Rome: Marco Pantani, the last cyclist to win the Giro d`Italia and the Tour de France in the same year in 1998, may have been murdered, according to evidence presented by his family which led prosecutors to reopen the case after he died 10 years ago due to a massive ingestion of cocaine.
The local press said at the weekend that a court in the beachside resort city of Rimini was investigating Pantani`s death after his family argued that he was forced to drink a potion containing a huge volume of the drug.
Xinhua reported, judicial sources quoted by ANSA news agency Monday said the examining parties will get down to the inquiry starting from September.
"It will certainly be a complex and long-lasting investigation, made of various phases," the family`s lawyer Antonio De Rensis said.
"My son was killed."
"Ever since they phoned to break to me the tragic news of my son`s death, I have always believed that someone killed him," Pantani`s mother Tonina Belletti Pantani told Xinhua.
When Pantani was found dead aged 34 in a hotel suite in Rimini on Valentine`s Day 2004, it emerged from the first inquiry that he had died after overdosing of cocaine. He had become depressed and addicted to drugs since his disqualification from the Giro d`Italia in 1999 for failing a doping test.
But doubts over the accepted truth that the much-loved cyclist had committed suicide were expressed soon after his death, when Belletti Pantani suggested that her son had been killed because he had gained knowledge of sensitive information about something.
Drug dealing, doping in cycling and illegal bets were among the alleged elements of the mystery surrounding the rider`s death over the past years. Media reports claimed there had been a cover-up in the original investigation.
Pantani`s mother never stopped campaigning for the case to be reopened.
"There are several elements that do not add up. Analyses on Marco`s body said he had ingested 20 grams of cocaine, too many to be taken alone. This is why we say that he was made to drink diluted cocaine," she said.
She also added the cuts and bruises on his son`s body could not have been procured only from the fall due to a stroke, and insisted that he was beaten by someone.
She also explained there was a sort of "re-enacted chaos" in the room, as if someone had modified the scene. "Finally, there were three winter jackets that Marco had left in Milan, not taking them with him in Rimini. How did they end up in his room?" she said.
"I do not know whether there will be another day for me," Marco Pantani was quoted by Sky television as telling a guest of his hotel a day before his death.
Another person who met Pantani just hours before he was found dead was Olivier Laghi, the restaurateur who brought him the dinner. The man, a fan of Pantani, remembers asking the champion whether he could take his little son to his room the following day to get an autograph.
"He answered with a timid smile and a pat on my back that there was no problem and we would meet the following day," Laghi was quoted as saying by Corriere della Sera, one of Italy`s leading newspapers.
"He had not the face of someone who wanted to commit suicide," the restaurateur stressed.
"Absolutely never. Marco would have never committed suicide," Giuseppe "Pino" Roncucci, Pantani`s first sporting director and a major influence on the future champion, told Xinhua.
According to Sky, Pantani phoned to the reception twice in the day of his death to warn that there were some people disturbing him, and asked for police intervention, but nobody cried havoc unexplainably.
"What is amazing in Pantani`s story is that nobody raised any of these doubts 10 years ago. The first inquiry was closed in just 55 days, a record for Italy`s justice," said Francesco Ceniti, a journalist of leading sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport and the author of "In nome di Marco (In the name of Marco)," a book on Pantani written together with his mother.
"Investigators focused on the trail of accidental death for overdosing of cocaine, but neglected a series of evident incongruities," Ceniti told Xinhua. "Everybody knew there was another entry into the hotel so that anyone could take the lift and arrive exactly in front of Pantani`s room," he said.
"But in the worst case scenario, the suicide conclusion could have been reached on purpose, if we consider the hypothesis that Pantani`s room was turned upside down by someone who wanted to hide the truth," he added.
However, Ceniti highlighted, the case has been reopened, which gives some hope that many doubts can be cleared.