Black Widow

The wife of Gucci's CEO puts a hit on her husband to protect herself and her kids.

Written by Alessandra Stanley and Originally Published in The NY Times on May 20, 1998

The Gucci trial opened today to a packed house. The case of Patrizia Reggiani, a wealthy socialite accused of ordering the killing of her ex-husband, Maurizio Gucci, the heir to Italy's most famous leather goods business, is, even by Italian standards, sensational.

This latest, most violent episode in the long, sordid tale of the Gucci family combines all the elements guaranteed to perk up a jaded public: sex, money, vengeance -- and designer shoes.

Ms. Reggiani, 51, did not appear today. One of her lawyers, Giovanni Maria Dedola, said she was ill, and might not be well enough to testify until mid-July.

Once a sparkling and extravagant member of Italy's jet set -- she was known locally as ''Liz Taylor'' because of her violet eyes, ample figure and fondness for jewelry -- she has since become known in the Italian press as ''The Black Widow.'' Since her arrest in January, Ms. Reggiani has shared a cell with three other inmates in San Vittore prison, where she is heavily medicated and deeply depressed, according to her lawyers.

Ms. Reggiani is famous for having once said, ''I would rather weep in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle.''

No Gucci family members were present. Maurizio Gucci, who fought and exchanged lawsuits with all his relatives and ousted his uncle Aldo from the New York branch of the business in the mid-1980's (Aldo Gucci, then 78, went to jail for fraud), was apparently not deeply mourned at home.

''The Gucci men are alike -- amoral,'' said Jennifer Gucci, the ex-wife of Paolo Gucci, a cousin who died two years ago. ''They are multimillionaire playboys. Nobody has a lot of sympathy for them.''

Three of the four people charged with murder in the plot appeared in court elegantly attired, as befits a celebrity trial in the fashion capital of Italy. Pina Auriemma, 52, Ms. Reggiani's longtime personal astrologer, who is accused of having arranged the killing, hid behind huge designer sunglasses. Benedetto Ceraulo, who is accused of shooting Mr. Gucci, and Orazio Cicala, who is accused of driving the getaway car, were locked in an iron cage in the courtroom, both wearing dashing sportscoats that clashed with their handcuffs.

Preliminary motions by defense lawyers seeking changes in the proceedings were complex and passionate -- both the Unabomber and the O. J. Simpson trials were invoked -- and also lengthy, causing opening arguments to be postponed until later in the week.

The basic facts are not in dispute: Mr. Gucci was shot from behind on March 27, 1995, as he climbed the steps to his Milan office by a gunman who sped away in a green Renault Clio.

Mr. Gucci had many enemies, and police investigators initially thought his killing might be connected to either Gucci family quarrels or some of his most recent business deals. Mr. Gucci, who inherited 50 percent of the family business after the death of his father in 1983, spent his own and the company's income so recklessly that he was forced to sell his shares to a Bahrain-based investment group, Investcorp, 10 years later. Family disputes also took a toll. Bickering was so heated in the 1980's that one member sued another for hurling a tape recorder at his head during a family board meeting. In 1991, Guccio Gucci S.P.A posted a $31.6 million net loss.

Stripped of family interference, Gucci has since recovered its profitability and glamor: in fiscal 1997, it turned a $175.5 million profit.

The company was founded in Florence in 1922 by Guccio Gucci, a craftsman who had a keen eye for quality -- and snob appeal. In the company's heyday, Gucci moccasins, handbags and scarves were the totem of high society. For his marriage to Grace Kelly in 1956, Prince Rainier gave Gucci scarves to all the women who were wedding guests. 

When Mr. Gucci was killed, he was trying to re-establish himself as a businessman by, among other things, investing in a casino in Switzerland. He lived in opulent seclusion in a Swiss villa and his penthouse apartment in Milan, and traveled with his mistress, Paola Franchi, on the sumptuous 230-foot yacht, Creole, he bought from Stavros Niarchos.

After 12 years of marriage, he divorced Ms. Reggiani in 1985 without warning. Ms. Reggiani, who had custody of their two daughters, never hid her bitterness. In 1995, shortly after her former husband was killed, she dismissed him as fatally weak, telling a Vanity Fair reporter, ''Maurizio was simply a thing called Gucci that had to be washed and dressed.''

Ms. Reggiani was arrested in 1997 when investigators, working with an undercover policeman, finally pieced together a more domestic plot. They say they believe she was motivated by rage over her suspicion that Mr. Gucci planned to marry Mrs. Franchi -- a threat to her daughters' inheritance.

Her lawyers do not dispute that Ms. Reggiani spoke often of her desire to see her former husband dead.

''She is a very particular psychiatric case -- obsessive,'' Mr. Dedola said. ''She told anyone who would listen that she hated him and wanted him killed.''

Her six lawyers, who have hired five medical experts, attest that she lost her critical faculties after surgery on a brain tumor in 1992. They argue that it was her confidante, Mrs. Auriemma, who independently hired two assassins with the help of a hotel porter, then blackmailed Ms. Reggiani to pay the four $350,000 to keep quiet about the murder.

''This friend of 20 years came to her with the murder on a silver platter and said, 'Isn't this what you wanted?' '' Mr. Dedola declared. ''Then she said, 'Now pay!' ''

Mrs. Auriemma's lawyer, Piero Traini, says his client merely followed the instructions of Ms. Reggiani and put her in touch with the hotel porter, Ivano Savioni, who found two contract killers. Mr. Savioni did not appear today, but is expected to testify that he discussed the plot with Ms. Reggiani before the killing.

Over 100 witnesses are expected to testify, and the trial could take months. ''Patrizia is tough, she'll come out of it one way or another,'' Jennifer Gucci predicted. ''She is a survivor.''

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