The daughter of Lea Garofalo, who was brutally killed by her Italian mob husband in 2009, courageously speaks out against the dark underworld - and her own father and boyfriend.
MILAN — At just 22, Denise Cosco has endured unspeakable sadness. Her mother was murdered by her father with the help of her own boyfriend. You might think that she would never be able to trust anyone ever again, but the girl in front of me demonstrates strength and a will to live that seems nothing short of miraculous.
She must be disguised, and we meet in a secret location with police protection. She has changed her name, and now must recount an invented story about her past to everyone she meets. But still she manages to smile — and even laugh.
Denise is the daughter of Lea Garofalo, a hero in the fight against the Calabrian mafia, the ’Ndrangheta. It’s often said that Denise is very much like her mother. “She laughed a lot, and people said she was a joker,” Denise says of her mother.
Another thing she has in common with her mother is the strength to rebel. Thanks to Denise’s testimony, her father Carlo Cosco is in prison serving a life sentence with three others. Her ex-boyfriend, Carmine Venturino, is serving 25 years.
“Ours is a story about courage, but more than anything it’s about love,” Denise says. “In retrospect, everything began from the love my mother had for my father.”
During the investigation of her mother’s murder, the police gave Denise a notebook her mother wrote in. “I didn’t know that it existed. It was a diary that she kept when she was pregnant with me. Reading it, I learned that she was very much in love with my father.”
Asked whether her father was ever in love with her mother too, Denise says, “I think so,” going on to say that he also had “ulterior” motives. “My mother was the sister of Floriano Garofalo, who was the boss of Pagliarelle, the small town in Calabria where we’re from,” she says. “I suspect that my father was set up with my mother to get him into the right circles so he could advance his career in the ‘Ndrangheta. He didn’t come from a mafia family. My mother, on the other hand, did. Her father was a boss as well, killed when she was just 8 months old in 1974. That’s the kind of environment mom was brought up in.”
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.
As our interview ends and we’re saying goodbye, 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.