The aftermath of Ashley Olsen’s death is an example of how, in the age of social media, the private can suddenly turn very public.
The 35-year-old American woman’s body was discovered on Saturday, after her boyfriend persuaded her landlady to let him into her apartment in central Florence, Italy. By the next day, after the Italian press had broken the story, strangers had taken to Olsen’s Instagram page not just to post their condolences but also to search for clues and post theories about how she was killed.
“I never knew her but she looked like a sweet and beautiful person!!” wrote one commenter, while others engaged in extended back-and-forths on who might be responsible for her death: “This is the act of an enraged obsessed boyfriend who was just broken up with! Case solved!”
The media attention swirling around Olsen’s death is reminiscent of that surrounding the brutal 2007 murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher, for which her American roommate Amanda Knox was ultimately acquitted. And indeed the two cases share the same lead investigator, a police officer named Giacinto Profazio.
The circumstances are quite different, however. Kercher was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death, while local press reports say Olsen was discovered on her bed with bruises and scratches on her neck that indicated she was probably strangled.
The police are waiting for the results of an autopsy that was carried out Monday, but early reports suggested that there was no evidence that Olsen was sexually assaulted. What appeared to be black restraints were found near her body, which was discovered wearing only a pair of socks.
But just as Kercher's private life came under intense scrutiny by the media in the aftermath of her murder, so has it been with Olsen. The young woman and her boyfriend, Federico Fiorentini, a 42-year-old Italian artist, had fought a few days earlier, according to the Italian news agency ANSA, but prosecutors said he had an alibi corroborated by witnesses for the time when they think Olsen was killed.
In one newspaper, her landlady described how Fiorentini threw himself on Olsen’s body, desperately trying to revive her. “I loved Ashley and I want to find who killed her,” Fiorentini was quoted as saying by the Italian newspaper La Stampa. “They will have to pay for what they did.”
Olsen was last seen in public at a nightclub late Thursday night, in the artsy Oltarno neighborhood where she lived, not far from Florence’s iconic Ponte Vecchio. The door to her apartment showed no signs of forced entry, and police told Italian media that her computer had been used until around noon on Friday. Her mobile phone has not been found, and seems to have been turned off since Friday morning.
Her pet beagle, Scout, the star of many of her Instagram posts, was found alive inside the apartment. Investigators are said to be studying footage from surveillance cameras not far from her apartment. No suspects have been formally identified.
On the day after her murder, well-wishers lay flowers at the doorstep of her apartment, and on the door frame somebody wrote in English – in red ink or lipstick – “He is guilty. He will pay.” On Tuesday, her father added a bouquet to the growing pile.
Olsen moved to Florence from Florida two years ago to be closer to her father, who teaches art at a local school. She was a regular in the city’s expatriate scene, and worked as a babysitter, dog-sitter, and organizer of art events.
Her still-active Instagram account has given the public a glimpse into that private life, and deepened the mystery of how it ended. She suggests in one post – or maybe jokes – that somebody was photographing her without her consent. In one picture from October, shot from behind as she walks her dog, Olsen includes the hashtags #stalkeralert and #creeperintheback. In another, from November, she extends her middle finger to the photographer. She captioned it #fuckoff #creeper #santospirito #oltrarno #firenze.
These appear to have encouraged amateur sleuths to seek clues in the posts, most of which feature Olsen, her dog, or Fiorentini. One of the most recent is a close up of a page from the book Eat Pray Love, the 2006 memoir by the American author Elizabeth Gilbert. In it, the narrator contemplates leaving her boyfriend.
“We loved each other,” the passage reads. “That was never the question. It’s just that we couldn’t figure out how to stop making each other desperately, shriekingly, soul-punishingly miserable.” Commentors have seized on it as more evidence of her boyfriend's involvement, in spite of his alibi. "This post is a road map giving directions of what was to come!" writes one. "It's pretty clear what happened!"
Given the circumstances of her death, it is difficult to read Olsen’s final Instagram post – the one with the most comments from strangers – as anything but ominous. Posted on January 3, six days before she was found dead, it features graffiti scrawled on a low concrete wall. Someone has used black spray paint to write, “Kiss me hard before you go.”