Tattooed Leg Washes Up on the Banks of Rome’s Tiber River

The macabre discovery tops a summer of murder and mayhem in Italy.

08.17.15 4:22 PM ET

ROME — It has been a long, hot summer in Italy—the kind that makes the discovery of a severed leg in a lukewarm river all the more putrid. The leg in question was a left one, cut off above the knee with what appears to be an electric saw and easily identifiable by the many tattoos adorning it, including one that said, perhaps aptly, “It’s a good day to die.”

The floating appendage belonged to 36-year-old Gabriele di Ponto, known to authorities thanks to a long rap sheet that includes a spate of “serial pharmacy robberies” and a number of drug busts. He cut his criminal teeth holding up a shopping mall when he was just 18 while wearing a black-and-white Pucinella clown mask. His severed leg was positively identified by his parents in a Roman morgue. His character was also identified by his father-in-law, who called him, “a very, very bad man.”

Di Ponto’s macabre assumed homicide, which will not be fully understood until the rest of his body—whether intact or cut up—is found, marks a string of bizarre mishaps and murders in Italy this summer. Among them are two incidents of 20-somethings dying after taking poisoned Ecstasy tablets, and one case of a young man being killed at an outdoor discotheque by a fragment of falling rock that seemed to plummet to the ground out of nowhere, according to witnesses.  

Two people also recently died from Creutzfeldt-Jacob, a neurological disorder previously linked to Mad Cow disease, and 10 others died when their fireworks factory exploded after someone lit a cigarette. 

Last weekend a conical “trullo” house in Puglia was bizarrely struck by lightning, injuring 14, including one woman who is still in a coma. And a middle-aged couple who ran an all-night takeout pizza joint in the northern city of Brescia were shot at point-blank range in broad daylight, allegedly by one of their cooks who had bought a competing pizza parlor but who apparently didn’t have the, uh, dough to pay for it. 

July also marked the hottest month ever on record in the country, with soaring temperatures and hundreds of heat-related deaths—including 140 retirees who perished in the northern Piedmont region alone. And it has been the deadliest summer at sea, with more than 2,000 migrants and refugees dying between Libya and Italy on unseaworthy boats. Most recently, that included 49 people who suffocated on gas fumes in the hull of a smugglers’ ship.

Di Ponto’s murder, at least, seems the most likely to be explained away—if that’s ever possible for death. He was a violent man known for torturing his robbery victims, according to local media reporting on his assumed murder. He was also a well-known far-right football hooligan who was no stranger to local authorities. He lived in one of Rome’s roughest periphery neighborhoods, where the news of his presumed death was marked with black flags of solidarity. One of the tattoos on his floating leg had a picture of “Mister Enrich,” a 1970s British cartoon character that Sky News Italy says is the symbol of the most extreme soccer hooligans known as the Mister Enrich Legion.

According to local reports, Di Ponto had escaped other close calls. He apparently walked with a limp after being wounded in a gunfight, during which he also wielded a weapon. His last post on his Facebook profile, which is filled with sayings like, “Better to be silent in a jail cell than without honor,” and ample photos of his skull, spiderweb and weapons tattoos, was on July 24, presumably the day he disappeared.  His leg was found nearly three weeks later. His former wife, who says she left him just one month after discovering that, to him, marital bliss meant daily beatings, described him as diabolical. “I wouldn’t wish death on anyone,” his wife’s father told Il Messaggero newspaper. “But he was not a good man and someone gave him what he deserved. He was a bad man.”

For the rest, it seems, this summer was just a matter of bad luck.