On the anniversary of Meredith Kercher’s murder, whose body was found three years ago today, a new mystery is stealing the spotlight in Italy.
And much like Kercher’s killing; the murder of Sarah Scazzi has turned into a controversial spectacle not least of all because the prime suspect in Scazzi’s murder is also a young woman.
The lurid details of this latest high-profile crime either point to a disturbing trend in 20-something female killers in Italy, or underscore accusations of total Italian police ineptitude.
Scazzi, 15, disappeared in Avetrana, Puglia, on August 26, when she was supposed to join her cousin Sabrina Misseri and a mutual friend for a day at the beach. When Sarah didn’t show up at her cousin’s house, her family filed a missing person’s report, which kicked off a media campaign to find the young girl. Her family initially thought she ran away, perhaps to Milan where her father was living, but investigators close to the case presumed from the beginning that they were investigating a homicide.
The focus was on Michele Misseri, Sarah’s uncle and Sabrina’s father. His demeanor won him the nickname “ogre of Avetrana” because of his dirty fingernails and soiled clothing. He had spent several years as a gravedigger and gardener at a cemetery in Germany before returning to Puglia. Sarah was supposed to meet her cousin Sabrina at the Misseri family house, where Michele was working in the garage. He told police in August that he never saw her arrive even though several eye witnesses reported seeing her walk through the gates of the villa. Suspicion grew when weeks after the murder, he was the one who found Sarah’s burnt cell phone with the SIM card missing, and handed it over to police.
Police soon learned that Sarah had told more than a few friends that her uncle had been molesting her for months and one Italian magazine even reported that the police believed that the 15 year-old was pregnant with her uncle’s child.
A few weeks later, still at the height of the missing persons search, Sarah’s mother Concetta Serrano Spagnolo, whose sister was married to Misseri, appeared on RAI Television’s popular missing person’s program Chi l’a Visto. The show was broadcast live from the Misseri family kitchen, of all places, while Misseri himself was being interrogated at the police station downtown.
While Spagnolo was on television, Misseri was confessing in detail to how he had strangled Sarah in his garage, had sex with her corpse, and then dumped her in an old well outside of town. Sarah’s mother heard the morbid news through an ear piece in front of 3.5 million viewers in the very kitchen of the alleged assassin. “I’m trying to understand,” Serrano said when she was told what police had learned. The cameras kept rolling as she sat, shocked, as her lawyer, none other than Perugian Walter Biscotti, who defended Rudy Guede in the Kercher murder, whispered to her. A few minutes later, the program was interrupted.
Sabrina’s father admitted that it was actually his daughter who lured the younger Sarah to the garage and held her arms while he tightened the rope around her neck.
Misseri was arrested on the suspicion of murder, pedophilia, and necrophilia and the police quickly recovered Sarah’s body deep in an abandoned well, just where the uncle said it was. But it was badly decomposed from the neck down because of the way it had been immersed in water for six weeks. The autopsy could not confirm whether she had been sexually violated, but there were clear signs that she had been strangled with a rope. She was buried October 9 at an open-air ceremony attended by thousands.
Sarah’s uncle’s confession had provided all the details necessary for what should have been a closed case. He gave the location and circumstances of the murder—she had been killed in Misseri’s garage while his wife was napping in the adjacent house. He then stuffed her into the trunk of his Seat Marbella car. Sure enough, trace elements of her DNA were found there. He confessed how he burned her clothing and her beach bag, which explains why her cell phone was partially burned when he turned it in. But the Pugliese police weren’t satisfied with some of the details—or with his daughter Sabrina’s behavior in the days after the crime. They pressed the older Misseri for more information.
Meanwhile, they were investigating the growing inconsistencies of his daughter Sabrina’s story. They felt sure she was involved. Sabrina had become the star of the scandal, appearing on all the major television programs and giving frequent interviews to the local newspapers. She was cold and distant at first, but later tearfully claimed her father “should pay for what he did to Sarah,” she said. “Everyone should pay for what they do to someone else.”
On October 18, police arrested Sabrina after her father admitted that she had actually instigated the murder. After intense pressure by the police, he admitted that it was actually Sabrina who had been the one to lure the younger Sarah to the family garage, and that she had held her arms while he tightened the rope around her neck. “We wanted to teach her a lesson,” Michele Misseri told the police according to the transcript of the interrogation. “Sarah screamed and Sabrina told me ‘let’s finish her off. Let’s kill her’.”
Sabrina, who has been deemed the “new Amanda Knox” by the local press, maintains her innocence. Her mother Cosima Serrano believes her daughter over her husband and has spoken vehemently in her daughter’s defense. “I want to visit my husband in prison,” she said last week. “I need to tell him that his daughter is in a cell next to his based on his lies and filth.”
Whether Sabrina’s father is simply trying to point the finger at his daughter to save his own skin is the crux of this mystery. Under Italian law, Sabrina can be jailed for up to a year without charge as the police build their case.
The circumstances are hauntingly similar to the initial investigation into the Kercher murder with headlines painting a picture of Sabrina not so differently than they did of Amanda Knox in early 2007. But like Knox, Sabrina changed her story several times and her alibi has yet to be corroborated. The lack of motive, too, is highly reminiscent of the Perugia case. Local investigators say it could have been jealousy since the two cousins had their romantic sights set on the same local young man.
Still, there is scant hard forensic evidence that links Sabrina to her cousin’s murder, but, like the Kercher case, that might not make any difference in innocence or guilt.
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.