ROME — Sara Di Pietrantonio’s Toyota Ayga was still smoldering at the side of the road shortly before 5 a.m. when her mother, Concetta Raccuia, arrived at the street in western Rome where the car had been set on fire early Sunday morning.
Di Pietrantonio, 22, had sent her mother a text around 3:30 a.m. to say she was on her way home. When she hadn’t arrived an hour later and didn’t respond to calls to her cellphone, Raccuia became worried. She was getting ready to go out and find her daughter when the police called to say the car registered in her name was found burning on the side of the road near where they lived. When she arrived at the scene, she walked up and down the road calling her daughter’s name until the light beam from her cellphone caught another plume of smoke and a patch of burnt grass behind a bush some 500 meters from the torched vehicle. It was her daughter Sara’s burning body. The skin on her face had been scorched. Her long blonde hair was singed and her blouse was unbuttoned.
It took police another 24 hours to arrest the culprit, Di Pietrantonio’s 27-year-old ex-boyfriend, Vincenzo Paduano, who allegedly confessed to the heinous murder on Monday.
According to Monica Monteleone, the chief prosecutor in the case, Paduano said he burned his former girlfriend to death because “he could not bear that the relationship was over.”
Di Pietrantonio is the 55th “femicide” or extreme domestic violence victim so far this year. Femicides are defined as women who are murdered by a spouse, boyfriend, or son. In 2015, there were 128 femicide victims in Italy; in 2014 there were 136. The figure breaks down to one femicide every two days.
Police suspected femicide almost immediately after learning that Di Pietrantonio had told friends that her ex-boyfriend had become increasingly obsessed and jealous in the 20 days since they broke up. But initially, he seemed to have an ironclad alibi working as a night watchman when she was killed so they briefly checked out her new boyfriend, who she had seen before texting her mom.
But police cleared the new boyfriend and focused on Paduano, who eventually confessed to leaving his guard post and stalking his former girlfriend.
According to police documents, Paduano waited for Di Pietrantonio outside her new boyfriend’s house and followed her along the dark street she took home. Then he forced her car off the road and confronted her, first by trying to kiss her, and then by trying to force her to perform fellatio on him. When none of that worked, he told police, he poured alcohol over her head and over the car and used his cigarette lighter to set the car on fire. When Di Pietrantonio tried to escape, he chased her down the road and set her on fire, then watched as she burned alive.
According to police, at least two cars passed by the arguing couple while Di Pietrantonio was apparently trying to escape her ex-boyfriend’s forced embrace. Neither car stopped, but the motorists were identified on CCTV tape and tracked down for questioning. Both drivers told police that they saw the burning car and the couple down the road in an “animated state.” One driver told police that Paduano’s pants were undone but that he, the driver, didn’t want to get involved because he thought it was a “simple argument” and that he hadn’t “made a connection” between the burning car and the arguing couple. The other said he “saw the girl waving but he didn’t realize she was asking for help” and that he was “scared to stop.” No one called the police.
The ambivalence about getting involved, even when a woman is waving her arms for help in a domestic dispute, underscores the problem: femicide is still rampant in Italy because society still accepts domestic violence, says Barbara Spinelli, a human rights lawyer and leading expert on the phenomenon of femicide in Europe who teaches seminars on the topic to lawyers, social workers, police officers, and teachers across Europe.
A case in point is how underreported the news that Hollywood star Johnny Depp was accused of serial abuse against his wife. The scandal barely raised an eyebrow in Italy, where most people consider domestic violence a private matter. In fact, only a tiny percentage of the 6.8 million women who are known to have been abused at least once in their lives have even called for help because they either don’t know who to call or they assume no one will help them, according to a report by Italy’s Equal Opportunity Ministry.
“Patriarchal stereotypes are still deeply rooted,” Spinelli told The Daily Beast. “There is a clear lack of political will to prevent violence against women and to protect women from violence, as it looks impossible to create an efficient national mechanism. There is only rhetoric.”
Spinelli cites a new law that passed in 2013 that was meant to put a national action plan on violence against women in place, but which has failed to help so far. “Femicide and violence against women is still widespread,” she says, citing an appalling lack of shelters for women who feel threatened and want to leave a violent situation.”
Any progress in the battle against domestic violence is, of course, too late for Di Pietrantonio, whose life could have clearly been saved if one of the passersby had the courage to stop and help. But, as is often the case, the heinous death has sparked outrage in the country and prompted the chief prosecutor to call for action. “I invite the girls to confide in friends and relatives when they are victims of persecution,” Monteleone said at a press conference calling for a stop to domestic violence. “We must not stand still when there is someone who claims to love you but doesn’t. Let this death not be in vain.”