MILAN, Italy - The remains were unearthed just north of here, from a six-foot pit of dirt and bones. The alleged killers called themselves the Beasts of Satan.
A 27-year-old named Andrea Volpe led investigators to the wooded site where he and his accomplices allegedly beat and stabbed two teenage victims, then buried their bodies in what officials describe as a ritualistic human sacrifice.
The deeds attributed to Volpe and those accused with him have shocked and riveted Italians increasingly terrified about the purported growth of satanic cults in this Roman Catholic country.
The Beasts of Satan case, whose first defendants go on trial Feb. 21, represents one of a handful of gruesome crimes that priests and worried parents point to as proof of a troubled, amoral young generation turning away from God and toward the occult and, in the extreme, devil worship.
Experts warn against exaggerating the phenomenon. Drugs, for example, appear to have played at least as much a role in the killings as Lucifer.
Still, the Vatican is sufficiently concerned to offer special training for priests and novices this spring. A two-month course at Rome's Regina Apostolorum, a prestigious pontifical university, will lecture on the history, theology and sociology of Satanism and black magic, and the healing power of exorcism.
"There is a growing interest in satanic cults among youth today," said Carlo Climati, who is teaching the course. "They hear it in music; they find it on the Internet. Ten years ago when young people wanted to find out about Satanism, it was difficult. Now it's very easy."
Climati said priests are asking for help in understanding and detecting the malady and combating it, after having been flooded with entreaties from suspicious parents.
"It would be a big mistake to see the devil everywhere. There is no reason to panic," said Climati, who has written extensively on the alienation of youth. "What we are teaching is how to know the language of Satanism, how to identify where [the phenomenon] is, and where it is not."
Under Pope John Paul II, the church teaches that the devil is a real and dangerous presence in society. Furthermore, the devil is very much enshrined in popular Italian culture. Exorcisms are performed routinely in Italy, by priests and with the Vatican's blessing.
The Italian research institute Eurispes has identified 650 "satanic organizations" in Italy, most of them in the northern Lombardy region that includes Milan.
Volpe, in a bid for leniency, has turned state's evidence. He and seven others, all under 30, will be tried for the murder of three of their friends and for forcing the suicide of a fourth.
By his own testimony and a chilling diary he kept, portions of which were leaked to the Italian news media, Volpe and his girlfriend, Elisabetta Ballarin, lured his former girlfriend Mariangela Pezzotta, 27, to a remote chalet last January. High on drugs and alcohol, the pair shot Pezzotta in the face, then buried her, still alive, in a shallow grave. (Another accomplice later arrived and finished her off with a shovel.)
Police eventually arrested Volpe in Pezzotta's murder. That's when he agreed to take investigators to the woods near the town of Busto Arsizio, just north of Milan, where two other victims were buried.
Last summer, forensic archaeologists and police, guided by Volpe, found the bodies of Fabio Tollis, 16, and Chiara Marino, 19. One-time members of the band Beasts of Satan, the two had been missing since 1998, when they were last seen leaving a bar in Milan.
Tollis was a singer in the band. He apparently sealed his demise when his loyalties to the group came into question, investigators say. One report said the group killed Marino because she had come to personify the Virgin Mary.
Lurid details of the case filled newspapers and TV reports - Volpe's penchant for snakes and the number 666, and Marino's use of black candles and goat skulls to decorate her bedroom.
Investigators now believe that Volpe and his accomplices used a knife and spade to repeatedly beat and stab the two until they died, then buried them in a six-foot hole that would have taken a long time to dig.
Even though the graves and human remains were six years old, the forensic archaeologists were able to find the knife, bits of a broken spade, cloth and leather, and, with the skeletons intact, they could match the tattered clothing and pinpoint the many wounds in the bones.
The physical evidence in the case may be strong. But figuring out what was in the minds of the suspects, whether it was a pact with the devil or something more mundane, may take a lot more doing.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.