Late on the morning of Nov. 2, in the Italian city of Perugia, an elderly housewife found a couple of cell phones on the grass near her home. As the Italian press has often reported, cell phones are used by terrorists to trigger bombs. She called the cops.
So began the investigation into the "extreme sex" murder of 21-year-old British student Meredith Kercher, a crime so gruesome and heartbreaking it's become a regular feature in Europe's tabloids and blogs around the world. Yet this murder mystery has not only been publicized and serialized on the Internet, it was foreshadowed and has been investigated there.
From the start the cops who took the lead came from Italy's Communications Police, a special division focused since the 1990s on pornographers, pedophiles and terrorists. (Its insignia is an @ with wings.) Phone ownership records led the cops to the cottage where they found Kercher, who had used them. She'd been killed the night before, apparently in a bout of "extreme sex" in which her throat was slit as she struggled to break free.
Phone tracking gave police some of the initial breaks in the investigation, and they exploited the Web phone service Skype to nail the location of a key suspect. "Electronic surveillance of computers, Internet traffic and cell phones has become almost as crucial as forensic science," says Pisa University professor Silvano Presciuttini, who teaches many of Italy's crime-scene investigators. Police forces now treat Facebook, MySpace and other social-networking sites as part of a virtual crime scene where there is unprecedented public access to what once might have been considered private lives.
The pivotal suspect is blue-eyed, blond Amanda Knox, 20, from Seattle, who rented a room in the same cottage as Kercher and, like her, had come to Perugia only a couple of months before to study Italian. Police say they have found traces of Knox's DNA as well as Kercher's on an eight-inch kitchen knife taken from the home of Knox's 23-year-old Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, who is also a suspect. (Sollecito denies any part in the crime, as do all the suspects.) According to the arrest warrant, Knox's fingerprints also were found in Kercher's blood-spattered bedroom, and the impression of a hand consistent with hers was found on Kercher's head as if holding her down.
A junior at the University of Washington, Knox was raised by her mother, a math tutor. She's friendly, easygoing and studious, according to classmates. Her Facebook pages, where she called herself "Foxy Knoxy," also show her posing like a fashion model or pointing an antique machine gun at the camera and laughing. In one of her short stories on the Web, a young man accused of drugging and raping a girl called "Icky Vicky" tells his brother, "A thing you have to know about chicks is that they don't know what they want."
The latest suspect, 20-year-old Rudy Hermann Guede from the Ivory Coast, had lived in Italy since he was a child. Convicted of drug possession, he was a regular denizen of the student party scene in Perugia. A great deal of forensic evidence links Guede to the room where Kercher died, according to Italian investigators. His fingerprints were on the pillow, his DNA was on her body, and also inside her. (Pathologists believe she'd had consensual sex with him on the day she died.) Guede's bloody fingerprint was found in the bathroom on a fragment of toilet paper.
Guede was also all over the Web, including in a creepy YouTube video making faces and proclaiming, "Oh, mamma … I'm a vampire. I'm Dracula. I'm gonna suck your blood." Soon after the murder, Guede left Perugia, but he kept checking Facebook for messages from friends. The Communications Police arranged for one of those to contact Guede using Skype from their office, and as the two chatted, the cops traced Guede to a computer in D?sseldorf. He is now awaiting extradition from Germany.
Sollecito, who had been dating Knox for a few weeks before the crime, wrote on the Web about his desire for "extreme sex." He posted a picture of himself as a mad doctor, swathed in bandages with a meat cleaver in one hand and a bottle of alcohol in the other. The Italian press has alleged that police found someone had been Googling "bleach" and "blood" from his computer the morning after the murder. But DNA is harder to wash away than people think. And what's on the Web may haunt you forever.