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The Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi and the Mystery of the Vatican Graves

This 1983 missing person's case continues to cause controversy and anguish. 

Emanuela Orlandi
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  • Emanuela OrlandiPhoto Credit: Alchetron

On a summer day in Rome, not far from Vatican City, 15-year-old Emanuela Orlandi, the daughter of a Vatican official, was leaving a flute lesson. She had been continuing to take lessons three days a week at the Tomasso Ludovico Da Victoria School, even though regular classes were over for the summer. Emanuela was excited, because she had been offered a job selling Avon products, an opportunity she discussed with her sister over the phone. 

It was the last time anyone in her family would ever speak to her.

Somewhere between that final flute lesson and her home, Emanuela Orlandi disappeared. That was June 22nd, 1983. She has been missing ever since. 

Three days after Emanuela's disappearance, the Orlandi family received phone calls from two male callers, each of whom said they had seen Emanuela after she went missing. These men, who called themselves Pierluigi and Mario, respectively, claimed they had seen a girl with a flute matching Emanuela's description. Both men described details abut Emanuela that only the Orlandi family had known. 

These weren't the only strange clues the family and officials learned. Some of Emanuela's friends claimed that on previous occasions they had witnessed men following her. Months before Emanuela's disappearance, her friend Raffaella Gugel had also complained of being followed. This girl's father, who also worked in the Vatican, had warned her that an abduction was being planned following the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.

Despite these leads, there were no firm answers. Within a week, Rome was plastered with more than 3,000 fliers bearing Emanuela’s photograph. By July 3rd of that year, Pope John Paul II had publicly appealed to those responsible for the young woman’s disappearance. Two days later, the family began receiving anonymous phone calls.

The caller, who had an American accent, claimed to be affiliated with Pierluigi and Mario. The caller claimed that Emanuela was safe—for now—and that she would be turned over in exchange for the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish assassin who had shot but failed to kill the pope two years earlier. Soon letters began arriving in newsrooms, sent by an organization called the Turkish Anti-Christian Liberation Front, demanding Agca's release in exchange for Emanuela's return. 

Over the years, Agca's statements about the disappearance have changed.

In the 90s, Agca had attested that Emanuela was living in a convent and that her family could see her any time they wished. In 2006, Agca claimed that both Emanuela’s disappearance as well as the vanishing of another young woman, Mirella Gregori, in Rome about a month before were intentional abductions intended to secure his release. But even after his eventual release from prison in 2010, the authorities never found any official connection between Agca and the disappearance of either girl, both of which remain unsolved to this day.

The connection to Agca and his attempted assassination of the pope were only one of the many odd wrinkles in this long-unsolved missing persons case, however. 

Pope John Paul II
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  • Pope John Paul II in 1988. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Media outlets reported that Emanuela, a citizen of Vatican City, was either the daughter of an envoy of the prefect of the pontifical house or an employee of the Vatican Bank. In 2011, Antonio Mancini, a former member of the Banda della Magliana, claimed that Emanuela’s disappearance was one of several kidnappings made by the organized crime outfit in order to target the Vatican as part of an extortion effort to recover large sums of money they had loaned to the Vatican Bank.

For the first time since Emanuela Orlandi’s disappearance—but not the last—Italian authorities unsealed a tomb. In this case, it was the resting place of Enrico De Pedis, a gangster who had died in 1990. According to some sources, De Pedis’ former girlfriend had told authorities that he confessed to her that he had been responsible for Emanuela’s disappearance. Within the tomb, the authorities are said to have taken DNA samples, but no break in the case occurred.

This tomb was opened in 2012, and the activity sparked a major surge of renewed interest in what had once been one of Italy’s most famous unsolved mysteries. 

During this same time, Father Gabriele Amorth, at the time the 85-year-old chief exorcist of the Vatican, who claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms and had written several books on the subject, was helping to promote the exorcism-based horror flick The Rite, with Anthony Hopkins. 

Amorth stated that Emanuela had been abducted by a secret cabal of Vatican police and foreign diplomats for a “sex party,” and that she was subsequently murdered and her body disposed of. Like every other claim surrounding Emanuela’s disappearance, however, there seemed to be no evidence substantiating Amorth’s claims.

In fact, finding any evidence at all relating to Emanuela’s disappearance was beginning to feel more and more like grasping at straws. Such proved to be the case in 2018, when human remains found during renovation work on the Holy See’s Embassy in Rome were initially thought to belong to Emanuela Orlandi and Mirella Gregori.

According to news outlets at the time, the authorities even told Orlandi’s family that they believed the remains might be hers. “We were hoping to bring an end to this dramatic story after 35 years,” Emanuela’s sister was quoted as saying.

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  • Emanuela Orlandi's missing person poster. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, shortly after the remains were found, authorities revealed that they actually belonged to a Roman man who had died between AD90 and AD230, some 2,000 years before Emanuela Orlandi’s disappearance. 

“We don’t understand how they could have made so many speculations,” a lawyer representing Orlandi’s family said, “also because so many experts in the field say you can immediately identify extremely old remains by their color. It’s crazy and has caused the family so much pain.”

Nor was it the last time. Not long afterward, that same lawyer, Laura Sgro, received an anonymous letter. “I opened it,” she told NBC News, “and there was a picture of the statue of an angel in the Teutonic Cemetery inside the Vatican. And a letter that simply said, ‘If you want to find Emanuela, search where the angel looks.’”

The family petitioned the Vatican for permission to have the two tombs below the angel statue opened, and in July of 2019, the Vatican agreed. The tombs in question belonged to foreign royalty, specifically Princess Sophia of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Bartenstein, who passed away in 1836, and Duchess Charlotte Frederica of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, hereditary princess of Denmark, who died in 1840. 

A forensics expert, the Vatican police, members of Orlandi’s family, and others were present when the tombs were opened. What they found was far more shocking than the bones of two girls who had been missing for more than three decades. In fact, they found no bones at all.

Not only were the bodies of Emanuela Orlandi and Mirella Gregori not present in the tombs, which showed signs of having been recently opened, though no one seemed to know why or by whom, but neither were the remains of their intended occupants. What was hoped to finally solve a decades-old mystery instead created another, possibly even older one. 

These are questions with no answers, even today. Shortly after the empty tombs were opened, two ossuaries were found beneath the pavement in the college adjacent to the tombs. The forensic anthropologist who had been on-site for the opening of the tombs searched through the fragments, but all of them pre-dated the 20th century, and therefore could not have belonged to either Emanuela Orlandi or Mirella Gregori.

What became of the two missing girls? What happened to the remains of the two princesses whose bodies should have been in the Tomb of the Angel? And what connection, if any, do these two mysteries have? Sadly, we may never know…