In the warm months, the lush and rolling countryside surrounding Florence is the perfect spot for lovers to stroll. Basking in warm breezes under starry nights, couples walk along the winding paths and recline in meadows. The area is also a mecca for campers. This year, however, local lovers and lovers of nature are thinking twice before taking their pleasures alfresco. Italians are simultaneously repulsed and riveted by an 18-year string of ghoulish murders around Florence. With the camping season about to start, Italy is anxiously looking toward that city.
The first victims of "the Monster of Florence," as the killer has become known, were an adulterous wife and her lover. On Aug. 21, 1968, they were shot to death as they lay in the front seat of a car parked in the countryside. In the back seat, the woman's six-year-old son slept undisturbed through the slaughter. The victim's husband was convicted of the murders and sent to prison. The man was innocent, as became clear six years later, when the Monster struck again, killing another couple in similar fashion. Ballistic tests showed that the murder of the second couple was committed with the same .22-cal. Beretta automatic pistol. In both instances, the killer used distinctive copper-jacketed Winchester bullets produced in Australia in the 1950s.
There was another hiatus in the killings until 1981, when two couples were shot, again with the same Beretta that was used on the previous victims. Each year since then, the Monster of Florence has murdered one couple parked or camped within a 19-mile radius of Florence. The pattern was broken only once. In 1983 two young West German men lying in a camper were shot to death with the trademark bullets. Police believe that the killer mistook one of the youths, who had long blond hair, for a woman.
The murders bear a chilling similarity. All have occurred on moonless nights between 10 o'clock and midnight. In each case, police think, the man was killed first. The woman was then shot and, with the exception of the 1968 attack, sexually mutilated. Police tests indicate that the attacker wore rubber surgical gloves during the crimes.
Police admit they are stymied. Says Francesco Fleury, the district attorney in charge of the investigation: "The man could be your respectable next-door neighbor, a man beyond any suspicion." The authorities thought they had a lead last year. On Sept. 8, two French tourists camped in a tent became the latest victims. The woman's body was slashed 100 times, and one of her breasts was cut off with a sharp instrument. One day later police received an envelope addressed with letters cut from a newspaper. Its grotesque contents: part of the woman's genitalia. On the morning the bodies were discovered, a copper-jacketed Winchester bullet was found in front of a hospital near the murder site. The proximity of the bullet, and the possibility that surgical gloves and a scalpel were used in the killing, led police to question the hospital staff. No one was charged, though.