Then he took it all back.
Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who wounded the pope in a 1981 assassination attempt, won pardon Tuesday from Italy after serving 19 years of a life sentence in prison. Prosecutors feared he would take the secrets of the shooting back to Turkey with him. Most life sentences in Italy are commuted after about 20 years.
"Ali Agca was the pawn in a plot, but being the last ring of a chain, he didn't know everything," prosecutor Rosario Priore told the ANSA news agency.
The Vatican said Tuesday it was "satisfied" with Italian President Carlos Azeglio Ciampi's decision to pardon Ali Agca. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls said in a statement that the pope had recently renewed an appeal to Italian authorities that Agca should walk free.
"As is well known, John Paul II had immediately pardoned his assailant," after the May 1981 attack in the Vatican's Saint Peter's square, said the statement.
"The granting of the pardon, during the celebration of the Jubilee, makes the Holy Father's personal satisfaction more intense still," the statement added, referring to Roman Catholic "holy year" celebrations that mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ.
"For me, this is truly a dream. I can't believe it. I say thank you to the Holy Father, thank you to the Vatican, thank you to the president of the republic," Agca said through his lawyer, Marina Magistrelli.
For years, Agca and his family had appealed that he be freed from his sentence of life in prison in Italy so that he could return to prison in Turkey, where he would be closer to relatives.
In 1979 Agca, now 42, escaped from a maximum security prison in Turkey, where he was accused of participating in the murder of the editor of a liberal Turkish newspaper. Later, Turkey convicted him in absentia of the killing and sentenced him to death. A 1991 amnesty reduced the sentence to 10 years in prison.
Agca, a militant with right-wing Turkish groups, was first linked to the pope in November 1979 during a visit to Turkey by John Paul. On the run after shooting a newspaper editor and escaping prison, Agca sent a letter to Turkish newspapers in which he threatened to kill John Paul. He said later that only tight security kept him from shooting the pope then.
He accomplished that in St. Peter's Square during the pope's general audience May 13, 1981. Arrested at the scene, Agca contended he acted alone.
But a few years later, he changed his story, weaving a tale of international terrorism that led to the trial of three Bulgarians and four other Turks on charges of complicity in the attempt to kill the pope.
Investigators were convinced that Soviet-bloc spy agencies were worried that the Polish pope would stir uprisings against communism across Eastern Europe.
Agca was an inconsistent witness in the pope plot trial. He told the judge that some of his testimony had been lies, often contradicted himself, and was given to outbursts that he was Jesus Christ.
In 1986, the court acquitted the defendants, ruling there was insufficient evidence.
Bulgaria and the Soviet Union had consistently denied involvement.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, in a 1998 appearance on Italian TV, said that as far as he knew "no government or secret service" played a role in the assassination attempt.
In subsequent years, Agca returned to his original story that he acted alone.
In a recent interview from prison on Italian state television, Agca implied that some unidentified authorities had suggested that he come up with some co-conspirators in order to win early release.
"If there is nothing, you have to invent something to get out," Agca said.