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Gucci heir shot dead at Milan office

Maurizio Gucci, heir to the Italian fashion family that has clothed and shod the famous since the turn of the century, was shot dead yesterday morning in the lobby of his office building in central Milan, in the most violent episode yet in a long-running family saga of ambition and betrayal.

A lone gunman - impeccably dressed - followed the 45-year-old Gucci into the building of his private investment company on the Via Palestro and shot him in the back as he was walking up the first flight of stairs. Gucci turned around to face his attacker, only to be cut down by two bullets to the head. On his way out, the assassin also shot and wounded the concierge, Giuseppe Onorato. He then jumped into a green Renault Clio in which an accomplice was waiting behind the wheel.

The staid, dependable reputation of Gucci's leather handbags and shoes, instantly recognisable by their entwined double-G motif, hides a stormy history of family feuds and splits stretching back to the company's foundation in 1904.

Maurizio spent much of the Eighties locked in battle with his cousins for control of the firm, which he finally won, only to be forced to sell out to a Gulf Arab investment bank in 1993 because of mounting debts.

Nicknamed JR after the charismatic villain in Dallas, he had been the subject of several judicial investigations into his finances, and was said to be worth £100m.

When the public prosecutor, Carlo Nocerino, asked journalists yesterday to hold back their natural urge to speculate about a motive for the crime, he might as well have been asking television audiences a decade ago not to wonder who shot JR. There may have been no immediate indication of who Gucci's murderer was, but it was not for lack of suspects.

In the early Eighties, Maurizio made enemies of virtually all his relations as he wrested control of the family business from his cousins. It was a bitter feud, in which more than one family member threatened to blackmail the others by revealing embarrassing information.

Maurizio suffered from this vendetta more than most, fleeing to Switzerland as he was put under judicial investigation for fraudulent share-dealing and the illicit creation of front companies in Caribbean tax havens.

He was found guilty of forging his father's signature to avoid inheritance tax, but fought back and eventually cleared his name in the appeal courts. But that was far from the end of his troubles. The international Gucci group he returned to at the end of the Eighties was divided and steeped in debt. Although Maurizio managed to square with his cousins and avert a permanent schism, in 1993 he lost financial control to a Bahrain-based bank, Investcorp, a well-known raider of prestige companies including Tiffany's and the failed Paris jewellery house of Chaumet.

The shame of selling one of Italy's proudest trademarks to an Arab company was not without its compensations. At the time of his death, Maurizio was acting as a senior adviser to Investcorp's chairman, Nemir Kirdar, and managing his own fortune through a company called Viersee Spa. A quiet life, by Maurizio's standards, but not without its hazards.

Investigators will have an array of colourful characters to question, including Maurizio's cousin Paolo, the "black sheep", who played a part in seeing his own father jailed for tax evasion, and is himself wanted in the United States for failing to pay a divorce settlement.We can expect several months of suspense and perhaps some surprise revelations.

Obituary, page 12