A dead body on a wet road in front of a truck, a Hitchcockian girl and a mysterious car. These elements form a puzzle still missing vital pieces after 25 years. Why was the Cosenza midfielder Denis Bergamini, real name Donato, who had been born in Boccaleone d’Argenta, near Ferrara, found dead on Saturday 18 November 1989? A sloppy enquiry concluded he had committed suicide because he was sick of Italy and the world of football. Too many pieces of evidence, however, weren’t considered and the case has since been reinvestigated as a murder.

That Saturday, Cosenza, then playing in the Italian second division, completed their final training session before the following day’s derby against Messina. A couple of seasons before, the Rossoblu were denied a dreamlike promotion to Serie A by an unfavourable goal difference. But then, the club’s financial conditions worsened and they were almost forced to declare bankruptcy. The 1989-90 season started disappointingly and Cosenza had collected just nine points in the twelve matches before the derby.

The morning of Bergamini’s last day began with a bad omen. During training, he found a dead owl on the pitch. In an interview with the local paper Gazzetta del Sud, he had encouraged his teammates, as he always did on the pitch. On the same pages, that same day, there was an article detailing the dangerousness of the Statale Jonica, the coast road from Reggio Calabria to Taranto, accompanied by an image of the castle at Roseto Capo Spulico. Bergamini would be found dead just there.

Bergamini’s body lies prone, the head pointing towards the centre of the road, in front of a red truck. His hair was brushed, his gilet impeccably pressed, his shoes clean even though it had been raining for hours, his wristwatch still working. At 19:30, Brigadiere Francesco Barbuscio of the carabinieri arrived. Two hours earlier, Barbuscio had stopped Bergamini’s car, a white Maserati, at Roseto Marina just few miles away. At the crime scene, carabinieri found only Raffaele Pisano, the truck driver, who was carrying 138 tons of tangerines from Rosarno to Milan. He explained that Bergamini had thrown himself under his truck and that he’d kept going for 50 metres before managing to stop the vehicle. He then moved briefly in reverse to check if Bergamini was still alive. But it didn’t look like the body of a man dragged for 50 metres under such a heavy truck.

When he stopped, Pisano added, a young woman came from the Maserati that she had manoeuvred towards the road and said, “He was my boyfriend, he wanted to kill himself.” She was Isabella Internò, Bergamini’s sometime girlfriend. They had been engaged from 1985 to the end of 1988, after which their relationship suffered a lot of ups and downs. She moved the car, according to the official version, from the edge of the road where it was parked: the photos taken by the carabinieri showed, in fact, the Maserati behind Pisano’s truck at the scene. Internò, however, wasn’t there. Pisano told Barbuscio she had stopped a man passing by in his car and that he had taken her to Roseto Marina. In his report, Barbuscio wrote he found Isabella outside a bar-restaurant in the Maserati, the same he had seen and reported on the crime scene few minutes earlier. No matter how confusing it may sound, he wrote in his report that he had seen the same Maserati in two different places almost at the same time. Consequently, it became much harder to answer to the most relevant question in this story: how did Isabella arrive there? That’s the key issue, the main mystery in this shadowy story.

Internò said, and has maintained, that Denis Bergamini committed suicide. She said that her former boyfriend called her at about 16:00, picked her up in his white Maserati and set off towards Taranto because he was sick of football and wanted to go to Greece or to the Azores to change his life. She believed him even though he hadn’t brought any luggage or money, except the cheque with which he was paid his salary. They talked for a long time, she said, in an unpaved area by the side of the road, then Bergamini asked her to go back before getting out of the car and throwing himself under the wheels of the truck like a diver plunging into a swimming pool. 

The image, though, doesn’t fit with the results of the autopsy produced on 4 January 1990, two months after Bergamini’s death. Initially, Cosenza’s president had persuaded his family to forgo the autopsy so they could take his body back home sooner. Dr Avato found a single wound, located to the front and on the right side of his trunk. If he had really dived with his head towards the centre of the road with the truck coming from his left, the wound should have been located exactly on the opposite side. The doctor concluded that the truck was going very slowly while a single wheel only partially ran over his body – not at all like a body dragged for 50 metres.

Bergamini’s family didn’t believe the story from the start. Bergamini was a model of professionalism and had never abandoned a training camp or session before a match: to them, this account of his behaviour had always sounded strange. Football was his dream, his priority, and the previous summer Parma and Fiorentina, two leading clubs in Serie A at the time, approached him and Cosenza agreed to triple his wages to persuade him not to leave. Could a man in his position, starting to realise his ambition, a man considered a true icon by his fans, who named an end of the stadium after him, have suddenly become sick of football? 

When his family arrived from Ferrara, driving all night to identify Bergamini’s body, Barbuscio repeated to Domizio, Denis’s father, the story Isabella had told him and reluctantly agreed to take them to the spot where he had found the body. However, the family didn’t see any evidence, any trace of blood and it was only some days later, watching television, that they realised Barbuscio had taken them somewhere else. In the morgue, meanwhile, a nurse had prevented Bergamini’s mother from giving her son a final kiss because, she had said, his body was destroyed. Lifting up the sheet, though, his mother saw Denis’s face almost intact. They asked to have at least his clothes back and they were told they had already been burned. Yet his teammates remembered that the clothes officials described were on the team bus after the funeral. Bergamini’s family has never recovered them. They obtained just the watch, his gold chain and the shoes he was wearing when he died, which were surrounded by a further mystery. It was a club handyman, Domenico Corrente, who grabbed the shoes and gave them to Domizio Bergamini, promising he would have something important to tell him at the end of the season. But after the final match, he died in a car accident near Roseto Capo Spulico with another warehouse worker, Alfredo Rende. Strangely, Corrente’s family strongly denies this story and denies that Domenico had anything to do with the shoes. Why are they so sensitive, given Domenico is not being accused of anything but is being praised for having done the right thing?

The day after the body was discovered, the coroner examined it and established that Bergamini died on Saturday afternoon between 13:50 and 18:50. Less than 24 hours after his death, carabinieri had in front of them a self-evident inconsistency about the time of death, but nobody checked Internò or Pisano’s story to see why they had put the time of death at around 19:30. Besides, the tachograph card of Pisano’s truck showed he made a stop between 17:55 and 18:05 without turning off the engine. Could that be the true time of death? And, if so, what happened in following hour and a half, before the Cosenza coach Gigi Simoni received the dramatic call announcing Bergamini’s death?

Despite all the contradictions, the carabinieri were immediately persuaded that Bergamini committed suicide. They didn’t look back. They were so committed to this version that they gave the Maserati back to Bergamini’s family the same night and allowed Pisano to leave their headquarters in his truck, without completing any kind of analysis. Even the expert witness appointed to reconstruct what could have happened was forced to base his conclusions exclusively on the photographs taken by the carabinieri. And yet, there were plenty of reasons to believe things weren’t so simple.

The previous Sunday, 12 November 1989, after his last match in Monza, Bergamini remained in Milan, sleeping with a friend, Giuliana, at the Hilton Hotel. The following Monday he went back home and spontaneously declared he hadn’t had sex with her. He was normally shy, so why did he decide to confess such a detail? Bergamini seemed happy, recalls his sister Donata, and eager to celebrate her daughter’s fifth birthday. At around 19:30 he got a short phone call. He said almost nothing, but his mood dramatically changed. He started to sweat and looked shocked for a while, before calming down. He offered no detail about the call. Then, on Thursday 17, according to Gazzetta dello Sport, two men threatened Bergamini while he was having dinner in a restaurant near Cosenza. Michele Padovano, the former Juventus striker who was at the time playing at Cosenza and living in the same house as Bergamini, denied this. He said they shared almost every meal in the same restaurant and that nothing like that had occurred. Nobody has ever checked what really happened, but the next day Bergamini called his girlfriend, Roberta, and told her that someone in Cosenza had something against him. When she tried to find out more, Denis said the only thing he had done wrong was to break with Isabella. Why did he believe that decision could have been perceived as a fault?

On the morning of his last day, Bergamini finished training at 11:45 before going to the Motel Agip in Rende, a tiny town nearby, as Cossenza’s players did before all their home matches. He arrived at 12:30. During those 45 minutes Francesco Marino and his teammate Castagnini met Internò at Commenda di Rende. They met casually, he said, and had a brief chat, but she didn’t tell Denis. After lunch, Denis went to the room that he shared with Padovano, who testified that Denis received a phone call at around 14:45 that changed his mood. As ever, he didn’t share his feelings. According to the usual routine before home matches, at 16:30 players and staff went to a cinema, the Garden, in Rende. Unusually, on this occasion Bergamini decided to make the short journey in his car with the masseur, Giuseppe Maltese, one of his closest friends in the squad. He had rarely gone to the cinema with the players, but that day he made an exception. So it seemed odd when Bergamini asked him, knowing he wasn’t used to going there, where the bathrooms were. The movie hadn’t started but the lights had already been turned off when Denis left the room and the cinema. That was the last time his teammates saw Denis alive. One of the players, Sergio Galeazzi, testified he saw two figures, two shadows near Bergamini while he was going down the stairs: however, they could have been simply two late customers searching for their seats. 

In 2010, the man who worked as a car park attendant at the Garden in 1989 said that Bergamini left the cinema in a black car with a beautiful girl. But he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease: can his memory be relied upon? There’s another relevant witness, though, the former owner of the Garden: he remembered that Bergamini made two phone calls and then left the cinema alone. Did he call Internò from there at 16:00? Perhaps. Did someone chase him from the cinema car park? Nobody knows.

That is not even the most puzzling aspect of that dramatic afternoon. After the movie, Simoni realised that the most professional player in his squad had disappeared. He was surprised but, according to his statement to the carabinieri, he didn’t ask his players to see if any of them knew what had happened. None of them did anything; they simply came back to the motel. Only Maltese, a little concerned, asked the receptionist if Bergamini was back. He hadn’t seen him, he said, adding that the keys to his room hadn’t been handed in. Maltese went upstairs and found them in the keyhole, on the outside of the door. The room was empty but the lights were on. What had happened? Did Denis forget to turn them off and inadvertently left the keys going out? Or had he come back from the cinema during the movie?

The only trial conducted so far didn’t answer any of these questions. Pisano was charged with second-degree murder in 1991 and acquitted: the lower court and the appeal court believed Internò and were persuaded that Bergamini committed suicide, although they weren’t able to identify a plausible reason.

It’s impossible in this story to know the exact position and the movements of the main characters at the crucial minutes. We don’t know what Bergamini did or where he went when he left the cinema. Above all, we don’t know how Isabella Internò arrived from Roseto Capo Spulico, where she said her ex-boyfriend had just committed suicide, at Roseto Marina, 3km north of that point. In Roseto Marina, she and Denis had been stopped at a checkpoint at 17:30. After Denis’s death, a driver passing by took Isabella to a bar-restaurant in Roseto Marina where she made some phone calls. It was outside there that the carabinieri found her, as Barbuscio wrote. But how did she get there?

Mario Infantino, the bar’s owner, told the carabinieri that he had spoken with the unknown helper: “a man”, he said, “who left his family in their car and drove Isabella in her Maserati.” Did he bring the car back, too? Did Isabella trust him so much? A month later, however, he changed his version of events, saying Isabella had arrived in the helper’s car around 19:30. Some years ago, the Bergaminis’ lawyer, Eugenio Gallerani, managed to find the unknown driver, a man named Mario Panunzio, during his enquiry that led to the case being reopened.  

The second, related, mystery remained just as unclear: whom did she call? Bergamini’s mother and Cosenza’s coach, Gigi Simoni, Isabella said in her first statements to the carabinieri. Infantino soon contradicted her, recalling she had made three calls, the last to Francesco Marino, the player she had met that morning in Commenda di Rende. Is that just a coincidence? Simoni, anyway, said he had spoken twice with Internò, who had briefly handed the phone to an unknown man: so, was the helper, Panunzio, with her or not? And why had Isabella never said this during the preliminary enquiries?

Finally, why did Isabella ask to speak to Marino, of all the players? According to Simoni, because they were good friends, but Marino denied this. Isabella asked him if Bergamini had confided something to him that day: a strange question to ask to a not-so-close friend, hours after a casual meeting: but was it really casual? Why did neither Internò nor Marino tell Denis about it? We’ll never know. All Isabella said to the public prosecutor Ottavio Abate on July 1990 was that she had forgotten to tell carabinieri about that call to Marino because it didn’t matter to her.

But there’s a final coup de théâtre. In 2011, Infantino testified to the new prosecutor in Castrovillari, Franco Giacomantonio. In a television interview, he had already revealed a detail that contradicted his previous version and the whole reconstruction of events. Now he said that Isabella’s helper remained outside the bar and that they must have arrived much before 19:30 because you could see the sun. So, when exactly did Bergamini die?

Denis’s car, the white Maserati, plays a crucial role in the mystery surrounding his death, not only because in Cosenza at that time, it was almost unique and so immediately recognisable. Bergamini bought it from Santo Fiorentino, a Cosenza executive, cousin of a local criminal whose wife owned the car. Bergamini paid 35 million lire for the Maserati, but he and Fiorentino agreed to put on record a lower price, 25 million. 

According to local journalists, the club insisted that Bergamini should buy that car, leading to much speculation. They talked about drug-trafficking, they said that someone unknown to him had carried drugs in a hidden compartment, benefiting from the substantial protection the Maserati’s celebrity guaranteed, and concluded he was killed because he had discovered the trick. In 2011, however, Bergamini’s family and their lawyer, Eugenio Gallerani, traced the car and found it in the garage of its latest owners, a couple of collectors living in Valle di Cadore in the north of Italy. They had bought the car in 1993 and almost never drove it, so they agreed to resell it to the Bergaminis for €1000. The carabinieri of the Special Investigations Unit (RIS) in Messina inspected the Maserati, found it had all the original parts and no false bottoms. Although traffickers could have transported drugs in another way, the theory presents more than a few problems. Why would hypothetical traffickers have left the Maserati, the proof of their crime, on the scene? And it’s almost as implausible to believe the same hypothetical criminals didn’t stage a more plausible accident.

The recent enquiry focused on the love story between Denis and Isabella Internò, believing the cause of his death is hidden in the context of their troublesome relationship. She was almost 16 when she met Bergamini, 23 at the time. She was in love and jealous, he was in love too but messed around with other women, according to his teammates. He was handsome, a footballer, an icon in Cosenza: it’s easy to imagine how many women wanted to have sex with him, and apparently he seldom said no. 

In the summer of 1987, Internò fell pregnant, but wanted an abortion. Denis asked his sister Donata for help and she took Isabella to her gynaecologist. He confirmed Internò was five months pregnant, meaning an abortion was illegal. Denis assured his girlfriend he was ready to take responsibility for the child, but Internò insisted. Her aunt found a private clinic in London where Denis accompanied her to have the abortion. In his wallet, after his death, carabinieri found a handwritten note with the address and the phone number of that clinic, together with some banknotes and a post-dated cheque from the club. Why did he take that note with him on that day, more than two years after the abortion? Nobody knows.

Isabella and Denis broke up in September 1988, but she continued to call him, to search for him, even though he had a new girlfriend. In the summer of 1988, Bergamini discovered Isabella had had an affair with a former Cosenza player, Gabriele Baldassarri, although they never had sex. Bergamini was angry, knowing how word gets around in the world of football. From then on, Denis seemed changed, worried. Initially his family thought it was due to a serious injury he had suffered in November 1988 but matters didn’t improve after he came back to play football.

In the same period, Isabella had a second abortion in Cosenza, according to the carabinieri inspecting the register of a clinic dating back to the winter of 1988 and the beginning of 1989. Was Bergamini the father? Did her family know the whole truth about it? After a quarter of a century, finding the answers to these questions might finally lead to close the case.