For the first time in nearly 40 years, the family of missing teenager Emanuela Orlandi seem to have a promising lead. The mysterious case has baffled police since 1983, but now an ominous tip-off may finally be pointing them in the right direction. And Emanuela’s relatives hold their breath as the Vatican workers prize open two ancient tombs. Perhaps no one could have predicted, though, what the group are about to find.
On June 22, 1983, after leaving a music class in the Italian city of Rome, Emanuela vanished without a trace. Since then, alleged sightings and ominous conspiracy theories have only fueled the mystery that surrounds the 15-year-old’s disappearance. But despite intense media coverage and tireless efforts from Emanuela’s family, no leads have ever provided a breakthrough – until now, it appears.
In the summer of 2018, you see, the Orlandi family received an anonymous message that seemed to hint at Emanuela’s whereabouts. The cryptic clue – which reportedly instructed the recipients to “look where the angel is pointing” – sounded like something from a Dan Brown novel. And ultimately the tip-off would lead investigators to the heart of a Vatican City cemetery – but would it hold the key to the mystery?
Going back to the beginning of the story, Emanuela entered the world in 1968 to parents Maria and Ercole Orlandi. Along with only a handful of other Italian citizens, the girl and her four siblings had the privilege of growing up within the walls of Vatican City. According to some reports, you see, Emanuela’s father was an employee in the Pope’s household, although other sources suggest that he worked for the state bank.
In any case, the Orlandi family enjoyed the benefits that life inside Vatican City afforded them. Emanuela’s brother, Pietro, would later reveal how he and his siblings had once played in the holy site’s magnificent gardens, for instance. And apparently, as the children frolicked, Pope John Paul II himself would sometimes stop and chat to them.
Of the family’s former surroundings, Pietro told CNN in July 2019, “We thought we were in the safest place in the world.” Of course, given what we know now, this statement is tragically ironic. Nonetheless, Pietro added that prior to Emanuela’s disappearance, he had felt that Vatican City was a small, friendly community where everyone was very close.
And the devastating events that unfolded in the summer of 1983 would ultimately shatter Pietro’s illusions of safety forever. Yet June 22 of that year began as a day much like any other for the Orlandis. As she presumably had done many times before, Emanuela ventured beyond the Vatican City walls to attend a flute class. The teen then finished the lesson and set off to return home – but she was never seen again.
At the time of Emanuela’s disappearance, school was out for summer. Even so, the teenager had continued going to her flute lessons at the Tommaso Ludovico Da Victoria School a few times a week. And to get there, Emanuela would hop on a bus into central Rome before walking around 700 feet to her class.
So, by June 22, 1983, Emanuela had already made the trip to and from her music instruction several times. But on the day that the teen disappeared, she’d been running late. Apparently, she’d asked her brother, Pietro, to accompany her, but he’d refused. And, tragically, it was a decision that would end up haunting him for decades.
In July 2019 Pietro revealed to the BBC, “Last time [Emanuela and I] met was actually not a very nice memory… We had a fight because she had a music lesson. It was really hot, and I refused to go with her because I had something else going on. So she slammed the door and left, and that’s the memory I have. I’ve often thought, ‘What if I had actually gone with her?’”
Now, the last confirmed sighting of Emanuela was at a bus stop in central Rome; after this, the teenager seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth. But, of course, the mysterious disappearance has loomed large on the Italian consciousness ever since. And as a result, the strange case has given rise to conspiracy theories that have implicated secret criminal organizations – and even, unusually, the Vatican itself.
But along with these various hypotheses, there have also been alleged sightings connected to the case. For example, one individual claimed to have seen a girl matching Emanuela’s description entering a green BMW on the evening that she went missing. Supposedly, the vehicle in question had been close to the music institution that the 15-year-old had attended. Sadly, though, this lead proved to be fruitless.
Then, in the days following Emanuela’s disappearance, further sightings were apparently made of the girl. One such report, for instance, came in the form of a phone call from a 16-year-old going by the name of Pierluigi. And the youngster claimed to have met the missing teenager in Rome’s famous Piazza Navona three days after she had gone missing.
Interestingly, Pierluigi noted that the individual whom he’d allegedly seen had been carrying a flute and wearing glasses – which she apparently disliked. He claimed, however, that this person had introduced herself to him and his fiancée as “Barbarella.” In addition, Pierluigi reported that the girl had been selling cosmetics and had said that she’d left home.
Strangely, a man who called himself Mario claimed to have had a similar encounter. He reportedly told the Orlandi family that a girl named “Barbara” had visited his bar six days after Emanuela’s disappearance. And on that occasion, she had allegedly told him that she was a runaway – although she intended to return to see her sister get married. Mario also said that his venue was located between the missing teen’s music class and her home in Vatican City.
Meanwhile, one of the earliest conspiracy theories came about just days after Emanuela had disappeared. According to her parents, an unidentified individual contacted them and promised to return their daughter. The only catch? Mehmet Ali Ağca, who was incarcerated at the time for a 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, had to be released. But once again, this apparent clue ended up amounting to nothing.
The plot thickened, however, when Ağca later told Italian broadcaster RAI that Emanuela was still alive. Bizarrely, the assassin alleged that the missing teen was safe and living in a convent, although he denied knowing her exact whereabouts. But ultimately investigators found no evidence to support his claims – and the mystery was about to become darker still.
In 2005, you see, an even more unsettling theory about what had happened to Emanuela gained traction. Apparently, an unknown individual made a tip-off to an Italian detective, claiming that the missing teen had been adducted at the request of Cardinal Ugo Poletti. Poletti had been the Vicar General of Rome at the time of Emanuela’s disappearance.
And the anonymous informant gave the police an ominous clue. They said, “The secret to the mystery lies in a tomb in Sant’Apollinare basilica” – and specifically in the grave of Enrico “Renatino” De Pedis. The prominent gangster had been shot dead in 1990, and his body had been interred in the basilica – which is close to Emanuela’s music lesson location – before 1997.
The De Pedis theory seemed to look even more likely when a new development emerged in 2008. This time, the mobster’s mistress sensationally claimed that he had actively participated in Emanuela’s abduction. She alleged, too, that the missing girl’s remains had been buried beneath a house in the periphery of Rome.
But despite detectives following the lead provided by De Pedis’ mistress, they once again found nothing. In fact, they discovered that the concrete foundations of the building in question had actually been set prior to the teen vanishing. And, unfortunately, a 2012 search of De Pedis’ crypt yielded no further clues, either.
Another disturbing twist in the case came that same year, when attention turned to the Vatican itself. You see, top Catholic exorcist Gabriele Amorth alleged that a Roman teen who’d vanished in 1983 had been abducted into a sex party network and subsequently killed. Even more disturbingly, Amorth suggested that foreign diplomats and Vatican authorities had been involved. Consequently, then, he told Italy’s La Stampa newspaper that the investigation “should be carried out inside the Vatican and not outside.”
But once again, these allegations ultimately came to no avail. And as a result, Emanuela’s family were left without answers for nearly four decades – until the case took another shocking turn in 2019. Today, Emanuela’s mother, Maria, is still a resident of the Holy City, but Pietro has come to view the Vatican with suspicion. After having led a 36-year campaign to find Emanuela, he has accused Vatican officials of not being transparent during the investigation.
In fact, Pietro told CNN in July 2019, “The Vatican has never collaborated with the investigators [or] with us family members. They have always denied the possibility that there may be responsibilities within the Vatican [and] have always said that they gave everything they had and hid nothing.” And while CNN put these comments to the Vatican at the time, no response was given.
Apparently, Pietro had become convinced that the Vatican knows something about Emanuela’s disappearance after he met Pope Francis in 2013. He explained to CNN that Francis had told him, “Emanuela is in heaven.” Pietro added, “[It] froze my blood… to hear a Pope say Emanuela is dead.” That said, the encounter also gave him hope of someday finding an answer.
And since meeting Pope Francis, Pietro claims that he has attempted to contact the holy leader again on numerous occasions to obtain more information – but to no avail. Emanuela’s brother isn’t alone in his theory, either. Indeed, Italian crime journalist Fiorenza Sarzanini told CNN, “Every type of clue has always led to the Vatican.” She also added that officials have never accounted for why a mobster such as De Pedis would be buried in an important church.
Then, in the summer of 2018, the Vatican was implicated yet again. The Orlandi family received a tip-off that came in the form of an image of a religious statue with an accompanying message. This clue bafflingly instructed the family to “look where the angel is pointing.” And, ultimately, the cryptic note led the search for Emanuela to two tombs inside a small cemetery within Vatican City.
More specifically, the site in question is known as the Teutonic Cemetery. Situated close to Saint Peter’s Basilica, it’s the final resting place for German-speaking members of the Roman Catholic church. But despite its prominent location, the graveyard is tucked away behind a set of imposing walls. And its ornate gates are reportedly watched by a Swiss Guard.
In order to access the tombs outlined in the tip-off, then, the Orlandi family needed the Vatican’s permission. And given the fact that they’d reportedly received no answer to their previous requests for information, they weren’t hopeful – especially since Pietro’s attempts to speak with Pope Francis had allegedly been ignored.
But after close to a year of campaigning by Emanuela’s family, the Vatican finally agreed to exhume the tombs. In the wake of the development, a buoyed Pietro told the BBC, “For the first time, the Vatican show that they’re considering the possibility that there may have been internal responsibilities within the Vatican [for Emanuela’s disappearance].”
That said, a Vatican spokesperson stressed that police were only trying to determine whether or not Emanuela could have been buried in the cemetery. Vatican officials would not be looking into the teen’s disappearance, either, as it had occurred outside of their jurisdiction. It appeared likely, then, that the investigation would remain the responsibility of authorities in Rome.
Nevertheless, the search got underway in July 2019. And any remains discovered during the hunt would undergo DNA testing, which would apparently take weeks to yield results. But while Pietro was hopeful that the exhumation marked a turning point with the Vatican, Sarzanini had her reservations.
In July 2019 the journalist alleged that the cooperation of Vatican officials merely served to direct any suspicion away from them. She told CNN, “I fear that the Vatican has decided to open the tombs because they know that there is nothing inside… And this will definitely put an end to the claims of the Orlandi family.”
In any case, the Orlandis were permitted to oversee the exhumation of the tombs – along with the relatives of their believed occupants. But ahead of the search, Pietro was forced to consider what would happen if Emanuela’s remains were indeed found. After all, he had never lost hope of finding his sister alive.
Contemplating the possibility that the exhumation would solve at least one part of the mystery, Pietro told the BBC, “It would be anguishing for my mother. She still lives inside the Vatican – [less than 1,000 feet] from that cemetery. To even think that she has been so close to my sister for so long without knowing it – it makes me feel horrible.”
Pietro added, “In fact, I actually hope that Emanuela is not there.” And as it turns out, she wasn’t. In fact, the Teutonic Cemetery tombs were found to be entirely empty. That’s right: in a bizarre twist, the crypts didn’t even contain the remains of the two princesses who were believed to have been buried there.
Yes, unbelievably, the remains of German nobles Princess Sophie von Hohenlohe and Princess Charlotte Frederica of Mecklenburg were nowhere to be found. Both had had roots in the Danish royal family and had died in 1836 and 1840, respectively. But search teams did uncover two ossuaries, which are small chambers used to bury the dead. And, interestingly, these were discovered beneath a trap door in a building next to the Teutonic Cemetery.
But the story doesn’t end there, as the ossuaries did indeed contain human remains. Yet while scientists can date bones in a matter of hours, DNA identification is a lengthier process. Still, Alessandro Gisotti, a Vatican spokesman, assured Vatican News that forensic tests were being carried out “according to international protocols” – although he declined to speculate on how long this would take.
And while it’s not known for sure why the tombs of the two princesses were found empty, at least one explanation has been put forward. In particular, the Vatican has speculated that the crypts’ remains may have been relocated during site work in the 1960s and 1970s. But while the mystery of the bones is certainly intriguing, Emanuela’s family are still in limbo. After all, they appear no closer to finding out what happened to their loved one.
Yet Pietro refuses to give up hope that Emanuela may one day be found alive. He told the BBC, “She and I had a very close relationship. We both liked music. She was trying to teach me a Chopin piece. We only got through two pages, and then she went missing. I hope one day she comes back to teach me the rest.”