Image: Man on St. Peter's Basilica
Video capture from Sky TG24 TV, showing a man holding on to the side of the St. Peter's Basilica dome after apparently climbing over the barrier meant to protect tourists Saturday.
updated 3/26/2005 9:53:15 PM ET 2005-03-27T02:53:15

A convicted murderer with a history of psychiatric problems climbed onto the side of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica on Saturday and perched there for hours until firefighters dragged him to safety, police said.

The drama ended about three hours before the start of a major Holy Week ceremony — an Easter vigil Mass in the basilica.

Police identified the man as Rino Santilli and said he spent at least three years in a mental institution after being convicted of killing a man.

“We know that he underwent psychiatric treatment,” police spokesman Marco Catana said.

Vatican officials said Santilli had a letter for Pope John Paul II to promote his idea of setting up a lottery with proceeds to benefit children. Because of the man’s reported criminal record, the officials said, he was turned over to Italian authorities.

Firefighters, bishop pleaded with man
The man, who was secured to the rail by a cord around his waist, was perched on the dome designed by Michelangelo for several hours Saturday afternoon as firefighters, a bishop and other clergymen tried to persuade him to climb back to safety.

Suddenly, firefighters and other rescuers scrambled over the railing, grabbed the man and heaved him upside down over the rail and onto the terrace.

The Italian news agency ANSA reported that Santilli had fatally stabbed the mayor of his hometown in central Italy in 1983. He was released after serving five years in prison, ANSA said. The news agency said that following his release in 1988, Santilli tried to jump from Giotto’s bell tower at Florence’s cathedral, but was overpowered by police.

Private Italian TV Sky TG24 TV, which showed the rescue live, interviewed Giuseppina Santilli, from the central region of Abruzzo, who said the man was her 45-year-old son, though she hadn’t seen the footage of the drama.

She said her son had a history of psychiatric problems, and might have been seeking help to care for poor people. The woman said her son had left home in the morning, saying he was headed to Rome to spend the day with friends.

The pope has been convalescing in his apartment in the Apostolic Palace — about 200 yards from the basilica — after throat surgery on Feb. 24. He designated a cardinal to stand in for him at the vigil Mass.

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