Italy's 'Beasts of Satan' Face Murder Trial

Times Staff Writer

The remains were unearthed northwest of here, from a 6-foot pit of dirt and bones. The accused killers called themselves the Beasts of Satan.

A 27-year-old named Andrea Volpe led investigators to the wooded site where police say he and his accomplices beat and stabbed two teenagers, then buried their bodies in what officials describe as a ritualistic human sacrifice.

The deeds attributed to Volpe and those accused with him have shocked and riveted Italians, increasingly terrified about the purported growth of satanic cults in this Roman Catholic country.

The Beasts of Satan case, whose first defendants go on trial Feb. 21, represents one of a few gruesome crimes that priests and worried parents cite as proof of a troubled, amoral young generation turning away from God and toward the occult and, in the extreme, devil worship.

Experts warn against exaggerating the phenomenon. Drugs, for example, appear to have played at least as much of a role in the killings as the devil.

Still, the Vatican is sufficiently concerned to offer special training for priests and novices this spring. A two-month course at Rome's Regina Apostolorum, a prestigious pontifical university, will focus on the history, theology and sociology of Satanism and black magic, and the healing power of exorcism.

"There is a growing interest in satanic cults among youth today," said Carlo Climati, who will teach the course. "They hear it in music, they find it on the Internet. Ten years ago when young people wanted to find out about Satanism, it was difficult. Now it's very easy."

Climati said priests were asking for help in understanding and detecting the malady and combating it, after being flooded with entreaties from suspicious parents.

"It would be a big mistake to see the devil everywhere. There is no reason to panic," said Climati, who has written extensively on the alienation of youth. "What we are teaching is how to know the language of Satanism, how to identify where [the phenomenon] is, and where it is not."

Under Pope John Paul II, the church teaches that the devil is a real and dangerous presence in society. Furthermore, the Prince of Darkness is very much enshrined in popular Italian culture. Exorcisms are performed routinely in Italy, by priests and with the Vatican's blessing.

The Italian research institute Eurispes has identified 650 "satanic organizations" in Italy, most of them in the northern Lombardy region that includes Milan.

Sociologists say northern Italy is probably home to more disaffected youth than southern Italy because the family structure is weaker, eroded by migration and other factors. For good or bad, Milan more closely resembles other European cities, with its urban core, housing projects, intense work pressures and, presumably, more fertile ground for alienation and loneliness.

Milan also has a raucous underground heavy metal scene. It is in that milieu, at a club called Midnight, that the Beasts of Satan rock band flourished -- or festered -- and allegedly descended into a hellish crime binge dating back seven years.

Volpe, in a bid for leniency, will testify for the prosecution. He and seven others, all younger than 30, will be tried on murder charges in the killings of three of their friends and in the allegedly forced suicide of a fourth.

By his own testimony and a chilling diary he kept, portions of which were leaked to the Italian media, Volpe and his girlfriend, Elisabetta Ballarin, lured his former girlfriend Mariangela Pezzotta, 27, to a remote chalet last January. High on drugs and alcohol, the pair reportedly shot Pezzotta in the face, then buried her, still alive, in a shallow grave. (Another accomplice allegedly arrived later and killed her with a shovel.)

Police eventually arrested Volpe in Pezzotta's death. That's when he agreed to take investigators to the woods near the town of Busto Arsizio, about 25 miles northwest of Milan, where two other victims were buried.

Last summer, forensic archeologists and police, guided by Volpe, found the bodies of Fabio Tollis, 16, and Chiara Marino, 19. Onetime members of the Beasts of Satan, the two had been missing since 1998, when they were last seen leaving a bar in Milan.

Tollis was a singer in the band, but his loyalties to the group apparently came into question, investigators say. One report said the group killed Marino because she had come to personify the Virgin Mary.

Lurid details of the case filled newspapers and TV reports: Volpe's penchant for snakes and the number 666, and Marino's use of black candles and goat skulls to decorate her bedroom.

Investigators believe that Volpe and his accomplices used a knife and spade to repeatedly beat and stab the two until they died, then buried them in the 6-foot hole.

"It was extremely cold-blooded," said one investigator, who asked not to be identified because the trial is pending. "It was overkill."

Even though the remains were 6 years old, the forensic archeologists were able to find the knife, bits of a broken spade and cloth and leather. Examining the skeletons and tattered clothing, they were able to pinpoint the many wounds in the bones.

The physical evidence in the case may be strong, but figuring out what was in the minds of the accused killers, be it a pact with the devil or something more mundane, may take a lot more doing.

The attorney for at least one of the defendants plans to plead insanity, saying her client was too high on LSD to have known what he was doing.

As Volpe put it in the diary, amid references to ritualistic bathing in blood: "We are wicked individuals. We plague the people and we play with their lives.

"We know no pity.

"Pitiless, we will eliminate and cleanse, donating the ash of our enemies to he who sits on the throne."

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