Vatican blames killings on grudge Anger over slights drove guard to kill chief, wife, himself


ROME -- While the outside world pondered the astonishing murder mystery in the Vatican, officials at the Holy See moved quickly yesterday to try to put the puzzling tragedy to rest.

A disgruntled Swiss Guard, a Vatican spokesman said, lost control and killed his commanding officer and the officer's wife inside the Vatican on Monday night.

Only hours after he was appointed commander of the small, colorful corps that has guarded the pope since the 16th century, Lt. Col. Alois Estermann, 43, was found shot to death in the entrance parlor of his Vatican apartment, next to the body of his Venezuelan-born wife, Gladys Meza Romano, 49. The body of Vice Cpl. Cedrich Tornay, 23, lay nearby.

The Vatican said yesterday that Tornay, a three-year veteran of the guards, used his service pistol to kill the couple and then shoot himself.

The Vatican described him as being embittered over a formal reprimand Feb. 12 for missing a curfew. The reprimand was written by Estermann, who had been serving as acting commander of the Swiss Guards since November and was to be sworn in today.

"He told some fellow soldiers that he felt he was not valued in the corps," said Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman. "It was a fit of madness in a person with very particular psychological characteristics."

The spokesman said Tornay complained Monday to some of his peers that he had been unfairly denied a medal of recognition that was to be given to many Swiss Guards today, at the annual swearing-in ceremony attended by the pope. It is the guards' most revered tradition.

At 7 p.m. Monday -- about two hours before the killings took place, according to Navarro-Valls -- Tornay handed a letter to a fellow guardsman, asking that it be relayed to his family.

Navarro-Valls said the letter, apparently a suicide note, has been read by a Vatican investigator but would not be made public unless Tornay's parents chose to do so.

"It is much more than a hypothesis," Navarro-Valls said of the scenario he gave reporters. "These are the elements we have that clearly show the motivation. The church finds this scenario quite credible. It is unlikely that the autopsies will alter this reconstruction."

He indirectly ruled out any more complicated personal motive, like a love triangle that turned sour, a theory that quickly spread Monday night after the deaths were discovered.

"I knew them both well -- they were a model couple," Navarro-Valls said of the commander and his wife. "The fact that they did not have children did not bother them too much because they dedicated their spare time to charity."

Navarro-Valls said Tornay had had an Italian girlfriend, but added, "They broke up not long ago."

The Vatican is an independent city-state, with its own jurisdiction and police force.

Though Italian forensic consultants were called in to perform the autopsies, the investigation was conducted by the Vatican prosecutor, Gian Luigi Marrone.

After the autopsies are complete, Navarro-Valls said, another Vatican legal authority, Nicola Picardi, will determine whether further investigation -- by the Vatican authorities -- would be necessary. Few outside the Vatican expect the investigation to go any further.

In Italy, a country that so relishes conspiracy that it has a term to express hidden forces behind events -- "dietrologia" -- it is unlikely that questions about the double homicide and suicide will abate.

Yesterday's Italian newspapers brimmed with ornate theories, including one laid out in the front page of La Repubblica, tracing the deaths to a bad omen: A few weeks ago Pope John Paul II's fisherman's ring slipped from his fingers during a ceremony. The ring was retrieved by a Swiss Guard who handed it back.

Church officials were anxious to refute early rumors that Tornay's enmity could be based on a romantic attachment rather than a professional grudge. "I really knew Alois and Gladys very well," said Roland Bernard Trauffer, secretary-general of the Swiss Episcopal Conference. "This was not personal; there is no triangle."

Colleagues of Meza Romano, who was an expert on canon law and worked in the library of the Venezuelan Embassy to the Holy See, described her as a likable, highly respectable woman.

One lingering mystery preceded Estermann's death. The newly appointed head of the 100-man unit, who was mourned yesterday by Pope John Paul, among others, as an exemplary military leader and Christian, was not immediately appointed commander when the job opened up.

Instead, the Vatican took seven months to search for another candidate for the job.

By tradition, commanders are of noble birth, and Estermann was not. Apparently unable to find a suitable candidate -- even among other commoners -- who were willing to take the low-paying job (the salary is reportedly about $30,000 a year), the Vatican finally appointed Estermann on Monday morning, only two days before the annual swearing-in ceremony.

"It sometimes happens that the person you are searching for was under your nose all along," Navarro-Valls explained.

The killing of Estermann and his wife of 15 years was the most brutal act of violence to take place inside the Vatican since the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul on May 13, 1981.

Estermann, then a captain, was a few feet from the pope when he was shot, and cradled him in his arms until the wounded pontiff was taken by ambulance to a hospital.

Monday's attack, however, was not unprecedented. On April 18, 1959, Adolf Rucker, a 24-year-old Swiss Guardsman with a personal grudge, showed up at the door of his superior officer, Col. Robert Nunlist, carrying a gun. Nunlist was able to disarm him, and no one was hurt. The incident was kept quiet and omitted from Swiss Guard history books.

Estermann's killing, however, is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. The pope, whom Navarro-Valls described as "upset and visibly sad" when he was told of the killing late Monday night, sent a condolence message yesterday to the commander's parents, who arrived in Rome expecting to attend their son's swearing-in ceremony.

"We men cannot comprehend these situations," the pope's message, written in German, said. "As I pray I wonder how God decides life and death."

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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