Mysterious disappearances happen all of the time. For whatever reasons, some people just suddenly go missing without a trace, leaving behind a wake of confusion as authorities and loved ones try to piece together what has happened. Perhaps one may be inclined to think that these vanishings are purely the realm of dangerous places or remote wildernesses, but on occasion we come across one that happens in the last place one would expect. Such is the case of a series of unexplained disappearances that occurred in one of the world’s most holiest of cities, Vatican City, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church and a place of soaring, ornate cathedrals, chapels, museums, and basilicas; a place that seems to be as far from evil as can be possible. And yet these disappearances would go on to become a baffling unsolved crime that would eventually hint at a dark underbelly lurking beneath the sacred and holy veneer of this seat of one of the world’s most powerful religions.
Officially called Vatican City State, Vatican City is a walled enclave within the city of Rome, Italy, which is recognized as the world’s smallest independent state in terms of both area and population. An ecclesiastical, or sacerdotal-monarchical state, it is the seat of the Pope and along with the Holy See is one of the most important places of the Roman Catholic religion and it's over 1.2 billion adherents around the world. It is also a world renowned tourist attraction, harboring some of the world’s most famous sculptures and paintings within its museums, as well as various world famous cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.
The most well-known of the Vatican City disappearances occurred in 1983, when a 15 year-old second year student of a high school in Rome by the name of Emanuela Orlandi went missing without a trace. Orlandi was a citizen of Vatican City, and the daughter of a lay official in the Vatican, whose job was organizing papal functions. On June 22, 1983, Emanuela was late for a music class at a music school she attended three times a week in Rome. Emanuela’s worried sister reported that she had received a call from the girl explaining that she was late because she had made an appointment to meet with a representative of Avon Cosmetics to talk about a job offer to sell cosmetics. Emanuela then allegedly met with the Avon representative before a music lesson and afterwards told her friend about it, after which she said farewell to the friend and allegedly climbed into a dark green colored BMW at a bus stop. She was never seen again.
When she did not return home from school as expected, Emanuela’s concerned parents contacted authorities but were told that the girl had probably just gone off with friends, as teenagers are wont to do. When the girl had still not come home the following day, her parents called the director of the music school, who informed them that the girl had never shown up for her class and was unable to provide any information on where she might be. Over the following two days, ads were placed in several newspapers begging for any information anyone might have on the girl’s whereabouts, and the family home phone number was listed. This would be where things got a fair bit more bizarre.
The Orlandi family began to receive several strange phone calls from various people with wildly varying accents. The first such call was on June 25, from a male who identified himself as a 16 year-old boy named Pierluigi. The young man told them that he had been with his fiancée at the Piazza Navona when they had met the missing girl. The man claimed that Emanuela had introduced herself as “Barbarella” and had said that she had run away from home after selling Avon cosmetics. The call at first sounded a little too bizarre to be true, but “Pierluigi” knew a lot of details about the girl, stating that she had been carrying her flute and was wearing glasses that she claimed she did not like, which was true. The young man also stated that Emanuela had had her hair cut. Another odd call came on June 28, when a man calling himself "Mario" called the home. He claimed to be the owner of a bar near the music school Emanuela had attended and said that a new customer resembling the missing girl had been to his establishment, introducing herself as “Barbara.” Mario claimed that “Barbara” had told him that she had run away from home but planned to return for her sister's wedding.
By this time, the search for the girl had become desperate. Thousands of posters with Emanuela’s face on them had been put up all over the city and the Pope himself even came forward on many occasions, pleading to those responsible to let her go. It was around this time that the anonymous phone calls started to become at once more frequent and also more menacing. A series of calls to the family said that the girl had been captured by terrorists who intended to exchange her for the release of a man by the name of Mehmet Ali Ağca, a Turkish man who had been detained after attempting to assassinate Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981.
One of the more persistent of these callers was a man with an American accent who came to be known as l’Americano, or “The American.” The American was an eloquent sounding man who suggested that an exchange could be made for Ali Ağca and demanded that the negotiation be approved by the Pope and carried out within 20 days. The American was extremely persuasive, as in one call he produced a recording of a voice that highly resembled Emanuela's and he would offer more evidence of having the girl as well, such as photocopies of her music school ID, sheets of music that she had been studying, and even a handwritten note from the girl. The man also claimed that the previous callers, including “Pierluigi” and “Mario,” were all part of the same terrorist organization and were in on the kidnapping. In total, The American would make 16 phone calls, all traced to public telephone booths. As promising a lead as these sounded, things all fell through when the authorities in charge of handling the kidnapping case denied that there was any evidence to link the abduction and the attempted assassination of the Pope.
On July 8, yet another strange call came, this time from a man with a Middle Eastern accent. In this case, the call was much more ominous than the others, with the man claiming that he had the girl and planned to kill her if demands were not met. The unidentified man demanded the release of Ağca within 20 days or the girl would be killed. The demand was refused and after this the case went cold and has gone unsolved to this day, remaining one of history’s most inexplicable, mysterious disappearances. For years authorities have followed numerous tips, leads, and alleged sightings of the missing girl, all of which have invariably led to nowhere
Various theories have been put forth over the years as to what happened to Emanuela Orlandi, ranging from the somewhat plausible to the truly bizarre, all with varying degrees of evidence to back them up. One is that the girl had actually in fact been kidnapped by a terrorist organization in a bid to free Mehmet Ali Ağca, just as had been claimed by the various mysterious phone calls. The main suspect in this scenario is a Turkish ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist youth organization called the Grey Wolves, to whom Ağca belonged. Ağca himself would go on record as saying as much in a prison interview with an Italian news program. In the interview, Ağca claimed that Emanuela Orlandi had been captured by the group and that she had eventually been moved to a cloistered convent where she remained alive and well, although there was no credible evidence to back up these claims.
Up until recent years Ağca would go on to continue to make such statements. In 2006, he published a letter in which he claimed that both Orlandi and yet another young woman who had also vanished in 1983 by the name of Mirella Gregori had both been abducted by the Grey Wolves to echange for his release and had subsequently been brought to an unspecified “royal palace” in Liechtenstein. Ağca was released from prison in 2010, after which he gave a televised interview in which he made even more bizarre, paranoid claims. In addition to stating that the Vatican itself had hired him to assassinate the Pope, he also said that in fact Orlandi had been kept prisoner by the Vatican and was currently alive and well, living in a Catholic monastery as a nun in a Central European country. None of Ağca’s increasingly bold claims have ever been supported by any strong evidence, and seem perhaps more like the ravings of a madman.
A common sentiment that underlies many of the theories is that the Vatican itself had a hand in the disappearances, or that it at least made efforts to stall the investigation at every turn. One theory is that Orlandi was kidnapped under the orders of Paul Marcinkus, who was an Archbishop at the time and ran the Vatican’s bank, after evidence of criminal activities was uncovered by the girl’s father, Ercole Orlandi. Marcinkus consistently used his standing and connections to avoid answering any questions on the matter and perhaps took the truth with him to his grave when he died in 2006.
The bank connection would get even deeper and more bizarre in 2011, when Antonio Mancini, a member of the Italian organized crime syndicate Banda della Magliana, claimed that the kidnapping of Orlandi had been an attempt by the mafia to get the Vatican to repay large amounts of money that had been borrowed from them. The claims show links to the death of the banker Roberto Calvi, also known as “God's Banker” due to his Vatican connections. Calvi was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London in June 1982, his corpse’s pockets stuffed with cash and precious stones, after what is believed to have been from a falling out with the mafia after a botched money laundering operation.
The mafia connection is perhaps most noticeable in one of the weirdest, yet intriguing leads that has come in the case over the years. In 2005, an anonymous caller to the Italian crime show Who Has Seen? suggested that the secret to solving the case lay in opening the tomb of the infamous gangster Enrico de Pedis, who allegedly had killed the girl as a favor to the vicar general of Rome at the time, Cardinal Ugo Poletti. The mysterious claim was imbued with a bit of renewed credibility when the mobster’s former girlfriend admitted that he had told her he had killed Orlandi. Various anonymous callers would go on to bolster the claims that there was some clue to be found within De Pedis’ tomb.
Enrico De Pedis, also known as Renatino, was known as a rather charismatic gangster who was the leader of a gang called Banda della Magliana, a vicious group known to have had a hand in a lucrative drug trade in Rome, the very same gang that had been plying the Vatican for money, had been linked to the death of the banker Roberto Calvi, and who reportedly had the police in their pocket. The gangster De Pedis was brutally gunned down in an ambush by rival gang members in 1990 in the picturesque cobbled streets of an area known as Campo de' Fiori. After the anonymous calls, it was believed that the mobster’s tomb might actually hold the body of Orlandi, which had never been found.
The tomb of the gangster De Pedis is in itself a bit of an anomaly. Despite his checkered criminal past, the burial was made at the Opus Dei Basilica of Sant’Apollinare, close to Piazza Navona in the centre of Rome, a sacred burial site mostly reserved for only the most senior and prestigious of church officials. The burial of such a notorious and ruthless criminal here was unheard of and a clear violation of cardinal law, and was oddly sanctioned by Poletti himself, reportedly because the criminal had repented for his crimes in prison and had made large donations to the church, as well as actively participated in charity work helping the poor.
Oddly, the Vatican resisted any attempts to open the tomb for seven years, during which time, in 2008, the former girlfriend of De Pedis came forth with the information that the late Archbishop Paul Marcinkus had had a hand in hiring the gangster, which along with the lack of cooperation in opening the tomb bolstered rumors of a church cover-up. Since Poletti had died in 1997, and so was unable to give any say in the matter, no one knew what they would find in the mysterious tomb. Finally, after much pressure from the public and Orlandi’s family, the Vatican finally agreed to open up the tomb to see what clues may lie within. Many expected that Orlandi’s body would be found right there next to that of the gangster De Pedis, or that De Pedis’ body would be absent altogether.
De Pedis was apparently not a subtle or humble man, as his name was emblazoned upon the tomb with an estimated £12,000 of diamonds. When the tomb was finally opened to a breathless public, De Pedis’ corpse was found to indeed be in the tomb, dressed in a dark suit and tie and in rather remarkably good condition. No other bodies were found to be in the tomb. At least, not intact ones. Scattered around the crypt, investigators made the macabre discovery of over 200 boxes of assorted, unidentified human bones. The find was so shocking that authorities went about checking for more hidden vaults before getting down to analyzing the remains. It was found that they all seemed to date back to pre-Napoleonic times, but an in-depth DNA analysis was planned. So far, the results are inconclusive, the promise of an answer elusive, and the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi remains as mysterious as ever.
Perhaps one of the creepiest claims involving Orlandi’s disappearance came in 2012 from one of the Catholic church’s top exorcists, Gabriele Amorth. The exorcist, who claims to have overseen thousands of exorcisms, sensationally said that Emanuella Orlandi was kidnapped in order to be used as a slave in sordid Vatican sex parties, after which she was murdered in cold blood; claims to which the Vatican has been unwilling to answer. The 84 year-old Amorth, who was ordained a priest in 1954, also said that the alleged sex parties also involved members of an unspecified country’s foreign embassy to the Holy See. Amorth said of the incident:
It has already previously been stated by (deceased) monsignor Simeone Duca, an archivist at the Vatican, who was asked to recruit girls for parties with the help of the Vatican gendarmes.
I believe Emanuela ended up in this circle. I have never believed in the international theory (overseas kidnappers). I have motives to believe that this was just a case of sexual exploitation.
In all fairness, the exorcist’s claims should be taken with a grain of salt, as Amorth has made numerous far-out statements over the years. He once stated that the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Russian dictator Josef Stalin were both possessed by the devil and that Pope Pius XII had attempted a long distance exorcism of Hitler. He also proclaimed that the popular series of Harry Potter books were the evil work of the devil.
Despite all of the theories and false leads, some pieces of alleged solid physical evidence as to the fate of Emanuela Orlandi have surfaced over the years. In particular, on the morning of 14 May 2001, a skull was discovered in the Gregory VII Church, near the Vatican. The skull was found in a confessional, and was small, lacking a jawbone, and was packed together with an image of Padre Pio. Tests were launched to see if it might be the skull of Orlandi, but these turned out to be negative. Sightings of Emanuela continue to crop up from time to time, in many disparate locations, but these have led to little conclusive evidence.
For all of the tantalizing promises of answers and false leads, the answers to what became of Emanuela Orlandi, and indeed the other missing teen, Mirella Gregori, who vanished just 40 days prior, have never been found. Their whereabouts remain as much a mystery today as they have ever been. Throughout, the church has allegedly shown relatively little interest in getting to the bottom of the case, and there are those who think that Vatican officials know more than they are telling. One investigator stated:
There are still people alive, and inside the Vatican, who know the truth.
For over four decades, the mystery of the Vatican disappearances has haunted the Orlandi family, and closure has remained elusive. No new evidence, leads, or suspects have been forthcoming and all we have are speculation, wild claims, and unproven theories. What happened to this young girl all of those years ago? Was it simple terrorism, the case of a confused runaway, or are there darker motives that point to sinister workings and machinations deep within one of the world's most powerful religious institutions? To this day, no one knows for sure, and the mysterious Vatican disappearances remain as murky and unsolved today as they have always been.