Starved

Suitcase Murder Mystery Solved! The Killer: Anorexia

The body in a suitcase found that turned up in an Italian harbor was not a murder victim. The truth was even more tragic than that.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

ROME—Bodies in suitcases are generally pretty mysterious, and the one that authorities discovered bobbing in the Rimini, Italy, harbor last week was no exception. At first, they thought the emaciated woman inside was the victim of a heinous murder. Instead, she was a victim of the deadly eating disorder anorexia nervosa, and it appears her mother was too embarrassed to tell anyone her daughter had starved to death.

When the body was first discovered, authorities thought the corpse belonved to Yinglei Li, an Ireland based Chinese woman who went missing on a Mediterranean cruise in February. Her husband remains jailed in Rome for her presumed murder.

But the body was too tall to be Yinglei Li, and far too thin, so investigators thought perhaps she was yet another victim of human trafficking for the illegal garment trade run in Italy by organized crime using Chinese workers.

That also seemed plausible, but turned out not to be true.

Instead, the body belonged to Katerina Laktionova, a 27-year-old Russian citizen who had suffered from anorexia nervosa for the last decade, according to her friends. Her Russian mother, who worked as a caretaker for the elderly in Italy, had committed her daughter to local hospitals several times in the past, but the young woman had resisted treatment. She weighed just 77 pounds when she died.

Laktionova’s mother, who fled to Moscow after ditching the suitcase with her daughter’s body in the Adriatic Sea, confessed to a friend about what she had done, adding that she was sure authorities would blame her for negligence in her daughter’s death. She had left her employment and told friends that she was taking her daughter to Moscow for experimental treatment for the eating disorder. Whether that is true remains unclear, but her daughter didn’t live long enough to make the trip.

Eating disorders including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating affect more than 70 million people worldwide, according to the website mirror-mirror.org, that works to educate both those who suffer and their families through what is often a lifelong battle. Anorexia is the third most prevalent disease affecting adolescents and young adults in developed nations, after asthma and diabetes. About a quarter of sufferers are men.

Many blame the fashion industry and the use of size zero models. Others blame advertisers of weight loss programs that send subliminal messages about overeating to those already vulnerable to the disease.

In 2010, French model Isabelle Caro died after a long public battle with anorexia. Her mother committed suicide a few weeks later.

Her death prompted the fashion industry to rethink the use of super-skinny models. Currently Italy prohibits size zero models at fashion shows, although many fashion houses and model agencies disagree, saying that the regulations discriminated against naturally thin women. Other countries require models to have a healthy BMI or body mass index that ties weight to height.

“Marked by a distorted sense of body image and extreme voluntary starvation—and closely associated with perfectionism and depression—[anorexia] is the most deadly psychiatric disorder,” according to Psychology Today. “Anorexia is highly resistant to treatment, and when the starvation becomes life-threatening, the usual recourse is hospitalization with forced feeding.”

Laktionova’s friends say her mother did seek treatment for her daughter’s disease, and that she felt personally responsible for her daughter’s struggle. Dealing with the guilt that mothers, especially, take on when their daughters have debilitating eating disorders is often an integral part of the treatment.

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Authorities in Italy confirm they won’t charge Laktionova’s mother for any crimes relating to the death, but she will face charges for illegal disposal of a body and failure to report a death. They likely won’t seek extradition if she decides to stay in Russia.