Emanuela Orlandi was just 15 when she disappeared in Rome, Italy, in 1983. Unfortunately, she has not been seen since.
Her disappearance is one of Italy’s most notorious unsolved mysteries, and continues to draw interest in the modern day, with many theories put forward to try and explain what happened. Sadly though, Emanuela’s disappearance shows no sign of being solved any time soon.
This article reviews this unsolved case. There is a reader’s poll at the end of the article, which we would love you to vote on. We will be able to see which theory is the most accurate according to our readers.
Emanuela Orlandi was born in 1968, and lived in Vatican City – the iconic city-state that is known for being the home of the Pope. Religion is, and always has been, very important in Vatican City.
The population of Vatican City has historically been under 500, making the Orlandi family one of the privileged few to live within the realms of the unique city.
Emanuela was the fourth of five children, with her father working for the Vatican. She was a keen flute player, and had lessons several times a week. She did so at the prestigious Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music school – located in Rome, Italy.
Emanuela would tend to take the same route each time – travelling by bus to the school. Her bus stop was approximately 200 metres away from the stop, meaning it was generally a short walk for her once off the bus.
Emanuela disappeared on Wednesday 22nd June 1983. On the fateful day, Emanuela was running late, and asked her older brother Pietro if he would ride on the bus with her. But in a decision that would haunt Pietro for life, he declined to.
On the way to the lesson, Emanuela was reportedly stopped by a man in a green BMW, who offered her money to sell cosmetics from the company Avon.
Emanuela spoke to her sister about it, and the sister advised her to speak to their parents. This prospective conversation never happened.
Being stopped in the street appeared to trouble Emanuela. She was rather distracted at her flute lesson, and left earlier than usual. Emanuela was seen getting on her bus home.
She was last seen on the bus by friends talking to a red-haired female. Tragically, Emanuela would never return home. It seemed that something happened in the minutes or hours after she boarded the bus.
Emanuela was designated as missing the next day, after she had failed to return home. The Police had at first believed that Emanuela would be with friends, but this didn’t seem to be the case.
The case became big news in Italy, and a huge range of posters with Emanuela’s face were published around the city of Rome.
To help publicise the case, Emanuela’s family published their phone number in local newspapers. This resulted in some useful leads. But this measure also resulted in some strange occurrences.
They received a range of phone calls. One came from a boy who called himself Pierluigi. He said that he and his fiancée had seen Emanuela in the Piazza Navona area of Rome. Pierluigi spoke of how they had spoken to Emanuela, who had her flute with her.
He said that Emanuela said that she had ran away from home, and was selling Avon products. Pierluigi said that the girl called herself “Barbarella”.
This last point was very useful, as a few days later, a man named “Mario” called the family. He said that he had met “Barbara” – a girl that met Emanuela’s description, and said that she was selling cosmetics with another woman. This suggested that Emanuela was either with others at her own will, or was being forced into selling products.
The presiding belief in the Police was that Emanuela had been kidnapped. Pope John Paul II became involved, and appealed to anyone with information to come forward. Then, events became stranger.
The Orlandi family started receiving anonymous phone calls after the Pope’s speech. The phone calls supposedly were coming from a terrorist group who were demanding the release of Mehmet Ali Agca – the man that had tried to assassinate the Pope in 1981.
A man with an American accent that became known as “The American” continued the calls. Over the next few days, the American-sounding man mentioned Mario and Pierluigi from the earlier telephone calls – calling them members of the same organisation. This caused many questions for both the family and the Police.
An Italian news broadcaster was contacted by a man with an American accent stating that they had Emanuela, and were willing to exchange her for Agca’s release. The group offered to provide proof that Emanuela was alive.
However, the judge overseeing the case didn’t believe there was any credibility to the claims of a link between the disappearance and the Pope’s would-be assassinator.
The American-sounding man wasn’t heard from again. Other groups made similar demands, which led to investigators doubting the veracity of these claims.
The Police were unable to find Emanuela, and as the days and months passed, hope continued to slowly vanish. In the end, the Police reached the conclusion that Emanuela had been lured away by someone who kidnapped and later murdered her – albeit without any definitive proof.
In the years since Emanuela’s disappearance, there has been no shortage of efforts made to look into her case.
Over time, several remains and bones have been located around Rome, with many automatically assuming that they would be linked to Emanuela. However, no such cases have yielded anything of value to this case.
Emanuela’s family, including brother Pietro, have gone to great lengths to keep Emanuela’s memory fresh, hoping that it may one day result in the truth being discovered. Sadly, Emanuela’s father Ercole passed away in 2004.
In 2008, a development occurred where an ex-mistress of gangster Enrico De Pedis – stated that De Pedis had carried out the kidnapping on the command of American archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus, who had a role in the Vatican at the time.
What made this particularly interesting was that someone who had spotted Emanuela speaking to a man in a green BMW on the day that Emanuela disappeared, produced a composite sketch of the man he saw. This picture appeared to resemble De Pedis.
Both De Pedis and Marcinkus had already passed away at the time of this revelation. The Police were unable to find out how truthful this was. But if De Pedis was in the car, it may have pointed to mafia involvement.
Meanwhile, Mehmet Ali Agca was visited by the Pope, released, and was eventually pardoned in 2010. He converted to Catholicism, and remains alive to this day.
A potentially major breakthrough in the case came in 2022, when maintenance workers located bones underneath the flooring in an annex of the Vatican’s embassy to Italy – located in Rome.
We now take a look at a few different theories that have been proposed to explain the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi.
We take a look at the evidence for each:
Theory One: Emanuela was kidnapped and then murdered
Many believe that Emanuela was kidnapped, most likely for sexual reasons, and then murdered by the same person. Her body would then have been disposed of.
If she was kidnapped, it may have been related to the red-haired woman she was seen speaking to, or the person in the green BMW. Or, it may have been someone completely different. It could’ve been an opportunist attack.
Either way, the fact that Emanuela has never been found does point to her sadly being kidnapped and then murdered. If this wasn’t linked to any other motivations as will be discussed below, then this theory is certainly a possibility.
Theory Two: Emanuela was kidnapped by a gang that wanted to trade her for Mehmet Ali Agca, before being killed
As mentioned earlier, extensive efforts were made by at least one group to use Emanuela in an effort to facilitate a prisoner swap between herself and Mehmet Ali Agca – who was imprisoned in Italy at the time after trying to assassinate the Pope.
Agca had plenty of support from other extremists. These extremists may have viewed Emanuela as a high-value person that could be used in a “prisoner swap”.
Sadly, after their threats didn’t get anywhere, the group may have decided to tragically murder Emanuela. Releasing her probably would’ve been too dangerous in their warped eyes.
It isn’t known though if the group ever did have Emanuela, or even if it was a real group. There were few leads in this respect once the American-sounding man wasn’t heard from again.
Theory Three: Emanuela was kidnapped and then murdered by the mafia
We mentioned earlier about how Enrico De Pedis’ ex-mistress had mentioned that De Pedis had carried out Emanuela’s kidnapping. It is possible that this is accurate.
It is known that Emanuela spoke to someone in a green BMW, and the composite sketch did appear to resemble De Pedis.
Some have questioned what the mafia would have to do with Emanuela. One theory to explain this is that Emanuela’s father had evidence of wrongdoing by Marcinkus, leading to the archbishop demanding Emanuela was kidnapped as a way of keeping Emanuela’s father quiet.
Marcinkus was implicated in the big scandal of the Vatican Bank’s financial irregularities. It is possible that Emanuela’s father became aware of this, which could feasibly have led to Marcinkus taking drastic action.
De Pedis also knew a man named Piero Vergari – who was the Rector of the school where Emanuela had left before vanishing. Vergari allegedly advocated for De Pedis to be buried in an area that was normally reserved for high-ranking members of the Catholic Church. This was very strange, given that De Pedis was a gangster.
Due to these links, De Pedis’ grave was exhumed in 2012, with some suggestions that Emanuela might be buried with him. However, this was not the case. He was then cremated.
Overall, there does seem to be some evidence – albeit entirely circumstantial – that the mafia may have been involved in the case. But whether or not this amounts to involvement in her disappearance is unknown.
Theory Four: Vatican Involvement and cover-up
Some have argued that it is possible that there was involvement from figures in the Vatican, or corrupt priests. There have even been some suggestions that senior figures in the Vatican were involved.
A 2022 Netflix series called Vatican Girl promoted a theory that suggested Emanuela had been molested by “someone close to the Pope” just days before she disappeared.
This was put forward by a woman (whose face is blurred) that claims to be a childhood friend of Emanuela’s. She argues that a group blackmailed the Pope into funding a trade union group that was fighting communism in Poland.
Some have accused Netflix of missing out key elements of the case. Others have questioned the woman’s account of Emanuela’s molestation, or why she has waited decades to say anything to anyone.
Working on the idea that there was involvement by staff, the group that were involved may have then launched a sophisticated plot to confuse the Police by using the Agca-prisoner swap angle to push them in the wrong direction.
While the Catholic Church has been embroiled in some highly-controversial abuse cases, there is little in the way of absolute proof that Emanuela’s disappearance involved the Vatican, or that they played a role in a cover-up.
However, some have criticised the response of the Vatican, who were accused by some of not doing enough to assist in finding Emanuela, or turning over all of the information they had about her.
Indeed, Emanuela’s brother Pietro has said that he believes Pope Francis knows what happened to Emanuela. He has suggested a cover-up took place.
Theory Five: Emanuela intentionally disappeared
There is also always the chance that Emanuela intentionally vanished. While it has largely been discredited, “Mario’s” suggestion that she was seen selling cosmetics after running away from home is a possibility.
Maybe Emanuela left home to start a new life. For all we know, she could even still be alive to this day. This is surely wishful thinking though.
There would be no feasible reason for her to remain silent all this time, she had a loving family, and would’ve been too young at the time to live on her own.
After going the above theories, we invite you to vote on which of the theories you think is the most accurate in the poll below.
The case of Emanuela Orlandi has certainly captured the imagination of the Italian public. Many questions remain unanswered, and there is significant pain for her family, who continue to fight for answers.
Whatever did happen to Emanuela was a tragedy. There is always a chance that she remains alive to this day, but the likelihood is that something terrible happened to her back on that fateful day in 1983.