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LOS ANGELES — For nearly a century, the Italian fashion house of Gucci has supplied the world’s affluent with the clothing and leather accessories to cultivate a beautiful, luxurious life. Along the way, the family behind the fashion dynasty prospered, but saw its share of acrimony and scandal: infighting over inheritances, a murder-for-hire plot, federal tax charges and, for a time, Aldo Gucci’s secret second family.
One of Aldo Gucci’s granddaughters, Alexandra Zarini, this week spotlighted another horror in the family history with a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Zarini, 35, alleged that from the time she was 6, her former stepfather, Joseph Ruffalo, sexually assaulted her at home in Beverly Hills — abuse that she typically knew was coming when she heard the ice clinking in his glass of scotch as he made his way toward her bedroom, according to court papers.
Zarini also accused her mother, Patricia Gucci, of enabling her now ex-husband’s alleged molestation, and singled out her grandmother, Bruna Palombo, for knowing about the sexual assaults but instructing her granddaughter “to keep quiet and cover them up,” the lawsuit states.
The filing of the 21-page lawsuit was paired with a roll-out of the heiress’s anti-child abuse nonprofit, the Alexandra Gucci Children’s Foundation, and although Zarini expects to be disinherited from her family’s fortune for proceeding with legal action, her attorney, Deborah Mallgrave, said any monetary award from the case would go toward the new nonprofit.
“If you think this doesn’t happen here in Beverly Hills, then you should know that my perpetrator still lives in California, spends time at the Bel-Air Country Club, and volunteers in your children’s hospitals,” Zarini said in a video released by her lawyers. “This is not something that only happens to other families, other neighborhoods or other countries. It is everywhere.”
Ruffalo, whose long career in the music industry saw him managing Prince and Earth, Wind & Fire, among other acts, could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Richard P. Crane Jr., referred to a statement provided to The New York Times, which first reported on the lawsuit. Crane told the newspaper that his client was not formally served with court papers nor was he familiar with its full allegations.
“What he has been informed of, he vehemently and categorically denies. While married to Alexandra’s mother, Mr. Ruffalo and his wife were greatly concerned about the mental well-being of Alexandra and took steps to address her instability. Apparently, their efforts failed.”
Patricia Gucci, who resides in Switzerland and last year launched a high-end luggage company, also could not be reached for comment. She told The New York Times in a statement that her daughter disclosed Ruffalo’s conduct in 2007, at a doctor’s office, and that she “immediately initiated divorce proceedings.”
“I am equally devastated by the allegations against me and her grandmother, which are completely false,” Patricia Gucci told the newspaper.
The shadow of Aldo Gucci’s messy life looms large in the case. He was the son of Gucci founder, Guccio Gucci, and the former chairman of the Gucci clothing empire. Aldo Gucci had three sons by marriage, but at a time when adultery was illegal in Italy, he began an affair with a much younger staffer, Bruna Palombo. She secretly gave birth to his only daughter, Patricia, and over time, the second family became something of an open secret, with Patricia Gucci rising to a spot on the company’s board and Palombo remaining a beloved paramour. The family was ousted and sold their shares, and today, Gucci is a subsidiary of a French company.
Zarini’s first memories of abuse date to when she was 6, about the same time that her grandfather died. In the lawsuit, Zarini recounts that after she awoke in the night and sought comfort from her mother, Patricia Gucci allegedly invited her daughter into bed, which she shared with her naked then-boyfriend, Ruffalo. After she fell asleep, Zarini awoke to her hands wrapped around Ruffalo’s genitals, and she was scared and confused, the suit states.
When her mother married Ruffalo two years later, the abuse “continued and escalated.” Ruffalo, she alleged, “would stumble down the hallway” toward her bedroom, remove his bathrobe, climb into her bed, and touch her, and the lawsuit describes molestation that occurred “on a somewhat regular basis throughout her childhood and as she became a young adult.”
Zarini framed her mother’s alleged physical abuse — striking her daughter in the face, pulling her by the hair — as setting the stage for Ruffalo’s “rescue,” where he’d intervene, isolate his stepdaughter, and allegedly assault her.
The mistreatment fueled mental health troubles: Zarini said she became obsessed with showering and bathing, scrubbing her skin raw; pulled her hair out; and attempted suicide while in high school.
When she was 16, her grandmother, Bruna Palombo, asked Zarini directly if Ruffalo touched her inappropriately, according to the lawsuit. After Zarini confided in her grandmother, Palombo “stiffened and became obviously uncomfortable,” then told her granddaughter to keep the matter a secret.
In later years, as Zarini considered reporting Ruffalo to the police, Palombo told her granddaughter that alerting authorities would be the “ultimate betrayal,” according to the court filing.
Mallgrave, her attorney, said the Gucci family was more concerned “about publicity, image and money.” She added, “They were protecting other interests instead of protecting Alexa.”
Bringing a case from so long ago was not previously viable in California. But a change in state law that took effect this year, AB 218, provided a three-year window to file cases that otherwise would have expired because of the statute of limitations.
Mallgrave said another factor drove her client to proceed with a case. On occasion, Zarini would research Ruffalo online and see what he was up to. She saw something that made her suspect her former stepfather was volunteering at a children’s hospital, and felt compelled to file a crime report with the Beverly Hills Police Department, which she did in 2019. That case remains open.
“It’s a not-uncommon survivor’s curiosity,” Mallgrave said of the internet sleuthing. “It’s a nagging feeling, that someone who sexually assaulted her and inflicted all these injuries is still out there free.”
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