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New Head of Vatican Guards Killed

May 5, 1998

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ A member of the pope’s Swiss Guards who killed his commander, the commander’s wife and himself at the Vatican was disgruntled over his lack of recognition in the elite corps, the papal spokesman said today.

Cedrich Tornay, the 23-year-old non-commissioned officer, told colleagues he was angry that he was not going to be decorated at a swearing-in ceremony Wednesday, said the spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

The guardsman also was outraged over a recent letter of reprimand from the commander, Col. Alois Estermann, for staying out all night.

``It was a fit of madness in a person with very peculiar psychological characteristics,″ Navarro-Valls told reporters.

Monday’s killings came on the day Estermann reached the pinnacle of his career: Hours earlier, John Paul appointed him commander of the 100-member corps founded in 1506.

The 43-year-old commander had accompanied Pope John Paul II on more than 30 foreign trips and reportedly tried to shield the pontiff during a 1981 assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square.

The pope was ``visibly sad″ when told the news, Navarro-Valls said. The pope described Estermann as having ``extraordinarily humane, professional, and I would say spiritual qualities.″

Tornay, who had been in the corps for three years, gave a letter to his family shortly before the 9 p.m. killings, the Vatican spokesman said. The contents of his letter were not released.

Despite Navarro-Valls’ statement, a former guardsman who knew Tornay called him ``a very normal guy.″

``I find it difficult to think it was a `fit,‴ Jacques Antoine Fierz was quoted as telling the ANSA news agency.

The funeral Mass for Estermann and his Venezuelan-born wife, Gladys Meza Romero, 49, will be celebrated Wednesday in St. Peter’s Basilica by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state. It was not certain where the couple would be buried.

Ms. Meza Romero came to Italy about 20 years ago to work as a fashion model. She later earned a doctorate in canon and civil law, and worked at the Venezuelan Embassy to the Holy See. The couple married in 1983 and had no children.

Estermann took over as acting commander of the Swiss Guards after the retirement in October of his predecessor, Roland Buchs. The president of the Swiss bishops conference, Bishop Amedee Grab, said today that Buchs would return to take temporary command of the papal force.

Estermann, his wife and Tornay were found dead after a neighbor heard noises Monday night and went to investigate. In a small room near the entrance to the Estermanns’ Vatican apartment ``she found the three bodies laid out,″ Navarro-Valls said.

Underneath Tornay’s body was his semi-automatic pistol, the papal spokesman said. Only one bullet was inside.

Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony for 40 recruits to the world’s smallest army, a 100-member corps, was canceled. A flag on the Swiss Guards barracks flew at half-staff today.

The killings sent shockwaves through Switzerland, which for nearly 500 years has been supplying young Roman Catholic men ready to lay down their lives for the pope.

Swiss President Flavio Cotti sent a letter to John Paul expressing the ``sincere sympathy″ of the Swiss government and people.

Violence at the Vatican is rare, at least in modern times.

The last time shots rang out in the city-state was in 1981, when John Paul was shot in front of thousands of horrified onlookers.

The killings Monday recalled an incident in 1959, when a dismissed guards member shot and wounded his commander and tried to kill himself.

The last murder inside the walls of Vatican City was in 1848, when Pope Pius IX’s prime minister, Count Pellegrino Rossi, was assassinated during political unrest preceding the unification of Italy.

In January, a Roman nobleman who served in the Vatican’s protocol corps was murdered in his apartment in Rome in what police called a homosexual killing.

Estermann was one of the few non-noblemen to head the Swiss Guards. He joined the Swiss Guards in 1980 after four years as an officer in Switzerland’s army.

In an interview with the Rome daily La Repubblica hours before the shootings, Estermann spoke of the ``enormous responsibility″ of his new job.

His parents arrived in Rome on Monday for the swearing-in ceremony but never saw Estermann alive, his youngest brother, Robert, told The Associated Press.

Swiss Guards, who wear colorful uniforms designed by Michelangelo, must be Catholic men from Switzerland who have served their military duty. They must be under 30 years old, over 5-foot-8, and willing to learn Italian.

Pope Giulio II, who reportedly was impressed by the bravery of Swiss mercenaries, founded the corps nearly 500 years ago.

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