Category Archives: Unsolved Mysteries

Coroner: Natalie Wood’s wounds open possibility she was assaulted before drowning

wagner wood
Michael Baden, a former New York examiner and noted trial expert witness, said that although both examinations of Wood’s body looked at the same evidence, the new report found the bruising to be far more significant — enough to change the official cause of death.

latimes.com | Jan 14, 2013

Through three decades of fevered tabloid speculation and whispers of a deeper story, the official account never changed: Natalie Wood drowned accidentally. The 43-year-old star of “West Side Story,” who couldn’t swim, had been drinking the night before she was found floating face-down in frigid waters off Santa Catalina Island.

When the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case in November 2011 around the 30th anniversary of her death, skeptics questioned the timing and doubted whether there was anything new to be learned.

Instead of quieting speculation, the investigation has raised fresh — and probably unanswerable — questions about one of Hollywood’s most enduring puzzles.

In a report released Monday, Los Angeles County Coroner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran questioned the original 1981 findings and changed Wood’s cause of death from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

The coroner’s report cited unexplained fresh bruising on the actress’ right forearm, left wrist and right knee, along with a scratch on her neck and a scrape on her forehead. Officials said the wounds open the possibility that she was assaulted before drowning.

“This Examiner is unable to exclude non-accidental mechanism causing these injuries,” the report said, adding that evidence suggested the bruises occurred before Wood entered the water.

Sheriff’s investigators said the case remains open but that detectives have reached an impasse. One law enforcement source who has worked on the case said detectives may never have a conclusive answer, given that “evidence is stale… with fading memories and incomplete forensics.”

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing, said there is not enough evidence to classify the case as a crime, much less a homicide.

Experts said it is highly unusual for coroners to contradict the autopsy findings performed by their own office. Michael Baden, a former New York examiner and noted trial expert witness, said that although both examinations of Wood’s body looked at the same evidence, the new report found the bruising to be far more significant — enough to change the official cause of death.

“Sathyavagiswaran knows by issuing this opinion that he will unleash criticism on his predecessor and questions over how it handled a celebrity death three decades ago,” Baden said. “He knows in saying this he is criticizing [former coroner] Dr. [Thomas] Noguchi and the office back in 1981.”

Noguchi did not return calls for comment. The new report noted “conflicting statements” about when Wood disappeared and whether she had argued with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, who — along with her “Brainstorm” costar Christopher Walken — were on the 60-foot yacht where she was last seen alive Nov. 28, 1981.

Hours before her death, authorities said, the three actors had dinner at Doug’s Harbor Reef restaurant and then returned to the yacht, called the Splendour, where they drank and an argument ensued between Walken and Wagner.

According to the new autopsy report, Wood went missing about midnight, and an analysis of her stomach contents placed her death around that time. The report said Wagner placed a radio call to report her missing at 1:30 a.m. the next morning.

Roger Smith, the Los Angeles County rescue boat captain who helped pull Wood’s body from the water, said he did not receive a call to look for her until after 5 a.m.

The original investigators believed Wood received her bruises falling off the yacht and struggling to pull herself from the water into a rubber dinghy, whose starboard side bore scratch marks that seemed consistent with such a theory.

But in his report, Sathyavagiswaran noted that investigators did not take nail clippings from Wood’s body to determine whether she’d made the scratch marks, and the dinghy was no longer available to be examined. The coroner believes Wood died soon after entering the water.

In an interview Monday, Smith said he wonders whether Wood might have been found alive if the rescue effort had gotten underway sooner. “There’s no question in my mind that he just delayed calling for us,” Smith said, referring to Wagner.

Smith said he and a deputy examined Wood’s body but saw no bruises. “We went over her very closely,” said Smith, 68. “When we looked at her, we didn’t see any bruises. We were looking for needle marks or anything like that — we didn’t see anything.”

He said the cold water may have delayed any bruising. He said he examined the dinghy, which was found beached nearby, and saw dislodged seats and what looked like “nail marks along the inside of the raft,” as if Wood had tried frantically to reach in and rescue herself.

“She probably couldn’t pull herself in because she was so weak,” Smith said. “It looked like she was maybe grabbing things. I just think she was trying to get in.”

Smith said he had doubted an earlier claim by yacht captain Dennis Davern that he had seen bruises on Wood’s body. “He could not have seen bruises on her because out of decency, I covered her up with a disposable blanket,” Smith said.

Wagner has said his wife was not suicidal and called her death a tragic accident. According to the account given by his spokesman, when Wagner noticed his wife missing, he believed she had taken the dinghy and went looking for her after 10 to 15 minutes, then contacted the Harbor Patrol when he couldn’t find her.

Wagner could not be reached for comment Monday.

“I have gone over it so many millions of times with people,”  Wagner told The Times in 2008.

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Scientist Frank Olson was drugged with LSD and ‘murdered by CIA’


Eric Olson composes his thoughts Thursday, Aug. 8, 2002, during a news conference at his house in Braddock Heights, Md. concerning the death of his father, Fort Detrick scientist Frank Olson Photo: AP

During his travels in Europe he “witnessed extreme interrogations in which the CIA committed murder using biological agents that Dr Olson had developed”.

A US government scientist was drugged by CIA agents and then thrown to his death from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel after he learned about secret torture sites in Europe, according to a lawsuit filed by his family.

Telegraph | Nov 28, 2012

By Raf Sanchez, New York

The sons of Dr Frank Olson claim that their father was murdered in 1953 after he discovered that his biological research was being used to torture and kill suspects in Norway and West Germany.

After raising concerns about the killings, Dr Olson was allegedly given LSD in a glass of brandy and then executed by the CIA, triggering what his family claims is “a multi-decade cover-up that continues to this day”.

The scientist began working with the spy agency in the 1950s and focused on biological weapons that could be transmitted through the air.

According to the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Washington DC, he traveled to research sites in Norway, France and West Germany as well as Porton Down, a British government facility in Wiltshire.

During his travels in Europe he “witnessed extreme interrogations in which the CIA committed murder using biological agents that Dr Olson had developed”.

The lawsuit gives no details about the reported deaths in Europe and the Ministry of Defence would not comment on Dr Olson’s activities in Britain.

A MoD spokesman said that Porton Down had been used to develop countermeasures to biological weapons and “part of this work included ongoing collaboration with our international allies, including the US”.

US CIA Drug Dealing, Torture, Milgram Experimentation on Humans

Dr Olson was apparently shaken by what he had seen and returned to the US resigned to resolve from the agency. On November 19, 1953 he was taken to a secret meeting Deep Creek Lake, Maryland, where he was given LSD hidden in a glass of brandy.

Days later he was brought to New York for “psychiatric treatment” by CIA officials who allegedly told his family that he had become unstable and violent.

At 2.30am on November 28, Dr Olson went through the window of the Statler Hotel’s room 1018a, which he was allegedly sharing with a CIA doctor, and died in the street below.

The CIA initially claimed his death was an accident but in the 1970s, as its activities were investigated in the wake of the Watergate scandal, it admitted that he had been drugged and said that his death was a suicide.

Dr Olson’s family was paid a settlement and invited to the White House by President Gerald Ford, who apologised for the government’s concealment of the drugging.

However, the family remained unsatisfied with the government’s account and in 1996 exhumed Dr Olson’s body and claimed to have found evidence of a blow to the head suffered before his fall.

Prosecutors in New York re-opened an investigation and although they were unable to turn up new evidence decided to change Dr Olson’s cause of death from “suicide” to “unknown”.

The family are now suing the government, claiming that the CIA is continuing to conceal files relating to their father’s death.

“The evidence shows that our father was killed in their custody. They have lied to us ever since, withholding documents and information, and changing their story when convenient,” said Eric Olson.

A CIA spokeswoman said that its covert programmes of the 1950s had been “thoroughly investigated” and that “tens of thousands of pages related to the program have been declassified and released to the public.”

Intelligence expert Crispin Black on why sex games feature in so many spy deaths

dailyrecord.co.uk | May 5 2012

By Crispin Black – former government intelligence adviser

SITTING at the Gareth Williams inquest this week, listening to the more lurid details of the case, it occurred to me the death of spooks in bizarre circumstances involving sex games or women’s clothing is hardly an unusual event.

Disposing of an enemy and making it look like a perverted fantasy gone wrong is in the training manuals of every spy agency from MI6 to Mossad.

Codebreaker Gareth, from Anglesey, north Wales, was found dead in a locked bag, in a flat full of women’s clothing and wigs and with his internet browsing history conveniently featuring bondage sites, sparking a flurry of allegations which horrified his parents.

But the fact the 31-year-old’s death scene was organised in such a way as to suggest a sex game gone wrong should make us more suspicious, not less.

The sex game cover is a very useful mechanism in a murder. Not only does it provide a disguise for the actual means and method of death, it trashes the reputation of the victim and blunts the energy of any subsequent investigation.

And it appears to explain the astonishing number of spies, and other people who step into their murky world, who turn up dead in circumstances similar to Gareth.

Take GCHQ personnel for instance, those that work at the vast electronic doughnut in Cheltenham that is responsible for intercepting and decoding secret electronic traffic of interest to Her Majesty’s Government. And Gareth’s ultimate employer.

MI6 dirty secrets.. why do sex games appear to feature in so many spy deaths?

Sex, spies and seven suspicious deaths: The murky waters of the intelligence world – coincidence or conspiracy?

In 1983, 25-year-old Stephen Drinkwater, who worked as a clerk at GCHQ, was found dead at his home with a plastic bag over his head. In 1997 another worker, Nicholas Husband, 46, was found dead at home dressed in a bra and panties – with a plastic bag over his head.

Two years later, Kevin Allen, 31, a language expert at GCHQ, was found dead in his bed with a plastic bag over his head and a dust mask over his mouth. One wonders what the Gloucestershire Constabulary make of it all.

To be fair, the kind of higher mathematical ability that many GCHQ codebreakers have is rare and it sometimes comes with some personal eccentricities attached.

Alan Turing, the Cambridge academic and founder of modern computer science who became the greatest of the wartime Bletchley Park codebreakers was a distinctly odd fish – a loner with sexual hang-ups who seemed to spend most of his waking hours dreaming of obscure mathematical theorems.

The point was amusingly made in 60s film The Italian Job in which Charlie Croker, played by Michael Caine, recruits computer genius Professor Simon Peach – Benny Hill – to pull off a daring bullion robbery.

But the whole scheme nearly comes unstuck as Prof Peach is unable to control his powerful urges towards large women. MI6, who recruit a more worldly-wise type than the boffins of GCHQ, have not been immune.

In 1994 ex-MI6 man turned journalist James Rusbridger, 65, was found hanged at his house in Cornwall – in a green chemical protection suit including rubber gloves, gas mask and black plastic mackintosh. Bondage pictures completed the tableau.

And of course, according to the pathologist, it turned out he probably did it himself as part of a sex game.

The same year Stephen Milligan, the Tory MP for Eastleigh, was found dead with electrical flex tied round his neck, a black bin liner over his head and wearing stockings and suspenders.

The 45-year-old was also tied to a chair and had a satsuma stuffed into his mouth.

His boss at the time, then junior defence minister Jonathan Aitken, has since denied suggestions Milligan had links to MI6.

Even if you are not a spook you need to be careful. In 1990, ex-RAF helicopter pilot and editor of Defence Helicopter World Jonathan Moyle, 28, was found hanged in the wardrobe of his hotel in Chile with a pillow case over his head.

At the time his demise was widely thought to be an auto-erotic accident. He was in fact almost certainly murdered after uncovering links between Chilean arms dealers and Saddam Hussein.

The last person to give evidence at the Gareth Williams inquest was Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sebire – the senior investigating officer in the case.

She stated confidently that she was sure she and her team would be able to unlock the mystery in the end. But she also felt that this, her final appearance in court, was an appropriate time to remind the assembled audience of Williams’s internet browsing habits.

The last website he accessed probably just a few hours before his death was connected to cycling – a photo of him competing in a cross-country cycling race has been seen frequently in the national newspapers.

But then she went on to deal with the browsing information that had been made much of in the media over the last 20 months. Williams had accessed bondage websites on four days over a two-year period.

He had never accessed so-called “claustrophilia” sites which cater for people who get a thrill out of being confined in small spaces.

There we have it – the view of the woman in charge of the probe. Williams may have had a passing interest in bondage but no more than that. Even this passing interest may have a perfectly innocent explanation.

All MI6 officers get extensive training before they are allowed out on to the streets. Much of this takes place at Fort Monckton near Gosport in Hampshire – a Napoleonic era fortress surrounded by barbed wire and accessible only by a drawbridge.

It includes instruction in basic entry and exit procedures – buildings and cars mainly. If you ever get locked out of your flat and know a friendly spook from school or university give them a ring.

They should be able to get you back inside and could save you a fortune on locksmith’s fees. The instruction also includes some counter-surveillance techniques – how to make sure you are not followed.

And instruction on what to do if you fall into the wrong hands – resistance to interrogation and crucially, what to do if you are restrained – tied or chained up.

It is possible Williams had some of this training and it might well account for the episode when he was discovered tied up in his room by his landlady.

That the sex game angle was a simple smear is a view certainly not ruled out by the Westminster coroner who said, “it is still a legitimate line of inquiry” Gareth died at the hands of MI6.

In her narrative verdict, Dr Fiona Wilcox said: “I am sure a third party placed the bag into the bath and on the balance of probabilities locked the bag.

The cause of death was unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated. I am therefore satisfied that on the balance of probabilities Gareth was killed unlawfully.”

I was impressed by Dr Wilcox. She had good judgment and wisdom as can be seen from her verdict in the case. She played down the bondage question and the interest in female fashion – Williams had an expensive collection of women’s clothing nearly all of it unworn and most of it not in his size.

She seemed to accept the view of Williams’s sister that these were a store of presents for his female acquaintances. Dr Wilcox pretty much dismissed the idea of any sexual component in his death.

Sadly that is the aspect many people will remember. Well, these kinky games with yourself or other people go wrong – what can you expect – becomes the prevailing attitude.

Occasionally the dark arts of postmortem reputation trashing are employed in a good cause and based on hard facts rather than a set-up.

The strange and squalid habits of Osama bin Laden before his death have been used to great effect by the US to make him a laughing stock.

Crispin Black’s espionage thriller The Falklands Intercept is published by Gibson Square on June 19.

Scotland Yard investigates transvestite smear against spy Gareth, but no disciplinary action will be taken


Victim: Gareth Williams was found locked inside a holdall at his home

Daily Mail | May 5, 2012

Detectives have investigated allegations that police smeared MI6 spy Gareth Williams – but have ruled out taking disciplinary action against any officer.

Scotland Yard’s internal investigation unit examined claims that officers leaked information which led to false media reports that Gareth Williams was a transvestite who was the victim of a sex game that went wrong.

The leaks shifted attention from the spy’s work with MI6 and GCHQ, the Government’s secret listening station, to his private life.

Last night, the Met confirmed its team had ruled out disciplining any officer over the leaks.

In 2010, Mr Williams’s family complained to officers they were learning more about the investigation from newspaper reports rather than from police briefings.

Coroner says British secret service worker was probably “killed unlawfully”

Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sebire, who is leading the investigation into Mr Williams’s death, told his inquest last week that the leaks diverted resources from genuine lines of inquiry.

The spy’s body was found on August 23, 2010, locked inside a holdall which was placed in the bath at his home in Pimlico, Central London. The victim had last been seen by his colleagues ten days earlier.

Last week, coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox questioned the motives of those who leaked details about Mr Williams’s private life, including his visits to bondage websites. His family say the visits could have been work-related.

Dr Wilcox said Mr Williams was not a transvestite and that his collection of £20,000 of unworn women’s clothes were probably gifts for friends.

She also dismissed claims that Mr Williams had entered the sports bag seeking sexual gratification.

The coroner said: ‘I wonder what the motive was for the release of this material to the media. I wonder whether this was an attempt by a third party to intimate a sexual motive.’

Scotland Yard’s internal investigations unit was asked to look at the leaks after concerns were expressed by Det Chief Insp Sebire.

A Metropolitan Police spokesman said: ‘Concerns were raised that information relating to the investigation had been placed in the public domain.

The force initiated an exercise to assess the concerns. A decision was taken not to proceed further.’

Police wasted time on false leads generated by the leaks. Reports that Mr Williams went to gay bars in the Vauxhall area of London, and visited websites on sadomasochism and claustrophilia – the sexual pleasure of confined spaces – proved to be false.

Det Chief Insp Sebire told the inquest that she had seen at first-hand the
distress the leaks had caused the Williams family, but insisted: ‘They did not come from my team.’

A senior police source said that suspicions surrounding the source of the leaks initially centred on counter-terrorism police officers and MI6.

Last night a Whitehall spokesman denied MI6 was responsible for the smears but declined to say whether the Service was also investigating the claims.

A memo released to the inquest revealed that senior officials at GCHQ, where Mr Williams spent most of his career, were concerned about the leaks.

Last night, a GCHQ spokesman declined to comment on the memo or any investigation into the leaks.

MI6 and GCHQ were criticised by the coroner for waiting more than a week before raising the alarm about Mr Williams’s absence.

Dr Wilcox also hit out at counter-terrorism officers who liaised with MI6 and GCHQ, and police officers investigating the spy’s death.

She said evidence that could have helped the inquiry was only passed to detectives once the inquest was in its second week.

Last week it was revealed that police are planning to take DNA samples from up to 50 spies.

Dr Wilcox said the possibility that another spy was involved in Mr Williams’s death was a ‘legitimate line
of inquiry’.

At the end of the inquest, Mr Williams’s family criticised SO15, the Met’s counter-terrorism branch, for the ‘total inadequacies’ of its investigation into MI6.

The family said: ‘Our grief is exacerbated by the failure of MI6 to make even the most basic inquiries as to Gareth’s whereabouts and welfare.

‘We are also extremely disappointed at the reluctance and failure of MI6 to make available relevant information.’

MI6 spy missing for a week before boss raised alarm

Associated Press | Apr 25, 2012

By DAVID STRINGER

LONDON (AP) — The boss of a British spy whose naked and decomposing body was found locked in a sports bag waited for a week before raising the alarm after his colleague went missing, an inquest into the codebreaker’s mysterious death was told Wednesday.

Cryptology expert Gareth Williams, 31, worked for Britain’s secret eavesdropping service GCHQ, but was attached to the country’s MI6 overseas spy agency when he was discovered dead in August 2010 under bizarre circumstances at his central London apartment.

Police have made no arrests in the case and are still not certain how exactly Williams died. The spy’s family rejects British authorities’ claim that his death was unconnected to his intelligence work.

An inquest charged with deducing how and when Williams died heard anonymous evidence Wednesday from three British spies who acknowledged it took seven days after the codebreaker first failed to show up for work before his MI6 boss contacted his family.

The codebreaker’s direct manager, a witness identified only as “G,” said Williams shared a small office with three other people and had carried out some operational work on behalf of the spy agency in addition to his technical work.

Williams was a “quiet intellectual” who was almost always punctual and had never been absent from work through illness, his manager said.

“He was clearly very clever but there were those that say he was shy, an introvert and a very quiet person,” the manager told the inquest.

UK intelligence officer: No cover-up in ‘spy in the bag’ case

Shortly before his death, Williams had visited Las Vegas as part of his duties but had been due at work in London on August 16. When he didn’t arrive, the manager said he and other colleagues assumed William was having transport problems.

A day later, with still no signs of the spy, the manager said he called Williams but received no response from his phone. By August 20, the manager visited the apartment where William lived but failed to raise any response.

Coroner Fiona Wilcox told the manager she was “really struggling to understand why you took no action at this point.”

The witness told the inquest hearing that he had a “gut feeling that he was away doing something that I was not made aware of.”

Only on August 23 did the spy’s manager raise the alarm with senior bosses and the spy’s family. His body was found later that day.

“In hindsight, knowing what I know now, should I have taken action? Absolutely,” the manager acknowledged, giving his testimony from behind a screen to protect his identity.

A lawyer for the spy’s family said previously that relatives suspect an “unknown third party” may have tampered with the scene after Williams died, or interfered with other evidence that could help explain how he died.

Vatican accused of cover-up over teenage girl’s mysterious disappearance

The Vatican has been accused of hiding the truth about one of Italy’s most intractable mysteries – the disappearance of a teenage girl nearly 30 years ago.

One theory is that the girl’s father, a Vatican employee, had stumbled on documents that connected the Vatican’s bank with organised crime in Rome and that she was seized in an attempt to silence him.

Telegraph | Apr 3, 2012

By Nick Squires, Rome

Prosecutors in Rome say that “someone in the Vatican” knows the fate of Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican employee who vanished in June 1983.

Her kidnap in Rome by unidentified men has been the subject of scrutiny for three decades, with allegations that it was connected to blackmail and banking scandals involving the Holy See.

One theory is that the girl’s father, a Vatican employee, had stumbled on documents that connected the Vatican’s bank with organised crime in Rome and that she was seized in an attempt to silence him. The alleged mastermind of the kidnapping was Enrico “Renatino” De Pedis, the leader of the Magliana gang, Rome’s most ruthless criminal band.

He was shot dead by rival gangsters in a street in central Rome in 1990 and his body interred in a crypt in the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare.

It has always been seen as highly unusual that a known mafioso should have been given the honour of being buried in a church in which popes and cardinals are interred.

There has been speculation that Miss Orlandi was murdered and her remains hidden in the tomb alongside De Pedis.

Prosecutors in Rome have for the first time explicitly pointed the finger at the Vatican, saying that senior cardinals are covering up the truth.

Giancarlo Capaldo, a senior prosecutor who is investigating the case, said he had found evidence that serving members of the Curia — the Vatican’s governing body — knew much more than they were saying about Emanuela’s disappearance.

“There are people still alive, and still inside the Vatican, who know the truth,” the prosecutor was quoted as saying by Corriere della Sera.

Pietro Orlandi, Miss Orlandi’s brother, seized on the remarks, saying it was time for the Vatican to come clean and calling on investigators to open the tomb of De Pedis to establish whether it contained his sister’s remains. “The Holy See now has a moral duty to give a response after refusing for years to collaborate with the magistracy,” he said. “Their silence is becoming embarrassing.”

The Vatican insists that it has divulged all it knew about the case. “If someone on the inside had known something, they would have said,” said Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, 78, who was number three in the Vatican Secretariat of State at the time. “We were all interested in clarifying the matter, but unfortunately we were not able to find out anything about it.”

Over the years it has been claimed that Emanuela’s kidnapping was carried out on the orders of a Catholic archbishop, Paul Marcinkus, the disgraced head of the Vatican bank, the Istituto per le Opere di Religione. The IOR was involved in the bankruptcy of Italy’s largest private bank, the Banco Ambrosiano, in 1982.

Its president, Roberto Calvi, nicknamed “God’s Banker”, was found hanged beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London, with investigators unable to rule whether he had committed suicide or was murdered, possibly by the Mafia.

The Vatican has denied that Archbishop Marcinkus, who died in 2006, had anything to do with the teenager’s disappearance.

Italian painter Caravaggio may have been killed on orders of the Knights of Malta


Beheading of St John by Caravaggio graces the Oratory of St John’s Co-Cathedra. Photo: Daniel Cilia

Was Caravaggio killed by the Knights of Malta?

timesofmalta.com | Apr 3, 2012

Caravaggio, the Italian painter whose Beheading of St John graces the Oratory of St John’s Co-Cathedral, may have been killed on orders of the Knights of Malta, according to a researcher quoted by UK media.

The cause of his death in 1610 has always been a mystery, with possible causes having said to be lead poisoning from the oil paints he used, malaria or a brawl.

Professor Vincenzo Pacelli, from the University of Naples, has now claimed that according to secret Vatican documents, Caravaggio, 38, was killed on orders from the Knights of Malta after he seriously injured a knight in an earlier brawl.

The body was then thrown into the sea near Rome and was never given a funeral.

The claims are being disputed by John T. Spike, a Caravaggio expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia who said the knights had ample opportunities to kill him sooner – while he was in Malta, or during the time he spent in nearby Sicily afterwards.

Two years ago, Italian researches claimed to have located his remains in a church grave in Porto Ercole in Tuscany.

Pof Pacelli claims that the “state-sponsored assassination” was carried out with the secret approval of the Vatican.

“It was commissioned and organised by the Knights of Malta, with the tacit assent of the Roman Curia” – the governing body of the Holy See – because of the grave offence Caravaggio had caused by attacking a high-ranking knight, he said.

The academic found historical documents which suggest that the Vatican, which objected to Caravaggio’s questioning of Catholic doctrine, tried to cover up the truth of Caravaggio’s death.

He discovered mysterious discrepancies in correspondence between Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a powerful Vatican secretary of state, and Deodato Gentile, a papal ‘nuncio’ or ambassador, in which the painter’s place of death was cited as the island of Procida near Naples, “a place that Caravaggio had nothing to do with.”

A document written by Caravaggio’s doctor and first biographer, Giulio Mancini, claimed that the painter had died near Civitavecchia, but the place name was later scrubbed out and replaced by Porto Ercole.

Prof Pacelli has also found an account written 20 years after Caravaggio’s death, in which an Italian archivist, Francesco Bolvito, wrote that the artist had been “assassinated”.

Caravaggio was known to have many enemies and he suffered a violent attack in Naples in 1609 by unidentified assailants which left him disfigured.

Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio lived a turbulent life which saw him fleeing from one city to another.

After finding fame in Rome for his distinctive “chiaro-scuro” painting technique – the contrast of shadow and light – he suddenly had to leave the city in 1606 after he was involved in a brawl in which he killed a man.

He eventually ended up in Malta where he was made a member of the Knights of Malta.

But by 1608 he was in prison, most probably after becoming involved in another fight, in which he wounded a knight.

He was expelled by the Knights on the grounds that he had become “a foul and rotten member” of the order and imprisoned in a dungeon.

He was released under mysterious circumstances and fled to first Sicily and then Naples.

He was heading to Rome in the hope of obtaining a papal pardon for the murder he had committed when he died.