Ick Factor

Headless Torso Found in Venice Lagoon

Barbie Latza Nadeau on the morbid case that has authorities stumped.

Marco Secchi/Getty

Anything goes at the Venice Biennale, so when the skipper of a private tourist boat saw what looked like a mangled mannequin bobbing in the murky waters of the Giudecca canal late last week, he naturally assumed it was part of a moribund art exhibit gone astray. It wasn't until he got closer that he discovered it was the skeletal remains of a human being.

All that was left of the corpse was a headless, armless torso with one leg, still wearing a stiletto-heeled boot. “The arms were still in their sockets but the bones had been broken almost like they were sliced with a knife,” he told a local television station. “There was no head, and a few shreds of clothing clung to the bones of the ribcage.”

The captain used an oar to keep the body from floating away while he waited for the Venice lagoon aqua-police, who fished the body out of the sea as gondolas, vaporetti and water taxis navigated around the scene. There was not enough flesh left on the bones to identify the gender of the corpse by sight, but police on the scene said the boot seemed like something a woman would wear.

Over the weekend, initial autopsy reports backed up that theory and suggested the victim was a Chinese woman between 25 and 35 years of age. She was a tiny woman, based on the size of her ribcage, leg and remaining foot – her stiletto boot was just a size four – and her stocking had Chinese writing embroidered on the toe, which, along with her stature, is the only proof of her ethnicity.

Francesca Crupi, the magistrate in charge of the initial investigation, is working on the assumption that the young Chinese woman’s demise was homicide, not suicide, since no missing persons fitting her description have been reported in the last six months. Initial signs say her body, of which what was left was swollen and decomposed, may have been underwater for up to four months, likely stuck on a reef and loosened last week by the wake of a large ship. Her limbs and head were also likely severed by the propeller of a large vessel based on the nature of the cut bones, according to initial police reports. The alternative is that they were cut with a machete or bone-cutting instrument.

Authorities say that if she is indeed Chinese, she was most likely an immigrant who came illegally to the country, thus her disappearance might have been impossible to report by those who employed her. If she were a tourist or resident, her disappearance would have more likely been on a national register by now.

Her DNA has been extracted to confirm her identity in the event that anyone comes forward with information that might lead to her identity. But Crupi is not optimistic that her identity will ever be known. She says this is the first presumed Chinese national ever found murdered in the lagoon – or the whole Veneto region for that matter -- but she points to the fact that in the northern central regions of Italy, hundreds of illegal undocumented Chinese work as “virtual slaves” in the garment sector, toiling long hours for little pay in clandestine factories. Recently, on the nearby ++Riveria di Brenta++ [http://www.veneziatoday.it/cronaca/guerra-al-lavoro-nero-cinese-in-riviera-del-brenta-chiuse-tre-attivita.html] three factories were closed down and the Chinese workers expelled. It would be virtually impossible to trace her identity if she is an illegal immigrant, says Crupi.

She also says that they have not ruled out that the body could have floated in from far out at sea, either riding the underwater currents or even attached to a ship from points unknown. If that’s the case, she could be the victim of a maritime murder or, perhaps even a tourist or missing cruise ship passenger. “It is now up to someone to come forward to report her missing,” she says. “The body has nothing left to tell us.”