Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story of The Monster of Florence.
Four years ago this month, Italian officials reopened a criminal investigation into the “Monster of Florence,” a serial killer who murdered at least sixteen people over a twenty-seven-year span.
On Monday, Studiocanal announced Antonio Banderas will play a journalist in pursuit of the killer in a new six-hour limited series titled The Monster of Florence, based on the best-selling book of the same name by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi. The series will recount the reporting done by Preston, an American, and Spezi, an Italian. Banderas is set to portray the latter.
The Monster of Florence has already been depicted in popular culture for decades. As recently as 2017, the great Paul Sorvino (of Goodfellas fame) played a version of the killer in the second season of Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.
But here’s the question: Is there one Monster of Florence? Or are there many Monsters of Florence? It depends on who you ask.
“More than one-hundred-thousand men have been investigated and more than a dozen arrested, and scores of lives have been ruined by rumor and false accusations,” Preston wrote in The Atlantic in 2006. “There have been suicides, exhumations, poisonings, body parts sent by post, séances in graveyards, lawsuits, and prosecutorial vendettas. The investigation has been like a malignancy, spreading backward in time and outward in space, metastasizing to different cities and swelling into new investigations, with new judges, police, and prosecutors, more suspects, more arrests, and many more lives ruined.”
This is the real true story behind The Monster of Florence and the serial killer sometimes referred to as ” Jack the Ripper’s Italian counterpart.”
The Monster of Florence has spawned many theories and tall tales over the years, but the most notable facet of the case is the modus operandi: the killer always targeted couples, specifically young couples who were often found, according to The Italian Insider, “parked down lovers’ lanes or camping, and they suffered both gunshot and stab wounds, with the female usually found mutilated.” And there was another commonality: the killer used a gun, Preston writes, “[that] had a defective firing pin that left an unmistakable mark on the rim of each shell.”
The murders caused a frenzy in Florence, and Spezi, the journalist who will be portrayed in the upcoming series by Banderas, became a voice of reason, writing fifty-seven articles in one month.
“Florentines have a flair for conspiracy thinking, and the citizenry indulged in wild speculation,” Preston writes. “Spezi’s articles were a counterpoint to the hysteria: understated and ironic in tone, they crushed one rumor after another and gently pointed the reader back to the actual evidence.”
Reporting on the case began to take a mental toll on Spezi. A devout Catholic, he sought the help of a monk named Brother Galileo, who “combined psychoanalysis with mystical Christianity to counsel people recovering from devastating trauma.” According to Preston, Spezi would later “confide to me that Brother Galileo had preserved not only his sanity, but also his life.”
A Killer… or Killers?
Multiple arrests have been made in pursuit of the Monster of Florence, and at least two men have been sent to prison as part of the investigation. However, the belief that there is only one Monster of Florence remains dominant.
In June 1982, authorities received a note about a “forgotten” double murder of a man and a woman in a car in 1968. It said: “Take another look at this crime.” When authorities did, they found that each of the bullets “bore on the rim the unique signature of the Monster’s gun,” writes Preston. Police were shocked because a man named Stefano Mele had already been arrested for — and confessed to — the double homicide, but he had been in prison when the other murders took place. He could not be the Monster of Florence.
Spezi lept into action and secured an interview with Mele. It became clear that Mele was not alone on the night of the murder, and investigators went on “to theorize that one of the killers had enjoyed the experience so much that he had gone on to become the Monster of Florence — using the same gun.” At the end of his interview with Spezi, Mele issued a warning, Preston writes: “‘They need to figure out where that pistol is,’ he said. ‘Otherwise there will be more murders … They will continue to kill … They will continue.’”
The police would go on to arrest several suspects, but the killings continued.
The Wrong Man
Preston notes that Spezi quickly became a star in Italy. He wrote a book about the killings that were adapted into two films. He appeared on television, and his colleagues began to refer to him as their paper’s “Monstrologer.”
In 1993, Italian authorities arrested an old Tuscan farmer named Pietro Pacciani, who, Preston writes, was “an alcoholic brute of a man with thick arms and a short, blunt body who had been convicted of sexually assaulting his daughters.” Spezi, however, did not believe that the man could have committed “the meticulous crimes he had seen.” He began to assemble counter-evidence. Thomas Harris, the author of The Silence of the Lambs, attended the trial, and would later base the novel Hannibal on the Monster of Florence.
Pacciani was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but the investigation did not end there. Preston reports that the prosecutor “did something almost unheard of: he refused to prosecute.” Pacciani was later acquitted in 1996 and died before a retrial in 1998.
In the spring of 2001, Preston and Spezi agreed to collaborate on a book about the Monster of Florence. That summer, the killings once again entered headlines when it was reported that Pacciani had worked at a villa called the “Villa of Horror,” where a cult of devil worshippers supposedly met and hired Pacciani to commit the crimes. Spezi immediately went on television to rebuke the claim, and in doing so he made an enemy of the chief inspector.
Three years later, police investigated a friend of Spezi’s for a murder supposedly linked to “the Monster’s satanic sect.” Later that fall, police obtained a warrant to search Spezi’s apartment, arguing that he had “‘materially damaged the investigation by casting doubt on the accusations through use of the medium of television’ and he had ‘evidenced a peculiar and suspicious interest in … the investigation.’”
A year later, Spezi opened a newspaper to find an article about the search at his home. He became a suspect. “‘When I read that,” Spezi told Preston, ‘it was like a hallucination. I felt I was inside a film of Kafka’s Trial, remade by Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.’”
Preston and Spezi continued to investigate the case, but then Preston too became a suspect. The police had tapped Spezi’s phone and believed that the two were speaking in code about one of the murders. Spezi filed a lawsuit against the police, but two months later, and eleven days before their book’s publication date, the police arrested him.
“For a period of five days Spezi was denied access to his lawyers, kept in a tiny isolation cell under conditions of extreme deprivation, and grilled mercilessly,” Preston writes. “It was noted in the press that Spezi’s treatment was harsher than that of Bernardo Provenzano, the Mafia ‘boss of bosses’ captured in Sicily a few days later.”
Three weeks later, Spezi was released from prison by a judge, and their book topped the best-seller lists. Spezi died in 2016.
Alternate theories to killings have also emerged. According to The Italian Insider, some believe the killings were part of the “Strategy of Tension,” a series of false flag operations in the 1970s and 1980s by right-wing groups in Italy “aimed to shift the blame onto communists to quell communist movements and gain support for their right-wing cause.”
Regardless of what one may believe, the story continues, and the true identity of the Monster of Florence may never be known.
“Any crime novel, to be successful, must contain certain basic elements: there must be a motive; evidence; a trail of clues; and a process of discovery that leads, one way or another, to a conclusion,” Preston wrote in the final paragraphs of his article in The Atlantic. “Only this is not a novel, and there won’t be a confession — and without one, the Monster of Florence will never be found.”