ROME — If the shocking death of 19-year-old American study-abroad student Beau Solomon after a night of partying in Rome sounds all-too-familiar, that’s because it is.
Solomon is the fifth American-born student to die in the last five years on the streets of Rome’s historical city center. Three, like Solomon, were robbed first. The others, including Andrew Keith Carr, 21, and Han Kwang Lee, 19, were not, but they perished after falling from bridges or high walls after a night out on the town.
Countless others are regularly robbed, raped or attacked every year.
And who’s to blame? Apparently no one.
Roman police say it is the fault of the foreign universities for not adequately warning students in study abroad programs about the perils of alcohol consumption or about those who prey on novice drinkers and foreigners abroad.
The “drunk American abroad” is a well-known entity in Rome and in Florence, another popular destination for study abroad students where behaving badly is often part of the curriculum.
Most locals don’t even know what the legal drinking age is in Italy because it doesn’t pose much of a problem, since the “drink yourself to oblivion” culture is not an Italian vice. For the record, the legal age to purchase wine and beer is 16; the legal age to purchase distilled drinks is 18, though ID checks are rare and it is certainly common to see even younger teens with their own glass of wine at a family meal in a restaurant.
The problem is that American college kids who land in Rome often follow a lure that is dangled from day one of their arrival. Cocktail bars and social clubs use the enticement of a non-enforced drinking age and pretty people passing out flyers for cheap parties and pub crawls near campuses. They know that young Americans are especially good customers, and they suck them in with advertisements for nights like thirsty Thursday and Jagerbomb Wednesday. The Colosseum Pub Crawl is one of the city’s most popular (and most notorious), and even features drunk Americans holding Old Glory in a Roman piazza on its Facebook page.
Indeed, pub crawls are the most popular way to get smashed, consisting of someone with a bus driving kids who generally aren’t old enough to drink at home from bar to bar (to bar to bar) where they down “shottinis” (€1 shots) and cocktails until they vomit or pass out.
Last year, a young American woman woke up in a Roman hospital with a fractured spine from being sexually assaulted. The last thing she remembered was getting off the pub-crawl bus “somewhere in Rome.” And when Kwang Lee’s body was found on the banks of the Tiber in 2012, he still had his pub-crawl bracelet on his wrist from the night before.
Ask almost any American expat in Rome, and they will tell at least one story about pouring a young, drunk American into a taxi or driving them home late at night in an attempt not only to save the students, but to save the reputation of the country. “These Americans come here and get their first taste of freedom and go wild,” a spokesperson with Rome’s police station told The Daily Beast. “But the bars that continue to serve inebriated people as well as those who run the pub crawls all share the blame.”
The universities say it’s not up to them to teach college-aged students how to behave. Many of the programs in Rome are very strict and keep close tabs on their foreign students. Others say they do enough to keep the kids safe on campus, and it is instead up to the local authorities and the parents to keep them safe on the streets.
The risk of warning students or their families about potential dangers could be that students won’t come, despite the fact that there is no question whatsoever about the benefits of a study abroad program, especially in a place so culturally rich as Rome. But many calls to university programs in Rome for this article were met with apprehension about commenting and warning against focusing too much attention on “just one death.”
Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University, easily the most popular study abroad program in Rome, where quite unfortunately three of the latest American victims were enrolled, says it’s not the job of the university to babysit. “It’s not up to the president of John Cabot University to do an evaluation of the dangers of Rome’s nightlife,” Pavoncello told the Associated Press. “It’s up to judicial authorities.”
Benjamin and Theresa Mogni might not agree. Their 20-year-old son Andrew came to John Cabot from the University of Iowa in 2015. On the day he arrived, he attended a dinner party until around 1 a.m. and then mysteriously fell off a high retaining wall down around 30 or 40 feet onto the Tiber riverbank. Like Solomon, he had also been robbed before he fell. He survived the fall and was airlifted to the United States and tragically died in Chicago three months later.
“Being an American there, you do stand out and you do become a target,” Theresa Mogni told a local CBS affiliate in Chicago upon the news of Solomon’s death. “And you’ve got to understand that and really protect yourself.”
Over-indulging aside, there is little doubt to anyone who lives in this city about the presence of predators lurking along the sidelines of almost any occasion to take advantage of all types of foreigners. Religious pilgrims get robbed on buses to the Vatican, young women are frequently drugged with date-rape pills, and young men, it would seem, get robbed and rolled on a regular basis.
“Everyone knows these thugs are out there,” a bartender at the G-Bar in the Trastevere district, where Solomon had his last drink, told The Daily Beast as she delivered a sloppy tray of shottini to another group of Americans who had recently arrived in Rome. “They usually have a girl that lures the boys away, and then their friends mug him. It happens a lot.”
When I asked the group of kids at the table she served if they’d heard about Solomon, most said that their parents had “sent something about that” but few knew any details, including the fact that they were sitting at the same bar where his fateful night began.
“Bad things happen everywhere,” one girl said as she downed her potent shot. She didn’t want to be named because she was only 17 and she didn’t want her parents to read that she was out at a bar in Rome. “I don’t want them to worry.”
The dangers of liberal drinking and lawlessness are an open secret everyone seems to know about except, perhaps, the kids who become the victims.
Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of the victims actually get killed. The rest either go back home to deal with the aftermath, or just get stitched up, call their banks for new credit cards and are back out at the bars soon after.
The assailants are rarely caught, or, for that matter, even chased. In Mogni’s case, police didn’t even launch an official investigation into the question of theft or murder for weeks after his accident. Instead they treated it as a mishap. His case is officially open in Rome, but no one is actively investigating and none of the possessions he had on him, including a gold cross, were ever recovered.
In Solomon’s case, the theft trail is already cold despite the fact that whoever nabbed his credit cards was able to spend around $1,700 before his parents back home even knew he was missing.
Worst of all, perhaps, is that it all happens in plain sight. Several witnesses have said that Solomon was robbed on the picturesque Ponte Sisto Bridge near the bar where he and his new classmates were enjoying the vibrant Roman nightlife. He then apparently chased the predator or predators down to what anyone in Rome would consider the “wrong side” of the Tiber River, where a lively drug trade thrives among the homeless tents and cardboard box shelters. In broad daylight, thugs are known to throw sticks into the spokes of passing bicycles to mug the riders when they fall; at night any number of crimes take place in the unlit overgrown shrubs where dozens of homeless people have set up encampments.
It was there where Solomon reportedly stumbled onto the tent occupied by Massimo Galioto, a 41-year-old homeless man who was conveniently arrested for homicide shortly after Solomon’s swollen body was found a mile down the river four days after he disappeared. As a matter of strange coincidence, or not, Galioto was also questioned a few years ago about someone else who had fallen into the river near his perch, though he was never arrested.
Because of a summer festival along the “good side” of the Tiber River across the water on the night Solomon died, there were ample surveillance cameras that caught at least part of the action, including the moment when Solomon fell into the water and his futile attempts to swim back to shore, though nothing has surfaced that shows the riverbank with the encampment or just how he fell in. Galioto’s companion told local reporters that the two men tussled and that Solomon fell into the river and then she and Galioto went back to sleep. “They began to argue,” she said. “They were pushing each other. Massimo pushed him, the boy pushed back, and then he fell in.”
Across the river, hundreds of Romans and tourists were still out sipping wine and enjoying a lovely evening under the stars. It all happened in plain sight with no one looking.
The dark scene is reminiscent of what happened to John Durkin, another young American who was found dead in Rome after a night out in 2014. Durkin’s lifeless body was discovered in a train tunnel right next to the Vatican. An autopsy showed that he was likely dead before an early morning train sliced his legs off. He, too, had been robbed. He was also missing his shirt for reasons no one may ever know. And no one may ever be held accountable for his horrific death, either.
Even though none of this debauchery and lawlessness is much of a secret for those of us who live in Rome, this dark side is clearly not something Americans are told about before they come to one of the most amazing cities on the planet. And even those of us who live here (many with our own teenagers who are potential targets) aren’t immune. The night my own nearly 17-year-old son went out to meet his friends in Trastevere after Solomon’s death, I made him read every single gory detail I could find about the case. “That’s not going to happen to me,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
Easier said than done.
Instead, maybe it’s time to change something before another dead American or other foreign student ends up dead on the banks of the Tiber. Maybe it’s time to talk about what’s really killing American students in Rome.