Lea’s story ended brutally on 24 November 2009 with her murder in a plot orchestrated by Cosco as much in revenge for the ‘dishonour’ of being abandoned as because she had broken ranks. However, the fact that testimony provided by Denise against her father following her mother’s disappearance (Lea’s remains only came to light in 2013 as a result of evidence emerging at trial) should have led to his life imprisonment is a source of inspiration for all.
The tale of the two women returned to the fore in Italy last week with the television premiere of Marco Tullio Giordana’s film ‘Lea’ starring a spell-binding Vanessa Scalera in the lead role and Linda Caridi as Denise.
The film not only gave a fascinating insight into the workings of the country’s most powerful mafia organisation, but it also highlighted the need for adequate support and protection for people wanting out.
Lea was born into the Garofalo clan in Petilia Policastro near Crotone in 1974. Her father and brother were both local bosses and met their death in feuds with rival clans. Cosco was an ‘ndrangheta affiliate with dealings in Milan.
Lea decided she had had enough of the mob lifestyle in 1996, when Denise was just five, but she only began collaborating with investigators as a testimone di giustizia (a citizen informant without a criminal record, not to be confused with a collaboratore di giustizia or pentito, namely someone who turns state’s evidence after being arrested or convicted of a crime) in 2002.
She and her daughter subsequently entered a witness protection programme and lived under a false identity in various locations around Italy for the next four years until their protection was removed on grounds Lea’s testimony had not been sufficiently effective.
Lea appealed against the decision and was readmitted to the programme, but she opted out voluntarily in April 2009 for reasons that remain unclear (there are suggestions that she feared for her safety and was frustrated with the apparent reluctance of investigators to take her testimony seriously). This is when she made the tragic error of renewing contact with Petilia Policastro and Cosco.
Her estranged partner orchestrated an unsuccessful attempt on her life in May 2009 before luring her to Milan allegedly to discuss their daughter’s future the following November. Her lawyer Enza Rando urged her not to go but she ignored the advice, insisting that with Denise’s presence her safety was ensured.
On 24 November while Denise was with relatives Lea was abducted, tortured and killed. Her body was then burned and the remains buried on a plot in Monza outside the Lombardy regional capital.
Denise, then 17, reported her mother’s disappearance and accused her father of murder. In March 2012 six people including Cosco and his two brothers were jailed for life at first instance for the crime, even as the defense continued to claim Lea had abandoned her daughter and moved to Australia.
One of the convicts, Denise’s ex boyfriend Carmine Venturino, subsequently made statements allowing investigators to uncover Lea’s scant remains, which were laid to rest following a civil funeral in Milan in October 2013 attended by several thousand people.
In May 2013 a Milan appeals court upheld the life sentences against four of the defendants including Cosco, reduced Venturino’s sentence to 25 years and overturned the guilty verdict against a sixth defendant on grounds there was no crime to answer.
These sentences became definitive in a supreme court ruling in December 2014.
Meanwhile Denise has been living under a new identity in a secret location under the same witness protection scheme that ‘betrayed’ her mother.
“The protection system for informants has undergone a series of improvements in recent years […] but testimoni di giustizia have a dignity of their own and deserve a specific law,” said Rando after the film Lea’s television premiere on 18 November.
Currently provisions for testimoni and collaboratori are set out under a single law, leading to confusion between the two.
“Informants and collaborators should never again be confused and a law would help resolve the current critical points,” the lawyer continued.
Davide Mattiello of the Democratic Party (PD), a member of Italy’s bicameral anti-mafia commission, agreed.
“If the mafia kills a magistrate the roles are clear and the law works for family members, but if the mafia tears to pieces those who rebel from within their own circle the law comes unstuck,” Mattiello said.
“A person who wants to break with those family ties, even if they don’t have precious information for the judiciary, must find the State.”
Cruelty began quickly
Denise says her mother became pregnant with her at just 16. “She told me once that she had thought about having an abortion, even about committing suicide,” she says. “My father had already started treating her badly. Mom knew that he was murdering people, and she didn’t want to bring up a baby in that kind of environment. My father said there was no way she was having an abortion. I was to be an instrument that would unite the powerful Garofalo family. But then, everything capsized. Mom gave birth, alone, in a hospital almost 80 kilometers away, and I became her reason to live. Up until she died, we were inseparable.”
Denise says she doesn’t have any real memories of her father. “He was never at home. One image, however, remains seared into my memory. I was five and it was nighttime. There was banging at the door and then they [the police] came in with dogs and arrested him. From then on, I only saw my father in prison at scheduled visits because my mother still went to visit him.”
Denise suspects that it was during one of her mother’s visits to the prison that her father decided to murder her. “It’s a moment I remember well. She was exasperated, fed up with her life, so she told him she was going to leave him,” Denise recalls. “He leapt over the dividing screen between us and beat her. Women don’t leave mob bosses! I’m sure that he killed her for that insult to his honor.”
Denise can’t say whether her father ever loved her because she says she just doesn’t know. “I do know that he bought me presents, though, and people tell me that when he spoke about me his eyes shined. I don’t think he wanted to bring me into his world. He dreamed of me getting a university degree and meeting a great guy.”
Leaving the mob life
In 2001, Lea Garofalo decided that she had had enough with the mob lifestyle and began collaborating with judiciary and mafia investigations. She and Denise entered the witness protection program.
“Our lives totally changed,” Denise says. “We had to lay low and change our names. First I was Sarah De Rossi. When I was 15, we went to (the northern city of) Udine and we passed for sisters. I always called her mom [mamma], though, and so she had to change her name to Maria, as after I said ‘ma’ she corrected me in time,” Denise recalls, laughing. “I was Denise Petalo and she was Maria Petalo. Isn’t that hilarious? Petals of carnations!” (Petalo means petal, and Garofano means carnation in Italian. The flower is a symbol of violence against women.)
In 2005, Lea’s protection was removed because her testimony wasn’t deemed effective enough. She appealed the decision and won. But in April 2009, the same thing happened again. Tired of not being believed, she waived the protection, and in doing so made the tragic error of trusting Cosco again.
She went to live in Campobasso, in the Molise region, in a house that Cosco rented for her. On May 5, he sent someone over pretending to fix the washing machine but, really, it was to kidnap and murder her. Thanks to Denise, though, the kidnapping was foiled. “I was asleep in my room and woke up to the noise,” she recalls. “I saw him holding my mom, and I jumped on him. I’m skinny, but I scared him. He ran off because he had been given orders to specifically leave her alone ‘if the girl was in the house too.’”
But this only delayed the criminal plot. A few months passed, and Cosco made an appointment in Milan with Lea under the pretense of discussing a separation. She wanted to sever all relations with him and was determined to leave Italy. “He wants to kill me and the state doesn’t believe me. Better to go somewhere else,” Denise recalls her saying.
A double loss
On Nov. 24, 2009 Denise said goodbye to her mother, who was on her way to the appointment. She would never see her mother again. That evening, Lea was strangled to death and burned. Denise had the courage to retrace the path her mother began. She went to the Carabinieri, reported the incident and told them everything she knew about her father.
Denise’s suffering wasn’t over yet. She went back to Calabria, and moved in with her mother’s sister. She soon found comfort in the love of a young man three years her senior, Carmine Venturino. Life seemed like it was starting anew. But on the night of Oct. 18, 2010, Denise’s world collapsed again. She was at the beach with Venturino when the Carabineri came and arrested him. “He’s one of the men who killed your mother,” the police told her, as they took her to the station.
Even today, this extraordinary woman can find it within her to say nice things about Venturino. “He was my first boyfriend, and I haven’t had others,” Denise says. “Obviously, he did trick me, but I’m sure that he really did love me and that his part in the ‘Ndrangheta is another story of weakness and fear.” After he was sentenced to first-degree murder, Venturino confessed to the crime, telling the police where Lea’s remains were buried.
Denise tells me that she needs to thank the many people who gave her back her life, beginning with Father Luigi Ciotti, a priest deeply involved in fighting mafia crime. She also says that she’s delighted that Pope Francis recently met with mafia victims. Then she says, “On the day of the sentencing I didn’t rejoice. My life had been turned upside-down, but I still don’t hate anyone. Not even my father — sometimes I feel sorry for him. He didn’t understand what he lost: a family, a daughter, love that he could have had.”
Today, many women have begun to break ties with the mafia, says Enza Rando, a lawyer who helps Denise. Thanks to Lea’s sacrifice and Denise’s courage, perhaps a quiet revolution can begin.
Carlo Cosco, one of the six of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta jailed for the murder of his ex-partner, Lea Garofalo, whose body was dissolved in acid. Photograph: Lanese/EPA