VATICAN CITY – A cadet in the Vatican police force was found fatally shot in the head early Monday inside the barracks in what officials said was an apparent suicide over a breakup with a girlfriend.
The incident rekindled memories of the 1998 murder-suicide behind the Vatican walls, in which a 23-year-old Swiss Guard allegedly killed his commander, the commander's wife and then himself over being denied a medal.
Colleagues found Alessandro Benedetti, 26, mortally wounded in the barracks bathroom Monday morning. He later died at a nearby hospital.
"Early clues lead (us) to believe that the young man wanted to kill himself," Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in the statement. He added that a note found on the site was being examined by Vatican investigators, and that an autopsy was planned.
Vatican officials said Benedetti was distraught over a recent breakup.
Pope Benedict XVI was saddened at the news and expressed solidarity with the man's family and the police corps, the statement said. The pope was not at the Vatican at the time; he was at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, in the hills south of Rome.
Benedetti joined the Vatican police corps as a cadet in April, the statement said. He had taken psychological tests and his behavior so far had not raised any worries, Lombardi said.
Cadets generally do not protect the pope himself — services reserved to more seasoned officers — but provide other law enforcement services around the Vatican, such as directing traffic and protecting entrances.
The Rev. Ciro Benedettini, the Vatican deputy spokesman, said that while there was always room for improvement, the Vatican's psychological and physical evaluations were "very rigorous," for law enforcement officials and that the case was an isolated one.
Security consultants said suicide rates are often higher among law enforcement officers than in the civilian population, primarily because of job pressures.
"It's more a question of training the people and ensuring that the people who are working in security have normal psychological support," said Claude Moniquet, head of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a Brussels-based think tank on security issues.
The Vatican police force, currently about 150-strong, protects the pope and other Vatican officials during public appearances, travel with the pope and deal with crimes inside the Vatican. It was a Vatican policeman who grabbed a German man who was trying to jump on Benedict's open popemobile during a weekly audience in June, in an episode that rekindled debate of the pontiff's security during his public appearances.
The Vatican's other law enforcement force, the Swiss Guards, have ceremonial and some security duties. The force — about 110 men, all of them Swiss Catholics — are known for their colorful uniforms.
In May 1998, the Swiss Guards commander and his wife were shot dead in their Vatican apartment. The Vatican said a disgruntled young corporal, whose body was also found in the apartment, killed them both, then shot himself. The corporal's mother has denied the Vatican's version of events, saying her son was wrongly accused and was in fact the victim of a plot.