The Naked City Jun 30 2011
UNHOLY TRINITY
British murder case ends with conviction of man wanted for seventeen-year-old disappearance in Italy.

The two victims never knew each other, but Heather Barnett and Elisa Claps are forever linked by their stolen lives, stolen hair, and tragic acquaintance with a third person, a strange, compulsive man neither of them suspected was capable of violence. Danilo Restivo, an Italian national who spent much of his life in the remote town of Potenza, Italy, was convicted yesterday for the 2002 mutilation and murder of Heather Barnett. The killing took place in the British town of Bournemouth, where Barnett lived and where Restivo had relocated. But the Restivo saga may actually have begun seventeen years ago, when young Elisa Claps disappeared from a church in Potenza, Italy.

The Church of the Most Holy Trinity, known in Potenza as Chiesa della SS. Trinità, is one of the few old churches in a town that was destroyed by an 1857 earthquake and again by an Allied bombardment during World War II. The town was shaken yet again in 1993 when Elisa Claps disappeared. Then sixteen, Claps had agreed to meet nineteen-year-old Danilo Restivo at morning mass, but he claimed afterward that Claps left while he remained behind to pray. A missing persons case was soon launched but Claps seemed to have disappeared into thin air. Police suspected Restivo, but there was no evidence against him, and with mass just ending there seemed too many witnesses to a potential crime for him to have harmed her. Yes, there was a cut on his hand, but Restivo claimed to have fallen at a construction site, and he was cool when questioned.

Claps, below, remained missing and, as often happens, the vacuum in the case was filled by the general public as rumors sprang up, articles and opinion pieces were published, and websites were launched. Perhaps Claps ran away with a lover. Perhaps she was abducted by Albanians and sold into sexual slavery. Maybe there was a police cover-up. Or perhapsthe church was involved—after all, the priest of della Trinità was a curious man named Mimi Sabia and he wasn’t entirely cooperative with police, having refused to let authorities disrupt his church with forensic investigations. The case wore on and the obsession about it spread from Potenza to the rest of Italy.

Danilo Restivo eventually left Italy. By 2002 he was living in Bournemouth, England, where he was a neighbor of Heather Barnett. On November 12 Barnett’s two children found their mother mutilated and dead in the bathroom of their home. She was partially nude, her throat was slit and her breasts cut off. She was also holding a lock of her own hair. Local police immediately suspected Restivo. They learned that Barnett’s keys had gone missing just after Restivo had been inside the house asking about having some curtains made. When they interviewed him days later they found that he was soaking his Nike trainers in bleach. But suspicions do not a murder case make and so police did not detain him—however, unlike in Italy they decided to keep him under surveillance.

What they learned was extremely disconcerting. Restivo haunted a local park, where he would spy on single women, darting between bushes or ducking behind stands of grass. He wore gloves during these outings, and he often returned to his car to change shirts or shoes. They also learned that he had a habit of stealing girls’ and women’s hair. Two teenagers reported that someone had cut their hair while they rode in a bus. They couldn’t say for sure who did it, but they were able to identify Restivo as one of the people who had sat behind them. Police also learned that at the age of fourteen Restivo had tied up and tortured two boys whose families later dropped charges in exchange for financial compensation from Restivo’s family. And perhaps most worrying, other women had been murdered and mutilated in places where Danilo Restivo resided and passed through.

All of this was uncovered through years of police work, and though the case against Danilo Restivo was looking stronger and stronger all the time, it wasn’t until this March that police caught the break they needed. That was when two workers back in Potenza, intending to repair a leak in the roof of della Trinità, found Elisa Claps’ body in the very church where she had been last seen. Her skeletonized remains, covered by mummified skin and the rags of her clothes, had been hidden in a small tower room beneath some old tiles. In one of the corpse’s hands was a lock of hair, and subsequent forensic analysis revealed that she had been mutilated in almost identical fashion as Heather Barnett. A case that had spawned numerous articles, websites, multiple investigations and hundreds of conspiracy theories, had come full circle. British police arrested Danilo Restivo, the court tried him, and yesterday, with Barnett’s family members present, a jury convicted him.

Now all eyes turn to Potenza. Mimi Sabia the uncooperative priest had long been suspected by some of hiding something. His was the only church that didn’t ring bells on the anniversary of Elisa Claps’ disappearance. Now there was a body in that bell tower belonging to a girl who would have been found probably the very day she was killed if onlyDon Mimi had helped. During investigation into the case he claimed not to know Danilo Restivo even though Restivo had been to della Trinità and Sabia was once photographed, just above, at a birthday party thrown for Restivo. But these questions will possibly never be answered because Don Mimi Sabia died in 1998.

However there are other questions. Della Trinità's newest priest claims that Elisa Claps’ body wasn’t found in March 2011, but two months earlier by two cleaners. The priest claims he informed church officials but was told to keep quiet while they decided what to do. Two months of secret deliberations later, two more workers were called in to repair a leaky roof that in fact wasn’t leaking at all. A body that had been completely covered with tiles was now partially exposed in order to ensure its discovery. Or so the new priest says, which means the Catholic Church is accused by one of its own of operating outside the law. It would be shocking if it hadn’t happened so many times before with regard to child molestation cases, but only time will tell if these specific allegations are true. Meanwhile, all the details of Elisa Claps’ last day on Earth are set to emerge—Danilo Restivo is being extradited to Italy to stand trial for her murder. 

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