A Split and Deadly End — The Case of Danilo Restivo
Who let a man so dangerous travel freely throughout Europe?
Danilo Restivo liked to cut hair. No, not in the traditional sense, after licensing and years of cosmetology school. He enjoyed, or moreso found a sick perversion in, slicing off the strands from unsuspecting girls’ and women’s heads, and taking the locks as souvenirs for his guilty pleasure. He gave objects of his affection gifts or, when they rejected him, played them the soundtrack to the Italian thriller Profondo Rosso, in which a killer musically tortures his victims before their demise by his own hand.
Italy was not safe for its female citizens who’d inevitably cross paths with Restivo, otherwise known as “The Barber of Potenza.” Hailing from Sicily, the man had a convincing nature about him, and in his lengthy trail of terror, a priest, a schoolgirl and a neighbor all found themselves trapped in his gravity.
In Potenza, a horrible crime would occur, locked away in a church attic for years.
Elisa Claps wanted to be a physician. The teenager, 16, found herself in a predicament. A strange, somewhat older man had asked her on a date. They had a five year age difference. She was hesitant, but according to The Guardian, she felt bad for him. On September 12, 1993, Claps begged her close friend Eliana De Cillis to accompany her to the nearby church for support. Cillis then left the Church of the Holy Trinity as Claps met Danilo Restivo right after the 11:30 Sunday mass.
The young girl was never seen alive again. Immediately, police and others questioned Restivo, who had come home with a cut on his hand. The truth was stranger than fiction. Coming from a powerful family, Restivo managed to evade direct questioning, telling the police that he was an acquaintance of the missing girl. Italian authorities approached the priest from the church, a man named Don Mimi Sabia, who refused to let the investigators search the premises. Following the disappearance, Sabia closed down the church and left for an extended “retreat.” Those desperately trying to find Claps had to look outside of the building, trying to pick up the pieces of a fragmented case.
In 1996, the courts tried Cillis, Restivo and an Albanian man named Eris Gega for giving false information to the police. Restivo was sentenced to 20 months in prison, and many assumed he was responsible for the crime. He was permitted to move freely without actually going to jail.
While Claps’ family continued to search for her, Restivo left the city. By 2002, he was in England. He married someone he met online, a woman named Fiamma Marsanga from Bournemouth, Dorset. Restivo soon resumed his fetishitic habit of cutting hair without consent.
Heather Barnett, 48, was also known to friends as Bunny. Restivo had just moved in opposite of the English mother of two with Marsanga, and visited one day to ask if Barnett, who was a seamstress, could make curtains for his living space. Soon after, Barnett found out her spare keys had been stolen. She changed the locks, and on November 12, 2002, the woman brought her children to school for the last time.
Caitlin Marsh, 11 and Terry Marsh, 14, quickly noticed the house was in disarray when they came through the door after a day at school. They opened the bathroom door to a grisly sight. Barnett had been bludgeoned to death, her breasts sliced off in grotesque fashion. The assailant also slit her throat and left Barnett’s clothes undone halfway. Her children, shocked at the gruesome murder, fled the apartment in terror. Restivo, eerily closeby, comforted them as police arrived.
When she was found, the mutilated Barnett had locks of her own hair in one hand, but another person’s tresses in the other. According to BBC’s Crimewatch, the scene was carefully devoid of fingerprints or DNA, the sign of a somewhat forensically aware killer. Accidentally, though, a shoe print in blood had been left behind, situated alongside a green hand towel which was not from the family’s apartment.
Restivo was one of the first people the police talked to, and they soon noticed that his shoes reeked of bleach, the white surface scrubbed clean. He quickly emerged as a suspect, with an investigation finding that CCTV showed Restivo walking on a nearby street following Barnett’s homicide. Still, they could not pin him down without more proof.
Now two years after the homicide, police in England had become sharper than the force in Italy who permitted Restivo to run rampant. They tracked him throughout his daily activities and found the man walking around outsides areas, stalking lone women. Crimewatch explained that on May 12, 2004, the surveillance team felt inclined to stop him, as he was behaving and dressed rather strangely. When they confronted Restivo, they discovered knives, a balaclava and other suspicious items in a “murder bag,” as later described by authorities. The police accused him of following women during his free time, supported by hours of reconnaissance.
What Restivo said as he was cross-examined, as provided by BBC, was chilling:
“No, no, no, I was simply there to relax and enjoy nature, I have never stalked women…On the bus, that was not stalking for me.”
Using forensics, the blood on the green towel from Barnett’s apartment matched Restivo. In spite of the evidence, the courts said the information could not quantify a surefire conviction.
Meanwhile, back in Potenza, old secrets were uncovered that would transform the scope of the charges. Under piles of discarded tiles in the old church loft where she was last seen, Elisa Claps’ body was found by workmen sent to patch the leaking roof. She had suffered the same style of attacks as Barnett, yet had been essentially lying in what looked like plain sight. She had been brutally murdered on the same day of her disappearance and the church’s former priest seemingly gave the killer a place to store the body. Sabia, who was now deceased, had aided Restivo; Tobias Jones of The Guardian proved that while the priest assured others back at the time Claps went missing that he did not know the man, there were pictures of Sabia at Restivo’s eighteenth birthday party, immediately destroying that lie.
But the religious corruption did not end there.
Don Marcello Cozzi, the priest for Claps’ family, delivered a powerful speech at the funeral held, once her remains were discovered in 2010. Seventeen years later, they buried her outside the church where she had been hidden away, with over 5,000 people in attendance. He claimed that two months before police were alerted to the body, another priest had been alerted to the body by cleaners. The church fretted over the implications that Claps’s corpse only could have gotten there with direct help from one of its highest powers. In short, when the workmen were sent upstairs on March 17, the body had been rearranged to look different than it had for years underneath assorted rubble. Not only did Sabia help bury the young girl in the loft, but he was one of an unknown amount of others who held back the knowledge of the murder to steer blame away from their esteemed position or institution. Jones stated that when workmen were sent there in the 1990s, they saw the same pile of debris without any visible body protruding, implying that the way police first saw the final resting place may have been staged. Restivo had stabbed Claps to death over ten times, mostly from behind, but her small frame had decomposed dramatically. The professor who examined the remains, Francesco Introna, presumed she was sexually assaulted from bruising around the pubic region. Certain cuts implied that Claps valiantly fought back against her attacker, who came brandished with scissors and rage.
Once they had Claps’ body, the prosecution zeroed in on Restivo. In a monumental decision, they chose to charge him not only with the murder of Barnett, but Claps as well, which had happened nine years prior. Other civilians came forward to allege that Restivo was responsible for even more incidences of clandestine hair severage in public areas. Steven Morris with The Guardian found that over twenty women had come forward in the United Kingdom and Italy with accusations against Restivo. One of them was a schoolgirl who claimed something “white and sticky” was in her hair following the ordeal.
The trial revealed that DNA from Claps did indeed match her alleged killer. Restivo had a lengthy record which included multiple accounts of sadism against others, and a knowing family that defended him financially regardless of morals. Claps and Barnett’s slayings echoed each other; both were undressed in the exact same way and were murdered using the same kind of weapon. Each crime had been committed on the twelfth of the month, in what many deduce was either to serve a ritualistic purpose or maybe was an example of a bizarre, coincidental accident.
In 2011, almost a decade after Barnett’s killing and two decades since Claps’s untimely death, Restivo was found guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Caitlin Marsh stared down her mother’s killer in court, but the children still lived with emotional scars from the incident. In the aftermath, on BBC on June 30, 2011, she said:
“I used to have nightmares and flashbacks reminding me of the events of the 12 November..I also don’t like going into bathrooms. I used to think that someone might be waiting for me. Now I just hold a fear of what’s behind the bathroom door.”
Many wondered if Restivo’s actual victim count was much higher. The same day the police interrupted his stalking, his tool kit appeared to be likely evidence of a future or previous death. It was also the twelfth of the month. Bronagh Munro with BBC, as well as countless others, deduced that the July 12, 2002 murder of Korean student Jong-Ok Shin may have perfectly fit into Restivo’s repertoire. There was only one thing; a man was already in prison for her murder, and his name was Omar Benguit.
Shin went by the nickname Oki and had been going home after a night out with friends. At 2:50 a.m., she was repeatedly stabbed in the back, then died as a result of her injuries. For a month, there were no leads, no suspects and no hope for finding who had senselessly murdered the English language student.
Beverley Brown was a drug user and prostitute that pointed the police towards Benguit. She claimed that on the night of the crime, she drove Benguit and other fellow heroin users to the scene. After Oki reportedly refused Benguit’s advances, he stabbed her, then forced Brown to drive to a crack house where she was gang raped by all of the men.
Authorities immediately chose Brown as their star witness, but the woman had a history of making false allegations in the past. It was relatively easy to pin the homicide on Benguit. He had over 60 convictions with a history of violence. Nonetheless, Brown did not seem to have her story together. She gave certain details to The Jeremy Kyle Show that were not brought up in the trial. At least 12 of the people who later testified against Benguit were “self-confessed drug addicts,” as reported by Munro in her year looking through the inconsistencies of the case. A majority of them recanted once clean, citing pressure by police and the desire to satisfy their addictions. The courts came to the conclusion that the gang rape had not actually happened, and did not hold anyone accountable for the sexual assault. Two juries could not successfully reach a verdict, leading to a third trial. Benguit’s legal team introduced another idea of who Oki had crossed paths with that night — no one else other than Danilo Restivo.
The crimes did have similarities, such taking place on the same day of the month, an almost identical style of frenzied killing and the deduction that a balaclava used to stab the victim matched the description of the one in Restivo’s bag uncovered by police. Hair was also located by Oki’s body, but the police found a woman who claimed it could have been because of a mobile hairdresser she used that propelled the contents of her trash can into the wind. CCTV seemed to show Benguit somewhere else at the time of the murder. Additionally, Oki had told others that a masked man was her attacker before she died, but Brown never mentioned a mask. Restivo was living nearby only three streets away. In fact, only a few months later, he murdered Heather Barnett in cold blood.
Before Barnett’s tragic death, another woman reported Restivo to the police for talking in extreme detail about Oki’s murder, him commenting on the exact weapon used as well as the depth of her wounds. None of that information was public knowledge.
Eventually, the jury returned with the ruling of life in prison. Benguit always maintained his innocence, his appeals rejected. The only evidence against him has been testimonial eyewitnesses. Over the years, criminal justice organizations have examined his case, hoping to free him from what they believe is a wrongful conviction.
Restivo, The Barber of Potenza, will be in jail forever. Maybe Benguit will not. Restivo may be responsible for more crimes than the two attributed to his name, but nothing is certain. Claps, Barnett and Shin deserved to live the rest of their lives before a killer intervened. Their potential was stolen from them simply because Restivo eyed their short, dark tresses with a twisted attraction, emerging out of Europe’s shadows to curse them each with a dismal fate.