The decade's most triggering comedy
It was a scorching 98 degrees in Rome, Italy, on the afternoon of June 22, 1983. Emanuela Orlandi, 15, the fourth of five children who lived with their parents in Vatican City, asked her older brother Pietro for a ride to her afternoon flute lesson, complaining of the heat.
Pietro, being a 20-year-old at the time, refused to drive her, so she walked alone to her music school, situated outside of the Vatican City walls in the heart of Rome.
That decision, he would tell the Guardian decades later, has haunted him his entire life.
“It’s a very painful memory – she insisted I take her, and we rowed over it,” he said. “Then she left, slamming the door. I never thought it would be the last time I saw her. I’ve gone over it so many times, telling myself if only I had accompanied her, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
Before she arrived at the school, Emanuela called her older sister Federica to say that a man from Avon Products had approached her and offered her a job handing out flyers for a fashion show. Emanuela told her sister that she would meet with the man again after her music lesson and let him know whether she would take the job.
Federica warned her sister not to take the job, believing it was a scam since the pay was way too high for just a couple of hours of work. She suggested they discuss the proposal with their parents first.
After her music lesson, Emanuela told two of her classmates about the job offer and then waited at a bus stop with another girl, who has never been identified.
When Emanuela didn’t return home for hours, her family began to worry and started looking for her along the route from the Vatican to her music school. They called the director of the music school and asked if anyone knew anything about Emanuela, but received no information. Her father went to the police to report her missing, but police officers were initially dismissive, believing she was simply with friends or had run away.
Emanuela’s family pleaded with police to believe them that Emanuela would never pull such a stunt, and the next day, she was officially reported missing. Newspapers published small notices of her disappearance within the next few days.
Several people told police that they saw a girl fitting Emanuela’s description speaking to a man holding an Avon cosmetic bag on the day she disappeared, but two police officers who witnessed the girl couldn’t agree on when they saw her. One said it happened after the music lesson, while the other said it happened before. Both said the man was driving a dark green BMW. The car reportedly belonged to a woman, but the lead was never followed.
The Orlandi family would receive dozens of phone calls about Emanuela’s disappearance after they posted their phone number in the paper. Among these calls were three highly disturbing claims. The first came from a man who identified himself as Pierluigi, who said he and his fiancée spoke to Emanuela on the day of her disappearance. He described her appearance, claiming she introduced herself as “Barbarella,” had run away from home, and was selling Avon cosmetics.
Authorities told the family to begin recording these phone calls, and on June 28, 1983, they recorded a man claiming to be Mario. Mario told the family that a girl about Emanuela’s age came into his bar and identified herself as Barbara and said she had run away from home. He said the girl claimed she would return home for her sister’s wedding.
On July 3, Pope John Paul II mentioned Emanuela in his weekly remarks at the Vatican, imploring Emanuela’s kidnappers to return her safely. It was seen by many as an official claim that Emanuela was kidnapped and led some to believe the Vatican knew what happened. Though many suspect the pope was merely assuming the girl had been kidnapped.
Two days after the pope’s remarks, a man with an American accent began calling the Orlandi family. He claimed to be part of a terrorist organization that was holding Emanuela in exchange for the release of Mehmet Ali Ağca, who attempted to assassinate the pope two years earlier.
This caller, who would be referred to as “the American,” claimed Pierluigi and Mario were part of the organization.
To this day, investigators do not know the identities of these men.
For the next four decades, numerous people would come forward and claim to have knowledge of Emanuela’s kidnapping.
On July 6, the American repeated his demand to release Ağca in the newspaper and asked that the prisoner be released within 20 days. He said that a wastebasket near the Italian Parliament contained proof that Emanuela had been kidnapped. Authorities found photocopies of Emanuela’s music school ID card, a receipt for her tuition, and a note allegedly written by Emanuela, though its authenticity has always been in question.
The news agency ANSA was contacted by a Turkish organization calling itself the Anti-Christian Turkesh Liberation Front, or “Turkesh” for short, which claimed responsibility for Emanuela’s abduction, though it didn’t provide physical proof that Emanuela was in their hands. The group also claimed to be responsible for the disappearance of Mirella Gregori, who had disappeared in Rome 40 days before Emanuela. Italian authorities could never verify the existence of Turkesh.
Ağca himself claimed that he had been trained by the KGB to kill the pope and that Emanuela had been kidnapped by Bulgarians referring to themselves as the Grey Wolves.
In 2005, more than 20 years after Emanuela disappeared, an anonymous caller told the Italian television program “Chi l’ha visto?” that the disappearance would be solved by discovering who was buried in the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare crypt. The body there turned out to be that of notorious crime boss Enrico De Pedis, and thus a theory developed that Emanuela, a girl from the Vatican, was abducted by the mafia in order to force the Vatican to pay back the money the gang had given it.
De Pedis’ ex-girlfriend, Sabrina Minardi, came forward a year later to say she had personally witnessed Emanuela’s treatment while she was allegedly being held by De Pedis’ gang, Banda della Magliana. Her story, however, has often been contradictory, in which she regularly has changed the location where Emanuela was being held.
Another theory involved claims that Emanuela had been involved in regular meetings within the Vatican and had accidentally died on the day she disappeared, with the Vatican covering it up. One of Emanuela’s old friends had suggested that Emanuela had told her that a high-ranking Vatican official had been “bothering” her – while implying sexual advances – and that Emanuela disappeared to cover up a sex scandal. Other theories also include pedophilia within the church or a member of the Vatican police recruiting young girls for sex parties. These theories contend that De Pedis, the mob boss, was asked by the Vatican to kidnap or kill Emanuela as part of the cover-up.
In 2017, Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi was given documents stolen during the 2014 Vatican leaks. This document, which has never been authenticated, claimed that the Vatican spent 483 million lire (about $277,000 dollars) supporting Emanuela up until 1997. The document listed expenses for her education and medical care and suggested she had been living in London until she died.
Investigators doubt many of these fanciful claims, suggesting it is more likely that Emanuela simply ran away (her family does not agree) or left with someone she knew. Among the rationale is that Emanuela would have to have been kidnapped on a busy street in Rome during the daytime without anyone noticing or hearing her scream.
The most recent theory, which has been vehemently denied by the Orlandi family, is that a now-deceased uncle of Emanuela’s was responsible. Documents provided by the Vatican to Rome authorities stated that Mario Meneguzzi, Emanuela’s uncle, had sexually harassed her older sister Natalina around the time Emanuela disappeared and that he may have been responsible for the teen’s disappearance.
“By the way, my uncle was 200 kilometers (124 miles) away on holiday with his family that evening when my father phoned him and he came straight away to Rome – things the Prosecutor’s Office knew very well because everything has been in the documents for 40 years. A shameful action that happened this evening,” Pietro Orlandi, Emanuela’s brother, posted on Facebook after learning the latest theory.
It has been 40 years since Emanuela disappeared on a hot summer day in Rome. Her body has never been found, and no one has been held responsible for her disappearance.