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 in 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 an unexplained disappearance 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 one vanishing here would go on to become a baffling unsolved crime that would eventually hint at a dark, sinister underbelly lurking beneath the sacred and holy veneer of this seat of one of the world’s most powerful religions.
By all appearances 15-year-old Emanuela Orlandi was a perfectly normal teenager. The secondary school student lived in Vatican City, the daughter of a worker at the Institute for the Works of Religion, and she had a fairly good life, with her family having free run of the Vatican gardens. She also did many of the normal things teenagers do, and one of these was taking flute lessons, regularly traveling by bus to her music school in the Piazza di Sant'Apollinare three times a week. On June 22, 1983, she left for her usual lesson, and on this day she asked her brother to drive her but he couldn’t so she took the bus as usual. At the time there was nothing out of the ordinary about this at all, so when she left in good spirits there was no reason at all to suspect that she was about to become the center of a perplexing unsolved mystery that would span decades and involve talk of international terrorism, Italian organized crime, and conspiracies in the dark shadows of the Vatican.
On that day Emanuela was late for class, which was odd since she was always on time, if not early. She never did show up for the class on this day, and when she did not return home her family became worried. As they wondered what had happened to her they received a call from Emanuela, who explained that she was late because she had gotten a job offer from Avon, a multinational cosmetics, skin care, fragrance and personal care company. A friend of hers would confirm that Emanuela had told her the same thing, and that she had dropped her off at a bus stop in the company of another girl. Apparently she would be seen getting into a large, dark-colored BMW before then seeming to vanish off the face of the earth.
At first the police just assumed that she had gone off with some friends, but when Emanuela never did return home she was listed as missing and there were announcements of the disappearance published in newspapers with the telephone number of the Orlandi house listed. This would turn up a tip two days later, when a person claiming to be a 16-year old boy calling himself “Pierluigi” told them that he had met the missing girl in Piazza Navona that afternoon, and that she had introduced herself as “Barbarella.” He also claimed that she had told him and his fiancée that she was running away from home, and that she had gotten a job at Avon. It was certainly an intriguing tip, but authorities had no way of knowing who Pierluigi was or whether he was telling the truth, and the tip led nowhere. Another mysterious call came in on the 28th from a man calling himself “Mario,” who said that a woman fitting Emanuela’ s description had come into his bar introducing herself as “Barbara,” and that she had said she was running away from home. Again, this led nowhere.
In the meantime, there was a massive campaign of putting up missing person posters all over the country, and it was starting to look more and more like she had possibly been kidnapped. Pope John Paul II even personally appealed to any possible kidnappers to return her safely. It was at around this time that a series of even more sinister phone calls were made. One was from people claiming that they represented a terrorist group and had taken Emanuela, and they were willing to exchange her for the release of a prisoner named Mehmet Ali Ağca, who had been arrested for shooting the Pope in 1981. Another was a caller who had an American accent and who was dubbed “The American,” who also was able to provide a recording of what seemed to be Emanuala’s voice. The American called several times, in one call also demanding the release of Ağca, and he also mentioned the "Mario" and "Pierluigi" of the earlier telephone calls, telling police they were all part of the same organization, although it was never made clear just what organization this was. This was followed shortly after by a call from another man with an American accent who said that proof of life would be deposited in a basket in the public square near the Parliament, and that authorities had 20 days to comply.
Other mysterious calls continued to come in as well. One was from man with a Middle Eastern accent who also demanded that authorities had only 20 days to make the exchange, and the man also asked for a direct telephone line with a Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican secretary of state at the time. When the line was set up as requested, the calls from The American resumed, and on July 17th there was a cassette tape that was handed over by the kidnappers that held the voice of what sounded like a girl being tortured, but there was no way to tell if it was really the voice of Emanuela and there still had been no absolute proof that she was still alive. Ağca would also claim in a 1985 prison interview that Emanuela had indeed been taken in exchange for his freedom, although he offered no concrete proof. In the end, no exchange was made, communications with The American ceased, and Emanuela’s fate remained unknown.
The case would go completely cold for decades, with plenty of leads and tips, but none that actually led anywhere, although there were occasionally some that seemed promising at the time. The case was thought to have been cracked when a human skull was found in 2001 in a bag with an image of Padre Pio in a confessional, but it was ultimately not thought to be Orlandi’s. In 2005 an anonymous caller to the Italian television program Chi l'ha visto? claimed that a grave in the crypt of the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Rome held the key to solving the case. Police checked the tomb in question out, and found it to contain the body of Enrico De Pedis, who was the leader of the Roman gang Banda della Magliana before his death in 1990. It was a fairly bizarre discovery to find this notorious mobster interred in a place normally reserved for high-ranking religious figures such as cardinals, and the same anonymous caller suggested they investigate "the favor that De Pedis did for Cardinal Poletti", with Poletti being the president of the Episcopal Conference of Italy and Cardinal Vicar of the Diocese of Rome at the time, implying that this was the reason for his burial at Sant'Apollinare, and that there may have been some mob connection to Emanuela’s disappearance. It would later be confirmed that Poletti had indeed approved the burial, but it was never clear exactly why, and there could be no evidence that connected this with the missing woman.
The mafia theories would be further fueled the following year, when a former Banda della Magliana gangster by the name of Antonio Mancini claimed that he recognized the voice of the mysterious caller “Mario,” and who he said was one of De Pedis’ men. This would be confirmed by De Pedis’ girlfriend, Sabrina Minardi, and it would be claimed that indeed De Pedis had kidnapped Emanuela, with Minardi even detailing how the girl had been drugged and imprisoned in her own apartment, and she went on to admit that the kidnapping had been on the orders of Archbishop Paul Marcinkus. She also explained how they had shuffled a drugged and dazed Emanuela off to the Vatican itself, where she had been collected by a man in priest clothing. This would be further pulled into intrigue when Mancini claimed that the kidnapping represented just one attack against the Vatican in order to force the restitution of large amounts of money they had lent to the Vatican Bank as part of various money laundering operations, that there were those in the Vatican in on it, and that the kidnapping of a Vatican employee’s daughter had been seen as a way to pressure them to pay up. Although none of this could ever be confirmed, talk of Vatican approved kidnappings and dark ties between the Vatican and the Mafia were making headlines all over the place. However, Orlandi’s disappearance was still far from solved and there was no word on what had happened to the girl herself.
An even darker theory started making the rounds as well, when in 2012 85-year-old Catholic exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth claimed that Orlandi had been kidnapped by a member of the Vatican police for insidious sex parties. He would also claim that she had eventually been murdered, and that officials from other countries’ embassies had been involved as well. At the time this was a shocking revelation, but there was no evidence to back it up and the Vatican of course vehemently denied it. However, years later when the case was covered for the 2022 Netflix documentary Vatican Girl: The Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, there would be testimony from one of Orlandi's best friends, who claimed that she had complained about being harrassed and molested by "someone close to the Pope" shortly before her vanishing. That same year Italian journalist Alessandro Ambrosini would publish a recording from 2009 of Marcello Neroni, a man affiliated with De Pedis and Banda della Magliana, who on the recording states that the kidnapping had been on the request of someone inside the Vatican to cover up a sex scandal.
An odd occurrence happened in 2013, when a few days after his election, Pope Francis met the Orlandi family after a mass and told them that "Emanuela is in heaven." Why would he say this? Does it imply that the girl’s death was known by the Vatican and that they knew what had happened to her? In 2017 there was evidence to this effect, when Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi claimed to have come into possession of alleged secret Vatican documents that he said had been stolen from the Vatican in 2014 in the major Vatican leaks scandal. One of these documents, signed March 28, 1997, was apparently written by a cardinal, and listed expenses for Emanuela’s accommodations in London between 1983 and 1997, including school fees at religious institutions, bills for St Mary's Hospital, London, and others. This showed that Emanuela could have lived in London under the Vatican protection for years, and the last bill is dated 1997 and says "Transfer to Vatican City with relative settlement of final practices", which seems to imply the eventual death of Orlandi and the transfer of the body back to the Vatican. The Vatican has strongly denied the authenticity of the documents. What was going on here?
The following year the case took a mysterious turn when an anonymous tip came to authorities that suggested that Emanuela’s remains were buried in the Teutonic Cemetery in Vatican City in the tomb of a 19th century Princess Sophie of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Bartenstein, but strangely when the tomb was opened it proved to be completely empty. Weirdly, the adjacent tomb, which was meant to contain the remains of 19th century Duchess Charlotte Frederica of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was also found to be empty, with no sign of any human remains at all, let alone those of the missing girl, making it a bit of a mystery unto itself. Where did the bodies go? No one knows. In a macabre twist, investigators did find two underground cavities at the Teutonic College filled with thousands of assorted bones - enough to fill 24 bags. The remains were never identified.
Making the whole case even murkier is that there have long been dropped balls by the police investigation, the Vatican itself has been elusive on the whole matter, and there have been some sinister clues that point to evidence that is being suppressed. A former agent of the Italian law enforcement agency the Divisione Investigazioni Generali e Operazioni Special (The General Investigations and Special Operations Division), Antonio Asciore, has claimed that the recording that had been received of a woman apparently wailing in pain and being tortured had been altered before being released, saying that it had originally held the voices of men on it and the original copy had also been longer, suggesting that it had been edited and manipulated. The Vatican has never been cooperative on the case, despite vowing to cooperate with the investigation, often refusing to make statement or respond to inquiries and always maintaining strict silence about the matter, denying any accusation of involvement. Indeed, it would not be until 2023 that the Vatican would finally launch its own internal investigation into the matter at the behest of Pope Francisafter after decades of pressure from the public and the Orlandi family. Why would it take them so long to open an investigation and why now? The Orlandi family, who have long maintained that the Vatican is withholding vital information, are skeptical that this is little more than a publicity stunt and propaganda, and doubt that the investigation will turn up the answers they seek. Emanuela’s brother Pietro Orlandi has said:
The only thing I’m sure of is that in the Vatican, they know the truth. They know what happened that day and now I’m asking them to speak that truth because it is about time they did. Too many years have gone by. To me, she is not dead and I will not quit looking for her until the remains are found. It is a duty to continue looking for her.
For over four decades, the mystery of the Vatican disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi 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 vanishing remains as murky and unsolved today as it has always been.