Investigators were left with more questions than answers as they searched for Emanuela Orlandi, a 15-year-old girl who went missing in 1983. The Vatican agreed to open two tombs on July 11 after the Orlandi family received a mysterious tip. But instead of finding Orlandi, the Vatican discovered thousands of human bones.
The two tombs were unearthed in the Vatican’s Teutonic Cemetery after Emanuela’s family received an anonymous message directing them to the burial ground which told them to “look where the angel is pointing.” The cemetery once served as the final resting place for German Roman Catholics who died in Rome and has a plot with a statue of an angel pointing towards the ground.
The 19th Century tombs of Princess Sophie von Hohenlohe and Princess Charlotte Federica of Mecklenburgh were unsealed on July 11 but turned up empty. The Vatican said the remains of the two princesses could have been moved elsewhere when the adjacent Teutonic College was built in the 1960s and ‘70s.
After searching for the princesses’ remains, a Vatican news release revealed that two hidden burial chambers known as ossuaries were located on July 20 just under the floor inside the Teutonic College and contained thousands of human bones.
Emanuela’s now 60-year-old brother Pietro Orlandi was present for the opening. “I’ve also hoped she’s alive, and to find her alive,” he told AFP. “But if Emanuela is dead and is buried there, it’s right that what has been hidden for so many years comes to light.”
Vatican officials are waiting for forensic investigators to examine the bones and collect DNA to determine if Emanuela’s remains were hidden in the ossuaries.
Here’s what you need to know about the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi.
1. Emanuela Was Raised in Vatican City
Emanuela and her family lived in Vatican City, where her father worked as a layperson. Emanuela’s siblings included brother Pietro and sisters Natalina, Federica, and Maria Christina. Born on January 14, 1968, Emanuela was the fourth of her parent’s five children.
At the time of her disappearance, Emanuela stood 5’2” and had brown hair and brown eyes.
Brother Pietro recalled what it was like growing up in Vatican City. “The Vatican gardens were available to us as if it was our own back garden. We felt we were in the safest place in the world,” he said.
2. Emanuela Disappeared After Taking a Flute Lesson
On June 22, 1983, Emanuela left Vatican City and took a bus to her flute lesson at the Tommaso Ludovico Da Victoria School, about a mile away. She was last seen wearing a white shirt, jeans and gym shoes.
She’d asked her brother if he would accompany her but he had other plans. Pietro recalled that they argued about him not going with her.
“It’s a very painful memory – she insisted I take her, and we rowed over it. Then she left, slamming the door” he explained.
“I never thought it would be the last time I saw her. I’ve gone over it so many times, telling myself if only I accompanied her maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
Later that day, Emanuela called home and spoke with one of her sisters. She said a man in a green BMW had stopped her on the way to her lesson and asked if she wanted to sell Avon cosmetics. Her sister suggested that Emanuela first get permission from their parents before accepting the job.
During the lesson, friends recalled that Emanuela was distracted and asked to leave early. She was last seen around 6:50 p.m. speaking with a red-haired woman. Her friends also spotted a green BMW with an Avon bag nearby.
3. Police Have Investigated Multiple Conspiracy Theories
Several theories about Emanuela’s disappearance have emerged. Over the years, the Orlandi family and detectives have attempted to follow up on hundreds of tips.
Investigators looked into the possibility that the teen had been abducted as a ransom for the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981. Ali Agca was affiliated with the Grey Wolves, a Turkish neo-fascist terrorist group. He claimed the group hoped to use Emanuela as a bargaining chip to secure his release from prison.
Another theory was that her kidnapping was perpetrated by the mafia, who were allegedly demanding that Vatican officials make good on outstanding loans. Acting on a May 2012 tip called into the Italian crime TV show Who Has Seen? investigators opened the diamond-studded tomb of Italian gangster Enrico de Pedis, who allegedly confessed to kidnapping Emanuela prior to his murder in 1990. DNA evidence was collected but no evidence of Emanuela was recovered.
In 2012, controversial Roman Catholic priest and exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth stepped forward and accused Vatican police of being behind Emanuela’s disappearance. He said the Emanuels had been taken for sex parties and then murdered. “This was a crime with a sexual motive,” he told the paper La Stampa. “The network involved diplomatic personnel from a foreign embassy to the Holy See. I believe Emanuela ended up a victim of this circle.”
4. Emanuela’s Brother Thinks the Vatican Knows the Truth
Pietro Orlandi suspects the Vatican knows what happened to his sister even though the Holy See has denied any knowledge of her disappearance. Pope Francis added to Pietro’s suspicions when the two met several years ago and he remarked that his sister “was in heaven.”
“I don’t know about the theories, but I do say this: the behavior of the Vatican over these 36 years has been one of secrecy and lack of collaboration, and it has made me think there are leaders within the Vatican who know what happened,” Pietro said.
Pietro believes the Vatican has remained quiet to protect the church’s image and says the Vatican has been doing “all they can to ensure that the truth doesn’t come out.”
“The decision to open both tombs, in the presence of an expert appointed by Emanuela’s family, working according to the most advanced technical standards, is a sign of particular attention and human and Christian closeness to the Orlandi family. It is certainly not – as has been said – an admission by the Vatican of a possible involvement in the concealment of a corpse,” a Vatican news release said.
5. Another Girl Went Missing Around the Same Time as Emanuela
On May 7, 1983, forty days before Emanuela went missing, 15-year-old Mirella Gregori vanished in Rome. Gregori left her home, telling her mother that she had a date with a school friend, and has not been seen since.
In 1985 Gregori’s mother was at a Rome parish when Pope John Paul II paid a visit. Gregori’s mother recognized a man in the papal escort named Raoul Bonarelli as a friend of Mirella’s who would often pick her up at their home.
In February 2019, bones were recovered from a property owned by the Vatican. There were hopes the remains might belong to Mirella or Emanuela, but testing revealed they were from a man who died between AD90 and AD230. “We were hoping to bring an end to this dramatic story after 35 years,” Mirella’s sister said.