ROME—When two men working on their boat in the Adriatic port town of Rimini on Saturday morning noticed a blue suitcase floating in the bay, they thought nothing of it—at first. After all, it is not altogether uncommon for luggage and other debris to wash up on Italian shores along the busy cruise ship and ferry route that runs from Greece to Venice.
But when the bulky case started banging against their craft as they tried to lower it into the water, one of the men got fed up and fished it out of the sea. It was oddly heavy, even for a waterlogged canvas bag, so he and his friend opened it to take a peek inside. There, wrapped in a black garbage bag, was the emaciated nude body of a woman who was clearly Asian. They quickly zipped the bag back up and called police.
Authorities were sure that somehow the Asian woman whose remains were folded up inside the luggage were those of Ireland-based Yinglei Li, a 36-year-old Chinese woman whose German husband, Daniel Belling, was sitting in a Rome prison suspected of her murder after she disappeared from a Mediterranean cruise last month.
But aside from finding a dead Asian woman in a suitcase, the story didn’t make a lot of sense. The cruise that Yinglei and Belling were on with their young children, aged 6 and 4, had docked in Civitavecchia, on the other side of Italy. The cruise did stop at a Greek port, but if Belling had, as authorities hypothesize, stuffed his wife into a suitcase and thrown her overboard, that suitcase would have traveled nearly 750 miles in winter seas and quite frankly, it didn’t show those signs of wear and tear.
Plus, witnesses say the luggage Belling and his family had on the cruise was not the drab blue color of that which held the corpse, but multi-colored and part of a matching set.
Belling, who has not been officially charged with his missing wife’s murder for lack of her body (and can be legally held in Italy for up to a year on suspicion alone), was arrested in mid-February at Rome’s Ciampino airport as he and his children were boarding a Ryanair flight back to Dublin. Belling had disembarked from the cruise without telling a soul that his wife—the mother of his children—was missing.
Cruise security measures had detected that one fewer passenger had passed through the ship’s turnstile on the way out than had embarked 10 days earlier, and within a few hours, they determined it was someone from the Belling party. Officials stopped Belling and his children in the airport’s departure hall just moments before he was set to board. The children have since been collected by their paternal grandparents and are in Germany while the investigation continues.
Belling told authorities he last saw his wife after the ship stopped at a Greek port, where he took his children for an excursion while she waited on board. He told investigators that she had been complaining that she was unhappy and “ready to quit the cruise.” He said she had disappeared from previous family vacations, so he assumed she was hiding out in the ship somewhere and would either meet them when they arrived back in Italy, or had run away for good. He told police that when she failed to show up in Civitavecchia, he assumed she had escaped their marriage and gone back to China—as she often threatened she would do.
Ship crew members tell a very different story. They say no one had seen Yinglei after the second day of the cruise, when she and her children came to its gift shop. According to the clerk, Belling stormed into the store with a rucksack from which he pulled out a pair of sneakers for his wife, berating her for wearing the garish sandals she apparently had on her feet.
After the encounter, witnesses said Yinglei looked shaken. No one ever saw her again, according to police interviews with the cruise staff, and Belling and his children ate their meals alone for the rest of the trip.
At one point during the journey, Belling apparently told the housekeeping staff they no longer had to make up the cabin’s foldout bed since the family was “all sleeping together in one bed.” Belling never raised the alarm that his wife was gone, and he packed up her clothes and luggage to take back with him to Dublin.
Belling’s lawyer has asked that his client be held on house arrest while the investigation ensues, but so far authorities have not granted him that request. In early March, Yinglei’s mother visited her son-in-law at the prison, though there are no reports on whether or not she thinks he killed her daughter. She was interviewed by police as well, telling them that her daughter had not returned to China.
Back in Rimini, just a day after the mysterious corpse was found, authorities were quite certain that the woman in the suitcase wasn’t Yinglei after all. After removing her from the luggage, they discovered that she had much longer hair and was about five inches taller and far thinner than Yinglei. On Monday morning, an autopsy confirmed that the corpse they found did not match the DNA they had for Yinglei.
They also discovered that the woman in the suitcase had not died of asphyxiation or drowning, but likely of starvation. The coroner who performed the autopsy said that she was alive when she was put in the untied plastic bag and suitcase, where she was bent at the waist but showed no signs of violence or bruising. It is impossible to tell when the suitcase was thrown into the sea or from where, though the coroner estimates it had been in the water for at least 10 days.
It is not the first time the body of an Asian woman has turned up in the Adriatic under peculiar circumstances. In 2013, a headless, one-legged torso wearing a stiletto-heeled boot of a Chinese woman thought to be around 25 years old was found in the Venice lagoon. That death remains a mystery, but authorities believe she may have been a victim of human trafficking.
Several thousand undocumented Chinese migrants are thought to be living in Italy, working illegally in Chinese factories in the garment district in Prato near Florence. Those who have managed to leave have reported extreme conditions, suggesting that when workers die, their bodies simply disappear.
If and when the body in the blue suitcase is identified, that mystery will be solved. But it may take much longer to find out what really happened to Yinglei Li.