Italians are calling it casa degli orrori: house of horrors. It seems an unlikely name for the little villa at 7 Via della Pergola, here in the medieval city of Perugia. Part of a 17th-century palazzo, the house shares the neighborhood's air of decadent opulence, with a terrace overlooking the red and gold foliage of a lush Umbrian valley and glimpses of a medieval wall from its green shuttered windows. But it was in this now notorious residence—currently surrounded by red and white police tape—that Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British student, died an agonizing death in what investigators say was a gruesome sex crime.
Three people have been arrested in connection with the killing: Kercher's 20-year-old American roommate, Amanda Knox; Knox's 24-year-old Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito; and 38-year-old Congolese bar owner and musician Diya Lumumba, known locally as Patrick. Authorities are searching for a fourth person who may have been in the apartment, possibly a man seen on a closed-circuit TV tape nearby on the night of the killing, or a woman—there was a high-heel shoeprint left on the scene that does not match the victim or Knox.
The case has riveted Europe, tapping into prurient curiosity as more sordid details leak out from judicial documents as well as partisan political divisions in a nation divided over immigration. A 19-page report, released by investigating judge Claudia Matteini, tells a squalid tale of dangerous sex games and a disturbing tale about Knox, the blond, blue-eyed student from Seattle who adopted the online name "Foxy Knoxy." According to Matteini, "something went wrong" after the three suspects tried to get Kercher to submit to violent group sex. The judicial officer, saying that Kercher was tortured and repeatedly sexually assaulted, speculates that Knox held Kercher down while Sollecito, Lumumba and the mystery fourth suspect assaulted her. Forensic evidence shows that Kercher's neck was lightly scratched twice with a knife before a third and fatal swipe slit her throat. The coroner's office believes that she was conscious during the two painful hours it took her to die, but that her injuries made it impossible for her to call for help. Matteini surmises that the suspects wanted "to try a new sensation" when they initiated the sex. "And in the face of the victim's refusals they did not have the presence of mind to desist, but tried to force the will of the girl, using a knife that Sollecito always carried with him," she writes.
As the British and Italian media went into frenzies over the saga, they gleefully singled out Knox as the real villain in the tale. The judge wrote that she believes Knox instigated the sexual attack; one British tabloid called her a "maneater with mommy issues." Other papers published numerous Facebook and MySpace pictures posted by Knox—and mentioned in the judge's papers—showing the student with drug paraphernalia and pointing what appears to be a machine gun at the camera. Knox, who was studying creative writing and Italian, also apparently published on her MySpace page, now shut down, a turgid story she wrote about rape. At one point Kyle, the rapist in the story, tells his brother Edgar, "A thing you have to know about chicks is that they don't know what they want." The story continues, "Kyle winked his eye. 'You have to show it to them. Trust me. In any case,' [sic] He cocked his eyebrows up and one side of his mouth rose into a grin. 'I think we both know hard A is hardly a drug'."
In Seattle a more complex picture of Knox has emerged. Local court records show she was fined last summer for a "residential disturbance" during a party at her house; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said she had to pay a $269 penalty. However, Knox's friends at the University of Washington say the junior was not the party girl portrayed in the media. She grew up on the working-class outskirts of Seattle with her mother, math tutor Edda Mellas, after her parents divorced when she was two. The young woman attended Seattle Prep, a Jesuit school that is one of the city's fancier private institutions, and worked part-time while studying at the university. The invitations to the party that led to the fine included typical college talk of kegs and live bands, but also a line that seems to suggest a civic-minded student: "Because we are moving out, there will be few/no furniture in the house so bring a sleeping bag because no one is drinking and driving here." Jeff Tripoli, a junior who says he was in Knox's social circle, described her as "a sweetheart" and "friendly." According to Tripoli, Knox's boyfriend—whom she broke up with during her sophomore year—used to hold "nerdy tea parties" in his dorm room. Her quaintly eccentric crowd, says Tripoli, was "dorky in a good way." "She didn't dress provocatively," he recalls. "She didn't work it. She dressed casually, and she was friendly and easygoing and studious."
In Perugia, the judge's report records a pattern of inconsistent statements by Knox and Sollecito, who had been dating less than a month. (Sollecito's Facebook page included a photo of himself wrapped in bandages and brandishing a meat cleaver; his Oct. 19 blog post expressed a desire for "extreme sex" to break up the monotony of a regular relationship. According to supporting documents attached to Matteini's report, the couple called the police on the morning of Nov. 2, when, they say, they discovered the door to the villa at 7 Via della Pergola open. Police broke down the locked door to Kercher's room and found her body in a pool of blood, with blood also spattered high on the walls. A photo of the crime scene printed in Italian newspapers shows Kercher's foot sticking out from under her bloodied duvet.
Investigators report finding 120 fingerprints, among them some said to be Knox's, on Kercher's pillow, along with three bloody Nike sneaker footprints on the floor, an exact match in size and style, they say, to Sollecito's shoes. Knox and Sollecito have denied being anywhere near the house that night, insisting they spent the evening at Sollecito's nearby apartment. In Knox's own room, according to her arrest warrant published in the Italian press, not a single fingerprint was found—not even her own—suggesting that someone may have scrubbed it down to hide any evidence. In the latest development, Italian press reports on Thursday say police found that the knife taken from Knox's boyfriend's house has Knox's DNA near the handle and Kercher's on the blade.
According to the Italian authorities, Knox initially denied being at home the evening of the murder. A day later, investigators say, she confessed that she was at home and that her roommate's screams were so loud she had to "cover her ears." In her second statement she named Lumumba, who owns the Le Chic nightclub, where Knox is a waitress, as the perpetrator. Knox said Lumumba had a crush on Kercher and had been invited to their apartment "for sex" that night. In a third version of events, say the authorities, Knox then claimed she had been under the influence of drugs on the night of the murder and indeed had been at her boyfriend's apartment nearby until the next morning.
But it is not just Knox's inconsistencies and fingerprints that Italian authorities are using to build the case against her. The judge's report includes cell phone records indicating that Knox sent a message to Lumumba earlier that evening, telling him her roommate was home and "see you later." Closed-circuit TV footage from a nearby parking garage shown on RAI television clearly shows the 20-year-old American entering the apartment the night of the murder. Investigators have also released information that electronic tagging of the SIM cards in the cell phones of all three suspects placed them in the area of Via Pergola during the evening hours of Nov. 1. Finger marks found on Kercher's body are compatible with Knox's hand, according to Knox's arrest warrant. And, along with a matching footprint, an 8.5cm switchblade knife seized from Sollecito's apartment days after the murder has been identified as consistent with the murder weapon based on the incisions on Kercher's neck. Sollecito has since distanced himself from his American girlfriend. In a behind-bars interview with the Roman daily La Repubblica on Tuesday, Sollecito wrote, through his attorneys Marco Brusco and Luca Mauri, "I never want to see Amanda again. Above all, it is her fault we are here."
Kercher, who watched the movie "The Notebook" with a friend across town on her last night alive, is believed by the investigating judge to have returned home at 9:30 to find Knox, Sollecito and Lumumba waiting. "Initially the American gave a version of events we knew was not correct," Perugia police chief Arturo de Felice told reporters. "She buckled and made an admission of facts we knew were correct and from that we were able to bring them all in. They all participated but had different roles." Under Italian law, the judge's report contains enough incriminating details to hold the suspects for up to a year without charge. But given the mound of evidence presented so far, the case could go to court quickly once charges are filed.
Meanwhile, the allegations against Lumumba, a legal immigrant, have tapped into a larger Italian debate over multiculturalism. Police statistics saying that nearly two-thirds of violent crimes in Italy are carried out by immigrants have triggered a wave of resentment against the new residents; Kercher's murder has done little to cool these passions. In Perugia this has given rise to bitter divisions over the alleged involvement of Lumumba, who has denied being at the students' house that night and offered a receipt printed from the till of his bar at 10:29 p.m. as proof that he was elsewhere. Of the 120 fingerprints lifted from Kercher's bedroom, none has been identified as Lumumba's. Still, there is evidence that Lumumba sent a text message to Knox telling her not to come to work, because he was not opening the bar that night. Investigators also say that his cell phone SIM card was detected in the area around Kercher's house that evening; the next day, the judge says, he changed phones.
It's still unclear when the case will go to trial. What is certain is that life in sleepy Perugia, which for decades has welcomed exchange students at the University for Foreigners, will take a while to revert to its pre-house-of-horrors tranquility. "This is not the sort of sensational event that happens here," says Alessia Ceccarelli, who operates a newsstand just steps away from the villa at 7 Via della Pergola and recalls Knox and Sollecito buying a Corriere dell' Umbria newspaper from her the day Kercher's body was found. "We are provincial. That's why it is so shocking."