A Murder Year Abroad?

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Stefano Medici / AP

Amanda Marie Knox and Raffaele Sollecito

Pretty young American students have been coming to Italy for so long they blend into the romanticized landscape like cobblestones and striped-shirted gondoliers. But for the first time anyone can remember, a bella studentessa Americana is suspected of homicide. Amanda Knox, a 20-year-old native of Seattle and student at the University of Washington, on a study-abroad program in the central city of Perugia, is one of three suspects in a murder mystery that has tabloid news junkies in Italy and Europe following every turn.

Along with her handsome Italian boyfriend and a hip Congolese bar owner, Knox is sitting in jail on suspicion of killing her British roommate Meredith Kercher. The 21-year-old victim's throat was slit the night of Nov. 1, and she bled to death in what coroners describe as an agonizing two-hour demise. Knox initially denied being in the cottage she shared with Kercher, but five days later said that she'd heard her roommate screaming in the other room and "covered my ears" to block out the chilling pleas. Hours later, photographers would snap images of the three suspects being hauled away in police cars. And an Italian media frenzy had begun.

Knox has claimed that the owner of the Perugia pub where she worked, Diya Lumumba, 38, a part-time musician from Congo, was in the room with Kercher when she heard the screams. Lumumba insists he was in his pub at the time of the attack, and his lawyers say there are several alibis to back up claims of his whereabouts. Like his two fellow suspects, Raffaele Sollecito, 23, who'd been dating Knox for two weeks, has denied any involvement in the slaying.

Still, as investigators gather testimony, scan cell phone records and scour closed-circuit video near the scene of the crime in an attempt to reconstruct the circumstances of the crime, information — solid or otherwise, positive for one suspect but not for the others — continues to leak from defense teams. That has left Italian newspaper readers with a daily dose of new potential scenarios of what happened that night. The papers, referring to court documents, have speculated whether the two male suspects tried to force the victim into group sex; and, after leaks from lawyers involved in the case, whether Knox tried to kill her roommate in a drug-induced rampage. She reportedly has told investigators that her memory of events is hazy. Italian papers have also written about the possibility of a fourth person involved in the case. The latest allegation on Tuesday, on the pages of the Rome daily Il Messaggero: Knox's hair was wet when she arrived the night of Nov. 1 at her boyfriend's flat, having taken a shower back at her cottage with her dead roommate in the next room.

As with every unsolved murder case, police are trying to piece together the timing and movements of the suspects. But the Kercher killing has taken on a dynamic of its own with the unlikely characteristics of the suspects, and ordinary citizens scanning blogs and MySpace entries for photos of those involved to try to glean clues to their personalities. Sollecito, the son of a prominent urologist from the southern region of Puglia, describes himself on a social networking site as "sweet but sometimes absolutely crazy" and posed for a photo with a butcher's cleaver. Lumumba, a longtime resident of Perugia, with a wife and child, has many locals defending his character, and his bongo playing and reggae music career offer the appearance of a man of harmony.

But most of the attention has been reserved for Knox, who has changed her version of events several times. There has been a stream of photos downloaded from the Internet showing the strawberry blond linguistics major in a variety of settings, always looking like she'd just stepped out of an Ivory soap ad. Italian papers have reported that she's gotten fan mail in jail, including one letter calling her: "bellissima!" Those who are convinced of her guilt no doubt will hate her even more because she is beautiful.