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The Universal Sadness Issue

The Brutal Hills Of Sicily

In the small Sicilian farming town of Niscemi, old women wear black shawls and men carry shotguns in the trunks of their cars. Most of them are used for hunting.
January 2, 2009, 12:00am

BY GIULIANO ROTONDI, ILLUSTRATIONS BY LAURA PARK

In the small Sicilian farming town of Niscemi, old women wear black shawls and men carry shotguns in the trunks of their cars. Most of them are used for hunting. The town, like so much of Southern Italy, suffers from a form of historical and architectural schizophrenia—the “old town” is a pretty, orange-and-yellow-hued open-air museum that evokes Robert Rodriguez mixed with Luchino Visconti, while the “new town,” where all the actual living takes place, is a collection of cement boxes and not-quite-done-yet buildings of exposed brick and mortar, often with no windows, in the typical modern Sicilian style.

This is where the Mafia lives, and when a sleepy Sicilian town like Niscemi makes it to the national news, it’s generally because of their crimes. But the tragic death of local 14-year-old Lorena Cultraro had nothing to do with organized crime. When she disappeared, everybody assumed she had simply eloped with a boy. Maybe she had even left the island to start a new life with him. Whatever the case, nobody even guessed that she could be dead. The town was shocked when her bloated, lifeless body was discovered at the bottom of a nearby well. As the people of Niscemi learned more about the death of Lorena, they also learned that they had been wrong in their assumptions about what sort of violence can happen, and why, in Sicily.

Lorena had been slaughtered with the same brutality that most Sicilians think is the exclusive province of Mafia executions, but her killers weren’t hired muscle.

As it turned out, they were little more than children—three so-called normal kids from well-to-do families. One of them is alleged to have had an affair with her. When he found out that Lorena was pregnant—and he had no intention of marrying her or raising a child—he and his friends took her to an abandoned house in the hilly suburbs, gang-raped her, strangled her with a television cable, threw her into a well, and then tried to set fire to her as she lay, still breathing, in a cold pool of water. The three murderers then returned to the main piazza of the old town, where they joined their girlfriends for a gelato in the warm spring afternoon as if nothing had happened.

When Lorena disappeared on April 30, her parents immediately alerted the authorities. Policemen and civil-protection teams began the search. Groups of volunteers led dogs all through the countryside around Niscemi, across dry riverbeds and quiet fields. Nothing. Lorena had, quite simply, vanished. At this point, the possibility of her having been abducted or, worse, murdered wasn’t taken into consideration by the majority of the people involved. Her father, 36-year-old fireman Giuseppe Cultraro, and her mother, 34-year-old housewife Lidia Cicci, pasted pictures of their daughter on every wall in town. They eventually appeared on national television, on the program Chi l’ha visto (Who’s Seen Him)—a well-known Italian series about missing persons. There, on the air for all to see, they publicly pleaded with their daughter to return home, whatever might have happened to make her leave, be it a love story, an unwanted pregnancy, or the shame—a word that, in this part of the world, means a lot—of drug use. Giuseppe Cultraro looked straight into the camera and said, “My daughter should not worry. We are on her side, no matter what. We are waiting for her with open arms, in the same way that we wait, if it is the case, for the young man who could be with her.” He had no idea what was to come. Those were days of apprehension and anxiety for the Cultraros, but they weren’t days of grief.

Meanwhile, Niscemi started to hum and whisper, the whole town spreading rumors, raising doubts, and asking questions. Lorena was a pretty girl with a sad smile and a clean face. Maybe she was too outgoing, said some. The whole town, the whole region, speculated. Lorena wasn’t a girl anymore. She was becoming a woman. She wanted to wear miniskirts and fishnet tights and she wanted to put on makeup and she wanted to grow up. Maybe she was trying to act like a woman in Italy’s insulting, demeaning pop culture that places half-naked 18-year-old girls on prime-time TV. If you’re an American or a Brit who wants to get an idea of Italian television—the principal medium of culture in so much of this country, imagine David Letterman, but unfunny and surrounded by writhing, bikini-clad, orange-tanned adolescent models in leather boots. That’s about it. And now imagine if this was so normal—so fucking commonplace—that nobody complained about it. Imagine if those girls used their popularity to run for local, regional, sometimes national office. And guess what? They do. The minister for equal opportunities in the current Berlusconi government is an ex-soubrette whose naked pictures can be seen pinned to the walls of many auto-repair shops. No joke.

So what’s a young girl to do in this environment? Should she wear glasses and sweaters and long skirts and stick her nose in a history book? Or should she try to get out of her town, to grow up, to explore and use her sexuality? Or are those really the only two choices for a young girl here today? These were the questions that dominated Italian talk shows in recent months.

Back in Niscemi, the townsfolk talked of Lorena, circulating the rumor of a boy from Vittoria, near Ragusa, whom she was supposedly dating before her disappearance. Others took it a step further, saying she was dating many older men. And in badmouthing women, in blaming them when they are the victims of rape and murder, Niscemi fell in line perfectly with the long-standing macho society of Sicily. “If Lorena disappeared, it must be because she was a slut”—this is what was being said all across Sicily, a once-matriarchal society that is now entirely chauvinistic, a place where any girl who isn’t seen in church on Sunday and who smiles too coyly at boys is instantly deemed a wanton whore.

The Cultraros, however, painted a very different picture of Lorena. “She still plays with her dolls and she never gave us trouble,” said her mother. “They wrote that she was a bad girl, but they lied. She wasn’t easy, she didn’t have boyfriends. She never went out at night. She only had her best friend and her schoolmates.” The teachers disagreed. They said she was going wild, that she wouldn’t study. They said she was a Lolita who carried her books around just to act the good girl and that her grades had recently dropped.

Meanwhile, Lorena was still nowhere to be found. The nationwide campaign bore no fruit. The Cultraros received news of various sightings, all of them bullshit, all of them the work of spotlight-hungry maniacs and loons. It felt like the plot of some kind of real-life crime novel had played out, right to the dramatic epilogue, when the disfigured body of a young girl was found by a farmhand in a well in Giumarre, in the northern hills that frame Niscemi’s new town.

Between the city and the well, a dusty back road quickly filled with police cars. The amphibious squad was called in, the body was retrieved, hoisted into an ambulance, and driven to Gravina Hospital, in the province of Catania, where the forensics team waited to establish the cause of death. They quickly ascertained that the body belonged to 14-year-old Lorena Cultraro. The search for the missing girl was over, and the story of unbelievable violence quickly spilled through to the national news channels. The first reports sent the family of the victim into a furious, blind rage. Her father spoke once again: “The girl you described is not my daughter,” he yelled, muffling his sobs, “and she wasn’t pregnant. She didn’t sleep with anybody, and nobody could sleep with her. She loved her family, and the bastards who took her from us deserve to rot in jail forever.”

Lorena was barbarously slaughtered by three do-nothings with gel in their hair and thousand-euro smartphones in the pockets of their distressed denims—three bullies from well-to-do families who hid their cruelty behind a mask of normalcy—three bastards without a heart between them who forced themselves on the pregnant 14-year-old girl, taking turns, before disposing of her still-living body.

And then, at the second postmortem examination, a new twist was revealed. There was no trace of pregnancy to be found. The idea that Lorena was killed because one of the three boys didn’t want to be forced to marry her becomes nothing more than an even sadder reminder of the fucked-up situation for young girls in Sicily. Not only do you risk a lot if you have a sex life, and not only do you risk shame and ridicule if you get pregnant—this story tells us that you risk your life if you even say you’re pregnant.

Besides the lack of pregnancy, the second investigation revealed no other new information. The story, as alleged by the prosecuting attorneys, was simple. Lorena was murdered on the day of her disappearance, in an abandoned, unfinished farmhouse in the hills. One of her killers was, perhaps, the boy whom she had sex with for the first time. After a second and a third time, she started to feel something for him. The others she might have flirted with. After she announced she was pregnant and she didn’t know who the father was, the three boys, Alessandro A., 17, Domenico D.N., 16, and Giuseppe S., 15, met to decide what to do. Word could get out. What if their girlfriends found out? What if their parents found out? What if one of them had to marry her?

This is what we know of what happened on the afternoon of her murder: The last phone call received on Lorena’s mobile was from one of the boys, who presumably set up the meeting. When Lorena arrived, she presumably told them her plan. She was going to tell everybody she was pregnant if one of them didn’t man up and become her boyfriend. Maybe she talked about marriage. They started toward her, and as soon as she turned to flee, one of them grabbed her and tore her clothes off. Two of them held her still while the third forced himself on her. The autopsy revealed she had been raped three times. When they were done, they started beating her but didn’t kill her. One of them noticed a TV cable on the floor and wrapped it a few times around her neck. Lorena suffocated, her face turned red and then blue. They let her go. She fell to the floor. They grabbed her by the hair, ripping a handful of it from her scalp, and dragged her to the well. When she landed in the cold water, Lorena probably woke up, gasping, and the boys decided that the only way to be sure of her death was to set her on fire. They thought that the fire would consume all trace of what had happened, every possible clue. But the water didn’t allow her entire body to be carbonized, leaving the back and limbs floating on the surface, while it penetrated her lungs, so that her body bloated grossly.

The three teenage murderers confessed as soon as they were questioned. One of them asked the public attorney if he could go back home after coming clean. After the announcement of their capture, the Cultraros announced, “Now they must stay in jail forever. They should never leave. We don’t want to hear about pardons or insanity pleas. We know who they are and they are not insane. We feel sorry for their families, but those boys killed our Lorena like a dog, and they deserve to stay in jail forever.”

Today, we are waiting for the trial to commence. The verdict is not certain. During the funeral, the entire community gathered around the Cultraros. Lorena now sleeps in the Niscemi graveyard. All the town has passed by her grave to leave flowers on her final resting spot. The teachers, the students, the colleagues—even those ashamed of their big mouths—all came to pay their respects. Slowly, the rhythms of the town restabilized. The school reopened. A few papers ran the story of her funeral. Even fewer ran follow-up stories. Life in Niscemi returned to normal. Did any enlightenment or even discussion occur about the insidious division in the Italian mind between Madonna and whore? Nope. Things are just as they were—until the next innocent teenager is murdered, then the talk shows will buzz for a bit and the pattern will play out again.