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Disgruntled guard blamed for murders in the Vatican

While the outside world pondered the astonishing murder mystery in the Vatican, officials at the Holy See moved quickly Tuesday to try to put the puzzling tragedy to rest. A disgruntled Swiss Guard, a Vatican spokesman said, lost control and killed his commanding officer and the officer's wife inside the Vatican on Monday night.

Only hours after he was appointed commander of the small, colorful corps that has guarded the pope since the 16th century, Lt. Col. Alois Estermann, 43, was found shot to death in the entrance parlor of his Vatican apartment, next to the body of his Venezuelan-born wife, Gladys Meza Romano, 49. The body of Vice Cpl. Cedrich Tornay, 23, lay nearby.

The Vatican said that Tornay, a three-year veteran of the guards, used his service revolver, a Swiss-made 9mm SIG, to kill the couple and then shoot himself. It described him as a disturbed guardsman embittered over a formal reprimand Feb. 12 for missing a curfew. The reprimand was written by Estermann, who had been serving as acting commander of the Swiss Guards since November and was to be sworn in today.

"He told some fellow soldiers that he felt he was not valued in the corps," said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. "It was a fit of madness in a person with very particular psychological characteristics."

Navarro-Valls drew a portrait of a young man who showed no early warning signs of psychological imbalance but who secretly harbored delusions about his professional status.

The spokesman said Tornay complained Monday to some of his peers that he had been unfairly denied a medal of recognition that was to be given to many Swiss Guards today at the annual swearing-in ceremony attended by the pope. It is the guards' most revered tradition.

At 7 p.m. Monday _ about two hours before the killings, according to Navarro-Valls _ Tornay handed a letter to a fellow guardsman, asking that it be relayed to his family. Navarro-Valls said the letter, apparently a suicide note, had been read by a Vatican investigator but would not be made public unless Tornay's parents chose to do so.

"It is much more than a hypothesis," Navarro-Valls said of the scenario he provided. "These are the elements we have that clearly show the motivation. The church finds this scenario quite credible. It is unlikely that the autopsies will alter this reconstruction."

He indirectly ruled out any more complicated personal motive, like a love triangle that turned sour, a theory that quickly spread after the deaths were discovered.

"I knew them both well _ they were a model couple," Navarro-Valls said of the commander and his wife. "The fact that they did not have children did not bother them too much because they dedicated their spare time to charity."

Navarro-Valls said Tornay had had an Italian girlfriend, but added, "They broke up not long ago."

The Vatican is an independent city-state, with its own jurisdiction and police force. Though Italian forensic consultants were called in to perform the autopsies, the investigation was conducted by the Vatican prosecutor, Gian Luigi Marrone. After the autopsies are complete, Navarro-Valls said, another Vatican legal authority, Nicola Picardi, will determine whether further investigation by Vatican authorities would be necessary. Few outside the Vatican expected the investigation to go any further.

"Whatever is to be said has been said; the Vatican will never speak about it again," a European diplomat based in Rome predicted. "But that doesn't mean they've said everything."

In Italy, a country that so relishes conspiracy that it has a special term to express hidden forces behind events _ dietrologia _ it is unlikely that questions about the double homicide and suicide will abate. Italian newspapers brimmed with ornate theories, including one laid out in the front page of La Repubblica that traced the deaths to a bad omen: A few weeks ago Pope John Paul II's fisherman's ring slipped from his fingers during a ceremony. The ring was retrieved by a Swiss Guard who handed it back.

One lingering mystery preceded Estermann's death. The newly appointed head of the 100-man unit, who was mourned Tuesday by the pope, among others, as an exemplary military leader and Christian, was not immediately appointed commander when the job opened up.

Instead, the Vatican took seven months to search for another candidate for the job. By tradition, commanders are of noble birth, and Estermann was not. Apparently unable to find a suitable candidate _ even among other commoners _ who were willing to take the modest-paying job (the salary is reportedly about $30,000 a year), the Vatican finally appointed Col. Estermann on Monday morning, only two days before the May 6 deadline.

"It sometimes happens that the person you are searching for was under your nose all along," Navarro-Valls explained.

The killing of Estermann and his wife of 15 years was the most brutal act of violence to take place inside the Vatican since the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul on May 13, 1981. Then-Capt. Estermann was a few feet from the pope when he was shot and cradled him in his arms until the wounded John Paul was taken by ambulance to a hospital.

Monday's attack, however, was not unprecedented. On April 18, 1959, a 24-year-old Swiss Guard with a personal grudge, Adolf Rucker, showed up at the door of his superior officer, Col. Robert Nunlist, carrying a gun. Nunlist was able to disarm him, and no one was hurt. The guardsman, who was forced to resign, tried to commit suicide by shooting himself but was only slightly wounded. The incident was kept quiet and omitted from Swiss Guard history books.

The last killing inside Vatican walls was in 1848, when Pope Pius IX's prime minister, Count Pellegrino Rossi, was assassinated during political unrest.

The pope, whom Navarro-Valls described as "upset and visibly sad" when he was told of the killing late Monday, sent a condolence message to the commander's parents, who arrived in Rome expecting to attend their son's swearing-in ceremony.

"We men cannot comprehend these situations," the pope's message said. "As I pray I wonder how God decides life and death."

As hordes of tourists snapped pictures in St. Peter's Square on Tuesday morning, the Swiss Guards' flag flew at half-staff, but inside their Vatican barracks, far from public view.

Swiss Guards, in their day uniform of blue doublets and blue berets, manned the gates as usual, declining to talk to reporters.

Today's swearing-in ceremony, which Estermann had been expecting to preside over for the first time in his 18 years of service, was canceled. It is held May 6 to mark the day in 1527 when 147 guards were killed protecting Pope Clement VII in the sack of Rome by forces of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Instead, the Vatican said Estermann and his wife would be given a state funeral inside St. Peter's Basilica.

The guard was formed in 1506 when Swiss fighting men hired themselves out as mercenaries to leaders around Europe. When not wearing the colorful medieval uniform designed by Michelangelo, the Swiss Guards look like bodyguards protecting any national leader, wearing civilian clothes and walkie-talkie earpieces.

_ Information from the Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.