Death of a Countess


`As far as I am concerned, all possible lines of inquiry remain open - suicide, an accident or murder." Thus did Genoa state prosecutor, Margherita Ravera sum up her ongoing investigation into the death of Countess Francesca Vacca Agusta, former model turned millionairess, whose body was formally identified in Toulon, France, on Wednesday. The disappearance of the Countess from her Portofino villa, just down the coast from Genoa, nearly three weeks ago and the subsequent discovery of her body on the Cote d'Azur shoreline last week are about the only two certain facts in a complex mystery.

An inheritance row, sexual rivalry, fraud and political chicanery are all the potential ingredients of the seemingly clicheladen story of Countess Agusta, the one-time Genoa shop assistant who, in the 1960s, moved from being a little known Milan-based model to becoming the wife of Count Corradino Agusta, helicopter entrepreneur and millionaire.

When Francesca Vacca Graffagni first showed up one hot summer in the 1960s in the fashionable Ligurian seaside resort of Portofino, she caught the eye of Count Agusta, a man many years her senior. Their love story became one of the major media stories of the day, with Agusta scandalising friends by leaving his first wife, Pupetta Maresca, and son, Rocky, in order to be with Francesca Vacca. In 1974, the couple married and Vacca became Countess Agusta.

For long a leading Milan socialite and a favourite target for gossip magazines and paparazzi, the Countess had begun to fade out of the limelight by the mid1980s, when she separated from Count Agusta. After the Count's death in 1989, she became involved in a protracted legal battle with her stepson, Rocky, over the Agusta inheritance, a legal wrangle that was resolved last December, with the Countess allegedly receiving $250 million worth of inheritance.

Whatever the terms of the inheritance settlement were, what is certain is that the Countess was already a wealthy woman. Her separation settlement in 1985 had left her with the splendid Villa Altachiara in Portofino; four apartments in Milan; Agusta family jewellery; an estate in Cuernavaca, Mexico; and an undisclosed amount of cash.

Villa Altachiara, in particular, was a splendid catch. Built in 1874 by Lord Carnaervon, the man who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, Villa Altachiara is an imposing 40-room mansion, complete with swimming-pool and helicopter-pad and standing on a spectacular site overlooking the jagged Ligurian coastline. Needless to say, the villa had its own pathway down to a private jetty and beach below the house. Villa Altachiara, too, was to play an important part in the last days of the Countess. Out of the public eye for most of the 1980s, the Countess was suddenly frontpage news again in 1994, through her surprise involvement in the infamous "Tangentopoli" kick-backs scandal. Celebrated investigating magistrate, Antonio Di Pietro, charged her with laundering slush funds on behalf of the late, disgraced Socialist prime minister, Bettino Craxi, an old Agusta family friend. The then magistrate (he is now a parliamentarian) alleged that she, along with the new man in her life, former Portofino playboy Maurizio Raggio, had moved money from an account in Geneva to various banks in Central America. Furthermore, magistrate Di Pietro accused the Countess and her lover of taking a significant kickback from Craxi as a pay-off. When police went to Portofino to arrest her one day in 1994, however, she was not to be found.

She and Raggio had gone on the run, eventually being tracked down in Mexico three years later. Extradited from Mexico, the one-time fugitive from justice plea-bargained on her return, eventually spending just three months in Milan's Opera prison and some further time under house arrest.

After that incident, the Countess more or less "retired" to Villa Altachiara. Even though she later split up with Maurizio Raggio, she was not alone, since she had formed a new relationship with 50-year-old Mexican, Tirso Di Ricardo. Intriguingly, too, another figure, 29-year-old divorcee Susanna Torretta, had also moved in with her in recent times.

On the night of January 8th, all three - the Countess, Di Ricardo and Torretta - were at Villa Altachiara. Apart from a Polish kitchen maid, no one else was at the villa.

According to both Di Ricardo and Torretta, the Countess became very upset that day. She had been drinking heavily and she may have taken a variety of "uppers" and "downers". At around 7 p.m., she ran out of the villa, wearing only a dressing gown and slippers, allegedly leaving by a French window that led onto a terrace.

Di Ricardo and Torretta have told police that the Countess disappeared at that moment, because she had locked the French window behind her. By the time they got around to the terrace from the other side of the villa, she was nowhere to be found. Five hours later, the alarm was raised and a massive police search initiated.

Friends of the Countess, however, including well-known art critic, Vittori Sgarbi and socialite, Rossella Schiaffino, gave contrasting accounts of her last day at the villa. Both Sgarbi and Schiaffino said they had spoken to her on the phone that day and that she had sounded "in top form" and was "feeling better than ever".

Three days after her disappearance, the first traces of the Countess were found, when her dressing gown was dragged up from the sea-bed close to Villa Altachiara, while her slippers were found on nearby rocks. Media speculation suggested that she had either committed suicide or staged an elaborate "disappearing act".

It was only when the French daily, Nice-Matin, published an appeal this week for information leading to the identity of a female body found washed up in the resort of Cap Benat, one week earlier, that the investigation moved forward again. The body in question had proved difficult to identify since it was badly decomposed, had a smashed skull, multiple fractures, a disfigured face and it was without feet (which had been gnawed off by fish).

The body did, however, have a priceless "identity tag" in the shape of two rings on the fingers, one of which bore the date November 4th, 1950. The rings in question were the wedding rings of the Countess's parents. On Wednesday, the Countess's brother, Domenico Vacca Graffagni, formally identified both the rings and his sister's mutilated body.

Initial reports from France, too, struck a sinister note. An autopsy carried out on the body had discovered no traces of water in the lungs. If that initial autopsy's findings are confirmed by subsequent ones likely to be carried out in Italy, then it would seem that the Countess did not die of drowning.

Inevitably, the fortune of the Countess Agusta is now at the centre both of the investigation and of potential litigation. On the day after her disappearance, Di Ricardo admitted to daily La Repubblica that he believed the Countess had left him money in her will, adding that only two days earlier, she had left him a note in which she declared her intention of leaving him "everything".

For the time being, the ex-lover Raggio (he returned to Italy from Mexico to help in the search), Di Ricardo and Torretta are all living together at Villa Altachiara. Raggio has hired lawyers to protect his interests. Likewise, the Countess's brother, Domenico, has also hired lawyers, since he claims that his sister's properties now belong to him. Furthermore, media reports claim he has already started legal proceedings to have the Raggio-Di Ricardo-Torretta trio thrown out of the house. The trio have reportedly refused to move.

Clearly, the investigation into the death of the Countess Agusta is just beginning. Many have expressed their concern about the case, including her stepson, Rocky Agusta, who now lives in South Africa but who had remained in contact and in apparently good relations with the Countess, despite their recently resolved inheritance struggle. In an interview with daily, Corriere Della Sera, this week, Agusta said: "The people who were around her certainly did not help her . . . It's not up to me to formulate accusations, but Francesca was not alone that night. She was very upset. She should have been put to bed. Instead, they let her go out into a dark, wet, cold night, not even dressed."

Paddy Agnew can be contacted at