Charles Nicholl 

Blood on the Altar by Tobias Jones – review

Charles Nicoll follows the gruesome crimes of the 'hair in hand' killer
  
  

This is a labyrinthine story of murder, fetishism, cover-up and – eventually – justice. It began in 1993 with the disappearance of a 16–year-old girl in the southern Italian city of Potenza. It was finally resolved last year, with two trials – one at Winchester Crown Court in June, the other at the Tribunale in Salerno in November – and a tragically belated funeral. Tobias Jones has followed every twist and tangent of the case. He writes with the fluent clarity and incisive journalistic analysis that characterised his popular Dark Heart of Italy (2003), but this book is angrier, and it has that note of obsession which is inevitable – perhaps essential – in a book-length investigation of this sort.

On a Sunday morning in September 1993 Elisa Claps left her family home in Potenza to go to mass at the church of Santissima Trinità. She was a lively, dark-haired, round-faced schoolgirl in her third year at the Liceo Classico; her ambition was to become a doctor and work for Médicins Sans Frontières. Her father, Antonio, "barrel-chested, gruff and kind", was a tobacconist. Her mother, Filomena, worked part-time in the local land-registry office. She had two elder brothers: Gildo, a law student, and Luciano, who was coming up for military service. It was by all accounts a loving, cheerful family, though now about to make a dreadful slow-motion descent into hell.

Elisa never returned from the church. It was a mystery how she could have vanished so completely, in broad daylight, among the Sunday morning bustle of churchgoers, strollers and shoppers for lunchtime pastries. It soon emerged that she had met up with a young man called Danilo Restivo, then 21. He had arranged to meet her at the church, saying he wanted to give her a present for passing her retakes. The family knew Restivo: gauche, spookily soft-spoken, a bit of a misfit. They instantly suspected him, especially when they learned that he had returned home that Sunday with blood on his clothes and a cut on his hand which he implausibly claimed he had sustained falling down one of the city's public escalators.

Restivo already had a police record. In 1986 he blindfolded and tied the hands of two children, aged 12 and 14, and took them to a hut, where he put on surgical gloves and made a cut in the neck of one of the boys with a bread knife. The incident was reported but the families dropped the charges, apparently paid off by Restivo's father. Later some girls who lived opposite his apartment claimed he was harassing them with phone calls: sometimes he played music down the phone, including Beethoven's "Für Elise" (known in Italian as "Per Elisa", and hence an apparent reference to the missing girl). And then there were the rumours of his strange fetish of cutting off bits of young women's hair, typically when sitting behind them on a bus.

All this was sinister, but no less alarming for the family was the police investigation – or lack of it. Opaque and ponderous at the best of times, the Italian legal system seemed in this case to be paralysed by a mysterious indifference. Restivo was questioned but not charged. His blood-stained jacket was not taken in for analysis. The priest at Santissima Trinità, Don Mimì Sabia, refused permission for the church to be searched for clues. The magistrate in charge of the case, Felicia Genovese, was accused of collusion with Restivo's father, who was director of the Potenza branch of the National Library, and a member of one of Italy's powerful secretive masonic lodges. Cranks and chancers flooded into the vacuum. There were fake ransom demands, rumoured sightings: she had been seen being bundled into a white Fiat Uno; she had been abducted to Albania. Despite the dogged persistence of the family, and frequent airings on Italy's answer to Crimewatch, the case faltered. Restivo slipped out of the limelight and then, quietly, out of the country.

In 2002, a 48-year-old seamstress, Heather Barnett, was murdered in her home in a suburb of Bournemouth. Her children came home from school to find her lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom; both her breasts had been cut off. In her hands were bunches of hair: in one hand her own, in the other the hair of an unknown female who has never been identified. When the traumatised children ran out into the street they were comforted by a neighbour, an Italian man who lived opposite. They knew him as Danny – it was Danilo Restivo.

Once again he was the chief suspect. He was put under surveillance, his alibi was disproved, his previous connection with the Claps case was noted, but primary evidence was lacking. It was not until 2010 that he was actually charged. The final link in the chain was the discovery of the decomposed remains of Elisa Claps. She had never left Santissima Trinità. Her body was found by workmen, hidden in an old back-garret up on the roof of the church. Twelve stab wounds were found on her body, and remains of cut hair in her hands, and traces of DNA which matched Restivo's.

At Winchester on 29 June 2011 Restivo was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for Barnett's murder. The Criminal Case Review Commission is now considering reopening the case of a South Korean student, Jong-Ok Shin, knifed to death in the same area of Bournemouth earlier in 2002. In Salerno he was convicted, in absentia, for the murder of Elisa. Many questions remain unresolved, not least the involvement of the priest Don Mimì (who is now dead) in the concealment of the crime, and the body, in his church.

This is not a whodunnit, because we knew from the news stories who did it. It is a compelling foray into one corner of Italy's "dark heart", and the miasma of misinformation that protects it. As Elisa's brother Gildo said: "Everything I've come across in this case I've had to smash into a thousand pieces."

Jones also gives us a vivid portrait of life in the rugged southern Italian region of Basilicata, of which Potenza is the capital. The area is still known by its old name, Lucania, which may derive from Greek lykos (wolf) or from Latin lucus (forest). In the 1930s the anti-fascist writer Carlo Levi was exiled here, and described it in his memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli, as a place "hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from history and the state … a land without comfort or solace, where the peasant lives out his motionless civilisation on barren ground". The region has remained proudly free of organised crime, though not – as this terrible story shows – from the more metaphysical mafia of contacts, favours and silences so deeply ingrained in Italian life.

• Charles Nicholl's The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street is published by Penguin.

 

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