Behind the Co-Ed Murder Scandal

Mining Amanda Knox’s past, Barbie Latza Nadeau unearths a broken home, disturbing writings, and evidence of a tempestuous relationship with her stepfather.

Stefano Medici / AP Photo

Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini thinks Amanda Knox is guilty. You can tell by the disapproving way he looks at her as he listens to witnesses describe how she performed cartwheels at the police station after her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was murdered.

Mignini believes that Knox wielded the knife that killed Meredith during a kinky sex game after Ivorian Coast native Rudy Guede—already convicted of the crime—“softened her up.” Mignini also contends that Knox’s one-time boyfriend, Rafaelle Sollecito, instigated the orgy, and has suggested that he was inspired by the Halloween-themed Japanese Manga comics found in Sollecito’s bedroom, which have been described as a cross between Satan worship and pornography.

“I have two kids by marriage," Amanda’s stepfather wrote on his MySpace page. “They are both shitheads and I love them anyways.”

Before she became a household name in Italy, Amanda was known to a smaller circle in her hometown of Seattle as “Foxy Knoxy, ” a nickname she reportedly gave herself for her soccer moves, even though most of the media has interpreted it as a sexual persona.

Her online profile has done little to correct the misinterpretation. Since Knox’s arrest 16 months ago, YouTube drunk-girl-at-a-party videos, copies of her MySpace postings, and personal letters she wrote to family and friends have surfaced, painting a picture of a disturbed young woman with family issues. These clues have been dissected and analyzed, almost always with the same outcome: Innocent or guilty, she is a peculiar girl.

Among the most damaging items is a short story she wrote about rape, titled “Baby Brother,” which includes this dialogue :

"A thing you have to know about chicks is that they don't know what they want, ” she wrote.

Kyle winked his eye. "You have to show it to them. Trust me. In any case." He cocked his eyebrows up and one side of his mouth rose into a grin.

"I think we both know hard A is hardly a drug."

Her family claims her innocence, refuting charges that she is a maneater by insisting that she was a tomboy and a late bloomer. Her close friends in Seattle say she was a peaceful, serene girl, incapable of violence. Knox’s college friend and Seattle pal Alexandra McDougall, 22, says Knox’s flat affect both immediately after the crime and now, in the courtroom, is completely normal. “Speaking as a woman raised in America, I can say that her reactions and behavior are characteristic of our culture,” she told The Daily Beast. “American women are encouraged to be strong and independent and find other outlets for our emotions.”

In public, at least, Knox’s emotions are few and far between. She smiles when she sees her family. Her eyes narrow when she is angry about the testimony. Her face turns red when she looks like she might cry. When she gets up to speak, which Italian law gives her the right to do at any moment during the trial, she speaks in a low voice, in studied Italian.

Knox is the product of a broken home. Her parents Edda and Curt divorced when she was two years old. On more than one occasion Edda had to go to court to collect child support from Curt. When Amanda was around 10, her mother met and later married Chris Mellas, an IT specialist ten years her junior.

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He is the polar opposite of her stoic biological father, who just spent several weeks in Perugia as part of the family’s plan to keep one member in Italy throughout the trial. Curt Knox describes his daughter as someone who thinks independently and will not be swayed to “go with the crowd.” “If everyone is admiring a friend’s new shoes and Amanda doesn’t like them, she will just say she doesn’t like them,” he told reporters recently.

But Mellas, who is taking his turn in the family rotation for the next few weeks, is also a father figure. People close to the family say his relationship with Amanda, who is only 14 years younger, was complicated and tenuous at times. She complained about him to several friends and expressed worries about her mother’s relationship. She wrote on Mellas’ MySpace page in August 2007, just two months before the murder, “Alright, does that mean we’re getting along then?”

In turn, Mellas’ MySpace page bragged about getting drunk with his stepdaughter. That same page, now offline but mirrored on several Internet sites, is rife with photos of drunk people vomiting and pictures of Mellas and his buddies holding big fish they’ve caught. Describing himself as happily married, he wrote, “I have two kids by marriage, Amanda and Deanna. They are both shitheads and I love them anyways. They, as we all do, have their fare [sic] share of quirks…but we would all be white bread boring as hell if we didn’t.”

Mellas is hot-tempered and frequently lashes out at the press, accusing anyone who doubts Amanda’s innocence as “insane” and “stupid.” He also posts nasty comments on blogs about the case and has written harsh emails to many reporters. On Friday, he physically shooed away Nick Pisa, an Anglo-Italian reporter who writes for a variety of British publications.

“Don’t even bother,” he snarled in the open courtroom. “I am not talking to you. You don’t understand the truth.”

Mellas believes his stepdaughter is the victim of a botched police investigation. He believes that her confusing statements after Kercher’s body was discovered should not count against her, and that she should be forgiven for pointing the finger at Patrick Lumumba, a Congolese man who was jailed for two weeks before being cleared in Kercher’s murder. (Lumumba is now suing Knox for an undisclosed amount. )

Mellas has coached Amanda on how to act and dress in the courtroom. “I told her to speak up for herself. She is innocent and she needs to show everybody,” he said. “And when someone is up on the stand and they are saying something and they are lying, she needs to stand up and say it.”

Yet Knox’s dress and behavior continue to reinforce rather than refute the testimony about her eccentricities and bizarre behavior. When a police interpreter testified that Knox walked up and down the police station corridors “banging her hands against her head,” Knox vehemently shook her head no.

And despite his advice to Amanda, Mellas has had his own issues with shifting truths. Two weeks ago, he told the West Seattle Herald that what police testimony described as “cartwheels ” at the station had actually been yoga stretches. In a press release by the Friends of Amanda organization, he elaborated, “The tabloid press further sensationalized her statement by changing ‘the splits’ to ‘cartwheels’ and the mainstream press ran with that.”

This week, when asked to clarify that point, he offered a different version of events, saying, “When she was in the room waiting, one of the police commented on how flexible she was,” he said. “He asked her what kind of gymnastics she did and he actually asked her to do those things, to do the cartwheels for him.”

Barbie Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.