IN A SMALL CEMETERY OUTSIDE Bodega Bay, Calif., on a windswept hill turned green by recent rain, rests the body of Nicholas Green, the 7-year-old who was shot by bandits nearly two years ago during a family vacation in Italy. Nicholas's tragic death—and the decision of his parents, Reg and Maggie, to donate his organs to seven Italians—made headlines around the world. Now, says Reg, Nicholas's grave has become "a place where people go." At the base of his headstone, recent visitors have left an array of remembrances—flowers, seashells, colored pencils, even a pair of dice. "Whenever I go," says Reg, "I change the number on the dice to seven."

These days, though, two seems to be the Greens' lucky number. Reg, 67, who publishes a newsletter for a mutual fund, and Maggie, 35, a homemaker, are expecting twins later this month (her pregnancy is the result of in-vitro fertilization). The news thrills 6-year-old Eleanor. In fact, Maggie says, the decision to have more children "is partly for Eleanor, so she could be part of a bigger family. All those rational reasons for not having children seemed unimportant," she adds with a laugh. "Reg was too old to have children seven years ago. Now it's ridiculous." Says her husband: "We had a wonderful little boy. His loss made the house emptier. It seemed much quieter than it should."

The silence fell on Sept. 29, 1994. As the family drove from Positano through the Calabria region, in southern Italy, they were overtaken by two armed, masked men in a car. When Green refused to pull over, one of the men opened fire. Nicholas, a preternaturally bright boy with a keen interest in ancient Rome, was shot in the head as he slept in the back seat. He died at a hospital in Messina two days later.

"The worst thing was that I kept thinking if we'd done anything differently, it might not have happened," says Reg, who testified last February at the trial of Michele Iannello, 27, and Francesco Mesiano, 22, alleged members of a local Italian gang that preys on motorists. The suspects, both of whom are now on trial, were arrested in November 1994. "If we hadn't stopped at that last parking spot, if we hadn't stopped to buy grapes...." As for his and Maggie's decision not to file a civil suit against the killers, as is common in Italy, Reg told the Associated Press: "There is no sum of money that could give me back my son."

The murder of the sleeping child left Italy appalled. Then, saying that they hoped some good could come from their son's death, the Greens, wanting to promote the idea of organ donation, allowed Nicholas's corneas, kidneys, pancreas and heart to be harvested for transplantation. That gesture, in a country where organ donation rates are among the lowest in Western Europe, sparked a remarkable emotional outpouring and made the Greens heroes. President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro presented them with two medals of honor, and the largest hospital group in Rome renamed itself after the fallen boy. Most important to the Greens, registration for organ donation in Italy increased by more than 400 percent after the shooting, and in 1995 donations rose 20 percent.

The attention the Green family receives when they travel to Italy to promote organ donation is part of what Reg, an Englishman and former Times of London writer calls, with some irony, "the tragedy industry." As a rule, he says, "neither Maggie nor I are campaigners. We don't join things." Now, given Nicholas's death and a cause to trumpet, the two juggle a calendar full of interview dates and lectures, often on behalf of a Richmond, Va., group, the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Sometimes their zeal can be unnerving. Dick Ridgeway, a family friend who owns a video production company, recalls Reg collaring him at Nicholas's funeral, anxious to talk about making a film about his son. "It was a grieving process, but it was also a well-organized one," says Ridgeway, who has since made two videos, The Last Centurion and The Nicholas Effect, the proceeds from which go to the Nicholas Green Foundation for causes related to organ donation. "Maggie and I were determined to keep the interest alive in Nicholas," explains Reg, "that in dying he could be helping others."

Now, with a boy and a girl due in mid-May, Maggie and Reg are busy readying their modern house. They have divided the room Nicholas and Eleanor once shared and made it into two—one for their daughter, the other for the twins. But Nicholas's palpable presence remains. Says Reg: "It would be hard to find a place in so many hearts without being Walt Disney. Nicholas could have lived to be 100 and done less."

PETER CASTRO
PENELOPE ROWLANDS in Bodega Bay and VERA HALLER in Rome

  • Contributors:
  • Penelope Rowlands,
  • Vera Haller.