Gucci heir alleges child sexual abuse by stepfather

Alexandra Zarini, the 35-year-old granddaughter of Aldo Gucci, described years of sexual abuse from former stepfather, Joseph Ruffalo, and complicity and a cover-up on the part of her mother, Patricia Gucci, and grandmother, Bruna Palombo

By Vanessa Friedman
Published: Sep 10, 2020

gucci abuse lawsuit bAlexandra Zarini in Pacific Palisades, Calif., Sept. 2, 2020. On Tuesday, Sept. 8, Alexandra Zarini, the 35-year-old granddaughter of Aldo Gucci, the man responsible for transforming an artisanal leather goods house into a global behemoth, filed suit in the California Superior Court in Los Angeles. In it, she describes years of sexual abuse from her former stepfather, Joseph Ruffalo, and complicity and a cover-up on the part of her mother, Patricia Gucci, and grandmother, Bruna Palombo. Image: Rozette Rago/The New York Times

For the past five years, the name Gucci has been synonymous with success, with a fashion reinvention that has helped redirect the luxury industry toward inclusivity, emotion and the importance of creativity. The family that created the brand has a more complicated, darker past, one involving tax evasion, generational feuds and murder. This week, another charge will be added to that list.

On Tuesday, Alexandra Zarini, the 35-year-old granddaughter of Aldo Gucci, the man responsible for transforming an artisanal leather goods house into a global behemoth, filed suit in the California Superior Court in Los Angeles. In it, she describes years of sexual abuse from her former stepfather, Joseph Ruffalo, and complicity and a cover-up on the part of her mother, Patricia Gucci, and grandmother, Bruna Palombo.

According to the court documents, Ruffalo, a music manager who worked with Prince and Earth, Wind & Fire, began abusing Zarini when she was about 6 years old and continued until she was about 22. In her lawsuit she describes him regularly climbing naked into bed with her when she was a child and teenager and fondling her breasts and genitals; flashing his genitals at her; and rubbing his penis against her body.

The lawsuit also claims that her mother, Patricia Gucci, and her grandmother knew of the abuse for years and that her mother not only helped groom her for Ruffalo’s advances by allowing him to videotape her naked in the bath, but also regularly hit her. In addition, the suit states that both women threatened her so that she would remain quiet.

In a statement emailed to The New York Times, Patricia Gucci wrote: “I am deeply sorry for the pain Joseph Ruffalo caused Alexandra. What he did to her is inexcusable and I was devastated when she disclosed everything to me at our family doctor’s office in London in September 2007. I immediately initiated divorce proceedings against Ruffalo and set about healing my family through counseling. I am equally devastated by the allegations against me and her grandmother, which are completely false.”

Ruffalo’s lawyer, Richard P. Crane Jr., responded: “My client has not been served and has not read the complaint. Therefore, he is not aware of all of the allegations that the Complaint contains. What he has been informed of, he vehemently and categorically denies. While married to Alexandra’s mother, 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.”

A Branded Family
Along with a forthcoming Ridley Scott film starring Lady Gaga about the plot to murder Maurizio Gucci orchestrated by his ex-wife, the sex abuse filing, in which Zarini has asked for a trial by jury, will once again draw public attention to the underbelly of what can appear a gilded story.

The Gucci family has not been associated with the Gucci brand since 1993, when Maurizio Gucci (who is Zarini’s mother’s cousin) sold his final stake to the Bahrain-based Investcorp, which took it public; Gucci was subsequently acquired by PPR, which became Kering, Gucci’s current owner. But the family is conscious of its relationship to the luxury house and that their legacies are forever intertwined.

In 2016, Patricia Gucci published a memoir, “In the Name of Gucci,” about her life and her parents’ relationship, which began in secret and lasted 30 years. Aldo Gucci, her father, was already married and had three sons when he met her mother, a sales clerk in the Rome store; they began an affair at a time when adultery was illegal in Italy.

Patricia, however, was doted on by her father. She was featured in a Gucci ad campaign, given a seat on the company board at 19, and named a roving ambassador for the brand. In 1986, while embroiled in a family feud, Aldo Gucci was convicted of tax evasion in the United States and served a year in prison; he died in 1990. Patricia married, had two children, divorced and then started a relationship with Joseph Ruffalo.

Gucci and her two daughters moved to California to live with him; they later married and had a child, though according to Zarini, he had already begun abusing her. In the lawsuit, Zarini said that when she had nightmares as a child and climbed into bed with her mother, Ruffalo would be there, naked, and she would wake up to find her hand on his penis. As Zarini got older, she said, Ruffalo’s behavior began to escalate.

According to the filing, “Defendant Ruffalo would remove his bathrobe, so he was completely naked, and climb into bed with Plaintiff. Plaintiff would lie stiffly in her bed as Defendant Ruffalo reached underneath Plaintiff’s clothes to touch Plaintiff’s nipples.” She also said he attempted to penetrate her with his hands.

The lawsuit also describes Gucci hitting Zarini and sometimes trying to strangle her. Ruffalo would “rescue” his stepdaughter and then use his role as her protector to touch her in intimate ways.

According to the filing, when Zarini was about 16, her grandmother asked her if her stepfather was molesting her. When she confirmed that he was, her grandmother told her to keep it “secret and not tell anyone about the assaults.”

Ruffalo’s actions continued even when Zarini was a teenager and attending boarding school in England. (A school friend said Zarini confided in her about this situation at the time.) Nevertheless, on her mother’s urging, she later returned to live in California with Ruffalo, where, the lawsuit claims, Ruffalo continued to sexually assault Zarini and “encouraged” her “to use drugs.” Zarini acknowledges using cocaine and crystal meth. Ultimately she confronted her mother, who instructed her to remain silent about what had happened.

Zarini later attended the Sierra Tucson rehabilitation center in Tucson, at the instigation of her mother, and thereafter worked with therapists who she said helped her come to terms with what had happened to her.

According to the filing, the defendants “tried to avoid, at all costs, what they perceived would be a scandal that could tarnish the Gucci name and potentially cost them millions.”

Zarini, speaking on a Zoom call from California where she had traveled to file her suit — Ruffalo is still living in Los Angeles, where most of the events recounted took place — said she believed her mother had invested money in Ruffalo’s music management company, and was concerned about the effect on her own public profile and business, a high-end luggage line introduced in 2019.

Going Public
On the Zoom call, Zarini said two incidents and a change in California law led her to decide to move forward with a suit, despite more than a decade having elapsed. First, the birth of her own child four years ago; and second, discovering that Ruffalo was volunteering at a children’s hospital in Los Angeles.

Ruffalo’s lawyer said the information that he had volunteered at a children’s hospital was incorrect.

In 2019, Zarini filed a report with the Beverly Hills Police Department alleging her sexual abuse by Ruffalo and that he might potentially be in a position to hurt other children. The Beverly Hills Police Department confirmed the existence of the report and that the file was still open.

Last year, after the Catholic priest child sex abuse scandals and the Larry Nasser revelations, California changed its laws to allow victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to report allegations and file a suit. Previously the statute of limitations expired eight years after a victim reached adulthood or three years after an adult survivor had identified the abuse, but the new law created a window of three years — 2020 to 2023 — wherein old charges could be readmitted.

Zarini said that the incidents she described were entirely clear in her mind, though she said she was often fuzzy about time. “I can tell you vividly I remember this happened in this house in this bed in this bedroom,” she said.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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