Police have launched a murder investigation following the mysterious death of a Brazilian transsexual prostitute involved in a sex and drugs scandal that forced the resignation of a prominent centre-left politician. Piero Marrazzo resigned as governor of Lazio region a month ago after it emerged that four carabinieri paramilitary police officers were offering a video of one of his sexual trysts for sale to the press. Investigators subsequently discovered the existence of a second, longer video allegedly showing Mr Marrazzo in the company of two transsexual prostitutes. That video was reportedly in the possession of a 32-year-old transsexual prostitute known to clients and friends as Brenda, who admitted to magistrates she had recorded the images on her mobile phone.

Early on Friday, Brenda was found dead in her tiny basement flat. She had apparently died of asphyxia after a fire started in a bag of old clothes next to the door. Arousing particular suspicion in what police described as a complex crime scene was the presence of Brenda’s laptop computer partly covered by water in the sink. Brenda -- born Wendell Mendes Paes -- was lying naked on the floor in her bedroom loft.

There was no clear indication of what had caused the fire that suffocated her and the door was locked. Friends said she had been drinking whisky and had taken drops to help her sleep. While police are considering the possibility her death was an anomalous suicide or an accident, many observers are convinced she was murdered to eliminate a key witness at the centre of a sensational sex scandal that has damaged the centre-left opposition but could also threaten the careers of other prominent politicians.

And it was not the first strange death in what has already been dubbed Marrazzogate.

In mid-September, a drug dealer and pimp who worked with some of the transsexuals employed by Mr Marrazzo was found dead in a hotel room of an apparent heart attack. Gianguarino Cafasso had been offering one of the Marrazzo sex tapes for sale to the press, was frightened for his life and planning to flee abroad. Among those who reportedly viewed the tapes offered for sale by Mr Cafasso and the carabinieri officers were representatives of the Angelucci family, owners of the right-wing daily Libero and of health clinics that do millions of Euros worth of business with the Lazio regional government.


Another potential purchaser was the Mediaset media group of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had himself spent the summer battling allegations that he had an inappropriate relationship with an under-age girl and had entertained prostitutes at parties in his private residences in Rome and Sardinia. Alfonso Signorini, editor of Chi magazine and a leading Mediaset spin doctor, was one of the first media representatives to view the video that first sparked the Marrazzo scandal.

Filmed on a mobile phone as two plain-clothes carabinieri officers burst in on one of Mr Marrazzo’s sex sessions with a prostitute known as Natalie, it showed the governor in his underpants and shirt, with lines of cocaine ready for consumption on a bedside table.

Mr Signorini, who masterminds the Mediaset group’s gossip coverage and its glowing portraits of the prime minister, reportedly turned down the video as un-publishable, but not before passing it on for viewing by group president Marina Berlusconi and by her father, the premier. Mr Berlusconi reportedly telephoned Mr Marrazzo to warn him of the media trap being prepared for him and suggested the Lazio governor make a counter-offer.

Compounding suspicions about the episode was the fact that Natalie’s love nest was situated in a suburban apartment block said to have been under secret service surveillance since it was used as a Red Brigade hideout in 1978.

Mr Marrazzo, who is married with children, has taken refuge in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, where he is trying to put the pieces of his shattered personal life back together again. His wife, Roberta Serdoz, is a television journalist and narrowly escaped the trauma of reading the first reports about her husband’s betrayal to the public on a live late-night news programme. Among those who suspect that Brenda was murdered is Vladimir Luxuria, Italy’s first transgender MP.

“I immediately thought it was murder. It made me really angry when I heard them talking about suicide,” Ms Luxuria said. “The person who ordered it is a powerful individual who feared meeting the same fate as Marrazzo. This is a Mafia-style murder and it sends the message: don’t talk.”

Ms Luxuria said Brenda was a vulnerable person whose photo and address had been published in the press and who had received no protection despite being a witness in a sensitive political scandal.

“Brenda had her mobile phone stolen two weeks ago. No-one seems to have asked whether the phone had value as an object or because of the information stored in its memory,” Ms Luxuria said. The former MP says she knows at least 10 of her political colleagues who availed themselves of the sexual services of transsexuals.

“The person behind this could just be a single individual, but someone in a very high position. I hope this doesn’t end up as yet another Italian political mystery.” The view of Brenda’s death as a Mafia-style execution is shared by criminologist Francesco Bruno. “Brenda was killed because she talked too much,” Mr Bruno said.

Dozens of people had an interest in suppressing the information that Brenda and her colleagues possessed, he said.

“Brenda was besieged by journalists. Sooner or later she would have said something more,” Mr Bruno said. “This wasn’t an improvised killing. It wasn’t a client, another trans or a burglar, we’re dealing with a complex Mafia-type organisation here.”

Marrazzo’s lawyer, Luca Petrucci, has also expressed disquiet at news of the mysterious death. On Friday, he called for Natalie to be given police protection, suggesting a criminal gang might be at work to eliminate witnesses privy to sensitive information.

With political tensions high within the governing centre-right coalition and the prestige of politicians of all colours damaged by scandal and innuendo, many fear a return to the bad old days of Cold War Italy when blackmail and murder were commonly used instruments of political competition.