BEFORE HE WAS GUNNED DOWN ON a Brooklyn street seven years ago, Eddie Garofalo used to call his younger daughter, Laura, the Mouth. Now, Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, the Mafia hit man whose testimony has helped the government put Mob boss John Gotti and 36 other gangsters behind bars, is learning why. Sickened by the thought that Gravano had only to trade Mob secrets and serve five years in prison to be absolved of having, in his words, "whacked" her father and 18 others, Garofalo has launched a crusade to see that Gravano will never profit from his crimes. "When I see this man living a nice life—the man responsible for my father's death," says Laura, 24, "I say, 'No. Not if I can help it!" '

In May, Laura filed a $50 million lawsuit against the former senior deputy of the Gambino crime family for the wrongful death of her father. (Under New York State's "Son of Sam" law, victims and their relatives are entitled to sue criminals for profits from books and movies about their crimes.) That may have seemed an empty gesture until earlier this year, when Gravano, 52, resurfaced as something of a media celebrity after partially opting out of the federal witness protection program (though he is still guarded by federal marshals and lives in an undisclosed location) to promote Underboss, his tell-all biography written by Peter Maas. Still, with Maas and publisher HarperCollins swearing they hadn't paid Gravano a dime, Laura's lawyer Ron Kuby wasn't optimistic about ever collecting. "But if you want to make this guy a little less comfortable," Kuby said, "...we can do it."

Yet Laura's tenacity is proving to have more than nuisance value. In July, when Gravano testified for the government in the murder trial of now-convicted Mob boss Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, he grudgingly admitted receiving a $250,000 advance for the bestselling book, paid to a London account. He also said he expected to earn $1 million more from a movie deal, none of which he would share with victims' families without a fight.

Now he has one. Laura pored over trial transcripts, death certificates and cemetery records for months to track down other victims' relatives and enlist their support in seeking redress. In August, in an effort to increase the pressure on Gravano, five other families filed Son of Sam suits, and State Attorney General Dennis Vacco, representing the relatives of all 19 victims, also brought suit against Gravano.

For Laura, the filings bring a sense of vindication. She had long felt that the authorities were too easy on Gravano, because his victims were perceived first as gangsters. "When your father has been killed by supposedly organized crime, people treat you differently," says sister Karen Garofalo, 32, a kinder-garten teacher. "The stigma is intense."

In fact, most of Gravano's victims had Mob connections, and Eddie Garo-falo, a demolition and excavation contractor, was no exception. Convicted in 1990 with 15 others of racketeering and illegal dumping in New Jersey, Garofalo was sent to prison for three months. The light sentence, including two daylong furloughs, on charges that carried up to 20 years, signaled to Gravano that Garofalo was cooperating with authorities. "We made a decision to kill him," he testified at Gotti's murder trial two years later.

At 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 8, 1990, a week after his release from jail, Garofalo, 49 (then divorced from Alberta, now 54, his wife of 20 years), was walking with a woman near his Cadillac in Brooklyn when four gunmen fired eight shots into his back and head.

Until then, Laura says, she considered him a typical doting father, successful enough to provide a sheltered life for his family. In the late 1960s he had paid about $250,000 for a house in a gated neighborhood in Brooklyn. He sent his kids—Laura, Karen and brother Eddie Jr., now 30 and a parking lot owner—to private schools and frequently treated them to spontaneous shopping trips and dinners out.

Laura and Karen deny knowing that Eddie was a mobster, as law enforcement officials say he was, even after he was sent to prison. "We thought our father was going to jail for the illegal dumping," says Karen. Adds Laura, who was entering her senior year at Adelphi Academy: "It wasn't an issue. It was such a short time."

Still, the Garofalos never doubted who was responsible for the hit on Eddie. For years, Laura's father had complained that Gravano was forcing him to make regular payoffs and sucking the profit out of his business, which was close to bankruptcy at his death. (Karen has recently filed a separate lawsuit against Gravano to recover millions the family says Sammy the Bull extorted over the years.) "All our lives," says Laura, "my father thought [Gravano] was a common thug."

After the killing, Laura, once a top student, couldn't focus. Her grades plummeted. "I was numb," she says. "I'd get into a college, then drop out." Both Karen and Laura, who begins as a special-ed teacher's aide this fall, have struggled to get their personal lives on track. "The anger and pain we've suffered has now become determination," says Laura. "We got that from Dad," adds Karen. "We never take no for an answer." They are confident they will even the score with Sammy Gravano—if only in court. "Call it," Karen says, "loyalty to my father."

BRUCE FRANKEL
RON ARIAS in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Ron Arias.