were shot. The two young men camped in a minibus, but perhaps the killer was misled by the fact that one of them had long blond hair and mistook him for a woman.
Fear of the Monster and a Mysterious ‘Doctor’
Years of panic and veritable mass hysteria followed. It was not the first time that Italy had known the brutal work of a serial killer, but it was the first time that a story of this kind reached the national spotlight. Much of the fear and attention was driven by the savagery of the crimes and by the fact that the murderer struck young couples in search of secluded intimacy. The location where the crimes took place—the peaceful and idyllic Tuscan countryside—contributed to making these events all the more inconceivable. And finally, the fact that year after year the threat returned, seemingly unstoppable, spread terror.
At the peak of the panic, the City of Florence distributed warning posters: “Watch Out, Kids” said an inscription above a drawing of a big eye, with a series of warnings in five languages. “You could be attacked. It is advised not to stand alone and in isolated places at night outside urban centers.” Among Tuscan families, many parents preferred to leave home in the evening in order to leave it available for a daughter and her boyfriend rather than let them go out by car for romance and risk them not returning.
Rumors fed by sensationalist news reports began to circulate the idea that the Monster could be a professional with a double life: perhaps a gynecologist, who saves lives during the day and at night turns into a murderous Mr. Hyde. The idea of a physician, in particular, appealed to the newspapers: considering what he did, the murderer must be someone who understands anatomy, they claimed, someone who knows how to use a scalpel. In anonymous letters sent by the dozens to investigators, many well-known surgeons were accused. The rumors, completely unfounded, were invariably picked up and shared by the newspapers, with the only result being reputations tainted by the slanderous accusations. The Prosecutor of the Republic, Enzo Fileno Carabba, was forced to issue a statement in which he “denies the validity of the news reports, in relation to rumors circulating in Florence and its surroundings relating the arrest or investigation of people suspected of the crimes in question…. At present no particular person is suspected or apt to be suspected of the murders.”
The obsession that led people to see the Monster everywhere eventually had tragic results. After the murders of 1982 in Calenzano, the police circulated a depiction of a wild-eyed man, seen by some witnesses driving a car away from the murder scene. He is a broad-faced man, balding, with large eyes, which inevitably looks like many people. After the trial it would appear to have a striking resemblance to Pucci himself. At the time, however, the depiction resembled among many others a man named Giuseppe Filippi, the manager of the restaurant Il Cavallino Rosso in Valenzatico near Pistoia. The victim of cruel jokes, Filippi was often called “the Monster.” Indeed, groups of people went to his restaurant just to catch a glimpse of him. On July 3, 1983, tired of the rumors—and the victim of a nervous breakdown—Filippi took his life by cutting his own throat with a knife.
A Complicated Investigation
The investigations pointed in all directions. If for the first crime a “passion” or jealousy motivation was accepted, for the second it was assumed that the killer was a pervert, and a voyeur in the third case. When the world of voyeurs was finally investigated, it turned out that these individuals were well organized and there are so many that they had divided the “interesting” areas in the countryside around Florence. Some places are better than others and so there frequently are exchanges among them: a good position can be worth the report of a “good car,” meaning a car owned by couples who go wild, without too many inhibitions and without worrying about being spied on. Some people are voyeurs of voyeurs, watching and photographing the hidden individuals because they may occupy high social positions and, subsequently, can become prey to blackmail and extortion.
But both the perverts’ and voyeurs’ trails led only into blind alleys on the Monster case. Only with the fourth murders did the investigators realize that the killer was always the same, and thus the varied (and contradictory) motivations previously ascribed to the killer could not all be correct. It was then decided to go back to investigating the first person arrested, Stefano Mele. Mele originally denied the accusations but later confessed and tried to involve other Sardinians, including brothers Francesco and Salvatore Vinci, who were both his wife’s lovers. The various versions of Mele’s story, however, did not hold up to scrutiny and, in the end, Mele was the only one convicted (and sentenced to fourteen years in prison) for the first murder.
The fact that all the crimes were committed using the same weapon used in 1968 led the investigators to identify Mele as a suspect. However, Mele could not be the monster because he was in prison during two of the attacks, in 1974 and 1981. There were other arrests among the Sardinians, but all of them were eventually freed when the Monster struck while the suspects were in custody. In 1989, the investigating judge Mario Rotella dismissed the “Sardinian leads” and acquitted all those suspects of charges related to the first murders.
The police had many difficulties investigating the Monster of Florence crimes, for several reasons including that they were not prepared to deal with serial killer cases and that at the time of the first attacks computers were rare and forensic investigation techniques (such as DNA sequencing) were in their infancy. There was also some lax recordkeeping in the investigations. Many of the shells fired from the Beretta, for example, are now missing, and some important evidence has been lost or improperly analyzed. During the autopsies, nobody thought of keeping tissue samples of the victims, making it impossible to compare it with any human remains that could be found in the possession of the suspects at a later date.
The case had to start again from scratch—almost.
In Part 2, we will see how a tip turned the spotlight on a shady figure that never before had entered the investigation: a farmer from Mercatale Val di Pesa named Pietro Pacciani.