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20 years ago The murder of the commander of the Swiss Guard

Alois Estermann

Alois Estermann

(swissinfo.ch)

On May 4, 1998, Alois Estermann was named commander of the Pope’s Swiss Guard. A few hours later, Estermann, his wife and another Swiss Guard were found dead in Estermann’s flat in the Vatican City. swissinfo.ch looks back at what sounds like the start of a Dan Brown novel. 

The Estermanns were shot by 23-year-old Swiss Guard Cédric Tornay, who then turned the gun on himself. That, at least, is the official Vatican version of events. It concluded that Tornay had acted in a moment of rage because he had been denied military decoration. 

But a book published in 2002, “Assassinati in Vaticano” (Murdered in the Vatican) by French lawyers Luc Brossollet and Jacques Vergès, disputes this theory. When the book was published, Brossollet explained to swissinfo.ch’s Isobel Leybold-Johnson why they believed Tornay was killed and the scene set up to look like a murder-suicide: 

Not everyone agrees with the murder-suicide hypothesis. Other theories – all either unsubstantiated or discredited – are that Estermann had been an agent of the East German secret police (Stasi); that all three were murdered by a Vatican killer because Estermann knew about the Vatican’s trafficking of military equipment to the Polish anti-communist organisation Solidarity; that Estermann was Pope John Paul II’s personal guard and that he was killed in the course of a struggle between the Opus Dei and masonic parties within the Vatican hierarchy, both attempting to annex the Swiss Guard; and that Tornay had indeed killed Estermann after their homosexual affair turned sour. 

Swiss Guard carry the coffin of Alois Estermann

Members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard carry the coffin of Alois Estermann out of St Stephan's church in Beromünster, canton Lucerne, on May 16, 1998. Hundreds of mourners, including 400 former Swiss Guards, attended the funeral

(Keystone)

Whatever the truth, the Swiss Guard needed a new commander and after a couple of months – during which the previous commander Roland Buchs stepped in as acting commander – Pius Segmüller was sworn in. 

In this report from September 1998, Segmüller tells Laura McCullagh, a journalist for swissinfo.ch’s predecessor Swiss Radio International, how he hoped to bring a renewed motivation to the Swiss Guard in light of the tragedy:

Segmüller ended up serving for four years. The current commander, Christoph Graf, has been in the job since 2015.

swissinfo.ch

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