Saturday, December 12, 2009

Who Killed God's Banker

On June 11, 1982, Roberto Calvi, the chairman of the Banco Ambrosiano, who had become know as "God’s Banker" because of the investments he made for the Vatican, vanished from Italy with a black briefcase full of documents. One week later, his body was found hanging from an orange noose under Blackfriar's Bridge in London; his feet submerged in the swirling waters of the Thames. His black bag was gone. Also missing was $1.2 billion from bank's subsidiaries in the Bahamas, Nicaragua, Peru, and Luxembourg. And the Vatican was missing one-half billion dollars in loans. How did God’s banker come to be dangling at the end of a rope over the Thames?
When the London river police cut down his body from scaffolding under the bridge on the morning of June 19,1982, they found seven large bricks stuffed in his pockets and grey suit. He did not appear to be the victim of a robbery since he had an expensive Patek Phillippe watch on his wrist and about $14,000 in Swiss francs, British pounds and Italian Lire in his wallet. He also had in his pockets a bogus Italian passport in the name of "Gian Roberto Calvino" (which he had used to get into Britain.)
The autopsy, conducted by Professor Frederick Keith Simpson, one of England's most experienced pathologist, only intensified the mystery. There was no river water in his lungs, so he had not drowned. Instead, the cause of death was asphyxia by hanging. Since his neck had not suffered the kind of injury that would have occurred in a free-fall, Professor Simpson determined that Calvi could not have dropped more than 2 feet before his fall was broken by the water. There was no medical evidence whatsoever of foul play such as marks on the arms to indicate he had been restrained, puncture marks on to indicated he had been injected with a drug and no traces of suspicious chemicals in his stomach of drugs (other than the residue of a sleeping pill he had taken the previous night).
The time of the death added further to the mystery. His Patek Phillippe watch, which was not water-proof, stopped at 1:52. While the watch could have stopped for reasons other than water damage, the water marks on the face of it, when taken together with the dropping level of the tide that night at Blackfriar's Bridge, established the latest time at which his body could have been suspended from the scaffolding. After 2:30 am, the level of the water in the Thames at Blackfriar's bridge would not have been high enough to have reached Calvi's wrist (as was calculated from the length of the rope he was hanging by when he was found), so he must have been hanging before then. But he could not have hung himself before 1 a.m. because the river level then would have been above his mouth and left river water in his body. So, if he committed suicide, it he could only have been between 1:00 and 2:30 a.m.
The coroner's jury in 1982, finding no evidence of murder, concluded that Calvi had hung himself.
But suicide during these hours, if possible at all, would require extraordinary activities from a sixty-two year old man, who was over-weight and suffered from vertigo. Despite the darkness, he would have had to find the scaffolding from the walkway along the river, which, since it was nearly submerged, could be seen only by leaning over the parapet wall at a strategic point. He would also have to have found in the dark the bricks (which were identified as coming from a construction site about a block away) and the rope to hang himself. Next, he would have to had hoisted himself over the parapet on the bridge and climbed twelve feet down a nearly vertical iron ladder to the level of the temporary scaffolding. He then would have to step across the two and one-half feet gap onto the scaffolding's rusty poles, which were arranged like monkey-bars in a children's playground, and edge his way about 8 feet along them to tie the rope to the eyelet. After that, he would to shimmy down to the next level of the scaffolding (otherwise the drop from the higher level would have resulted in far more neck damage than there had been.) Finally, after having put the bricks in his pockets and pants fly, and his head in the noose, he would have had to ease himself into the swirling water three feet below by clutching onto the poles (again, avoiding a free fall).
While such an acrobatic maneuver is possible, it would presumably leave some traces such as rust under his fingernails, splinters or abrasions on his hands, tears in his suit. "The long and short of it is we do not know how Calvi's body got onto the end of that rope," Deputy Superintendent John White explained to me. "We don't even know how he got from his hotel, four and one half miles away, to Blackfriar's Bridge."
Since he was "God’s Banker," and in the headlines of every major newspaper, the British authorities, aided by MI-6, continued to investigate even after the suicide verdict. They established that Calvi had arrived in London on June 15 in a chartered plane under a false name (Calvino) and checked into an inexpensive suite in the Chelsea Cloisters, a second-rate residential hotel. When the police searched it after his death, they found his personal belongings-- including his toilet kit-- neatly packed inside two locked suitcases, as if they were waiting to be picked up by someone, but no other trace of his stay there. No hotel employee recalled seeing Calvi leave. the London police spent months canvassing taxi drivers and other potential witnesses, but they could not find anyone in London who had seen him that night. Nor could they find in London any witness to his activities during the three days he had been in London prior to his death. During these London days, he was, as Superintendent White put it, "the invisible man."
Italian authorities ran into a similar stone wall. His flight from Italy was clearly aided by an elaborate conspiracy. He used three false identities, eight separate private plane flight around Europe, a speed boat, four different cars, and 14 temporary residences in getting to the Chelsea Cloisters, in a convoluted itinerary that took him from Rome to Venice by plane, then to Trieste by car, Yugoslavia by a smuggler’s motor boat, Austria by car. He flew to London in a leased jet, and disguised as a Fiat executive. His facilitators included Flavio Carboni, a Sardinian businessman ( who had received $11 million from Calvi for organizing the escape,) Silvano Vittor, a cigarette smuggler, who served as his bodyguard in London, and two strikingly beautiful Austrian sisters, Manuela and Micheala Klienszig. . When they were later arrested, they all denied seeing Calvi the night he disappeared. So there were no witnesses at all.
Seven years later, Carlo Calvi, Calvi's only son, hired Kroll Associates to re-investigate the case. After locating, authenticating and re-assembling the original scaffolding Calvi had hung from, forensic experts retained by Kroll conducted a simple experiment. They had a stand-in for Calvi— same size and weight— walk the possible routes along the scaffolding poles that Calvi would have to walk if he tied the rope and hung himself. The stand-in wore pairs of Calvi's hand-made loafers that were similar to the one he had on when he was found, After each trial, these shoes were then put in water for the same time Calvi's shoes had been submerged, and then microscopically examined by a forensic chemist, who had worked in the London police laboratory for 18 years. In each case, he found that the soles of the stand-in's shoes had picked up yellow paint smears that matched those on the scaffolding poles. Given the pressure of the shoe on the narrow pole, he concluded such tell-tale traces were "unavoidable." Yet, when he examined the soles of the shoes Calvi had actually worn that day with a microscope, he found no traces of yellow pain on the soles. Since there was no way he could have hung himself except to have walked on the scaffolding, Kroll concluded "Someone else had to have tied him to the scaffolding and killed him."
After the Kroll investigation, The coroner's jury quashed its verdict of suicide and declared it was unable to decide between murder and suicide. So like God’s banker, the question of how he met his end was left dangling.
But how could Calvi have been murdered. He couldn't have been forced, alive, onto the scaffolding, without leaving signs of struggle on his body. Nor could he have been drugged unconscious without the drugs showing up in the autopsy examination. But he could have been strangled somewhere else with a rope– death was by asphyxia not drowning and then transported to the scaffolding. Kroll’s investigators came up with the theory that his dead body was taken to the bridge in a small boat sometime around midnight when the high tide would make it possible to moor the boat to Blackfriar’s Bridge, tie the rope to the scaffold, and unload Calvi’s body. The problem with this murder scenario is that it would be visible to anyone passing by the bridge on either bank– hardly a recipe for a perfect crime– and there were many potential potentials. Yet, neither the police nor Kroll could ever find any witness to such a bizarre scene.
As a result, the case remains unsolved.