Elisa Claps and the Murder Captivating Italy

The body of a long-missing girl is found holding a fistful of someone else’s hair—just like another corpse a thousand miles away. Barbie Latza Nadeau on Italy's mind-bending murder mystery

Left: Heather Barnett; Right: Elisa Claps (Photos by Rex)

Elisa Claps was a bespectacled 16-year-old with a warm smile and long, brown hair who disappeared without a trace on September 12, 1993.

She was last seen near the Santissima Trinita church in the southern Italian city of Potenza by a young man named Danilo Restivo, who she had arranged to meet behind the altar after morning Mass. Restivo was courting Claps, who, he said, could only stay in the dark apse for 10 minutes because her family was waiting for her to join them on an outing in the Basilicata countryside. Her family waited for nearly an hour before looking for her. By then, she was gone.

The amours completely unaware that they were making love right next to a dead body.

For nearly two decades, the disappearance of Elisa Claps has been one of Italy’s most peculiar unsolved mysteries. Restivo, now 38, remained a prime suspect in the disappearance for years, but because Claps’ corpse was never found, he couldn’t be charged. In the meantime, countless stories about the missing girl emerged. She was allegedly sighted in Albania in 1994, where an Italian television crew followed her trail into the mountains. In 1998, her family received an email, supposedly from her, in which she said she had run away to Brazil and never wanted to return to Italy. That email was eventually traced to a local Internet café in Potenza, and Claps’ brother, through private investigators, said at the time that he could prove Restivo had sent it.

But all of these trails proved to be dead ends, and without a body, there could be no murder charge. In 1999, Restivo moved to Bournemouth in southern England and started dating a woman named Fatima who he met at a local English-language school. The two set up house on a quiet street with Fatima’s adolescent children. Then, in 2002, a seamstress named Heather Barnett, who lived across the street from them, was savagely murdered. Her children, then aged 11 and 14, found her in the bathroom when they returned from school on the afternoon of November 12. Their calls to emergency services, played endlessly on the British news, were chilling. “Mum has been cut up!” they screamed over the phone. Barnett had been strangled, stabbed, and mutilated. Her breasts were cut from her body and placed beside her. And in her right hand was a clump of hair that did not belong to her.

Restivo had been in Barnett’s house to inquire about making curtains six months before her murder, according to a police report filed in a London court. After he left, she reported that her keys were missing. She changed the locks and never heard from him again. During the initial inquiry that included all of her past and potential clients, the British police ran a check on Restivo’s name. They found that he was already a suspect in the disappearance of another woman: Elisa Claps. Restivo was ordered in for questioning and became a suspect in Barnett’s death, but no DNA evidence linked him to the crime. But the British police did notice a strange coincidence that they could never quite square: During the time of Claps’ disappearance a decade earlier, women in the Italian province of Basilicata were filing complaints that chunks of their hair were being cut from their heads on public transportation. Prior to Barnett’s murder, women in Bournemouth were making the same eerie complaint. The stealthy hair-cutter had never been found.

In 2004 and again in 2006, Restivo was arrested in connection with Barnett’s murder. Both times the police failed to make their accusations stick, and he was released without charge. Then, in March of 2010, workers fixing a leak in the roof of the Santissima Trinita church in Potenza made a grim find: a decomposed corpse hidden away under the rafters.

Elisa Claps had never gone to Albania or Brazil. She was right where she’d last been seen 17 years before. An autopsy revealed she had been stabbed 13 times and bludgeoned with a large object. But other than that, she looked exactly the same—the hot climate and humidity had mummified her. Her hair and clothing still perfectly matched the description of what she looked like the last time she was seen alive. Her wire-rimmed glasses lay to one side, her watch was still wrapped around the skeletal remains of her wrist. Her blue leather sandals remained on her feet. Only one thing was different: a clump of her hair had been cut from her head.

DNA results are not yet complete to see if those strands match the hair found in Barnett’s hand. By the time Claps’ body was discovered, police in England and Italy were already working on the theory that Restivo was connected to both crimes. They just needed the type of proof that the discovery of Claps’ body provided. On May 20, British police were able to finally charge Restivo with the murder of Heather Barnett. He will be arraigned on September 24 in Westminster Court. Attilio Iorio, the investigating judge in Salerno, Italy, which has jurisdiction over Potenza, would like to do the same. He is requesting vital DNA testing to be done on Restivo so they can finally charge him with Claps’ murder. So far, the British court has indicated that they need to complete Barnett’s investigation before allowing the Italians access to Restivo. Iorio has filed a request through the European criminal courts to bring him to Potenza for interrogation on Italian soil.

DNA test results this week unearthed an even more moribund discovery. Drops of semen on the mattress found a few meters away from Claps’ body, and on a dishtowel nearby, carry the DNA of two different men. The local police need Restivo’s DNA to see if he is one of them. But the Claps family says that even if he’s not, it doesn’t prove anything—they believe the mattress spots were likely left there from an unrelated incident, a lovers’ tryst that took place in the secluded nook long after Claps’ body was hidden away up there, the amours completely unaware that they were making love right next to a dead body. “The spot below the rafters was nothing more than a squalid alcove,” says Claps’ brother Gildo. “Obviously anything could happen there without anyone saying a word. People were having sex a few meters from the remains of poor Elisa.”

Restivo still denies involvement in either murder and the fact that at least one other man’s DNA is at the crime scene will certainly prove useful in his defense. He has twice been released from custody over the Barnett murder, and his Italian lawyer, Mario Marinelli, says he will contest eventual murder charges in Italy because the initial autopsy on Claps does not show any link to Restivo. “The experts are very precise,” he said. “There are still too many inconsistencies in this story. We need to avoid any blatant miscarriages of justice based on hasty arrest warrants.”

If the hair in Barnett’s hand proves a match to Claps, Restivo will certainly be convicted of that murder. And if Restivo’s DNA is a match to one of the men whose sperm was left on the mattress under the rafters, he is the obvious killer. But if neither match, then there is no proof at all that he is involved in either murder, despite the fact that he is the most obvious culprit. If that is the case, the British and Italian police will have to use circumstantial evidence to prove his involvement. If they can’t, then Restivo could easily be released from jail and the two so-obviously connected murders will remain unsolved mysteries.

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Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.