It's dusk. The fog is thickening. I'm looking for La Tana dell'Orso, a popular college bar/restaurant somewhere near the center of Perugia, an Italian university town recently made world famous by a gruesome murder. Before the murder, Perugia had absolutely no existence in my mind. For the last three months, it's been at the center of my thoughts and dreams. Now, it's the end of a winter day and I'm walking through it—walking by its palaces, across its piazzas, through its portals, mists, and drizzle, searching for this impossible place called La Tana dell'Orso.
It began—my obsession—soon after the morning of November 2, 2007, the day that police found the body of a British student, Meredith Kercher, 21, in a cottage on the edge of a hill that falls from a prominent Perugian street, Viale Sant'Antonio. Kercher was in her bedroom, half-naked, and in a chaos of blankets and clothes. She'd been stabbed repeatedly in the neck. She had been sexually assaulted. A washing machine was running somewhere in the house when the police entered and, while they were standing there, the machine stopped. Someone had made a ridiculous attempt to clean up. Police looked in her bathroom and found unflushed shit in the toilet.
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Four days after the discovery of Kercher's body, her American roommate, Amanda Knox, 20, a study-abroad student from Seattle, and Knox's Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, 24, were arrested. During interrogation, Knox broke down and fingered Diya "Patrick" Lumumba, 44, the Congolese owner of a bar she worked at, Le Chic, as the murderer. The police went to Lumumba's house, got him out of bed, and arrested him. Two weeks later, Lumumba was released—they found no evidence linking him to the scene—but Knox and Sollecito remained in custody. A fourth suspect, Rudy Hermann Guede, whose DNA was in the shit and in Kercher's body, was later arrested. Knox, Sollecito, and Guede are now in a prison on the outskirts of Perugia.
Crime-scene photos detectives released in January show Kercher's blood all over the bathroom walls, the hallway, the bedroom, her bed, the divan, her clothes, her torn bra. Indeed, there is so much blood it's hard to believe that just one person was murdered that night. It looks as if two or three more went down with Kercher into the dark end of all things.
I'm struggling to locate La Tana dell'Orso, but I had no trouble finding the cottage where Meredith Kercher and Amanda Knox lived. It happened to be only a 10-minute walk from my hotel, and holds a stunning view of the Umbrian countryside and hills. Just up the road from the cottage, I also found the stately building for Amanda's school, the Universita per Stranieri (translated: the University for Foreigners, or University of Strangers). Across the street from the University of Strangers, I spotted a sunken basketball court and a newsstand. At the newsstand, I read on the cover of a local paper, La Voce di Perugia: "II Dna di Raffaele trovato sul reggiseno di Meredith"—Sollecito's DNA had been found on Kercher's bra. I bought La Voce, called the author of the main story, Francesca Marruco, and at 4:00 p.m. met her in a cafe near the Piazza Italia.
Sadly, English is Marruco's third language and Italian is my zero language. Our conversation was slow and difficult. Nevertheless, she managed to inform me that La Tana dell'Orso was the place to go if I wanted to get a good sense of Knox's Perugia. It's the place where Knox and Kercher used to hang out. It's also where Knox tried to get a job when she settled in this town. La Tana had no openings at the time, but she was told to try Le Chic, the new cool spot at the end of Piazza Matteotti. The advice proved to be good for Knox (she had a short-lived job there) and, of course, bad for Lumumba (he had to close Le Chic because the police consider the bar part of their ongoing investigation).
The population of Perugia is around 150,000. It's a sister city to Seattle, which I did not know until the murder. (Nor did I know Kobe was a sister city until it was devastated by an earthquake in 1995.) However, Perugia and Seattle are hardly related. The center of Perugia is high on a hill; the center of Seattle is down by the bay. The streets of Perugia are made for walkers; the streets of Seattle are made for big cars. The center of Perugia has no new buildings; the center of Seattle is dominated by new buildings. Because it is new, it is easy to find places in Seattle; because it is old, it is difficult to find places in Perugia. Directions and maps are useless. They cannot penetrate the dense network of small streets that accommodate only pedestrians, motorbikes, and the smallest of cars. To find what you are looking for, you have to dump all maps, forget all directions, and simply walk until you run into the place.
Because its buildings are old and made from stone, central Perugia is more beautiful than Seattle. And what is true about the buildings is true about the women of this Italian city. The older women here have about them a confidence, a stability, a mastery of the full language of their physical form that the younger women do not possess. More than a full head of gray hair is needed for a Perugian woman to lose her erotic grip. In Seattle, the complete opposite is true for its buildings and women: the younger, the more attractive.
I walk in what seem to be circles. I'm looking for a place in a maze. I go up an escalator, turn, and there is a window with a woman in it. I turn and walk down a narrow, curving street that ends with a stone wall. I turn and walk along the wall. I turn and find life in a cafe. I enter it, drink a glass of wine (two euros), exit it, and see a massive portal. I walk under it, walk up another steep street, and all of a sudden, materializing there in the mist, is the sign: La Tana dell'Orso.
Inside, the place is slowly filling up with colorful students from around the world, and a big screen, above instruments and equipment for DJs, shows a game between Manchester United and Newcastle. Though it first appears to be a sports bar, La Tana is tricky to define: Part of it is a college pub; another part of it is a nightclub; another part of it a jazz joint; and another part of it is set up for wine tastings during the weekends.
I take a seat by the wall of wine bottles, read the menu, and, tired of the pork sandwiches (panini, tramezzini) I have been eating for the last few days, order the hamburger. But it arrives all alone, with no fries or side surprises; and despite its thick beef patty, it has the exact same taste as the pork sandwiches that dominate this old country. After completing the Italian version of the American hamburger, I approach its maker and ask if he would tell me everything he knows about Amanda, Meredith, Raffaele, Rudy, the murder, the town, the media, the students. He is more than happy to do this, but at the moment is too busy to talk at length. He asks me to come back at noon on Sunday when business is slow. The time that works best for him works fine for me. I pay for the burger (three euros), return to the streets, the thickening fog, and the cold air of Perugia.
This is the kingdom of the international student. They are the masters of the capital of Umbria. They rule the economy of Perugia. The old Italian families have abandoned the hill to the students and now live down in the valley, with the grapes, olive trees, and chocolate factories. The apartments for rent have no other persons in mind than those attending the university. This is their place, and they come from every place on earth. Even though I was born in Zimbabwe and spent a good amount of time in two international capitals—London and Washington, D.C.—I meet my first Libyan here in Perugia, while buying a kebab from a Lebanese, Ali, whose home is in the Ivory Coast. I meet my first Angolan ever, while buying a bottle of wine (four euros) from a small shop that has no name and is run by an ancient Italian couple. I meet my first Tunisian woman in the Laundromat where several witnesses claim to have seen Knox and a darkish man on the night of the crime. The Tunisian woman, who had the manner of a mother—but a mother who had not entirely abandoned the instincts of her youth—helps me start the confusing machine. I meet my first Colombian in the back of a cafe—he is flirting with an American girl, who looks a lot like the Lolita in Kubrick's movie.
At night, all sorts of languages can be heard in the dark: Now Chinese falls from the window of an apartment on the second floor of a three-story building; now Arabic pours out of a lively magazine stand; now African French packs an internet cafe. And when the fog is at its thickest, the old buildings and global bodies became unreal. A circle of English girls are giggling over there; a clutch of Indian men are chatting over here. A woman with a head of ghostly hair, a face of classical perfection, a form that is full, approaches and then vanishes—her passing causing my heart to flutter like the wings of a bird that has seen something truly amazing.
Amanda Knox grew up in a plain home in West Seattle. She is the daughter of a math teacher and a Macy's executive; she attended a Catholic prep school on Capitol Hill; she was on the dean's list at the University of Washington; she got good grades, was social, blond, the girl next door. In the middle of December, her friends appeared on ABC News to defend her damaged character: She's a blast, a great hugger, couldn't hurt a fly. "Her world," said one of Amanda's friends, Andrew, to the TV, "revolves around making people feel good and making people feel happy." At the end of January, her parents and sister also appeared on TV, on 20/20, and defended her. Her mother, Edda Mellas, said she had been "painted in this horrible light." Her sister criticized the press for portraying Amanda as "the girl from Seattle with an angel face and ice-cold eyes."
Raffaele Sollecito, who had only been her boyfriend for a couple of weeks, grew up in Bari, a port city that is the center of the prosperous Puglia region; he is close to completing a degree in computer engineering, his mother died recently, and his father, who recently remarried, supports him to the max. "[Raffaele] collects knives," the father told the press, "but nothing more." Knox met Sollecito in the middle of October, two weeks before the murder, at a classical-music concert. "My first impression was that this was an interesting girl," wrote Sollecito in a letter to his father. "She looked at me over and over again and seemed to be searching for something in my eyes, like a particular interest. Then I sat near her to talk and I noticed that her opinions on the music were odd because she didn't concentrate on the emotions it provoked but on the rhythm—slow, fast, slow."
Rudy Hermann Guede was a guard in the Italian basketball league (2004–05), reportedly loves to disco dance, speak English, hang out with the ladies, and meet famous fashion designers. Yes, he has had brushes with the law, but his father, Pacome Roger Guede, is certain that he did not commit the murder. "My son is innocent," Rudy's father told reporters in Perugia, as he wiped away tears. "He is a good boy." It's possible Knox met Guede for the first time in September, while looking for an apartment in Perugia, because on her MySpace blog she mentioned bumping into "the most beautiful black man [she had] ever seen." From his pictures on his Facebook site, one gets the impression that Guede also thought he was the most beautiful black man he had ever seen.
Detectives have produced no real motive for the murder, and none of the three suspects are talking. Their stories are now managed by lawyers and PR agents. What we know about the crime and the suspects comes mostly from what the police and lawyers release/leak to the press. From these releases/leaks of information rises a haze of conflicting confessions, changing stories, DNA links, and digital details. For a while, Sollecito insisted he was not at the cottage at the time of the murder; he was, instead, at home surfing the web. But the recent revelation that his DNA was found on Kercher's bra ties him to the scene. Knox first said she wasn't there, either; she was at Sollecito's place. Then a surveillance camera captured Knox walking back to the cottage an hour before Kercher returned home for the last time. After that, Knox admitted she had been at home, saying she had smoked a lot of hash, heard the killer in the other room, and closed her ears while Kercher screamed. But a drop of Knox's blood has been found in a sink, and her DNA was also on a knife that had Kercher's DNA on its tip. Guede claims that he did not kill Kercher, that the two had consensual sex, and after sex he took a big shit in her bathroom because his stomach was turned by some "spicy kebab." While taking the long shit, he was listening to music on his iPod. Because the music was loud, he did not hear Kercher screaming for her life in the other room. When he entered her room, he confronted and tussled with her killer. The stranger screamed: "A black man found, black man condemned," and fled the house. In the quiet moment that fell upon the room, Guede heard Kercher's last word: "af." He knelt beside her oozing life, dipped a forefinger into a warm pool of her blood, wrote "AF" on the wall, and ran out of her house. That is his story.
No one outside of Knox, Sollecito, and Guede really knows what happened on the night of the murder. No one knows what Knox, Sollecito, and Guede were doing before Kercher returned home. In the absence of stable answers, the imagination does its work. Were the three waiting for her? Did they plot an attack? Were they caught by surprise in the middle of a threesome and forced Kercher to join in? Did Knox pin Kercher's head to the floor as Guede sexually assaulted her from behind? Was Sollecito fucking Knox as Guede raped Kercher? Did Guede and Sollecito fuck Knox as Kercher watched with dying eyes? Or was Kercher into it? Was she playing along? Was the violence simulated or real? Were the three stabs in Kercher's neck intentional or accidental? Was it rape or consensual? Was this an act of revenge or did it just happen all of a sudden, like a wild storm that appeared, erupted, and cleared?
It's not hard to see why Amanda Knox first looked for a job at La Tana dell'Orso. The business has some similarities to the last place she worked in Seattle, the World Cup cafe in the University District. Like La Tana, the World Cup is a little mixed up—a part of it sells soups and panini, another part of it sells espresso and tea, and another sells bottles of wine. The business also has wine tasting on Saturday afternoons. Not far from one of the closest things Seattle has to medieval architecture, the neo-Gothic Blessed Sacrament Church (built in 1908), and right next to the Continental Store European Delicatessen, the World Cup stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the hamburger off La Tana's menu: One is an Italian idea of an American object; the other, the cafe, is an American idea of a European space, with its wall of dark bottles, its aristocratic ambience, autumn-colored panels, and noble furniture. To an American, it looks perfectly European; to a European, it might look like McDonald's.
On the day I visited the World Cup, just before leaving for Italy, I had the luck of meeting an old friend—let's call him Matthew. He was one of two people working behind the counter. He remembered me before I remembered him. We had not seen each other since my wild college years, back in the early 1990s. We had mutual friends—crazy Hagar, loopy Lisa, boozy Jenny—and partied like there was no tomorrow. It's a wonder we survived that terrific turbulence of dusk-to-dawn parties, blood-boiling passions, and all sorts of filthy desires that seemed to come out of nowhere and go nowhere. It's a wonder I'm not serving (have never served) time for one of those bad nights that spun way out of control—Who are these people? What is in my hands? What did I just smoke? Did I have sex with her? Why is that policeman looking at me? Will this high ever end?
Matthew seemed to be happy enough with his life and job at World Cup. He told me he was on the wagon. Had been on it for a while. He had no plans to get off it for a while. After catching up on things, I asked him about Knox. He used to work with her and had lots to say about her and the media frenzy that she is in the center of. Almost immediately after her arrest in Italy, reporters from around the world began hounding the small cafe. They showed up in droves and sat around waiting for something to happen. And when they were not around, they kept calling and asking about Knox, about her personality, her performance on the job, her habits—anything that was fit enough to throw into print or on the screen.
"You know," Matthew said, leaning toward me, "a lot of people are saying she is a sweet girl and they can't believe she could have done such a thing. But, to be honest, I'm not surprised she is a suspect. Really. The first time I met her, when I got the job here, she asked me if I was Jewish. I told her I was. She then screamed: 'My people killed your people,' and began laughing hysterically. I didn't know what to say. She just kept laughing about her Germans killing my Jews. After that, I did not like her. She really freaked me out."
The owner of La Tana dell'Orso, Estaban, the guy who told me to come back on Sunday at noon, is 36, a little lanky, and handsome in exactly the way that his name is handsome. He is married to an English woman. He was born in Argentina. He once lived near Mount Baker in Washington ("I was snowboarding back then"), and in the late 1990s worked at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. He now runs a bar that once employed Patrick Lumumba, almost employed Amanda Knox, and entertained Meredith Kercher.
"This is where she used to hang out," says Estaban, pouring me a glass of Umbrian wine and pressing the central place his business has in the world of the murder. "Count them! Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, not Monday—because we are closed on Mondays—and Tuesday, Meredith was in my place." He walks to the back of the bar, which is filled with the light of a sun that has just made its first appearance since my arrival in Perugia. The window looks out at medieval rooftops, green valleys, and purple-blue hills. "Over here, this is where they sat the last time she visited this place, on a Tuesday."
I look at the table.
"Amanda sat here. Raffaele sat here. Meredith sat there, with two other English girls."
Estaban points across the room.
"You know that picture of Meredith that's in all of the papers? Well, look over here, do you recognize it?" I look at the table, the brick wall, the posters—one advertising beer, the other a drawing of a musician—and instantly recognize the setting. It's been reproduced all over the web. Here, in this empty space, Meredith Kercher, two days before she was murdered, the day before she wore a dreadful Dracula costume for Halloween (black cape, black lace around her neck, blood-red lips), stood with a sweet smile, flowing brown hair, lively brown eyes, clear British/Indian skin, a gray tank top, a fleshy shoulder and elbow showing. The digital image captured forever one of the final happy moments in Kercher's life.
Estaban is right, the place is central to the story of Knox and Kercher, but I still don't feel like I've reached the story's essence, so the next day I leave the hill and travel down, down, down to Capanne Prison, a 20-minute drive from Perugia. The sun is gone; the clouds are low; the rain is weak; the two-lane road is all but empty; my driver, Fabrizio Troccoli, a freelance photographer for local papers, is reticent. The purpose of the trip is to get me as close as possible to Amanda Knox. If you are not in her immediate family, or her lawyer, or her nun, or one of the inmates in the female section of the prison, then the gates of "carcere di Capanne" is the closest you can physically get to her.
We arrive. The prison's parking lot is huge and harsh, and across the street from it is a complex of grain silos that do not have about them the air of joy you expect from a place that stores food, glorious food. The main building of the prison is bulky and bleak, and the gate, like the tall wall that stretches out into the flat countryside, is as attractive as sandpaper. A group of reporters and cameramen lurk under a tree at the east part of the parking lot. They are with ABC News; they are waiting for something to happen. An hour later, something does happen! The father of suspect Raffaele Sollecito emerges with his new glamorous wife—she is blond, wearing a mink coat, black gloves, and winning the late rounds of her battle against the undefeated forces of time.
We reporters surround the father, Francesco Sollecito, ask the same old questions (how is your son? what about Amanda?), and he gives the same old answers (Raffaele is fine; he is studying for his computer exam; Amanda is a strange woman).
Francesco enters his car—hot wife behind the wheel—and leaves. The reporters call it a good day and leave. And I... I do not leave, yet. I stand around and stare at the building beyond the gate. It is the absolute negative of the realm of the students, Perugia, where everything is unreal and students get away with almost anything; this is the graveyard of the best that youth has to offer—freedom of the body, the pressures of the flesh, the satisfaction of sex. By the time this is published, Knox will have been in jail in Italy for longer than she was in the streets, bars, concert halls, galleries, cafes, classrooms, bedrooms, lingerie shops, and piazzas of Italy. If all goes badly for her, she'll no longer be a foreign student in this country, but an immigrant here. Against her will. If all goes badly, her education over the years is going to be the education of an immigrant; she'll learn things about Italy that they never teach at the University of Strangers. Then one day, somewhere in her 40s or 50s, she'll walk out of these gates as an Italian woman who was once young and all American.
EDITOR'S NOTE: On October 3, 2011, Amanda Knox was acquitted of the murder of Meredith Kercher and released from prison.