A few weeks ago, bestselling thriller writer Douglas Preston went to Italy on vacation with his family. The trip served an additional purpose, as he was also visiting Mario Spezi, a former crime beat reporter with La Nazione who was collaborating with Preston on a book on The Monster of Florence -- the serial killer who terrorized the city between 1968 and 1985 and who has never been conclusively identified despite trials vaguely approximating a circus-like atmosphere and theories that involve satanic cults and deeply embedded conspiracies. The case not only attracted Thomas Harris to the 1992 trial of Pietro Pacciani -- who was later let go because of a dearth of evidence -- but also Magdalen Nabb, who wrote a fictionalized account placing her series character, Marshal Guarnaccia, at the forefront of a reopened investigation.
I bring all this up because Preston and Spezi's collaboration ultimately led to Preston being detained last month by Italian police on suspicion of aiding and abetting a murder, and to Spezi's reputation and career being put in serious danger. The crux of the problem is Spezi's belief that the case -- the most expensive in Italy's history -- has been phenomenally bungled, which he's said so publicly, on national television and in print.
Though I've only done cursory reading, considering there's some superficial resemblance between Il Mostro's MO and that of the Zodiac, the suggestions that the crimes were committed by "a group of killers hired by an ancient Satanic sect dating back to the Middle Ages, with a membership consisting of decadent Florentine noblemen, doctors, professors, and high officials, needed female sex organs as offerings for the Devil in black masses," as Preston put it in an email to me yesterday afternoon, is rather ridiculous.
And unfortunately, Italian police and government has a history of treating journalists and politicos in appalling fashion -- just ask Massimo Carlotto.
Preston's full statement, which has made the rounds of other blogs, appears after the jump.
For the past five years, I have been working with an Italian journalist, Mario Spezi, on a book about the case of a serial killer known as the Monster of Florence, who murdered fourteen people in the hills of Florence from 1974 to 1985. The Monster has never been caught and the case is still open. It has become the longest-running and most expensive criminal investigation in modern Italian history. Our book, which will be published in Italian in Italy in April and later in America in English, faults the investigation and specifically criticizes the chief Examining Magistrate of Perugia, Giuliano Mignini, and the chief prosecutor, Michele Giuttari, who are in charge of one branch of the investigation.
I went to Italy on Feb. 14 with my family on vacation and to do some work with Spezi on the book. I was taken into custody by the police on Feb. 22. I was brought before Giuliano Mignini. There I was aggressively interrogated for three hours by him and three police detectives. I was asked about my relationship with Spezi and questioned in great detail about our journalistic activities, our theories, thoughts, and beliefs in the case. When I explained that my activities as an investigative journalist were privileged, Mignini shouted that this wasn't about freedom of the press, but was about a criminal matter of the "utmost seriousness," and that if I didn't answer the questions fully I would be arrested and charged with perjury. I was forced to answer the questions under the threat of arrest -- which I did.
Mignini then proceeded to play back telephone conversations I had had with Spezi, which they had wiretapped.He played the same passages again and again, demanding to know what we were "really" talking about, demanding that I explain the "real meaning" behind every casual word we had exchanged. They had also recorded conversations we had had in Spezi's car, which had been broken into and bugged--Spezi found the bug yesterday. When I asked if I was being accused of a crime, Mignini said he believed I had committed not one but several serious felonies--to whit: planting evidence to frame an innocent man, obstruction of justice, and being an accessory to murder -- all utterly false accusations.
Despite answering their questions fully and truthfully, in the end they charged me with "reticenza" and "false testimonianze" -- two serious crimes of perjury -- but said the charges wold be suspended to allow me to leave Italy, to be reinstated later. In other words, it seems their goal was to get me out of Italy -- never to return.
The timing of this is not surprising. Our book will be published on April 19. The police had earlier obtained a draft of the book which they had seized in a search of Spezi's apartment, and so Mignini and Giuttari know well what we have written about him. This was a naked attempt to use the power of the state to intimidate and silence two journalists, and it may be a prelude to a legal action in Italyto block publication of the book.
After the interrogation, the police raided Spezi's apartment (for a third time--he'd been raided twice before) and took away many documents. They also broke into Spezi's car and planted a microphone, which he later found. Following that, the police apparently leaked details of their investigation to the press, and articles in Corriere della Sera, La Nazione, and Il Giornale, about my interrogation and the search and seizure of Spezi's papers. The police also leaked out the information that Spezi was suspected of involvement in several murders and that he may be connected to the Satanic sect which the police believe was behind the Monster of Florence serial killings.
We desperately need to publicize this attack on journalistic freedom. I'm back in America and safe, but Spezi is at grave risk. His financial health, his career, and his very freedom, are at risk. Yesterday he wrote to me: Io sono molto depresso, per avere fatto il nostro dovere, mi ritrovo in questa situazione. "It is very depressing that, for having done my duty as a journalist, I find myself in this situation."
Please -- something must be done as soon as possible. Anyone wishing more information about the case may contact me at dpreston AT tidewater DOT net.
Some background on myself -- I'm a journalist who writes for the New Yorker magazine, and I've published fourteen books and won numerous awards. I'm on the board of the Author's Guild. I mention these details only to establish my credentials. In my entire journalistic career I have not experienced the kind of abuse of prosecutorial power as I witnessed in Italy.