No Place Like Home

In 2005, a pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz was stolen from her hometown in Minnesota. Who took the iconic shoes, and where did they go? In an eight-part narrative podcast, two journalists search for answers.

No Place Like Home

The Atavist Magazine, No. 116


No Place Like Home is a presentation, direction, and production of C13Originals, a Cadence13 Studio, in partnership with The Atavist Magazine. Cadence 13 is an Audacy company.

Ariel Ramchandani is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Undark, and other publications. Her story “When the Devil Enters” was published by The Atavist in November 2016. 

Seyward Darby is the editor in chief of The Atavist.

Reporter and Writer: Ariel Ramchandani
Cohosts: Seyward Darby and Ariel Ramchandani
Executive Producer: Chris Corcoran
Director: Lloyd Lochridge
Editor: Alistair Shurman
Producers: Paige Hymson and Valerie Thomas
Engineering, Research, and Production Support: Patrick Antonetti, Sean Cherry, Adam Przybyl, Ian Mandt, Bill Shultz, and Bob Tabaddor
Mixing and Mastering: Chris Basil
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Illustrator: Joel Kimmel


Prologue

They were supposed to be silver—silver slippers on a golden road. That’s how Dorothy’s shoes are described in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But in the film version, the color changed. A screenwriter hastily crossed out “silver.” Technicolor was about thinking brighter. The shoes would be ruby instead. 

The Wizard of Oz had five directors over the course of its development, which resulted in a carousel of auteurial visions. The design for the slippers changed, too. First they were simple, then ornate, then somewhere in between. The final version started out as white silk pumps, manufactured by the Innes Shoe Company in Los Angeles. They were the type of shoes a woman might wear to work, priced at around $12. At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio behind The Wizard of Oz, the costume department wrapped the pumps in red netting, then hand-stitched sequins onto them with silk thread. There were thousands of sequins, made of clear plastic with burgundy paint applied, so they’d appear bright red under the studio lights. The last touches on Dorothy’s soon-to-be-famous shoes were pronged rhinestone bows. 

How many pairs were made? Some film historians say seven, because actors’ contracts stipulated a clean costume for every day of the week. But there may have been more, or fewer. Shoes for close-ups, sparkling and pristine. Shoes for dancing and skipping, with felt attached to the soles to muffle any scraping and tapping. Slippers for Judy Garland, with her name written on the tan leather interiors. Slippers for her stand-in, who was on set until the last possible moment before a take, while Garland did schoolwork in her trailer. Garland was only 16, but so talented that she could nail a dance sequence on the first try as if she’d been rehearsing it all day. 

When did you see The Wizard of Oz for the first time? Christmas, maybe—your cheeks flush from a cozy fire, crinkled wrapping paper scattered around you on the living room floor. Film critics and historians have described it as the most American of movies: Home is in the heartland; evil emanates from the East and West; the city is all smoke and mirrors. The film offers comfort but also excitement—it’s an adventure into literal color. And it all begins with the slippers. 

The conversation between Dorothy and Glinda in Munchkinland is surprisingly short. Where is Glinda going in her glowing bubble? Why isn’t she more helpful? The Good Witch warns the girl who fell from the sky never to remove the red shoes that have suddenly appeared on her feet. “Keep tight inside of them,” Glinda chirps before she vanishes. “Their magic must be very powerful.”

Do not for your life let go of the shoes. Dorothy doesn’t. One step, then another, with an elegant flick of her foot. Her world is widening with every skip and stride. 

The ruby slippers became iconic. Ask anyone who cares about them why they do and they’ll echo Glinda: magic.

Four known pairs remain in the world. One was given away by MGM in 1939, as part of the promotion for the film’s release, to a lucky woman in Tennessee. That pair was later sold at auction, and then again to an anonymous buyer. The shoes haven’t been seen publicly since 2000. Rumor has it that a major celebrity—someone like Oprah—is probably their owner now. 

Another pair was sold in 1970, at a first-of-its-kind Hollywood memorabilia auction intended to clear MGM’s backlot of what executives had decided was mostly junk. A young man named Kent Warner felt differently; he believed MGM was sitting on a gold mine. He was hired to sift through piles of props and costumes and to catalog the items suitable for auction. According to industry legend, Warner unearthed at least three pairs of the ruby slippers in MGM’s wardrobe storage, high up in a warehouse. One set became the star of the auction. Warner presented the shoes to prospective buyers on a velvet pillow. They sold for $15,000—nearly $100,000 today—and then were donated to the Smithsonian a few years later. Now people line up to see them behind glass at the National Museum of American History. They’re the most requested item on view; visitors arrive at the front desk and ask, “Where can I find the slippers?” When they see them, glittering in their display case, some people cry, like they’ve encountered the Shroud of Turin. 

Another pair Warner kept for himself, and MGM didn’t stop him. These are the nicest slippers, in the best condition. They may have been used in the close-ups at the beginning of the film, when the slippers sit on the stockinged feet of the witch crushed by Dorothy’s house. In the telling of Rhys Thomas, who wrote the definitive history of the shoes, their allure began to overwhelm Warner. People came to his house to see them instead of him. As Thomas put it, “The charm of the slippers plain wore Kent out.” Warner sold them in 1980, perhaps to pay for his medical treatment: He died four years later of an AIDS-related illness. Warner’s pair was eventually acquired by Leonardo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg, who plan to exhibit it in the yet to open Academy Museum of Motion Picture Arts. 

This podcast is about the last authenticated pair of ruby slippers that Warner found. He sold them for about $2,500 to a friend, a child actor turned memorabilia collector named Michael Shaw, who’d become entranced with The Wizard of Oz when he was under contract at MGM. For more than 30 years, Shaw took his shoes on the road, lending them to museums and showing them at charity events. They became known as the Traveling Shoes. 

In 2005, these slippers made their way to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Garland’s hometown. They went on display that summer at the Judy Garland Museum, a quaint, kitschy landmark attached to the movie star’s childhood home—a white clapboard house with a porch. The museum advertised the slippers like crazy, and people came in droves to see them. Kids often arrived in costume. There were a lot of Dorothys.

The shoes were supposed to be in Grand Rapids until Labor Day. But late one night that August, someone broke into the museum and took them. All that magic—and the millions it was worth—disappeared in an instant.

Where did the ruby slippers go? And who took them? Finding the stolen slippers became a matter of cultural resurrection and, for some people, an obsession. 

Welcome to No Place Like Home.

—Ariel Ramchandani, Writer and Cohost

Seyward Darby, Cohost


Binge the full season on Apple Podcasts.

No Place Like Home is a production of C13Originals, a Cadence13 Studio, in partnership with The Atavist Magazine.


  1. They Don't Like Being Owned
  2. Very Accomplished Thieves
  3. Everything Is Lining Up
  4. Who Can You Trust?
  5. Dear Dorothy, Hate Oz, Took Shoes
  6. Terribly Happy
  7. The Robin Hood of Hollywood
  8. The Ruby Slippers Are Gone

© 2021 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

When the Devil Enters

1-1478998325-88.jpg

When the Devil Enters

A town plagued by mysterious fires turns to science, the church, and the law in a search for answers.

By Ariel Ramchandani

The Atavist Magazine, No. 62


Ariel Ramchandani is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Economist, Wired, Afar, WSJ Magazine, and other publications.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Tim Moore
Illustrator: Dola Sun
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Caterina Clerici

Published in November 2016. Design updated in 2021.

In the middle of dinner, Antonino Pezzino discovered that his house was on fire. It was late December 2003, and Pezzino was at his home in Canneto di Caronia, a one-street town in the north of Sicily. The source was a fuse box, engulfed by flames so intense that they swallowed the heavy curtains that hung nearby. S’è bruciato tutto qui. All burned here. Pezzino, a 43-year-old insurance salesman, put out the fire and snapped a picture of what was left—a black and gray tangle of wires against a sooty white wall. Like the others on the street, the house was a refuge against the brilliance of the Sicilian sun and the sea—tight, shadowy interiors crowded with dark textiles, heavy wooden furniture, and framed photographs. A normal home, a normal fire. But then a few days later the kitchen fan caught fire, and the television, and other appliances, immolated as if by a secret hand.

Canneto di Caronia is an outpost of Caronia proper, a small town of about 3,400 people halfway between Palermo and Messina, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is a city of bricklayers, construction workers, small-business owners, and contadini, farmers worn by years of work in the sun. Thirty nine people lived in a dozen houses along a road called Via Mare; another hundred residents lived in the surrounding hillsides. Dusty chickens cluster in green yards, and when you pass by, dogs bark and jump, rattling the chain-link fences. In the winter, heavy yellow and orange citrus dot the emerald green hillside running down to the sea, and the air smells of smoke and soap from farmers clearing their fields and from clothes drying in the sun. The homes on Via Mare stand pushed together like stucco-and-stone teeth facing the water, with terra-cotta roofs and wild gardens. A looping ramp connects them to the main road above.

In the weeks that followed, Pezzino’s neighbors—his father, his mother, his aunt and cousins, who lived close together in four or five attached houses—also experienced unexplained fires. Pezzino lived with his wife, Maria, and a son, Giuseppe, who was 15 at the time. Together with his father, Pezzino had built his home in the 1980s; now he assumed faulty wiring was to blame. At the end of January, he changed the wiring, but the fires continued.

The air smells of smoke and soap from farmers clearing their fields and from clothes drying in the sun.

Pezzino, who goes by Nino, is a large man with a heavy brow, a gray shock of hair, and a pointed chin. He has a skeptical but confident manner; he knows that the world is broken and that the trick is finding the right person to pay for the repairs. As the fires spread, the family began to suspect problems with the town’s electrical grid, which is run by ENEL, the national electrical and gas provider. Pezzino called ENEL, but the company was unresponsive. So one Sunday afternoon he called Pedro Spinnato, the mayor of Caronia. The two men were close. For a time after Spinnato was first elected, in 1996, Pezzino had served in his cabinet.

When Spinnato arrived, he immediately “understood that something was weird,” he recalled. Two electricians had tested the frizzled electrical system, but they couldn’t find the source of the flames, so they decided to cut power from the central plant to the houses until they knew what the problem was. But the fires kept coming, even with the electricity off. Metal, plastic, and insulation all burned. Throughout the village, outlets burned red hot through the holes—cords lit up like sparklers, an electrical motor melted. Appliances rebelled against their owners.

Mayor Spinnato called the main branch of ENEL in Palermo, the state government, and the Protezione Civile, or the civil defense, the Italian equivalent of the National Guard. “All the offices, institutions, and the people that can somehow do anything,” he said.

The little town was an inferno. Smoke poured into the sky, and sirens blared from one end of the street to the other. In the first three months of 2004, residents reported 92 fires. Firemen crowded into tiny rooms in tiny homes, onto the staircases. The homes had been built by the people who lived in them, or by builders they knew, and their houses and their carefully saved-for things were burning. Their blackened furniture sat in the street like a torched yard sale.

After the firemen came the press, crowding the tiny street with cameras. Pezzino became the portavoce, or spokesman, for the residents. “It is like we are living in a microwave,” he told the press. This became the town’s rallying cry.

One of Pezzino’s neighbors had installed a new electrical system just six months earlier, and it too caught fire. Later, recounting these events on an American program called The Unexplained Files, the man would recall mattresses catching fire as people slept on them. “Una cosa incredibile,” he said into the camera. “An incredible thing to happen in such a tiny village. We had never seen anything like this before.” In one scene, Giuseppe slides past a doorway in the Pezzino home in a heavy down coat, his eyes so wide with fear that you can see the whites. In another home, Pezzino’s aunt’s wedding presents, her photos, her silver, the linens made by her mother—all of it burned.

The train from Palermo to Messina goes through Canneto: The tracks run behind the town’s only road. That winter, residents noticed that when the train roared past, the fires would begin again, as though the railcars were setting them on their journey. “We didn’t know what to do,” Pezzino told me. “We were in the dark.”

On February 9, two houses burned. One of Pezzino’s neighbors rushed to the local police station with the bottom of his pants burned and his shoes on fire. An article in a national newspaper reported that he said the devil was burning behind him and then thrust his shoes into the hands of a police officer. His daughters’ bedroom had burned, charred black. He and his wife were afraid to leave the children alone in the house. They felt “fear, anger, and desperation,” his wife would tell The Unexplained Files, with her arms crossed in front of her chest. “When you lose everything, you become desperate.”

That day, Mayor Spinnato, along with the Protezione Civile, ordered the residents of Via Mare to evacuate. Spinnato is a thoughtful man of medium build, an architect by trade, well dressed, with curly hair and searching pale gray-green eyes. He lives with his wife and children in a home in Caronia Marina that is traditional on the outside and stylish and bright inside. He is an atheist and a democrat who does not believe totally in his party. He joked to reporters that the fires were punishment for the town electing a communist mayor, referring to himself. When he came into office, he was prepared for forest fires, flooding, even earthquakes. “But something like this, you wouldn’t imagine,” he told me. “Usually, you know the how and why. But we didn’t know these things, so we didn’t know how to face them.”

6-1479005016-38.jpg

The residents were relocated to the Za Maria, the only hotel in Canneto, located on a hill directly above the village. They ate meals in the grand dining room, with stone floors and the sea sparkling beyond panoramic windows. Rosa Mirabella, Pezzino’s elderly aunt, who moved there after the evacuation order, told the Italian magazine L’Espresso, “I never stayed in a hotel before, and look at me now, here like a lady.” The article described Mirabella eating steaming maccheroni, fried calamari, with a carafe of local white, all paid for by the city.

Pezzino, who was evacuated to a nearby apartment, hated being away from his home. In his yard in Canneto, he kept tortoises and dogs, including a Cirneco dell’Etna, a pale-eyed bronze Sicilian hunting dog. “I was born here, always lived here,” he said. The evacuation, he recalled, seemed like a prison sentence. “When I used to go to bed, it seemed to me like I was trespassing,” he said. “A police officer with young children, very beautiful twins, lived downstairs. If I moved, I would wake them up. I was not used to the rules of the town.”

On February 11, the public prosecutor announced an investigation into the fires. For the residents, the inquiry seemed like a slap in the face, an accusation that someone from their small community had been responsible. They welcomed the chance to be exonerated.

Government investigators, engineers, scientists, and technicians monitored the homes in Canneto around the clock. On February 13, Massimo Polidoro of CICAP arrived in Canneto. CICAP is the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudosciences, an Italian nonprofit. Polidoro, a psychologist, writer, and television personality, interviewed the stumped investigators at the Za Maria for CICAP’s magazine, The Skeptical Enquirer. He’s against superstition but also attracted to it. Canneto was a perfect research subject.

At the Za Maria, Polidoro spoke with Enzo Boschi, the president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. Sicily and Italy have a lot of earthquakes. In September 2002, a 5.6-magnitude temblor shook Sicily, causing major damage in Palermo, the capital city. The next month, an earthquake rumbled through Molise, in southern Italy, killing 27 schoolchildren. Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe, is about 35 miles from Canneto. The Aeolian Islands in the sea north of Canneto have two active volcanoes: Stromboli and Vulcano. As a result of all this seismic activity, volcanoes and earthquakes are a likely culprit for anything that goes wrong. But Boschi said there was no indication that the fires were connected to volcanic or seismic activity. “If indeed it were volcanic activity, the effect would not only burn some electrical wire,” Boschi said. “The internal forces of the earth cannot cause reactions of this magnitude, and especially in a tiny area.”

The technicians from ENEL and the railway also failed to find anything unusual. The telecom lines looked fine, too. A member of the National Research Council of Italy presented the idea that the fires could have been caused by “an abnormal increase in the electrical field.” Others were more skeptical and suspected a human cause. Sergio Conte, a telecom expert, told Polidoro that any electrical problems would come from the inner fibers of the cables, but when he examined the wires he saw that “the heat had only blackened and charred the outside,” he said. “At this point I realized it was not damage due to a malfunction.”

The inquiry seemed like a slap in the face, an accusation that someone from their small community had been responsible.

One person was quite sure of what had started the fires: Padre Gabriele Amorth, a Catholic priest in Rome, who held the title of honorary president of the International Association of Exorcists. On February 10, an Italian paper published an interview with Amorth about the fires in Caronia. Amorth said that “the first thing to do is to call a priest” to bless the houses. He told the interviewer that fires can happen “quando il demonio entra nella vita di chi gli permette di entrare,” or “when the devil enters in the life of a person who allows him entrance.” And he added that the cause could be black or white magic, “the preferred gateway to Satan.”

“This is a world that has abandoned God,” he said. Amorth also told the interviewer that he had seen this before, houses haunted by the devil and the devil manifesting through electricity. “Do not forget that Satan and his spirits have immense powers.”

Amorth’s declaration disappointed the local priest. “That is an absurd Satanic hypothesis,” the priest said. “The inhabitants of Canneto are hard-working people who struggle every day to bring home bread, not Satanism.” But it delighted the press. In Italy, journalistic conventions favor dramatic stories over hard news. And in such a deeply Catholic country, nothing provides as much drama as Satan. “The news was born because of Padre Amorth,” Spinnato told me. “He launched the devil. It becomes a fact of custom, a way to write a newspaper article.”

The article from L’Espresso, entitled—what else?—“Bezelbù si è fermato a Cefalù,” or “The devil stops at Cefalu,” documented the scene at the Hotel Za Maria, crowded with investigators, displaced residents, and international media outlets like the BBC. (Cefalu is a tourist destination, located about 30 miles west of Caronia along the coast.) The foreign press was just as culpable: Journalists came from Norway, Argentina, Denmark, and France, among other countries. Pezzino went on a German television show, which dedicated an hour to Canneto and another hour to the abominable snowman. When The New York Times came, Pezzino told them, “I’m Catholic. I believe in the devil. I don’t know why the devil is here.” The Times article was titled “Canneto di Caronia Journal: Electricity Goes Wild. Did the Devil Make It Do It?”

In the winter of 2016, I traveled to Italy and tried to meet with Padre Amorth. His health was failing, however, and he didn’t have time for me in his schedule. Instead, I arranged for a friend of mine, Roberto Rossi, to visit Amorth in March, at his residence at the Society of Saint Paul in Rome. He conducted exorcisms in another room in the same old brick building. “So strange,” Amorth said. “I don’t remember anything about that,” when Rossi asked about Canneto. At the time, Padre Amorth was 91 years old, completely bald, with rounded shoulders. Then, Amorth told Rossi about a series of exorcisms he had done: “The oldest woman that I am working with has been in sessions for almost 30 years, and she’s going to be free soon. I hope by the end of this year.”

“Most of the time, the devil acts as part of ordinary life,” Amorth said, but fires in houses are “a very extraordinary manifestation.” He said that doing “an exorcism on a house is one of the most difficult things for an exorcist to do. Many times the exorcist fails, and the only solution is to leave the house and move to a new one.” (In September, Rossi wrote me to say that Padre Amorth had died.)

In such a deeply Catholic country, nothing provides as much drama as Satan.

On the whole, the devil does not account for the intractability of poverty. Milan and the Mezzogiorno, a term for the eight southern regions of the country, are like two different nations. In fact they were, less than 200 years ago. Half of Italy’s poorest live in Sicily, and many have left. In the beginning of the 20th century, one quarter of Sicily’s population moved north or to the United States after nearly starving under the island’s feudal farming system. Between 2007 and 2014, seventy percent of unemployed Italians were southern.

For young Italians, the prospects of finding a good job are grim: In 2015, youth unemployment was at 54 percent. In the Italian language, there is a verb, sistemarsi, that means to settle oneself, to find a job. It is used when children start their own lives. In recent years, this has been elusive for young Italians. And so the towns continue to empty: Spinnato told me that he could estimate how many people had left the area by the queue at Caronia’s festival for its patron saint, San Biagio. The crowd walking up the hill was half as long as it once was.

In Sicily, one area of economic hope is tourism. At first, Spinnato saw the press as a way to bring visitors to Caronia, whose location he described as “in the periphery, and marginal.” Despite its cliffs and seaside, Roman stone walls and medieval towns with Saracen arches, the area has not benefited from tourism to the extent enjoyed by Taormina, or nearby Cefalu, or the Aeolian Islands, which one can see on a clear day from the beach near Canneto, like a crown in the ocean. The province of Messina, where the city is located, is one of the poorest areas in Sicily. Spinnato tried to show the press all these beauties: a medieval castle, a nearby forest full of rare plants, and the northern coastline.

Meanwhile, the situation at the Za Maria was deteriorating. The investigation on Via Mare blocked access to the hotel’s swimming pool. The innkeeper’s lawyers sent a letter to Spinnato and the government in Caronia asking for almost $100,000 in expenses incurred by the evacuees that had yet to be paid.  

On March 16, the fires returned. The investigators monitoring the area noticed other oddities as well: car locks malfunctioned, cell phones rang with no satellite signal. A car antenna became so hot that it cracked a windshield. Compasses went haywire.

The residents appointed a consultant, Francesco Valenti, an engineer from Capo d’Orlando, a city 25 miles up the coast. On March 31, he filed a 30-page document titled “A qualitative report and definitive solution to secure Canneto di Caronia.” In parts, the report seemed more like an exercise in literary analysis than empirical science. Valenti quotes Dante, Galileo, Wittgenstein, and The Leopard, the novel about Sicily by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. “In Sicily, it doesn’t matter whether things are done well or done badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of ‘doing’ at all.”

Valenti called the fires “eventi probabilistici impulsivi,” or unforeseeable electromagnetic events caused by roaming electrical charges, like lightning without a storm. Electromagnetic force is created by the interactions between electrically charged particles—think magnets clinging together or repelling each other when the charge is reversed. Valenti advocated removing the railway lines, changing the angles of the power cables, and fixing all the electrical systems above- and belowground in the area.

He ended the report with “Eppur si move.” “And yet it moves,” the words attributed to Galileo when he was forced to retract his theory that the Earth moved around the Sun, as if the cause of the fires was obvious and could be found by examining the spinning planet on which they stood. Two weeks later, he sent a letter to the city government, urging them to accept his research. “My work is not the homework of a student, but the hard work of a perspiring professional,” he wrote. “The mysteries are mysteries no more.”

His recommendations were not adopted, but the fires ceased of their own accord. In June 2004, the residents of Via Mare moved back into their homes for the Sicilian summer.

2-1479005045-40.jpg

Although the flames were gone, the sense of mystery lingered. Valenti’s conclusion did nothing to quell international interest in the fires. The Caronia city hall was flooded with letters from people offering alternate explanations. Many of the letters were anonymous and opened with “I saw what happened on TV….”

This spring I read through the trove of letters. Even though most of them contained far-fetched notions, I wasn’t immune to the lure of Canneto theories, insane and plausible, riddled with typos, written by hand or typewriter, in tones formal or casual, and accompanied by drawings. Maybe one of these people, so invested in something that was not theirs, knew something about the world. I examined every letter for all the things people wanted to believe. I followed those same lines, tracing the inquiries of the curious.

Officials from different towns wrote to express solidarity, among them a representative of Bengtsfors, in Sweden, which was proud to be a sister in charcoal use, or from another Caronia in northern Italy, writing to say that the Caronias of the world must stand together. Working and retired engineers of all kinds offered their services. Pages of faxes came in with scientific theorems. Lise and Rose, a clairvoyant firm from Geneva, asked for a check or credit card to get started. One letter posited that the fires were a group hallucination: “The mind of man is a mystery.” Another assured Spinnato that you could set fires with mirrors even if the sun wasn’t shining. Another encouraged him to read Allan Kardec, a French spiritualist who conducted séances, in order to find the cause. Yet another sent pictures of an apparition of the Virgin Mary. A professor wrote about the similarity between the names Caronia and Caronte, the ferryman of the dead in ancient Greek mythology. He suggested that he and Spinnato collaborate on an e-book on the topic.

One letter writer from Vicenza, near Venice, wrote several times, attaching articles and charts about electromagnetic charges. The letter writer said that in 1989, a time of international unrest, there were similar problems in Vicenza, such as fuse boxes burning and car lights flickering. There is a U.S. Army garrison in Vicenza called Caserma Ederle. The letter suggested that NATO operations from that garrison may have been using radar at a frequency that affected the surrounding area. He said he’d sent his letters to the government, too.

Another letter, this one addressed to the Za Maria, was from Robert Fritzius, a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant and electrical engineer in Mississippi. Fritzius had written the letter in English and then fed it through Babelfish, an online translation site. He had become obsessed with the fires and started an online Think Tank where people could post information. (He also has a website mapping the 1918 influenza pandemic.) His theory was that Etna was “plugged up.”

clericicann-1479137578-31.jpg
(Photo: Caterina Clerici)

When I called Fritzius this spring, he pronounced Canneto “Ca-neato.” He explained that he was sure that volcanic gasses were involved in creating a type of spontaneous combustion. Fritzius told me about an engineer in Palermo who hypothesized that two fault lines crisscross under Canneto. “The fellow suggested that some of these volcanic magma and gasses might be heading there,” he said. “Once Etna did spill lava, the fires completely went away.”

The “fellow” turned out to be Aldo Barbagallo, a civil engineer at Palermo University, who told me that he found Fritzius’s hypothesis fascinating. He told me that the sea near Canneto “went by the name Contrada Fetente”—stinky district. “If you go scuba diving in the Aeolian Islands, as I did, you’ll spot some places where gas bubbles come from the bottom of the sea,” he told me. The bubbles were sulfur, he said, a volcanic gas, which might be evidence of a connection between the chain of volcanoes that make up the Aeolian Islands and Etna.

Fritzius also told me to look at a paper in an Italian science magazine published in 1932. The article, “Some Generality on Magnetics and Geomagnetics,” is referenced on every online forum about the fires as evidence of a link between the incidents in Caronia and aliens from outer space. The Unexplained Files episode even cited it as proof that there was a natural geomagnetic cause, something from the earth responsible for generating charge and zapping Canneto. But after many emails, I finally tracked down the article from the Istituto Geografico Militare. All it said was that there are magnetic and geomagnetic fields in Italy, and that the Italian military had noticed them as early as 1932.

I spoke to Malcolm Johnston of the U.S. Geological Survey to try and understand the science. He explained that although earthquakes can trigger volcanic eruptions, and volcanic activity can trigger earthquakes, the physics of each phenomenon is different. With a volcano, fires can occur when molten rock, lightning, and fiery ash flows of several thousand degrees move down the exterior surface at very high speeds.

I asked Johnston if earthquakes could produce electrical charge and cause fires. He said it was possible in special circumstances, especially if there was lightning. However, most fires attributed to earthquakes are caused by shorted transformers, ruptured propane tanks, and downed power lines—the effect of humanity being shaken the wrong way—and not the earth itself.


In October 2004, the seasons changed and the fires returned. Once more the smell of the sea mingled with the smell of burning. One night, Pezzino dragged Giuseppe from the flames. There were more destroyed couches, and now destroyed kitchens. In addition to the flames, pipes and tubes developed holes and burst, flooding homes with water. In Pezzino’s kitchen, the tubes under the sink were punctured. The newspapers came right away, and the Pezzinos let them into their home once more. “First we were at risk of burning, now we are drowning,” Giuseppe told Il Giornale di Sicilia, “right at the moment where we have discovered calm and our homes no longer make us fearful.”

There was another evacuation. It began in October 2004 and continued through June 2005. This felt like a lifetime. The townspeople thought they had been abandoned and wanted desperately to return home. They slept in the city offices to protest against the Protezione Civile and the regional government for their inaction; Spinnato stayed with them in solidarity.

The investigator, Valenti, posited that the holes confirmed his theory of geomagnetic activity. According to him, the holes, like the fires, were caused by a type of electrical currents burning through the pipes. Pezzino faulted the Protezione Civile investigators for not monitoring the town 24 hours a day, as they were supposed to. “Basta, ora siamo arrabbiati,” he said. Enough, now we are angry! Residents called the researchers “professoroni,” and on the street, old women scolded Valenti over his inability to solve their problems. He defended himself by once again referencing the trials of Galileo.

In April, the Italian government formed a new research group. Coordinated by Francesco Venerando Mantegna, from the Sicilian Protezione Civile, the new interdisciplinary team included chemists, physicists, geomagnetists, and professors. The team had the cooperation of the air force, navy, and police, alongside ENEL, the communications ministry, the rail network, and the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. The INGV is taken seriously in Italy: In 2009, when the agency failed to predict an earthquake that killed over 300 people, an Italian court found seven of its scientists guilty of manslaughter, and one of them was sentenced to prison.

Venerando has sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and a resigned manner. His team flew military planes over the area, taking pictures of the town and the surrounding landscape with telephoto lenses. They sailed on a research vessel called the Galatea and analyzed the magnetic charge and chemical composition of the sea. Helicopters conducted radar and magnetic surveys on electromagnetic fields and monitored and mapped radio-electric signals and meteorological patterns. Instead of focusing only on Canneto, the team sought to understand if there were natural or artificial forces affecting the region, including the sea and the airspace above.

Soon, the team excluded natural causes; nothing in the realm of science proved unique when they compared Canneto with neighboring towns. Nor did they find anything unusual in the technical installations—railway lines, electrical lines, and so on. What they did find were increased levels of spontaneous electromagnetic activity that could not be attributed to natural phenomena. They decided that the fires had an artificial cause.

Electromagnetic radiation is made up of waves formed by a change in a magnetic field. These waves are found everywhere and operate on a spectrum, encompassing many forms of energy that bounce around in our world, ranging from visible light to invisible radio waves, from radar, X-rays, and satellite communications to microwaves and powerful lasers.

In May, Valenti issued a second report, on the possible health risks associated with the fires. This included electrocution and smoke inhalation, but also the damage that electromagnetic radiation can cause in human bodies. Valenti blamed the government for not adopting his suggestions. “I was right and everyone who opposed me was dead wrong,” he wrote. He faulted the city for letting the people back into their homes. The investigator also lashed out at Venerando’s team for failing to discover the cause despite abundant resources. Still, the following month residents were allowed to return to their homes once more.

Venerando’s team continued their investigation, undaunted by the criticism. No house fires occurred during their research, but in the mountains outside the town, they found two dense patches of grass that looked like they had been consumed by a fire that had come from underground. Venerando compared the burn marks on the grass with the marks on the power cords from Canneto and found the patterns to be identical: Whatever had caused the fires in the homes had also burned the plants. Aerial photos showed that Canneto and the plants seemed aligned in a straight path extending from the sea, into town, and up to the mountains, as though a channel of fire had torched all three. Their hypothesis was that the plants had somehow conducted the same bursts of electromagnetic waves as Canneto. On the coast below the town, hundreds of blue velellas, sea creatures similar to jellyfish, washed up on the beach. All this seemed to suggest that whatever was causing the fires was coming from outside. The researchers believed that Canneto and its surroundings were being struck by “pacchetti d’onda,” or intense bursts of electromagnetic waves of some kind, at such a large scale “that it couldn’t be generated by one person.”

Venerando told me that one of the strangest things his team had witnessed during their study was an incident involving a helicopter: As the team patrolled the area, something hit three of the aircraft’s rotor blades, rupturing the protective coating of each at the same point. They suspected a bird strike, but the researchers couldn’t find any biological traces, “not a drop of blood,” Venerando told me. At other times, the group noticed objects moving around in the sky. “On occasion they would disappear with great speed,” he said. “We are not in condition to scientifically define the phenomenon. We did not touch them; we did not get inside them. This is problematic.” His team also noted other unexplained phenomena, such as lights over the sea and lights moving in a formation from the sea to the land.

The press reported extensively on these flying objects. In addition to the devil, they now had definitive UFO sightings to fill their pages. “That’s the part the newspapers ran with,” Venerando told me, wearily.

After residents complained of pain in their extremities, Venerando recommended medical testing, but this never happened. He brought in a specialist who confirmed Valenti’s assertion that electromagnetic waves could have negative effects on people, and that electromagnetic radiation of the type they thought was affecting the area could have grave consequences. But all this remained in the realm of the unproven. “We can only pay attention to facts that are documented. We can’t go with a hypothesis,” Venerando told me.

3-1479005071-42.jpg

In the spring of 2007, the government shut down Venerando’s study, for “economic and bureaucratic reasons,” he said. That winter the group asked the government to renew funding and presented a short report, “Caronia, enigma solo apparente,” or “Caronia, it only seems like an enigma,” a seven-page summary of their findings. The summary put forward the group’s working hypothesis, the pacchetti d’onda theory: The fires were caused by electromagnetic pulses of great power, coming from the direction of the sea near Caronia. The team believed that “experimental application of industrial technology not excluding the possibility that it could be an electromagnetic weapons system” was behind the fires, but they did not specify who the culprit was.

“Our mandate wasn’t to establish who was the author of these impulsive electromagnetic emissions,” Venerando said, “but how they could happen.”

I reached out to a number of scientists for this story. Some refused to speak with me on the basis that the link between the fires and electromagnetic waves was crazy: One university press representative said she was laughed at when she presented the topic to professors. Others I spoke to pointed out that electromagnetic energy is everywhere, present in radiation and lasers and harmful things, yes, but also microwaves, radio transmissions, sunlight, and wireless connectivity, making the preliminary results opaque, meaningless. “‘Electromagnetic waves’ means everything and nothing,” said Simone Vadilonga, an Italian physicist. “I can’t think of any sources of high electromagnetic emissions that would be able to cause fires except for a very powerful laser.” He pointed out that if the fires were caused by a laser or similar instrument, they would be unlikely to occur inside homes—rather, the laser would burn the exteriors.

After the summary was released, journalists began asking when the research group would release a complete report with all the data they had collected during their study. That report never materialized. Venerando told me it was because they didn’t want to generate alarm. It was “only for a matter of prudence and to avoid speculation or manipulation in the press,” he told me.

For Spinnato, the discovery of electromagnetic waves replaced the devil with something more scientific, and it fit with his experience and with what he witnessed. “We talk about superstition and magic,” he said, “but if you live [through the fires], you find that magic doesn’t exist, superstition doesn’t exist, and you look for the truth.” To him, the scientists were offering something more appealing: “Electromagnetic waves generated by a weapon pointed here from a satellite. That I believe.” But there were still more questions to be answered, questions the government refused to address. “What I don’t understand and nobody explained to me is, how does it happen?” Spinnato said.


In 2005, Canneto elected a new mayor, Calogero Beringheli. The Pezzinos and their extended family and neighbors moved back home, where they once again enjoyed their gardens and their pets. Residents filed claims for damages and tried to move on. Three years later, the prosecutor closed the case.

As residents in Canneto returned to their lives, one man, Antonio Mazzeo, an antimilitary activist and journalist who writes about corruption and weapons proliferation, was unwilling to let the weapons theory be. Mazzeo is currently being prosecuted for libel for documenting Mafia activity in Falcone, a town about an hour from Canneto. “Unfortunately,” he said about the lawsuit, “in Italy, this is ‘normal.’”

Mazzeo believed strongly that there had been a government cover-up in Canneto, especially given that the Tyrrhenian Sea is used by the U.S. and NATO for extensive air and naval exercises. He became interested in the fires when he saw Venerando’s summary and launched an investigation of his own. Mazzeo was sure the fires had a military cause, echoing what he had seen near other military bases. “If you add the negligent attitude of the government and of the Italian military authorities,” he said, “I am increasingly convinced.” But, he continued, “without access to the full text of the data set that suggests the cause is emissions of microwave beams, it is impossible to continue the investigation.”

Such a perspective might seem extremely paranoid, but Sicily has had a long and difficult relationship with foreign militaries, including the Romans, the Saracens, the Normans, the Bourbons, and even Italy’s liberators from the north during unification. In the previous century, Italy and the United States turned a blind eye to corruption and the Mafia in Sicily, because the Mafia was anticommunist.

Mazzeo had other examples, including a series of military tests involving rocket launches, armament destruction, and mortar fire in Sardinia carried out by the U.S. and NATO, which led to health and environmental issues in the region. Most notable, however, for Mazzeo and generations of Italians, was an event called strage di Ustica, the massacre of Ustica. In 1980, a passenger plane crashed into the sea near the island of Ustica, killing all 81 passengers. After decades of investigations, lawsuits, and speculation, Italy’s top criminal court ruled that the plane was brought down by a missile.

Sicily has had a long and difficult relationship with foreign militaries, including the Romans, the Saracens, the Normans, and the Bourbons.

More recently, an American military satellite, called the Mobile User Objective System, has been the object of criticism. Sicily occupies a strategic position between Europe and the wars in the Middle East. In 2011, the U.S. military announced plans to build a ground station for the satellite in Niscemi, in southern Sicily. The Sicilian public was strongly resistant to the project, and a No MUOS movement gained the support of mayors and city councils. An independent report from Torino Polytechnic, which is affiliated with MIT, emphasized the risk to ecosystems and public health, including the potential for cancers and lymphatic disorders. Palermo halted the project, but the Italian minister of defense challenged the regional revocation and commissioned a new study, which found no such danger. In April 2013, construction began.

Of course, MUOS couldn’t have caused the problems in Canneto, but the installation casts a long shadow in a region with a complicated military history. That history has created a culture of fear and distrust. It has left people feeling powerless, with no control of their soil and sky, unimportant in the greater machinations of the world.

5-1479005097-66.jpg

Sicily in July is heaven. The sea is as warm as a bath, as dark as a gemstone. The fires returned in July 2014 and raged more violently than before. In one 18-hour period there were 48 blazes, six of them at the home of Lorenzina di Pane, Pezzino’s mother. An embroidery basket tucked away in a closet burned, and then a sofa bed. Loose wires caught fire, as did electrical outlets and a television. Residents slept outside, in shifts, so that someone would be awake to alert the fire department when there was an incident. One man and two women suffered inexplicable burns, and other people in the village experienced swelling and inflamed muscles. One resident told a reporter, “Now we feel that we are victims of something bigger than us.”

Summoned once again to inspect the electrical circuits, ENEL representatives thought it could be wires short-circuiting. But this seemed unlikely, as in some instances the wiring had been replaced after the first fires. A member of the local Protezione Civile echoed the maxim of the village, telling a Sicilian paper: “This area is hit by violent electromagnetic fields and we do not understand where they come from. It’s like living in a microwave oven.” The same article described Pezzino saying, “without anger or anguish,” that “we knew that the phenomena had never completely stopped, but after ten years, we were hoping for it. This is a hard blow for all of us. It means slipping back to the beginning of a drama that has already marked our lives.”

Toward the end of August, the evacuation order came again. Pezzino left, along with his mother and two elderly aunts, Catena Cangemi, 82, and Rosa Pezzino, 72. Pezzino took his wife and son to his in-laws in nearby Caronia Marina; his aunts went to stay with their families. They left in vans and trucks filled to the brim with their belongings. For a few days, the Rossellos, a neighboring family who needed a few extra days to organize their move, were the only inhabitants of Canneto. In a newspaper article from August 22, journalist Marila Re speculated that “this could be the end of Canneto. The end since 1958, the year in which the brothers Pezzino”—Antonino Pezzino’s father and uncle—“built their houses together, brick by brick.”  

On September 24 and 25, Pezzino recounted that there were some 50 fires per night and the fire department had had to call another town for backup. Two weeks later, Re was in Canneto along with other residents trying to help clean up the damage when a new fire started. It was “total chaos, fires coming as fast as you could put them out,” she told me. Before her eyes, a suitcase at Pezzino’s aunt’s house “dissolved.” Re had been coming to Canneto often to report but also as a friend, bringing food to whoever needed it. One day she was alone in the cellar attached to Pezzino’s house when it caught fire. She screamed for help. “I was afraid for myself, because I couldn’t breathe. Everything was dirty, there were so many things burning, abandoned.”

Another relative of Pezzino’s, Salvatore Rossello, had come back to town to pick up some belongings; the interior of his Fiat Bravo caught fire.

In the press, attention turned once again to Venerando’s report. Venerando blamed the government for disbanding his group. “They blinded us against our will,” he told a local newspaper; he still believed that the best hypothesis was that the fires were caused by an external source, possibly an electromagnetic weapon. He felt that more work was required to understand the problem. The reporter added, “The people who live here and who die here have a right to know.”

The Protezione Civile announced that there would be a new group to study the fires, working in tandem with the Ministries of the Interior, Defense, Health, and the Environment. At the announcement of the group, Mayor Beringheli said: “We continue to trust in the institutions and hope the new group will follow the old one.”


When the fires had started again, the carabinieri, the Italian military police, also began looking into the matter. The officer in charge was Capitano Giuseppe D’Aveni; he had joined the local force in 2014. Most of the officers who worked on the 2004 fires had moved on, and D’Aveni decided to launch a full and thorough investigation anew.

During my visit to Italy last winter, I sat down with D’Aveni in the lobby of the Za Maria, where I had set up camp, ordering espresso after espresso, which the hotel refused to charge me for. D’Aveni has a serious demeanor and sad, deep-set eyes. He arrived with two officers dressed in blue, white, and red uniforms, shoes shined.

The carabinieri told me that as soon as the fires broke out in July 2014, their first order of business was to install hidden cameras in Canneto. This was no small task, they explained, because the town wouldn’t be evacuated until late August, and everyone was out on the street all the time. It was almost impossible to set them up without anyone seeing. Still, four cameras had been installed on Via Mare, facing the homes and the street, and had been filming, 24 hours a day, for eight months.

D’Aveni had brought some of the footage with him for me to watch on my laptop. From a recording on September 24, I watched Pezzino and Giuseppe amble around at one end of the street, near a truck. The two men disappear for a minute behind the front of the vehicle, then walk away. A moment later, the men return to the truck and begin peering in the windows. Pezzino flings open the door, and the truck is smoking. On September 30, Giuseppe walks behind a shed across the street from the Pezzinos’ home. His father stands on the other side of the street, chatting with a group of men. Soon the men discover that the shed is burning—a plastic bag filled with clothing has caught fire. On the same day, Giuseppe appears to set fire to his uncle’s Fiat Bravo and his cousin’s Alfa Romeo, moving stealthily between the parked cars and a fire truck parked on the road. In one segment he walks in circles, checking to see if anyone is behind him with a quick turn of the head, ducking out of the frame the minute the car begins to burn. One of the carabinieri said to me with a tone of appreciation that Giuseppe moved like an acrobat.

All told, the police documented about 40 incidents in which Giuseppe, and in some cases his father, Nino, were implicated. They accused Pezzino of “sounding alarm” about certain fires and claimed that he had “criminal designs” and was working with his son. The police told me that from the outset they thought Giuseppe was acting suspiciously, trying to draw attention to the fires. He always seemed to be close by when they started. Flames would erupt in an area he had recently been in, and then he would make a fuss about it, alerting the press to come and see. And weren’t both men, Giuseppe and his father, showing the fires to the media like it was a tour of a haunted house?

Giuseppe is the Pezzinos’ only child. In 2014, he was 25 years old. “Everything was his,” Marila Re told me. Giuseppe has the same prominent brow as his father and a widow’s peak, with black spiked hair and a trim beard. At the time, his life, at least according to Facebook, was an endless parade of nights at discos with his friends, of drinks, food, and women, or playing in the sea. In his posts, he was sometimes crass and always effusive, sometimes writing in dialect, sometimes in Italian. He seemed like a playboy, his shirt buttoned low. Giuseppe is called Peppe, but in conversation everyone refers to him as il ragazzo, the boy, and in English they call him a boy, too. Giuseppe worked with his father, also selling insurance, but Re told me he didn’t really do anything at all.

After we watched the footage, D’Aveni’s deputies took me down to Via Mare to show me the street from their point of view. The policemen knew everyone we met. They greeted drivers of passing cars like old friends. About halfway down the street, we encountered Lorenzina di Pane, Pezzino’s mother and Giuseppe’s grandmother. She didn’t seem pleased to see the police but asked if we wanted anything, “Coffee, water, milk?” She tugged at her black turtleneck, saying she was overdressed for the day, which had turned very sunny. This ended the tour.

Weren’t both men, Giuseppe and his father, showing the fires to the media like it was a tour of a haunted house?

According to a press release from the carabinieri, Giuseppe set the fires in order “to raise the level of media attention and institutional attention.” They think that Nino concocted a scheme in which more and more fires would bring fame and money for the “Phenomena of Caronia.”

In mid-July, the carabinieri tapped the Pezzinos’ phone and recorded many conversations in which Nino spoke desperately about trying to get money for damages and to drum up interest in the fires, talking about television appearances and reimbursement. In one taped conversation, he mentions the Ustica massacre. At the time, the relatives of those who died in the crash were fighting the Italian government in court to receive millions of dollars in damages. “I got myself a lawyer who takes care of the massacre at Ustica. He knows what the fuck to do,” he says. In another conversation, he talks about compensation. When the person on the other line asks if he wants a new house somewhere else, he replies, “I don’t want a house. I want money.”

Anyone who lost property might also agitate for compensation, but police also recorded a conversation he had with his son about methods for setting the fires. They speak in guarded language, and Pezzino is worried that the police have monitored his son’s Internet searches.

Pezzino: I think they’ve seen something, Peppe.

Giuseppe: I don’t know.

Pezzino: Or maybe something on the Internet, something you searched for.… You looked for one of these incendiary powders or a laser.

Giuseppe: The only thing I looked for on the Internet was a winch, the one for the boat.

Pezzino: It’s called a laser jet.

In the same conversation, Pezzino also told his son, “It’s not about the insurance. This is very serious, they are going to throw you inside,” meaning prison.

The comment about the “laser jet” was widely reported in the press as proof of Giuseppe’s guilt. Yet a device, if one existed, was never found, and the police still don’t how the fires were set.

On the morning of March 5, 2015, Giuseppe was arrested and charged with arson, conspiracy to commit fraud, and sounding a false alarm. He was led to house arrest in Santo Stefano, one town over, where he stayed with an aunt. His Facebook page went quiet.

Peppe’s grandmother, Lorenzina di Pane, cried again and again to a reporter, “Non ci credo.” I don’t believe it. “If it had been my grandson to do what they said he did, we would all be rich because he would have extraordinary powers,” she said. She told the reporter that she had spent her 78th birthday in September among the flames. Peppe would never have caused that. “I can only say that it drops a bomb on me,” Nino Pezzino told the reporter.

The state had come into contact with the most important structure in Sicily: the family. As Sciascia wrote, “The only institution in the Sicilian conscience that really counts, is the family, counts that is to say more as a dramatic juridical contract or mind than as the natural association based on affection.”

In the wake of the arrest, three different camps emerged. One camp believed that Giuseppe was responsible for the fires in 2014 but not in 2004. Another believed he was responsible for all of them. And some still believed that what they had seen indicated another source of the flames.

The mayor, Calogero Beringheli, belonged to the third group. “I do not believe the resident to be guilty of some fires, and hope the continuing investigation makes it clear,” he told reporters. He promised to go back to Rome to fight for more attention and urged the government not to be swayed by the few incidents the police were sure Giuseppe was responsible for.

One of Giuseppe’s coworkers told the press that she was with him in the office when certain fires appeared. A member of the extended Pezzino clan who’d moved his family to Santo Stefano after his house was completely destroyed said, “I cannot believe that it was my relatives who set the fires. When I was burned, Nino wasn’t there, Giuseppe wasn’t there.”

Francesco Re, the mayor of Santo Stefano and the father of Marila Re, the journalist who had covered the events, had provided fire hoses during the blazes and saw many of the fires with his own eyes. “I am respectful of the judiciary investigation,” he told reporters. “But also having been an eyewitness to the flames that have attacked the attic, I am filled with doubts.”

4-1479005121-85.jpg

During my visit to Canneto, people were still struggling with these beliefs. In the evenings, I would return to the Hotel Za Maria, where I was the only guest, and sleep in a room with a seaside balcony and a cross with a crucified Gesù above the wooden bed. There is a new walkway between the town and the hotel, cut into the side of the cliff. Workmen were preparing for the summer season; the pool was closed, the water green. The TV was always on in the lobby, and the elderly relatives of the innkeeper sat and watched in the afternoon. They did not turn when I came and went.

I ate the food the residents had eaten during their exile, sitting by myself in the dining room while the family who owned the hotel dined nearby. The innkeeper’s teenage daughter approached me, asked me why I was there. When I told her it was to talk to the people in the town, she wrinkled her nose. What could I possibly find out by talking to the few stragglers left in the town about old news? “Non c’è nessuno qui,” she said. There’s no one here. The town is empty now.

One afternoon, while I was walking down Via Mare, a woman at the top of the street, a few doors down from Pezzino’s house, leaned out of a balcony and gestured for me to come in. I told her my Italian was bad, but she ushered me in anyway and led me to the kitchen. Her husband, white haired and wearing a brown cap, set about making coffee.

She invited me to sit at a table covered in a bright plastic tablecloth. They introduced themselves as the Cuffaris and told me that everything was fine now in Canneto. “Ora siamo tranquilli,” now we are calm. Since the Pezzinos had been caught they could finally stop worrying. “The problem is they told so many lies.”

They began describing how horrible the fires were for the town and brought out a folder full of news clippings with pertinent information underlined in pen. In one article, a picture of Giuseppe Pezzino had devil horns drawn on him and the word “malefico,” evil. While we were talking, a relation of theirs named Filippo Casella arrived. The Cuffaris believe that Giuseppe is responsible for all the fires. But Casella holds Giuseppe responsible only for the 2014 fires. When I asked why, he says what so many others have: “I saw it with my own eyes.”

During my trip, I went to Rome to meet with Venerando, the investigator in charge of the interdisciplinary team, at his office in the INGV, located in a low, angular building south of the city. I was an hour late to the meeting, and by the time I arrived, most of the lights were off and the television monitors, which displayed earthquake and electromagnetic activity counters around Italy, provided the only light, illuminating the Italian and European Union flags hanging in the corners like giant sleeping bats. Venerando was dressed head to toe in bureaucratic blue. He seemed worn down, rumpled. Very early into the interview, he received a phone call. “My wife,” he explained. He told the caller that I had been stuck in traffic and had just arrived. And then, instead of hanging up, he set the phone on the desk so that the caller could listen as well.

Venerando told me that he was not surprised by the arrest and complimented the carabinieri for doing an excellent job. At the same time, he didn’t think the fires in 2014 had the same origin as the events in 2004 and what he had witnessed during his study. “What happened last year has nothing to do with the events of 2006 and 2007,” he told me. He pointed out that the phenomena he had observed occurred over a wide radius, including the damage to the plants on the hills and the lights over the sea, not only in a few homes.

Venerando’s comments reflected a tension between the police and the scientists. When the carabinieri issued a press release about Giuseppe’s arrest, they lumped Venerando’s research in with the more insane theories, criticizing his belief in the “Phenomena of Caronia.” Venerando and his research group, the police contended, had not witnessed a single fire during their study—what could they know?

I had never sat across from so many people who said they had seen something impossible, or spoken to a scientist who postulated in all seriousness something so incredible.

The press reported that the events in Canneto ended up costing the government over $600,000. Venerando said one-fifth of the amount went toward his study, and the rest went to relocation costs, hotel bills, and reimbursement for destroyed property.

Many shared Venerando’s point of view, drawing a clear distinction between one set of fires and the other. A journalist who covered the events told me, “In Caronia, no one ever thought Giuseppe was guilty. The charges against him relate only to the last fires in 2014, and not even all of them. Those of 2004 remain unresolved.”

Marila Re didn’t hesitate when I asked her who had set the fires. “Giuseppe,” she said. Re is 34, with deep brown eyes. She is enthusiastic about learning English and loudly announces all thoughts as declarations—“Would you like to eat!”—and then smiles. Of all the people I spoke with, she was the only one who thought that Giuseppe set some of the fires in 2014 and some of the fires in 2004, worsening a natural phenomenon that wouldn’t have been amply destructive otherwise.

“It is like they exist simultaneously,” she said. In her mind, Giuseppe had noticed something strange happening and tried to capitalize on it. The cause seemed to matter less than the effect. “All these people have lost everything,” she said. “They don’t have homes, clothes, nothing.” And the fires led to a battle within the family and the town as people took positions on what had caused them and were exhausted by the trials the flames brought. They “were fighting a war among themselves,” she said.

When I asked her why she believed Giuseppe did it, she said, “His mind isn’t right, he’s pazzo,” making the cuckoo sign next to her head. “Peppe… guilty… crazy.”

For Massimo Polidoro, the investigator from the anti-pseudoscience organization, the arrest confirmed what he already knew. When he visited in 2004, he thought that the fires were obviously manmade. He also stressed that not a single fire took place when there was no one around. Even when they occurred after an evacuation, usually there was someone from the village who had decided to move home or was there to pick something up.

Before I arrived in Canneto, I was sure that the two men, Nino and Giuseppe, had simply gotten the better of everyone. But as I followed all the strange lines of inquiry, I got caught up in the side theories. I had never sat across from so many people who said they had seen something impossible, or spoken to a scientist who postulated in all seriousness something so incredible. I was taken in not by the Pezzinos’ story but by everything around it. The tapes, however, and the carabinieri were an excellent corrective, a reminder that the strange is often just human.   


For international audiences captivated by Canneto, the revelations about Giuseppe brought the story into the world of the prosaic. The fires were attributable not to the devil or UFOs or earthquakes, but to something more banal: a corrupt Sicilian character hoping to turn a profit and a lazy government that had had the wool pulled over its eyes. The journalists stopped coming.

When I visited last winter, Via Mare was still littered with burned items, alongside trash and old appliances, giving the street a downcast feel despite the flowerpots and the chickens and, beyond, the sea. Above the street was a large concrete building, unfinished, and the playground at the water’s edge was empty. Many of the houses on the street were shuttered and abandoned; after the destruction, it was too hard for some residents to come back. There are no more children in Canneto, and just ten people returned to Via Mare after the events in 2014. “Only we live here now,” said Pezzino, himself and his extended family, who make up the bulk of the people left on the half-empty street.

On my first day in Canneto, Pedro Spinnato, the former mayor, picked me up at the train station and brought me straight to the Pezzinos’ house. Lorenzina greeted me, holding my hand in hers for a moment too long, then sat in a chair near the door, almost disappearing into the shadows. Her son, a big man, sat at the table, leaning back, his hands behind his head.

Pezzino admitted that Giuseppe had set a few of the fires but could not understand how he could possibly be blamed for all of them. “I wish to understand how you could do them all at the same time, how you could manage and organize them,” Pezzino said. “I do not understand how.”

I asked him if he wished that Venerando would come back. “I hope yes,” he said. “I have to defend my son, at all costs. I can admit that he has done something stupid. He did most wrong thing in the world.” The prosecutor was only investigating some of the incidents, the ones that had been caught on video, but Pezzino said he was worried about the other fires, the ones that he said were still unexplained. “People need to understand,” he said, “I wasn’t there, for others my son wasn’t there.”

Pezzino showed me their destroyed appliances, a freezer with a burned ice tray, preserved from the day it burned. His demeanor had the same funhouse-tour affect that the police noted. As I walked through the house, I thought about Giuseppe’s appearance in The Unexplained Files, slipping past the doorway with wide eyes. What was he thinking? He looked so much like a victim, but could he have been the one responsible?

Pezzino told me that despite the trouble, he could not leave Canneto. “I like the wild life,” he said. I asked how much money he had received after the first fires. “If you paid 1,000 euros for a TV, they would give you 600 euros,” he said. “They used to pay 60 percent for what was bought new.”

Lorenzina took me to the garage. “It is all burned,” she said, pointing to a row of ruined appliances. Looking at them, I wondered why they’d kept so many ruined things. It seemed to be a way to hold on to the past, to the most defining event of their lives. They encouraged me to take pictures. In the attic, plastic chairs, all stacked, had melted. The water heater was burned, too, and the fire had spread to the wooden ceiling, which was blistered with black charcoal. “It is like modern art,” Spinnato joked.

The fires were attributable not to the Devil or UFOs or earthquakes, but to something more banal: a corrupt Sicilian character hoping to turn a profit.

During my stay, Spinnato was a wonderful tour guide—introducing me to everyone in town, taking me to see the damage—but he seemed reluctant to sit down for a formal interview, putting it off again and again. When we finally talked he wanted to meet at the beach, because it’s the most scenic place. But the surf was loud, so we sat in a nearby courtyard instead.

He told me that real estate values have dropped in the area, because of the fires and because their cause hasn’t been conclusively determined: Nobody wants to move into a neighborhood that might burn. At the same time, he felt that the story had gotten much smaller since the arrest. People are uninterested now that a riddle has been replaced by a common crime. “In the beginning, someone from the outside was curious about it,” he told me. After the arrest, “nobody was interested anymore.”

I asked him about the Pezzinos, a family he has been friends with for a long time. They are “a close family, relatively calm, loved by everybody,” he told me. And Giuseppe? “I don’t know him well.” He prefaced everything about Giuseppe’s involvement with “if you believe,” meaning: if you believe the Pezzinos were involved. He wanted to change the subject and showed me pictures he took while sea kayaking, which depicted the loveliness of the sharp rocks against the blue water.

Spinnato took me to see the Saracen arches and the Roman stones, as he did with the journalists who visited in 2004. On my last evening, he brought me to the San Biagio Festival, celebrating the patron saint of the hilltop town of Caronia. Among the majorettes in their white tights and the old men in hats and the heaving golden San Biagio statue on a pedestal, I asked Spinnato about the videos that appear to prove that the Pezzinos are involved. “Just those then, but no others,” he said, pushing ahead of me up a hill of cobblestones so quickly that I had to lunge to catch up.

When I returned home, I felt frustrated by these exchanges. I liked Spinnato, but how could someone who appeared to have so much love for his town, who noticed everything beautiful and everything not, seem unable to accept the Pezzinos’ culpability? I didn’t understand why he wasn’t angry at Nino, why he was so ready to accept his innocence. Spinnato, too, believed that what he had seen hadn’t been caused by human hands.

7-1479160902-53.jpg

Pezzino has been indicted in both planning and setting some of the fires, while Giuseppe has been charged as the main arsonist. They are both on trial, though Giuseppe’s charges are much more severe. The defense had planned to ask for a plea bargain for Giuseppe, but when the prosecutor set the sentence at five years or more, the lawyers changed their minds. Giuseppe maintains his innocence. One of his lawyers, Domenico Magistro, wrote to me: “The trial will present an opportunity to clarify what happened, perhaps with surprising results.” If he had taken the plea deal, Magistro said, it would be like “closing the trial within a box labeled: ‘Pezzino is guilty for the fires of Caronia.’” It’s a gamble, but one they think they can win. If they lose, Giuseppe will also have to pay a fine to Caronia. (I wasn’t able to reach Nino Pezzino’s lawyer.)

In Italy, legal proceedings move glacially. In March, the hearings began. In April, the prosecutor called two witnesses who were involved in the investigation. The trial will continue in December with the cross-examination of those two witnesses. The defense plans to call 60 people to the stand, from all sides of the Canneto story: friends, experts, family members. Giuseppe’s lawyer will call a psychiatrist to explain the fires caught on video. According to the lawyer, “Pezzino says that a mental condition, which he is not able to rationally explain, guided his conduct.”

At the hearing in March, Giuseppe was ordered to stay in the area, but he is no longer confined to house arrest. Spinnato said that these days, Giuseppe “drives quietly in his car through the streets of Caronia Marina,” a nearby town adjacent to the sea. On Facebook, Giuseppe’s account is active again, and he posts often, pictures with friends and with girls. I wrote to him to talk about the case, but he declined. Magistro said he thinks the media influenced Giuseppe’s actions.

Massimo Polidoro, the pseudoscience investigator, told me that once the attention comes, it is hard to stop. He recounted the story of the Fox sisters, young girls in the 19th century who pretended that they were communicating with the spirit world. Everyone believed them, so they had to keep going. Eventually, they became famous mediums. “They were trapped in the role,” Polidoro said. “It took them 40 years to confess.” This made sense to me, too, that Giuseppe saw a way of bringing fame and money to his village and then found himself trapped.

When I asked Spinnato and others about the best outcome, I thought that they would want to learn the truth. But what they wanted more than answers, they said, was for the fires to never return. They have lived through them. They know how vicious they are.

There’s a void where everything people want to believe, every anxiety and every hope, rushes in. The stories, the pieces you can control, replace what actually happened.

Fires burn all the time in Sicily. Farmers use them to clear fields. Recently, the Sicilian press reported that Mafiosi tied burning rags to the tails of feral cats and sent them running into the woods in order to burn the trees down. Above the northern coast of Sicily, there is a forested mountain range called the Nebrodi. When it’s dry, the Nebrodi burns and burns.

The trial may yield answers, but not to the deeper questions, the ones that created the mystery in the first place. The metaphor is irresistible: Smoke gets in your eyes. When the government fails to uncover or reveal the whole truth, a culture rejects science, an economy leaves people behind, and politician after politician succumbs to corruption, epic solutions are required. But also, the facts are clear: They were caught on tape. Insurance: Pezzino’s line of work. The location of the fires: inside homes and confined to the area where the Pezzinos and their relatives lived. The fires stopped when the area was under investigation. The human desire for money, for fame. A young man with nowhere to go. The experience of the fires was so great that the resolution needs to be, too. Then there’s a void where everything people want to believe, every anxiety and every hope, rushes in. The stories, the pieces you can control, replace what actually happened.

“Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily,” wrote Lampedusa in The Leopard. “A fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished, been camouflaged, embellished, disfigured, squashed, annihilated by imagination and self-interest; shame, fear, generosity, malice, opportunism, charity, all the passions, good as well as evil, fling themselves onto the fact and tear it to pieces; very soon it has vanished altogether.… The truth no longer existed.”