A Cryptological Cold Case: The Erba Cryptogram

The quadruple murder of Erba (Italy) in 2006 has long been solved. A coded message hidden in a Bible that the perpetrator wanted to send to the perpetrator, on the other hand, is still waiting to be deciphered.

Deutsche Version

The northern Italian town of Erba was the scene of a spectacular crime in December 2006. The couple Orlindo Romano and Rosa Bazzi together stabbed to death four people from their neighborhood, including a two-year-old child. The motive: the four neighbors had made too much noise in the evening.


The Erba Massacre

To my surprise, in November 2020 there was a new press report on this crime, also known as the Erba Massacre. According to it, Azouz Marzouk, ex-husband and father of two of the four victims, asked the Milan prosecutor’s office to review the trial. Marzouk is convinced of the couple’s innocence and assumes that the real killers of his family are still at large.

I was not able to find out what happened to Mazouk’s request. But I strongly assume that Romano and Bazzi are still in prison. After 15 years have passed since the crime, the two can hope for an early release in the foreseeable future.

The Erba massacre is of interest to Cipherbrain because Orlondo Romano sent (at least) three encrypted messages to his wife while in prison. The first two he allegedly hid in a Bible and in a book about Pope Benedict XVI while in custody. It was a kind of diary in secret writing. However, the prison staff discovered the coded messages and handed them over to the public prosecutor’s office. There, they managed to break the encryption. The contents that came to light gave the prosecution a lot of additional information about the crime.

Unfortunately, nothing is known about these ciphertexts. Too bad, because they would be an interesting topic for this blog.


The Erba cryptogram

In 2013, several years after the verdict, Orlindo Romano tried again to send an encrypted message to his wife. And again he hid the message in a Bible, but this was discovered by the prison staff. The following photo of this message is known:

Quelle/Source: Polizei Italien

First, let’s look at the piece of paper with the message:

Quelle/Source: Polizei Italien

I have blogged about this “Erba cryptogram” several times – most recently four years ago. My readers posted numerous interesting comments, but no one found the solution. The police, on the other hand, are said to have succeeded in deciphering the text – possibly with the help of additional information that was kept secret. However, details have never been published.

Blog reader Dario suspected that the encryption method used was a substitution cipher, in which individual letters are replaced by syllables so that the ciphertext is usually pronounceable. It could be a variant of the so-called “alfabeto farfallino”. Dario also assumes that the “xs” stands for the space character. In terms of content, he thinks it could be a declaration of love.

Marc, another blog reader, pointed out that the first words of the text are unscrambled. They read: “Pochi giorni prima – poi” (“A few more days – then”). After that, the text consists of pairs of letters, of which there are only eight different ones: CU, MI, XS, FI, UN, RO, NE, PI. This speaks against a simple substitution cipher.

If anyone knows more, please let me know.


The Bible Pages

Also interesting are the two Bible pages in the background (the left one is mostly covered):

  • On the right page are the letters “NE.Mi.cu”. I do not know what these mean. The pairs NE, MI, and CU are among the eight that make up the cryptogram above.
  • In the center of the right-hand pages, several dozen letters are noted in columns. Unfortunately, these are difficult to make out.
  • On both sides, passages in the Bible text are marked in yellow. Do these add up to a message? Do they have anything to do with the message on the note? Hard to say.

It would be great if my readers could help to finally solve this cryptological cold case after years. I will gladly accept any relevant hints.

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