updated 4/8/2006 9:54:32 PM ET 2006-04-09T01:54:32

An Italian journalist researching the serial killings of 16 people between 1968 and 1985 has been arrested and accused of sidetracking the investigation into the mutilation deaths.

The dead — seven couples and a pair of German tourists — were found parked in their cars or camped in the Tuscan countryside. Some victims were mutilated, and body parts removed.

Three men were linked to the deaths, including Pietro Pacciani — a farmhand dubbed “the Monster of Florence” by the Italian media.

In a 1994 trial that was televised and gripped Italy, the 69-year-old Pacciani was convicted of 14 murders and sentenced to life in prison. On the opening day of his trial, he claimed innocence, crying, “I am here like Christ on the cross.”

In February 1996, an appeals court cleared Pacciani and he was ordered to face a retrial. He died in 1998 of what authorities termed natural causes while awaiting a second trial.

Pacciani’s friend, Mario Vanni, 70, and another man, Giancarlo Lotti, 54, were convicted of their involvement in five of the double murders. Vanni was given a life sentence and Lotti received a sentence of 26 years in prison.

Writer accused of slander
In August 2001, Florentine authorities reopened the case amid speculation they were investigating up to a dozen wealthy Italians who orchestrated the ritualistic killings by manipulating a trio of voyeuristic peasants.

Mario Spezi, a journalist who has worked with the American thriller author Douglas Preston on a book about the killings, was arrested Friday and accused of slander and sidetracking the investigation, Spezi’s lawyer, Antonino Filasto, said Saturday.

Spezi’s lawyer said Luigi Ruocco, an ex-convict, was also detained, accused of helping Spezi divert the investigation.

The prosecutor’s office in the central town of Perugia confirmed the arrests but refused to give details.

Challenging police conclusions
In articles and interviews, Spezi had previously challenged the long and costly investigation by prosecutors.

In their book scheduled for release in Italy this month, Spezi and Preston allege a lone killer carried out the murders.

Conspiracy theories about the case persist, involving well-connected and seemingly respectable doctors and artists and the whiff of the occult.

Spezi’s arrest was “bewildering” said Lorenzo del Boca, president of Italy’s journalists guild.

Del Boca said he hoped “it will not become more and more dangerous for journalists to do their job of in-depth analysis on the most delicate investigations,” the Italian news agency ANSA said.

Preston, 49, has written several thrillers and horror novels, including “Relic,” “Mount Dragon,” “Reliquary” and “Rip Tide.”

Preston himself was questioned in February by police while visiting Italy.

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