Rome — The tiny, 1,200-year-old Teutonic Cemetery is the only graveyard inside the walls of Vatican City. The cemetery just behind St. Peter’s Basilica is the final resting place of royals, cardinals, artists — and, just maybe, a teenage girl who disappeared 36 years ago without a trace.
The Vatican will open two 19th century graves in the cemetery on Thursday morning to let forensic experts look for the remains of Emanuela Orlandi. She was the 15 year-old-daughter of a Vatican bank employee whose family lived inside Vatican City. Orlandi was last seen at a bus stop in central Rome after leaving a flute lesson on June 22, 1983.
The mystery of her disappearance has gripped Italy ever since.
One of the tombs to be opened, known as the “Tomb of the Angel” contains the remains of Princess Sophie von Hohenlohe, who died in 1836. The other is the resting place of Princess Carlotta Federica of Mecklemburg, who died in 1840. Members of their families, Orlandi’s, and forensics scientists and Vatican police will all be present when the tombs are unsealed.
Orlandi’s mother still lives in Vatican City, close to the Teutonic Cemetery. After searching for Emanuela incessantly for three decades, “the family won’t be happy if they find Emanuela’s corpse just 200 yards from their home,” Orlandi family lawyer Laura Sgro told CBS News.
Giovanni Arcudi, a forensics expert and professor at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, will lead the team tasked with exhuming the skeletons and then, bone by bone, examining them to assess the years of death, age, sex and stature — all to verify who they belong to.
Arcudi’s team will also take samples for DNA testing, which will take place later.
In a statement issued by the Vatican, Arcudi said it could take five hours to open the two tombs and remove the remains, barring unforeseen circumstances.
“The state of conservation of the bones is what will determine how much time is needed,” he said. “Obviously that is not predictable before the tombs are opened.”
But he said he’d know fairly quickly whether the tombs contained the bones of anyone other than the two German princesses.
“We can distinguish whether a bone is 10 years old or if it’s been there 50 years, or 150 years,” he said. “After this first initial examination, we may even be able to exclude the hypothesis that the skeletal remains belong to people other than the two who were buried there.”
But he said the DNA tests would be carried out regardless of what the skeletal examinations revealed, in order to definitively exclude the presence of Orlandi’s remains. The DNA results could take up to several months to come back.
Orlandi’s family has been chasing clues on her disappearance for decades, and conspiracy theories abound. Because the family lived inside the Vatican walls, many of the rumors involve the Vatican itself: that she was murdered in connection to the Vatican bank scandals of the 1980s; that she was kidnapped to barter for the freedom of a man who attempted to kill Pope John Paul II; that she was kidnapped as part of a sex slavery ring inside the Vatican. So far there has been no solid evidence in the case at all.
Thursday won’t be the first time a grave is opened to search for the teenager’s remains. After persistent rumors that her body was concealed in the grave of a Roman mobster, police opened his tomb in 2012. They found nothing that didn’t belong there.
Last summer, the family received yet another anonymous tip.
“I received a letter with a picture in it,” Sgro, the family’s attorney, told CBS News. “The letter said: ‘If you want to find Emanuela, search where the angel is looking.'” The photo was of a marble statue of an angel that looks down on the German princesses’ tombs in the Teutonic Cemetery.
Sgro said the family went to the Teutonic Cemetery and quickly found the “Tomb of the Angel,” and they noticed something that seemed to be amiss.
“The tomb had obviously been recently opened, there was new cement on it, but we didn’t know why or when, we were given no information,” Sgro told CBS News.
In February, they petitioned the Vatican Secretary of State to permit the tombs to be opened. Last week a Vatican tribunal granted the request.