The mysterious death of Italian star Denis Bergamini

The mysterious death of Italian star Denis Bergamini

Denis Bergamini found a dead owl at the training camp the morning of 18 November 1989. An all-action midfielder, gifted and determined, he was an icon, adored by boys and girls, in Cosenza.

The team was struggling in Serie B and needed to beat Messina, their arch-rivals, the next day. He rallied his teammates to commit as ever, but he didn’t take his place in the team – or the ones that followed. That evening he was found dead in front of a large truck on Roseto Capo Spulico, on the Strada Statale Jonica, not far from Cosenza.

The previous season, Cosenza exceeded all expectations and fought for promotion to Serie A. In the end, they were made to pay for a poor goal difference and remained in the second tier. Behind the scenes, though, they were struggling, facing the risk of a bankruptcy.

Despite that, the club refused a number of offers from Fiorentina and Parma to retain the talented Bergamini, agreeing to triple his wage. He was fulfilling his potential and realising his dreams. He was a skinny, handsome midfielder, adored by a legion of female fans. It was said that he abandoned the training camp and committed suicide because he was sick of football.

Brigadier Francesco Barbuscio of the Carabinieri arrived on the scene at 19:30. He found Raffaele Pisano, the truck driver who witnessed Bergamini suddenly appear in front of him. He alleged that, after accidentally hitting him, he rolled over his body for approximately 50 metres before being able to stop the truck, loaded with 138-tonnes of tangerines. However, Bergamini’s body showed brushed hair, pressed dresses, clean shoes and a still-working watch; hardly the sign of a body dragged for tens of metres on a wet street under the wheels of a truck. Something was amiss.

Pisano told Barbuscio that after the accident a girl appeared in a white Maserati and shouted, “It’s my boyfriend, he wanted to commit suicide.” She was, in fact, his former girlfriend, Isabella Internò, romantically involved between 1985 and 1988. The Maserati, Bergamini’s car, was at the scene, but not the girl. Pisano said she was brought to Roseto Marina, just a few kilometres away, by an unknown driver. In his official report, Barbuscio alleged that he found her outside a bar getting into a Maserati – that same white one. Under such premise, discovering the truth soon became impossible, and the shady nature of the footballer’s death would grow even darker as time went on.

When the coroner completed the preliminary examination on the body, he established the time of death between 13:50 and 18:50, while the witness testified that the tragedy occurred around 19:15. Nobody identified the reasons for that stark inconsistency.

From the beginning, the Carabinieri seemed to trust Isabella implicitly. She said that Denis called her at around 16:00 that afternoon, had driven her in his car shortly after, and suggested that he wanted to move to Greece or Hawaii. She told the Carabinieri that they had stopped and talked in a muddy lay-by on the side of the street before Denis, unprompted, suddenly jumped under the truck, like a man diving into a swimming pool.

The autopsy, curiously requested two months after his death, suggested a different cause. It showed a single lesion on the right side of his groin, despite the truck coming from the left. Professor Francesco Maria Avato, the doctor who carried out the autopsy, concluded that the truck passed partially over Bergamini’s body while he was already laying on the street. Strangely, Doctor Avato was never called to testify at the only trial ever concluded, in 1991, when Pisano was charged for manslaughter and subsequently acquitted.

The anomalies wouldn’t finish there. In fact, the Maserati and the truck were never searched for prints or evidence. And when the prosecutor asked an expert witness to give his hypothetical reconstruction, he was forced to base his arguments solely on the photographs taken at the scene.

His family never believed that Denis committed suicide, but the physical evidence they collected hasn’t been enough to establish the truth. Though his clothes were destroyed, they did obtain his watch, chain and shoes, objects recovered by a club handyman who died in a mysterious accident near Roseto Capo Spulico at the end of that tragic season. Indeed, he had promised Bergamini’s father that he would tell him what happened to Denis after Cosenza’s last match of the season. He wasn’t able to fulfil his promise. Just a coincidence?

Despite his belongings showing few signs of damage – hardly the norm for a man who had allegedly been dragged under a large vehicle – the official version was deemed true and never reinvestigated for a quarter of a century. That was until 2011, when Bergamini’s sister, Donata, incessantly fighting for justice, hired a new lawyer, Eugenio Gallerani.

He investigated the case again and produced a 200-page dossier reconstructing the inconsistencies and offering new evidence. The public prosecutor in Castrovillari, where the first trial was conducted, was finally persuaded to re-open the case for murder. He put Isabella under investigation for intent to murder but she decided to exercise her right to silence. In February 2015, the prosecutor, following the Bergamini family’s release of his autopsy photos – showing a wholly uninjured body – ruled that the death could not have been suicide.

During the intervening years, it has been said that Bergamini was killed either because he had uncovered a drug trafficking ring or because he was about to spill the beans on a number of Cosenza matches that had been fixed. Both these theories now appear to be inaccurate. Gallerani, and the prosecutor alongside him, focused on his relationships and his story with Isabella Internò.

She was 15 when they met for the first time. They became soon involved in an intimate relationship but Isabella was jealous as Bergamini, the handsome, wealthy footballer, was said to have enjoyed relationships with other women. By the summer of 1987, Isabella was pregnant but decided to have an abortion. Bergamini initially told her he was ready to take on his responsibilities but ultimately brought her to London to a private clinic, whose number and address was on a piece of paper the Carabinieri found in his wallet after his death. Why did he take that with him that afternoon? Nobody will ever know.

In September 1988, Isabella and Denis broke up after he discovered she had had a previous relationship with one of his former teammates. Bergamini was concerned about his image and the fact that people at the club were talking. Two months later, he suffered a serious injury as the result of an unnecessary, aggressive tackle from the said teammate during a training session.

He was worried and pensive by this stage, but many thought it was due to the injury and his time away from the pitch. The club bought a special machine to help him recover quicker, and for this reason, feeling a strong sense of gratitude towards them, he refused to leave for Serie A that summer. Though he now had another girlfriend, the joyful, joking Bergamini had disappeared; he was more serious.

Isabella didn’t give up on their relationship, however, and continued to call Denis. The Carabinieri suspected that she had a second abortion between the end of 1988 and the opening months of 1989 and inspected the records of a clinic in Cosenza. Was the child Bergamini’s son or not? Did her family know the truth about who the father was?

Doubts and worry multiplied during Bergamini’s last week alive. After his last match, at Monza, he came back on 13 November to celebrate the fifth birthday of his niece. At around 19:30, he answered a phone call. He hung up shortly after and started to sweat, seemingly shocked. He never told anyone who he had spoken to.

Then, the following Thursday, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, he was threatened by two men in the restaurant where he was dining. Michele Padovano, the former Juventus striker who played at Cosenza at the time and shared the same apartment as Bergamini, strongly denied the episode. However, that same night, Bergamini called his new girlfriend: “Someone in Cosenza wants to hurt me,” he said, and that the only thing he did wrong, he added, was breaking up with Isabella.

On that fateful Saturday, after training, the whole team was expected to spend the day together in Rende, a little town not far from Cosenza, much like every other Saturday before a home match. Between 11:45 and 12:30 two players, Francesco Marino and Renzo Castagnini, met Isabella, who didn’t say anything to Denis.

The day continued as usual. The squad had some spare time in their hotel rooms before they went to the cinema. The routine was the same as it had always been. Unusually, Bergamini went in his car with Giuseppe Maltese, the team’s masseur. The masseur rarely went to the cinema, so he was surprised when Bergamini, usually the first one through the doors of the picture house, asked him where the toilets were.

When the lights went off, before the movie started, Denis went down the stairs and exited. One of the players, Sergio Galeazzi, testified that he had seen a couple of figures near him, however they could’ve been latecomers searching for their seats in the first row. That was the last time a teammate saw Denis Bergamini alive.

Strangely, nobody asked about him when lights turned on again. Bergamini wasn’t there. He was an example of professionalism and wouldn’t have dared arrived late, knowing that it would lead to him being dropped for the game. Cosenza finally heard about his whereabouts before dinner when Isabella called and spoke to Gigi Simoni, the coach, and Marino, the player she had met that morning, revealing Bergamini had committed suicide.

She was calling from a restaurant owned by Mario Infantino in Roseto Marina. Gallerani, Bergamini’s lawyer, found the man who had brought Isabella there in his car, and not in the white Maserati as earlier alleged. Infantino initially said the man entered and was given the phone to speak briefly with coach Simoni, then he changed his version and denied that he came in at all. Finally, in 2011, he contradicted himself again, saying Isabella arrived at his bar before 19:30 while the sun was still up.

A year ago, Bergamini’s body was exhumed as the search for the truth went on. In excellent condition still, it was confirmed by another independent autopsy, with little doubt, that Bergamini was either dead or fast approaching it prior to being placed under the wheels of the truck. It closes one chapter in the death of the Cosenza star, with the local prosecutor now reopening the case to bring justice.

Mystery, sorrow and intrigue still surround the death of the talented midfield star. Almost 30 years later, we’re still asking: who killed Denis Bergamini?

By Alessandro Mastroluca @mastrale

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