A dead body on a wet road in front of a truck, a Hitchcockian girl and a very special car. These elements form a puzzle still missing several vital pieces 22 years later. Donato Bergamini, a handsome and talented Cosenza midfielder, was found dead on the 18th November 1989 on the Statale Ionica, near Roseto Spulico.
Everybody called him Denis but who really was Donato Bergamini and why did he die? A botched inquiry established he had committed suicide because he was unsatisfied with his life in the provinces but too many questions remained unanswered. Carlo Petrini, a former footballer involved in the 1980 scandal of bribed matches named Totonero and now a well known author, wrote a book about his story – “Il calciatore suicidato” (“The suicided player”).
Denis was a man who knew too much, he wrote, so he was murdered and the killing staged to seem like suicide. He was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in a circle that involved drug trafficking and fixed matches Petrini suggested. Thanks to the stubborness of his family the case will be shortly be reopened.
Let’s try to clear this mystery up a little, starting with the victim.
Denis Bergamini was a 27-year-old winger born in Argenta in Emilia-Romagna. He was equally good in both defence and attack but more importantly, his energy and pace up and down the left flank was without equal. He debuted with amateur teams in Emilia, Imola and Russi and then in 1985, Cosenza bought him in the hope he would be the man to change their fortunes.
They celebrated a promotion in the 1987-1988 season, coached by Gianni Di Marzio but driven on the pitch by Bergamini and his friend and top-scorer Michele Padovano. During the 1988-1989 season Cosenza pushed for promotion to Serie A but results went against them and it proved a bridge too far. Still, it had been the club’s best ever campaign and Bergamini was now a wanted man, Parma desperate to sign him but Cosenza refused and he committed to the club for what would be his final season.
Denis Bergamini died at approximately 19.30 on a rainy Saturday evening. The first and up until now the only version of events that emerged during the trial, established Bergamini launched himself under a truck loaded with tangerines. The truck driver, Raffaele Pisano, confessed he had dragged his body for about 60 metres before stopping to check.
With him was former girlfriend Isabella Internò. They were unofficially engaged in 1985 (she was a minor at the time) but by 1989 had split, continuing to date occasionally. Her’s was the only version of events that emerged during the initial trial. According to Isabella Denis was shaken, he had phoned her around 4 o’clock and asked her to go with him to Taranto where they would take a ferry to Greece.
Isabella said Denis was willing to leave Cosenza but hadn’t told her why. During the trial she said they stopped in a muddy lay-by to talk. Denis parked his white Maserati, licence plate FE-457412, and asked his girlfriend to take the car back while he hitchhiked to Taranto. In her words she tried to persuade him to change his mind, he refused and went out without wearing his coat to start hitchhiking. The first cars passed by and then, out of nowhere, he shouted back to Isabella “I’m leaving you my heart, not my body” and threw himself under the truck.
The Attorney Office in Castrovillari and the Appeal Court in Catanzaro that put Raffaele Pisano on trial for manslaughter believed her and shortly discharged Pisano. The Appeal trial finally finished in 1992.
Her version of events, however, throws up more questions than answers. First of all, the position of the corpse and the marks on his body tell a different story. The body was in front of the truck, legs bent towards the guard-rail. The coroner established he died from a huge thoracic trauma.
Sergeant Francesco Barbuscio of the Carabinieri gave Domizio Bergamini, Denis’s father, his son’s personal effects – documents, 760,000 lire, a cheque for 10 millions lire (his last wage), and the watch he was wearing at the time of the accident, intact and functioning. So far it could be argued, no signs that his body had been dragged for 60 metres under a truck loaded with tangerines.
When his family (his father Domizio and mother Maria Zerbini as well as sister Donata) went to the ER in Trebisacce where his body had been taken to identify the corpse, a nurse gave Maria his necklace, still perfectly intact. She was asked not to touch the body due to the injuries inflicted and in the end the identification had to be completed by two officials from Cosenza, president Antonio Serra and sports director Roberto Ranzani.
Maria Zerbini repeatedly asked to have his clothes back but the nurses said it wasn’t possible, they had already been burned. The family managed to retrieve his shoes a month after Denis’s death, clean with no traces of mud under the sole. It was Ranzani who collected them, the family grateful to the club’s officials who seemed to be doing all they could in difficult circumstances. One of those officials, Alfredo Rende, phoned Domizio Bergamini and told him they should meet as he ‘knew something’. After the last game of the season at Trieste, Domenico Corrente and Alfredo Rende travelled together in the same car. As they drove on not far from where the body of Denis Bergamini was found, they had a crash and died.
Ten days after his son died Domizio Bergamini had to answer the questions of a judge and asked to be brought to the place where Denis’s body had eventually laid when the truck had stopped.
He described the place to Carlo Petrini as “50 metres after the lay-by, soon after the beginning of the guard-rail, on the asphalt we see a very little trace of blood. There was far more blood on the guard-rail, I said to my son-in-law ‘I believe there’s a path that brings us back to the lay-by’, the path was indeed there”.
An autopsy was eventually conducted 50 days after his death. The body was exhumed and no sign of dragging or broken bones was found. The marks and injuries found on his body were compatible with a single scenario – he was already lying down when the truck wheels ran over him.
So what really happened? According to Carlo Petrini, the truth’s hidden in events from the previous Sunday after the Monza-Cosenza match that had finished 1-1. Domizio Bergamini was in the stands, but at the final whistle Denis told him he wouldn’t be coming back home as he was going to the Hilton Hotel in Milan with his new girlfriend. Curiously however, he had reserved two separate rooms.
Once back home, Domizio said to Petrini that Denis had told him he wouldn’t have sex with her. Then on November 13 at around 8 o’clock in the evening, he received a phone call that visibly shook him. The following Thursday, just two days before his death, three men came and took Denis from a restaurant he was dining in. Where did they take Denis? Nobody knows.
So now events had moved to what would be the last day of his life and the day before Cosenza had to play a home game against Messina. As with every Saturday before a home game the whole team went to the Garden cinema, just as they had done for four years now. Beppe Maltese, the club’s masseur, testified that Denis asked him where the toilets were. Other teammates revealed they saw Denis going out of the cinema at around 15.30 with two men. Who were these men? Where were they going?
Doubts around Denis’s death were mounting and they became even more intense when his final days were examined from another perspective. Were there any signs in his behaviour that suicide was playing on his mind? During a TV program focusing on cold cases and people who had disappeared in unusual circumstances, his sister said that just days before his death he cut all the feet out of his team mates socks as a joke.
On the Monday he received the call that had shaken him so he was celebrating his niece’s birthday. In the days before his death he met with friends regularly and indeed on the very last morning of his life, he showed his family his delight at the cheque for his wages and bonuses that had arrived from the club. He had also already reserved tickets for his parents so that they could travel as a family over the Christmas period. In other words, nothing suggested a trace of depression or a will to commit suicide.
Then why did Denis die? Was he as Carlo Petrini believes ‘suicided’? One of the possible answers could lay with his former fiancée Isabella Internò, and that white Maserati. What do they have in common? Francesco Sprovieri, a local with a criminal past.
It was him who introduced Isabella to Denis, the two meeting when she was a minor. Was Denis killed because he violated her honour in leaving her? It was also Sprovieri who sold the car to Bergamini in the August of 1989 for 20 million lira, far less than it’s commercial value at the time. It was a special, unique and recognisable car, according to Petrini and a local journalist everybody in Cosenza knew it was Denis’s and that it had once belonged to Sprovieri’s wife.
The car had a pair of false floors in the footwells, one hypothesis claiming that Sprovieri presented Isabella to Denis and sold the car to him because he wanted to use him as a drug carrier and Isabella as his guarantee.
Out of nowhere, suddenly a would-be student at the Faculty of Mathematics at the Cosenza University who initially gave the false name ‘Damatiana De Santis’ said that Denis had transported a box of chocolates in his car when Cosenza played away to the north. It was thought that these boxes of chocolates Denis had been given to transport hid drugs – probably cocaine. Was this the real motive behind his death? Did he discover what he was being used for and refuse to go along with it, to be used in such a way again?
A third hypothesis suggests he could have discovered that some of his team had been bribed to influence the results of certain matches. This is not for certain but there is some substance to this theory. The local crime boss Franco Pino during a trial confessed he influenced a Cosenza v Avellino match during that season to finish 2-1, holding an Avellino player’s wife hostage to be assured the match finished with the ‘right’ result.
Some months after Petrini’s book about Bergamini was released, the publishers received an anonymous letter stating that the player had been ‘soaped’, the code word the local mafia generally used to mean murdered.
But a difinitive ‘why’ remains elusive, his family left with hypothesis rather than facts. His team and room-mate Michele Padovano at Denis’s funeral lamented to Domizio Bergamini ‘If only Denis had told me what was happening him, I knew a big shot who would have worked everything out’, but the question still remains, what exactly was there to work out?
After 22 years, the Preliminary Hearing Judge in Castrovillari has decided to reopen the case for voluntary murder against persons unknown. Hopefully he will find some of the answers to explain why a 27-year old handsome and talented midfielder died on the streets of Calabria that dark and stormy night in November of 1989.
By Alessandro Mastroluca
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona