ROME—The party scene at the Flo bar and lounge on the outskirts of Florence, Italy, is notoriously wild.
At the club near Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking the city, drinks flow like water; cannabis smoke fills the air. And so it was last Wednesday night when two American women who have not been named, aged 19 and 21, partied into the early hours of morning.
As is often the case, the alcohol and recreational drugs led to heated emotions and a fight broke out. Someone called the emergency number and three squad cars of the Carabinieri, Italy’s gendarmerie or military police charged with more serious crimes, generally involving weapons, were soon on the scene. The fight broke up, the fighters went home, and the party raged on.
Two of the squad cars went back out on patrol but two carabinieri, one in his forties and the other 25, who have not been named, stayed outside in the third car without calling the dispatcher to say where they were.
Around 2:30 a.m., the two American women staggered outside, according to multiple witnesses. One of the women could scarcely stay on her feet, as she later told police. The other tried desperately to call a cab to get them home. The carabinieri watched and waited, according to accounts in the Italian press by witnesses who were outside the club smoking.
When no cab came, the girls, who are in Florence studying art and design, started walking toward the apartment they shared with two other study-abroad students near the center of town. The carabinieri started up their car and the girls asked where they could find a taxi rank, the two carabinieri later told detectives for the national police who are investigating the crime. It was clear to the carabinieri that the more inebriated woman was having a hard time, so they asked if the girls needed a ride home.
The women said yes.
Then things went terribly, terribly wrong, the women later told national police investigators.
Since the story broke over the weekend, the case has captivated Italy, partly because of prurient curiosity, and partly because of innuendo about American culture, as the press and social media dissect the phenomenon of sending teens and young adults abroad to study, which is something Italians rarely do, and is a phenomenon with which Italians easily find fault.
The carabinieri did not call the dispatcher to say they had picked up two young women, which is clearly against regulations. By law, Carabinieri officers cannot take someone in their squad car unless that person has been arrested and is restrained. The regulation is for their own protection in the event that the civilians prove to be armed and/or dangerous. In this case, they were just drunk and vulnerable.
When the carabinieri got to the women’s apartment, they parked their squad car and turned it off. This time they did call the dispatcher to say they had stopped “to check on a situation.”
Each of the carabinieri says he helped a girl to the apartment building. When they got inside the foyer, one of the them took one of the women upstairs in the elevator and the other stayed in the foyer, according to the police report the women filed, which was shared with the press by the women’s lawyer. The account of the women’s testimony has been confirmed independently by a judicial source who spoke confidentially to The Daily Beast.
About 20 minutes later, the carabinieri were back in their patrol car on the street, according to the dispatch log, and the women were up in their apartment in tears. Each of the two officers had forced himself on a girl, raping one in the elevator and the other on the landing of the stairwell, according to testimony given by the women and their roommates, who were the first to hear the story.
“As soon as we got into the building, they jumped on us,” one girl said, according to the police reports conveyed by her lawyer Gabriele Zanobini. “I did not scream because I was afraid of the weapons.”
“I was stunned,” the other woman told police investigating the allegations. “I did not realize what was happening and when I did, I could not react.”
The women, helped by their roommates, then called Italy’s emergency number and reported the rapes. They were taken to an emergency room where the so-called code pink procedures for rape cases were carried out. They were checked for internal signs of rape, swabbed for forensic evidence, and offered psychological treatment before being questioned by the police. After that, they were sent home.
Then the storm of accusations began—against the women. Some Italian media screamed foul and blamed the “drunk Americans” for seducing the country’s gallant men in uniform, digging through Instagram shots from the Flo club for any photos of the girls imbibing, as if bubbly discredits them as victims of rape.
The younger officer denies the charges as fabrication, saying he did not rape the young American woman in the elevator. The older officer, a married father of two, admitted through his lawyer, Cristina Menichetti, that he did have sexual intercourse with one of the students on the stairway landing, but that he had “made a terrible mistake” and that while he had “wrongly succumbed” to the sexy young woman, it was consensual.
“When he swore to me that he had not raped that girl because she said it was consensual, I looked into his eyes and I realized he was telling the truth,” Menichetti told Corriere Della Sera newspaper.” He told me that he just wanted me to get him in front of a magistrate to tell his truth… I felt his honesty and I then decided to defend him for a crime that, as a woman, makes me shudder.”
Let’s be clear, even if the girls had thrown themselves on the carabinieri for whatever reason—and there is no indication they did—consent cannot be assumed if they were drinking as heavily as they say they were, a level of inebriation that the blood tests from the emergency room indicate. Consent is the same in Italy as in the United States. And anyway, the carabinieri were on duty and in uniform, there as protectors not two-on-two predators. Even if there was consent, which the women deny, the officers should have said no.
Still, the victims are being blamed publicly for “asking for it.” The same old stories have been regurgitated for days about how badly American study-abroad students behave, how they drink to excess here in Italy because they aren’t old enough to drink at home, and how that somehow makes them culpable if something goes wrong. Almost every Italian article about the alleged rape contains a companion piece about the culture of Americans abroad.
In addition to psychological care, both the young women have had to endure hours of further questioning by police and more medical exams to “verify” their story. DNA results from the initial exam will be back this week, which will likely identify at least one of the carabinieri, since he already has admitted to having sex.
But will that be enough to make the rape charges stick?
Hard to say. It took five days before the two men were even suspended from active duty “on a precautionary basis,” and only after calls from the minister of Defense which came after the American embassy applied pressure. They aren’t suspended on the rape accusations either, just on not following protocol for giving the women a ride home.
Someone also found out that the girls had the kind of blanket insurance policies that most parents buy before sending their kids abroad. It covers their university costs in case they leave school early because of a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or bodily harm, including rape. The girls say they didn’t even know about the rape clause in that policy, but it still led to claims that the women were just trying to cash in somehow on “rape insurance.”
The women have decided not to return to America immediately, according to Gabriele Zanobini, the lawyer for one of the young women, but to wait out the investigation and follow it through. They have not spoken publicly. Zanobini says they need time. “The two girls are upset about what happened, they still have to recover from the terrible shock,” he says. “Their school explicitly told them they would be safe if they trust only and exclusively the police. After this, that warning sounds absurd.”