June 19, 1978 12:00 PM

She was the sheltered tomboyish daughter of an Italian millionaire, he a lowlife Frenchman with a greedy scheme. They met as jailed and jailer after three masked men seized the girl in front of her family’s Roman villa and forced her into a waiting van.

It was meant to be an ordinary kidnapping for ransom—now a grisly part of Italian life. But before it was over a curious bond of affection had formed between the captive, Giovanna Amati, 18, and one of her captors, Daniel Nieto, 31. Their fascination for each other would shake and shame her prominent family, and eventually land Nieto in jail.

It was hardly a conventional love story, and romance, perhaps, played little part. For 74 days Giovanna was held prisoner—most of the time in a coffin-like wooden box—while her father negotiated her ransom. Finally Giovanni Amati, 72, a former butcher who now owns a chain of movie theaters, bargained the kidnappers down to $925,000—about half their original price. Hoping to prevent the family from paying, police had the Amatis’ assets frozen. But the father diverted the Star Wars receipts from his theaters, while his wife, Anna, 42, a volatile ex-actress, sold some of her jewelry and borrowed her servants’ life savings.

The kidnappers, meanwhile, were waging a brutal war of nerves with their victim. “In the beginning she spat in their faces,” says Giovanna’s older sister Vittoria. “They hit her with wet towels, and they kicked her when negotiations didn’t go the way they wanted.” One day they would threaten to cut off an ear, another day a finger. Throughout her ordeal, the only person who showed Giovanna any kindness was Nieto. “Often he confided in me and told me of his life,” she told her sisters after her release. “Sometimes when I cried he came near me and caressed my head softly.” Mama Amati put it more brutally. “She left home a virgin and came home raped,” she announced to all who would listen. “A mother can tell.”

The story, however, did not end when Giovanna was freed and seven of the suspected kidnappers were arrested. Nieto was not among them, and a month later he began sending her flowers and love notes signed “S.D.G.” (Giovanna’s pet name for him was “Scarpe da ginnastica,” Italian for the gym shoes he always wore.) When he began calling her at Vittoria’s apartment, police convinced Giovanna to cooperate in his capture or be jailed as an accessory. While police listened in, she arranged to meet him on the Via Veneto. As Giovanna roared to the scene on her red motorcycle, a contingent of carabinieri waited nearby. Cornering an armed Nieto, they fired warning shots at his feet, then carted him off to jail. Giovanna, seized with remorse, followed screaming and weeping and haunted the police station for hours in hopes of catching another glimpse of him. Two days later, however, apparently convinced that Nieto (who is married and the father of two children) was merely using her to soften his punishment, she picked him out of a lineup as one of her kidnappers.

But there was no rapprochement with her humiliated parents. Basking in the attention of paparazzi, her mother gave theatrical interviews in front of her home—until Giovanna tried to douse her with buckets of water from a window above. “When Giovanna first came home she was as happy as if she had been born a second time,” explains sister Vittoria. “She should have been left alone with one or two people close to her—to talk and get it all out of her system. Instead, my parents put her at the mercy of the photographers and reporters, and Giovanna couldn’t stand it. She needed to feel surrounded by love and affection, not a bunch of prying strangers.”

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