One night recently Luciano Re Cecconi, a 23-year-old soccer star for Rome's Lazio team, entered a jewelry store with friends and with a menancing air joked, "Hangs up, this is a robbery."
Seconds later Re Cecconi was dead, riddled with bullets from a nervous jeweler's gun. "I was scared," Bruno Tabocchini tearfully told a Roman court. "For me it was for real." Friends in the neighborhood collected more than 50,000 signatures urging the jeweler's release, but with Rome's crime rate soaring and a fear psychosis spreading, such grass-roots intervention was unneeded. The court found that he acted in legitimate self-defense.
"For most of us, Rome and Milan have become like Washington and New York," said one criminal lawyer here. "Of course, our crime rates are still lower, but for the first time Italians are beginning to have the same fears about going out at night that we used to associate mostly with movies about the United States."
With murders up by 10 per cent ad armed robberies higher by 30 per cent in 1976, Italians have reason to fear the spread of violent criminality. Crime, of course, is nothing new here. Until a few years ago, however,auto thefts, robberies in empty apartments and purse-snatchings were its major manisfestations.
The killing of the popular, soccer star, for days the major topic of conversation here, dramatized the extent to which crime has come to dominate the average Italian city-dweller's mind.
On a recent day in Milan, for example, a visitor took four separate taxe rides during which the drivers spoke of nothing else. Later, during a showing of Elia Kazan's "The Last Tycoon" at a downtown Rome cinema, a few loud and unintelligible shouts from someone in the theatre were enough to cause a panic that sent half the audience pouring out into the street.
Since the day before Christmas, when a 20-year-old Roman woman out shopping for presents was killed in jewelry store hold-up, many people say they avoid jewelry shops that do not have armed guards.
While daily life is just beginning to show the strains, many people here are already feeling a crimp in their traditionally happy-go-lucky social style.
"Now I know what my friends in Washington, Los Angeles and New York meant when they said they didn't like going out at night," movie producer Fulvio Frizzi said here recently.
He told how he and his wife now tremble when they see another human being while walking the 300 yards to their car in the huge underground parking lot off the Via Veneto. "I'm the only person I know who doesn't carry a gun now," he added.
Milan publisher Angelo Rizzoli commented during a recent interview that going out to dinner was no longer fun now that luxury restaurants are becoming an ever more popular target. That weekend, he said, close to 300 persons had been robbed in eating places alone.
Combination rape and robbery assaults on couples parked in lonesome places are also putting a stop to other time proven customs. With rape sharply on the increase, women are becoming more hesitant about going out alone at night.
"After living in New York for years, life in Rome was bliss," said an American woman who, when she first arrived here several years ago, "was relieved not to have to keep looking over my shoulder." Things are different now, she added, explaining that for the first time she had started looking her car doors while driving around the city.
Movie and theater-going, too, are not without their risks. Recently, gangs of youngsters protesting the high price of tickets have taken to invading downtown theaters in Rome and Milan. They are not usually violent, but clashes with the police can cause innocent spectators to be tear-gassed or injured.
And while the average - and not very well-off - Italian may not worry about being kidnapped, he is increasingly uneasy about police inability to put a stop to what has become the major example of crime, Italian-style.
Only 48 people were kidnapped last year as compared with 62 in 1975. "But with eight kidnappings so far this year, one just doesn't know what to think," said Loris Egidi, a hairdresser with a small shop not far from Rome's Spanish Steps.
In Italy crime fighting comes under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior, and increased crime rates are creating problems for the government.
Christian Democratic Premier Giulio Andreotti went before the Chamber of Deputies recently to trace the current situation and suggest a variety of measures to speed up the country's judicial machinery, increase prison security, and provide the country with a better-trained, and better paid, police force.
Andreotti painted a grim picture in his breakdown of last year's overall 6 per cent increase in crime. Robberies have multiplied six-fold since the 1950s, the number of acts of political violence almost doubled in 1976 to 1,198, and murders increased by 10 per cent in the same period.
The partner pointed out that because of lack security jail breaks rose to 387 in 1976 over 286 in 1975. In the last 13 months, he said 800 of the 24,000 prisoners granted good-behaviour leaves failed to return to prison.