Missing on Camino de Santiago: Last hiker known to have seen Denise Thiem breaks his silence
Italian traveler Giorgio Cadoni met Arizona's Denise Thiem as she walked across Spain. Now, with an arrest made in her case, he talks for the first time — telling azcentral.com about the day she disappeared.
An Italian man who was the last known traveler to have seen an Arizona woman before she went missing in April on the Camino de Santiago in Spain has broken his silence.
Giorgio Cadoni, an Italian pilgrim, met and befriended Denise Thiem on the Camino on April 4 in the town of Astorga, where they happened to be staying at the same inn.
Thiem, 41, grew up in Phoenix and lived with her family in Litchfield Park before starting her journey.
Cadoni, 64, is an Italian who was making his second trip along Spain's famous walk.
He would become one of the last people known to see her.
Thiem's relatives and friends struggled to find out what happened to her after she left Astorga.
On Sept. 11, after a four-month search, came a break in the case: Spanish police arrested a Spanish man who lived near the town of Castrillo de Polvazares.
The arrested man, whom the Associated Press identified as Miguel Angel Munoz, is suspected in her disappearance. Later that day, they discovered a body on the man’s property. Though Spanish media outlets have reported definitively that the body belongs to Thiem, the Arizona woman’s family members say they are still awaiting results of DNA tests that would confirm the identify of the remains.
This week, Cadoni broke his silence in a letter to The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com.
His heart is heavy, he says, after hearing of the latest developments in Thiem’s case. In great detail, he speaks about his two days with Thiem and of his regret for not walking with her when they both departed Astorga on Easter Sunday.
Although there is no independent corroboration of Cadoni's account, Thiem's relatives sought him out early on, and his story aligns with what is already known about her trip.
Excerpts from his letter have been translated into English with minor edits for grammar and clarity.
Here, his story for the first time:
I arrived at Astorga the afternoon of April 4 from Leon, where I had gone to an incredible celebration for Good Friday.
I checked in to the San Javier hostel, where I had stayed before. In the courtyard, there were a few washers and I took my laundry. An Asian woman (Denise Thiem) soothed the pain in her feet in a basin with warm water and salt.
We introduced ourselves, as often happens in the Camino. She is American and my English is absolutely limited. I excuse myself, but she calms me down by excusing herself for her nonexistent Italian.
I ask her about her feet and blisters. I urge her to get food ready for the next day, on Easter Sunday, in case the shops are closed (actually now everything is open, even on holidays).
Camino travelers are often referred to as pilgrims, and it is not uncommon for those on the Camino to share meals and walk parts of the route together. According to dozens of accounts on message boards and travel sites, the Camino experience typically is one of solitude and reflection as well as an easy camaraderie among travelers who are otherwise strangers.
Cadoni recalls the evening:
We ordered the cod and mushrooms. The tiredness from the day lightens up and we begin a challenging conversation: I, with my limited English, struggled terribly to find the right words. Denise, attentively, strained to understand my horrible pronunciation.
We were able to talk about the days spent walking. Denise told me about her international origins (Philippines, Hong Kong, U.S.). I spoke of my family in Italy: my recently married daughter, my wife and our 40th wedding anniversary recently celebrated with a trip to Barcelona.
I remember Denise’s amazement as she asked how it was possible to stay 40 years with the same person. It was hard to come up with a response with my English. It was even difficult when she asked me to tell her why I was at the Camino, and for the second time.
The dinner was not short — not because of the food, which we finished quickly, but because of the difficulty of conversation, as well as the pleasure of her company.
I said I was going to Easter Mass on the morning of (April) 5. I am Catholic. She asked to come with me but doesn’t allow me to ask her what her religion is. We agreed to meet for breakfast at the coffee shop next to the restaurant the next morning, then we go back to San Javier and fall asleep right away.
Cadoni describes that final morning:
In the morning I find Denise at the coffee shop with the two pilgrims (women) we met the night before in the square. One of them is North European but speaks excellent Italian. ...
The girls said they plan on continuing the pilgrimage after breakfast. Denise said she will make a short stop to El Ganso. I tell her after Mass I will head over to Rabanal. I recall a beautiful stretch of the road that goes through the village of Castrillo de Polvazares. It’s a quaint village, antique, completely renovated back to the traditional appearance of other Spanish villages from the early 1900s. I had visited on a previous trip with my wife. But none of them (the other pilgrims) seemed interested.
After Mass in the Church of Santa Marta, we see the end of the Easter procession entering the cathedral.
For a few steps I fix my backpack, give a warm greeting to my companion, a hug and then I walk off quickly. ...
Denise walks slowly in my same direction, she says she does not want to strain her feet and that she needs to gather her thoughts. After about 100 meters, turning from Leopoldo Panero Street, I do not see her anymore.
That morning, Cadoni simply continued walking ahead toward Rabanal, later stopping briefly in Santa Catalina to rest. He never saw Thiem again, he writes — that is, until he returned home to Italy:
On April 14, I returned to Italy from my second journey through the Camino.
The night of April 28 I received a phone call from my daughter, who told me that I had almost 1,200 contacts in her blog where she had published a brief note about my pilgrimage along with photos. All those contacts were looking for the Italian pilgrim who had seen Denise on April 4 and on Easter Sunday.
I recognized Denise from the photo on the Spanish police website. That same night I called the Spanish and the Italian police.
Cadoni says he has read all those reports. He has thought about what might have happened to Thiem, about whom she might have encountered after they parted ways on April 5.
It is difficult, he wrote, to imagine anything so odious taking place on a day the sun shone so brightly:
I feel like scolding myself for not having walked with her that damned (cursed) morning. Maybe she would not have gotten lost, maybe nothing would have happened to her. I reproach myself for having spoken about Castrillo de Polvazares during breakfast.
I do not know what religion Denise adhered to, or her family. Whichever it is I hope that their faith will help them to find peace and overcome, if it’s ever possible, the pain of Denise’s shortened path.