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Murder in ancient Perugia

Van Zandt: Many questions with a growing list of answers.  The forensic evidence will place the murder suspects at the crime scene; suspects whose alibis fail to meet the test of truth, while witnesses, telephone and internet records, local surveillance cameras and other means of modern detective work will be employed to build a case against Meredith Kercher’s murderer.

The brightly colored Ferris wheel that sits high atop a hill in the idyllic university community of Perugia, Italy, turned slowly in the cool night air.  No passengers were brave enough to ride on the wheel as to do so would put them face to face with the cold air that warned of the coming of winter.  After all, you could see Perugia from just about anywhere from this hillside, even without the benefit of a Ferris wheel ride.

It was about a mile from the turning Ferris wheel, in a rented house overlooking the same community, that 21-year-old British exchange student Meredith Kercher was murdered.  Halloween night was party night in Perugia, but the young students who call this beautiful community home seem to see most nights as party nights.  Kercher apparently fit right in with the hundreds of students and other young and not so young men and women who strolled through the large piazza or town square.  Her costume that evening included fake blood, perhaps a terrible harbinger of her fate within the next 24 hours.  Like many others that Halloween eve, Kercher walked from bar to bar, party to party in celebration of the holiday 

Kercher’s new American roommate, 20-year-old Amanda Knox from Washington state, worked part-time at Le Chic, one of the local bars.  Le Chic was owned by Patrick Lumumba, a 40-something-year-old man from the Congo.  Lumumba had complained about Knox, indicating that she spent more time socializing with the young men that came into the bar than working the busy tables as a waitress.  Lumumba appeared to like Kercher when he met her and talked about hiring her, perhaps with her replacing Knox.  However, this was not the only point of contention between the two young women. 

One report said Kercher was having second thoughts about her new roommate Knox, who shared the multi-bedroom house at via della Pergola 7 with Kercher and two other young women.  As the story goes, Kercher had told her father of her displeasure with the number and type of men that Knox brought into their shared residence, and of Knox’s lack of responsibility in taking her turn in cleaning the house and in generally cleaning up after herself.  The short three-week relationship appeared to be in trouble.

The next day, Nov. 1, was All Saints Day, celebrated by the closing of the local colleges, so Kercher slept in.  She would eventually wind up at the local residence of two friends from the UK where she shared food and a movie, eventually walking home later that evening.  Knox told authorities that she and her new boyfriend, 23-year-old Italian student Raffaele Sollecito, the son of a prominent doctor, were together that evening.  Knox would then tell police other versions of her whereabouts that fateful night.

One story has her with Sollecito at his apartment, where she had previously spent the night.  A second version has her at her own residence along with Kercher.  In that version Lumumba, her possibly soon-to-be ex-boss, has come by because he wants to have a relationship with Kercher.  Knox, who admitted that she and Sollecito had been smoking hashish for part of the day, told police that Kercher and Lumumba went into Kercher’s bedroom, followed by the sound of screams and loud thuds from the room.  Knox said she covered her ears so not to hear what was going on, what she would conclude was the assault of Kercher by Lumumba.

Knox, however, would soon revert back to story No. 1, indicating that Sollecito was her alibi for the evening.  Sollecito, however, has also told different versions of his activities the night Kercher was brutally murdered, to include being with Knox and being alone in his apartment for hours while he surfed the Internet and spoke to his father on the phone.  Forensic police, however, say that they can find no indication of purposeful activity on Sollecito’s computer that night, and they have been unable to confirm any telephone call between Sollecito and his father.

Notwithstanding the various stories told by Knox and her boyfriend, what has been confirmed is that Meredith Kercher died a violent death in the closing hours of Thursday, Nov. 1.  Italian telephone police were led to the local area the following morning when a neighbor reported finding two cell phones abandoned in her yard. The two cell phones (one Italian and one British), were quickly traced to Kercher and her nearby residence. As police arrived, they found Knox and Sollecito talking together outside of the home. 

The young couple explained they had spent the night together at Sollecito’s apartment, and that Knox had returned home to shower and change clothes.  Knox said she had found blood in a bathroom and, believing this strange, looked around the residence and found Kercher’s bedroom locked.  Knox told Sollecito of her concerns and Sollecito allegedly called his sister, who worked for the police, who told him to call the Italian equivalent of “911.”  He would tell the arriving telephone police that he had completed this emergency call shortly before the police arrived, but his cell phone records don’t support this timeline. 

The police then entered the residence, forced open the locked bedroom door, and found Kercher nude and dead from stab wounds to her neck.  The local police and homicide detectives were then called to the scene, along with the local prosecutor.  Investigators found it strange that Knox, whose house key they say would open any room in the house, hadn’t used her key to check on Kercher.

Police initially speculate that Kercher may have died while engaging in some type of drug-induced, bizarre sex game, but when you look at the crime scene you know this was no game.  In reviewing this case with the Italian CSI investigators, it appears that Kercher’s pants and underpants had been forcibly removed, her bra broken and cast aside on the floor, her blouse, now soaked in her own blood, pushed up toward her head. 

Investigators said she had multiple stab wounds in her neck.  She had one cut under her chin, possibly done as a threat by her assailant as a means to make her comply, while the fatal wound appeared to be a through-and-through stab in her neck, one from the left side through her neck with the tip of the blade exiting the right side of her neck.  Police speculate that as her carotid artery, the main artery that supplies blood to the head and neck was not cut, that her death would have been both slow and agonizing. 

Kercher appears to have died from a massive loss of blood and probably choked on her own blood.  Her bedroom had grotesque smears of blood on the walls, suggesting that Kercher may have grabbed her throat in defense of her mortal wound, and then struggled to support herself as she slowly bled out, with more blood on her furniture and on the floor.  When found by police, her body lay a few feet from her bed, with only her left foot protruding from under her bedspread, which someone had apparently wrapped around her body.  Under her head was a pillow bearing a full bloody handprint.  It was Kercher’s blood, but the handprint belonged to 20-year-old former Ivory Coast resident and local part-time drug dealer Rudy Hermann Guede.        

Guede, who had the reputation of putting his hands on women too quickly, was identified by his DNA, which was found on Kercher’s lifeless body. There was no doubt, said investigators, that Guede had been in that room and had had contact with Kercher’s body, but he was nowhere to be found.  Acting on Knox’s statement that Patrick Lumumba had been with Kercher the night she died, Lumumba was quickly arrested while police continued to investigate Knox and Sollecito’s possible role in Kercher’s death. But now they needed to find the person whose forensic signature was all over the crime scene.

Once again cell phones and the Internet would play a major role in this case.  Investigators learned that Guede had contacted a friend, indicating that he had fled to Germany and needed some money.  Police traced these communications and German authorities apprehended Guede as he awaited the arrival of the money.  Guede then told authorities that he had been with Kercher the night of her death, that they had had consensual relations and that after becoming ill, he had left Kercher alone in her bedroom while he went to the bathroom, where he sat and listened to music on his iPod. 

As Guede’s story continued, he heard a scream, and when he walked out of the bathroom he encountered a young Italian man, someone shorter than himself, who was carrying a knife.  He says the man stabbed him in the right hand and stated that because he was black, people would believe that Guede was responsible for Kercher’s death.  The mystery man, and perhaps a second, yet to be identified person, then quickly ran from the house, jumped into a car and drove away. 

Guede says he made a valiant effort to aid Kercher and as he knelt next to her she uttered the initials of her killer, “AF,” much like the character played by Orson Wells did in the 1941 movie "Citizen Kane," when he uttered the word “rosebud” and died.  But if Kercher knew her killer by his initials, why, police asked, didn’t she just say her murder’s full name?  Guede said he feared arrest so he fled the house, wandered through the community and eventually hopped a train to Germany. He has since been extradited to Perugia, where he told authorities that he will identify one, and perhaps both people he believes murdered Kercher.

As the police investigation goes forward, the forensic evidence continues to mount.  The suspected murder weapon, an eight-inch kitchen knife, was found in Sollecito’s apartment.  Although the knife had been cleaned with bleach, CSI investigators found Knox’s DNA on the blade near the handle and Kercher’s DNA on the tip of the knife.  Kercher, it seems, had never been in Sollecito’s apartment. 

Knox and Sollecito, now both now in jail, have drifted apart in their relationship and in their stories, with Sollecito suggesting that Knox could have gone to her own residence the night of the murder without him.  Knox, for her part, has suggested that Sollecito could have raped and murdered Kercher and then brought the suspected murder weapon back to his apartment where he placed it in Knox’s hand while she slept, thus accounting for her DNA on the knife.

As the forensic investigation continues, we know that the blood of both Knox and Kercher was found in a bathroom of their residence.  Near Kercher’s limp body was a shoe print in blood, evidence that someone had stepped in the victim’s pooling blood before it dried.  It was a size 42 Nike shoe, smaller than shoes worn by Guede, but exactly the same size and type of shoe worn by Sollecito. 

Examination of Sollecito’s shoes continues as well as that of other potential physical evidence that could link one or more of the three suspects to the murder scene, evidence like a fingerprint of Knox on a glass.  But as both Knox and Sollecito had access to the house, police need to separate evidence related to the murder and evidence totally unrelated to Kercher’s death. 

Police, for their part, have been unable to find any evidence to support Knox’s claim that Lumumba was the likely killer; and in fact, he has established that he was in his bar at the believed time of Kercher’s death; therefore he was released from jail.  Lumumba, who some say has been paid thousands of dollars by various media outlets for interviews related to this case, has said he forgives Knox for lying about him.  The three current suspects, Guede, Sollecito and Knox, can be held in jail for up to a year before being charged by the prosecutor.  There is no bail for such a crime.

Police have learned that within a day of Kercher’s murder, Sollecito and Knox were seen in a local store shopping for sexy women’s underwear, with Knox allegedly proclaiming loudly and clearly in front of others that she and Sollecito would have great sex later that day.  Strange behavior, some say, for the roommate of a murder victim where the murderer had yet to be identified, much yet apprehended.  Authorities have also reviewed the Internet social networking sites of each of the three suspects and have gained unique insights into their psyches.  As in so many cases, what you write today can, unfortunately, determine how you are judged tomorrow.

What role, if any, Guede, Sollecito and Knox may have had in Kercher’s death has yet to be determined.  Was it as police originally suspected, some type of bizarre sex game in which Kercher was the unwilling fourth participant, something she fought against and died because of her resistance? 

Or was it as Guede suggests; some unknown intruder he may soon identify?  A window had been broken to the residence and the 250 Eros Kercher had withdrawn from the bank were missing, money that Guede says Kercher told him was possibly stolen by Knox, described by a judge as having a fatal capacity for self-dramatization, to pay for illegal drugs?  Who do you believe or, as in the case of the police, the CSI unit and the local prosecutor, do you simply follow the evidence and let it lead you to the killer and his or her believed accomplices?  But should the murder weapon, that terrible knife with Kercher’s and Knox’s DNA on it, have actually have come from and been returned to Sollecito’s apartment, does that suggest possible premeditation, and if so, by whom and why?

This was a cruel, brutal, heartless crime.  We know that there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol in Kercher at the time of her death, unlike the current three suspects who may suggest that they were lost in a drug induced fog, suffering from “reefer madness.” But were drugs to  blame, or was the killer or killers simply young, budding sociopaths-to-be, with, as some suggest, Knox at the center of the crime.  Could the easygoing girl from America have wanted so strongly to be the center of attention that she, in some narcissistic, sociopathic rage decided to victimize her new roommate, perhaps with the help of one or two others?

Many questions with a growing list of answers.  The forensic evidence will place the murder suspects at the crime scene; suspects whose alibis fail to meet the test of truth, while witnesses, telephone and Internet records, local surveillance cameras and other means of modern detective work will be employed to build a case against Kercher’s murderer.

In crimes where two to three people are suspects, one may eventually get the chance at a deal in exchange for his or her testimony, the chance to avoid the minimum Italian sentence of 21 years for murder. If the police have their suspects, as they seem to believe, the truth will be revealed by the evidence and, perhaps, by the words of someone who was at the murder scene who finally decides to tell the whole truth. Little consolation, though, for the parents and family of Meredith Kercher, a murder victim whose only crime, it may turn out, was her choice in roommates.       

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC analyst. His web site, provides readers with security-related information.