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09.10.12

Murder in Celebration, Florida: The Victim’s Secret Life

In the 1990s, Disney created Celebration, Fla. On Thanksgiving weekend in 2010, the town had its first murder. Barbara Spindel and Maria Elena Fernandez report on the secret life of the victim, a beloved longtime teacher and headmaster who led a disturbing double life. As the case heads to trial in October, some of the men he mentored and manipulated decades earlier speak out.

The first homicide in the Disney-developed community of Celebration, Florida, grabbed headlines around the world. While the Walt Disney Company had largely divested control of its model town by Thanksgiving weekend 2010, when Matteo Patrick Giovanditto was found murdered in his condominium, Celebration was still widely seen as existing in a Disney bubble. With its picture-perfect streets, lined with homes fronted by porches, picket fences, and manicured lawns, Celebration is, by design, bathed in nostalgia, almost an extension of Disney World’s idealized Main Street U.S.A., which stretches out a few miles away.

Any murder would likely have pierced the bubble. But the lurid violence of the town’s first killing was especially shocking. Giovanditto, 58, was a retired teacher who had a longtime love of all things Disney; according to neighbors, he claimed to be counseling troubled youth. David-Israel Zenon Murillo, a 30-year-old transient who is currently awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder, told police that Giovanditto approached him and offered him money to wash his Corvette. Murillo said Giovanditto gave him a beer and that Murillo then fell asleep, awaking to find Giovanditto “on top of me,” attempting to sexually assault him as he lay face down. Believing, because he felt groggy, that the beer had been laced with drugs, Murillo told police he became enraged. He said he discovered an ax in a closet, which he used to bludgeon Giovanditto three times before strangling him with a shoelace to ensure that he was dead.

I never met Giovanditto, but I know many people who were his students in the early 1980s. Giovanditto, always known as Mr. G at school, was raised in Boston. He began his teaching career at the now defunct Villa Oasis boarding school in Eloy, Ariz., in the 1970s. He relocated to Florida in 1981 and began teaching 7th- and 8th-grade social studies at Lehrman Day School, a private Jewish school in Miami Beach. From there he became headmaster at the Crossroads School, now the Kentwood Preparatory School, which was for kids with ADHD and was located in Davie, Fla.

I am a Miami Beach native, and several of my friends at Miami Beach Senior High came to the school from Lehrman, which went up to eighth grade. I remember hearing about Mr. G with a mixture of wonder and envy as they described a fun-filled—and toy-filled—classroom and weekend trips with their teacher to Disney World and the Everglades. Students who received top grades were invited to sleepovers at Mr. G’s house at the end of the semester and on outings to concerts, amusement parks, video arcades, and go-carting courses. Girls, however, were rarely part of these adventures.

One of my friends, Peter Klein, was Giovanditto’s student at Lehrman, and was later his faculty colleague at Crossroads: Klein, now a journalist, taught math and science at the school after graduating from college. He remembers Giovanditto as “a wonderful, inspiring teacher,” but says that as years passed, he was troubled when he looked back on the time and attention Giovanditto lavished on his students. “Once you become an adult and you’re in a role similar to his, I could never imagine anything close to the kinds of trips and relationships he had with kids,” he said. “And that made me uneasy.” Klein also wondered about his background, with Giovanditto’s fancy sports cars and frequent travel suggesting an income source beyond a private-school salary. Over the years, Klein was unable to find any information about Giovanditto online—strange, since Giovanditto was an early adopter to home computing. A couple of times, Klein also “checked the sex registry to see if he popped up.”

I read news reports about the first homicide in Celebration when it happened, but had no idea that Matteo Patrick Giovanditto was the legendary Mr. G. Klein, a voracious news consumer, did not read about the murder when the news broke, as his son’s bar mitzvah was that weekend. Weeks later, though, Klein happened to be in Orlando for work; having heard that Giovanditto had moved to Celebration, he again tried looking him up. In what he remembers as “a weird, surreal moment,” a Google search of Giovanditto finally yielded results: his former teacher and colleague had been murdered just weeks before. In the months after Klein told me that the Celebration victim had in fact been Mr. G, the Jerry Sandusky case came to dominate the news, followed by revelations of sexual abuse in the ’70s through the ’90s at New York’s Horace Mann School. It was hard not to wonder whether the sordid details of Giovanditto’s death hinted at an even darker past.

By the time I began looking into Giovanditto, a mother had anonymously written an emotional post online calling him a “clever, cunning pedophile predator.” I was able to locate this parent, whom I’ll call B in order to protect her identity. In a telephone interview, B said that her son had a close relationship with Giovanditto for four years, beginning when he was 10 or 11. She brought him to Crossroads to sign him up for the school’s summer camp, and Giovanditto took them on a tour. During the tour, B, a single mother, mentioned that her son was enrolled in the Big Brothers program but hadn’t hit it off with two people he’d been paired with so far. Giovanditto, describing himself as a mentor to kids, asked her if he could be her son’s Big Brother; B, a private investigator, checked him out before she agreed.

“My son seemed to be thriving. Patrick took him under his wing,” B recalled. “My son hit that age where there were [behavior] problems, and Patrick was giving me guidance as well. Everything always seemed really fine.” More than fine: Giovanditto treated her son to trips around the world, including Mexico, China, Japan, and Australia. “I was happy for him,” B said. “What kid gets that? Patrick was considered almost like a part of our family.”

When B’s son was 14, however, he suddenly stopped taking Giovanditto’s calls, telling his mother to make excuses for him. “I said, ‘You can’t do this—this man has treated you well for a long time.’ But Patrick dropped out of the picture, and life went on,” she said. B searched Giovanditto on the Internet every year or two to see what had become of him, but as Klein had found, no results ever came up.

“God, that was wrong.”
Matteo Patrick Giovanditto
Matteo Patrick Giovanditto in the Lehrman Day School (Miami Beach, FL) 1985 yearbook. ()

B’s son eventually had a brief marriage that ended in divorce. Last year, after her son remarried, his ex-wife “called and got evil on me,” B said. “‘Why don’t you ask your son about being a fag?’ He had confided in her and she threw it at me out of left field.”

That was when B learned that Giovanditto had sexually abused her son for years. “He only was around [my son] for a few weeks or a month before he started to show him what masturbation is. He was very young, and he thought that because I put him with Patrick that I was aware of what was going on, that that was normal, that’s what mentors do.”

Eventually they were engaging in oral sex “all the time, many times a week,” B said, obviously pained to be describing it. “It started pretty much right away and it lasted for four years. But he didn’t feel like he was being beaten and harmed, and Patrick was being good to him.”

When he was 14, B’s son met a girl he liked. “Patrick said, ‘You’re too young, you’re not mature enough.’ He was holding him back, and that’s when my son cut him off. He started realizing that what Patrick was doing was not normal.”

“I was very distraught,” B said of learning about the abuse, adding that, looking back, she sees ways that Giovanditto “groomed” her as much as he did her son. “I felt like I totally led my kid to this water.”

B again searched for Giovanditto on the Internet, and she was stunned to discover he’d been murdered. B’s son, who’s in the military, is now happily married with children. “There’s no way this thing has no effect. I think he deals with things by pushing them aside in his head,” B said. “Sometimes I give it a lot of thought, and sometimes it goes out of my head. He and I don’t talk about it at all.”

The information about B’s son led me to reach out to former Lehrman students. Most had fond memories of the class and the outings, using similar words to describe Mr. G: brilliant, charismatic, odd. But one former student who had been close to Giovanditto in the mid-80s confirmed that he had had sexual contact with his teacher. I’ll call him D, as he has asked to have his identity protected. Before Mr. G, “no one had really taken an interest in me academically, probably because I was a pretty quiet kid,” D, a married professional living in South Florida, said in a telephone interview. “He did. He got me interested in learning. He pushed me to excel: ‘Why don’t you get an A?’ He made me want to become a good student.”

D and Giovanditto soon began to spend time together outside of school, and before long, as with B’s son, Giovanditto began steering conversations towards sexual topics. “He said he had knowledge of how boys interacted with each other. ‘This is the way boys are,’ that kind of thing. You know, boys that age talk about their penises, masturbation, and stuff like that. So that was part of our conversations,” D said. “He’s the person who introduced me to masturbation. I didn’t really hear of it before and he told me, ‘This is how it’s done and this is what you can do, and it’s a good thing.’

“He never forced anything; he manipulated me. At one point, we were at his apartment—I can’t even give you the setup to how it happened,” he continued. “All I remember—almost as a challenge—he would put it: ‘You can’t make me come.’ So I rubbed his pants until he had an erection and then he came. It was like a dare. It didn’t seem unusual at the time.”

Some time later, Giovanditto took D and two other male students for a ride on a houseboat he had rented. D had recently injured his hand and Giovanditto told him he was going to “help” him masturbate. “The two other kids were up on the top of the houseboat, and he and I were on the bottom,” D recalled, explaining that Giovanditto had put the boat on some sort of autopilot. “The houseboat crashed into the canal side into a bunch of trees. I quickly kind of pulled up [my pants]. So I guess I was saved by a houseboat not steering well. It gave me an extra moment to think about what was going on.”

D never told anyone about these incidents, but around the same time, his mother told him he was no longer to see Giovanditto outside of school. “I stopped calling him for two weeks, where before I called him every day,” D said. “And he said, ‘I guess we’re not talking to each other anymore.’ And I said, ‘Right.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ He didn’t try to say, ‘What’s wrong?’ He just left me alone. I don’t know what my mother knew or felt. We never really talked about it. We never broached the subject in all these years.”

D says that because the sexual contact was limited, he didn’t feel traumatized by it. “He never got naked and I never saw him naked, but I guess that’s where things were probably going. At the time, I’m a young, impressionable kid and I was being treated great. And I don’t really know anything about being a boy or an adult and what is appropriate and what’s not.

“It was only later on in retrospect that there was something inappropriate about it,” he continued. “I remember telling a girlfriend in high school or college, I remember saying, ‘I think that counts as abuse.’ What the hell was going on back then? It was wrong. It had not really occurred to me. But thinking about it with perspective, it was like, God, that was wrong.”

It is unclear why Giovanditto moved from school to school—whether there were any complaints about him or whether he moved on for pedestrian reasons. Villa Oasis closed in 1987. Lehrman Day School’s current principal, Jodi Bruce, called the allegations “disappointing, disturbing, and heartbreaking,” and said that the school has no personnel records going back that far. Rowena Kovler, principal when Giovanditto taught at Lehrman, was also upset by the allegations. She said she doesn’t remember why Giovanditto left, but that no parents or students ever made complaints about him. “He was an excellent employee,” she said. “The students adored him. He motivated students. He gave incentives to get good grades. It was joyous having a teacher like that.”

Gary Fein, the head of Kentwood’s Lantana, Florida campus, whose family founded Crossroads and who taught there when Giovanditto was headmaster, declined to speak to The Daily Beast, saying through a school spokesperson that Giovanditto was a “good teacher who did well with the kids and left to expand his own horizons. He had a clean record here.”

It is possible that Giovanditto maintained a clean record throughout his teaching career, but additional recollections from former students and colleagues—even those who were extremely devoted to him—certainly raise red flags in a time more alert to sexual abuse and molestation. Rebecca Hendricks worked with Giovanditto at Villa Oasis, which included middle and high school grades, from 1979 to 1981. Calling him “phenomenally brilliant” but strange and narcissistic, she said in a telephone interview that “he remains the most fascinating person I’ve ever met.” She considered him a close friend, and they remained in touch after he moved to Florida; they last saw each other in 2001 or 2002.

“Certainly he was more oriented to the boys than to the girls,” she recalled. “He always picked the most vulnerable—he loved trying to take a lost cause and make them succeed. It was junior high boys: he’d pick one to take under his wing.”

During the years Hendricks was in touch with Giovanditto, she never knew him to be in any kind of romantic relationship; she remembers him being formal with adults, always wearing suits, and not liking to be touched. While Hendricks lived five miles from the Arizona campus, Giovanditto chose to live in an on-campus apartment connected to eight boys’ rooms. “He stayed very distant from adults and he got very into the kids,” she said. “I don’t think it struck me as predatory back then.”

One of Giovanditto’s “lost causes”  at the Villa was William Wilders. “He was one of the first people to say that he saw potential in me,” Wilders said in a telephone interview. “He helped me stay out of trouble because I tended to look for it. He made me come to his office and stay there and do homework. My dad wasn’t in the picture, and he kind of stepped in there for three years.”

Wilders, who was aware that there had been another “favorite” before him, recalled traveling alone with Giovanditto to Disney World. “He dug Disney. He was a little weird; he didn’t socialize with anyone but the kids.” Wilders was also aware that his relationship with his teacher was a subject of gossip. “People all through the Villa thought bizarre things were happening between me and G. I know that,” he said. “But he never tried anything with me. He was always really nice to me and very generous.”

Former Lehrman student Ben Doranz also treasured his relationship with Giovanditto, even if their closeness, in hindsight, strikes him as unusual. Doranz said that Giovanditto, in addition to being “a great teacher,” was “a father figure to me. I grew up in a single-parent household. So an adult male presence meant a little more to me than perhaps to other people.” Doranz went on several group trips to Disney World and Busch Gardens with Giovanditto. He explained that the trips were loosely organized: “He’d be like, ‘Wanna go to Disney?’ And people would sign up.” One day Giovanditto asked the class, “Does anyone want to go to Mexico?” Doranz alone ended up accompanying his teacher out of the country.

“In retrospect, it just seems insane,” Doranz said of the several days he spent hanging out on the beaches of Cancun and touring pyramids with Mr. G. “I’m like, what was my mom thinking? How did my mom let me do this? I have no idea. At the time, it seemed perfectly fine. I can honestly say nothing inappropriate ever happened. Not even a hint of anything.”

The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office report indicates that Giovanditto’s neighbors in Celebration didn’t find anything inappropriate about him either, describing him as private and devoted to his Chihuahua, Lucy.

But they now know that the man one of them nicknamed “Mother Teresa” was not a retired therapist, as he claimed, and was harboring many secrets. To one female friend, he pretended to be straight and claimed to have once been married. The “clients” his friends in Celebration thought he was counseling were young men he picked up while driving the streets of nearby Kissimmee or trawling the Internet. One neighbor, William Hause, told police he frequently saw young men on the porch with Giovanditto, but never the same man twice. One of those “clients,” Calvin Owens Easterly, 29, told police that he had a sexual relationship with Giovanditto and called him “uncle.” Giovanditto typically drove up to men in his black Corvette, pretending to need directions, but then would offer them odd jobs, like repairing grout in his condominium.

While Giovanditto had no visible Web presence until after his death, he did, as Klein suspected, have an active, secret life online: according to the police report, two of Giovanditto’s three e-mail usernames consisted of merely one letter, indicating that he was present at the creation of the Internet. Klein, who had also wondered about Mr. G’s lavish lifestyle, discovered after his death that Giovanditto was the stepson of the late Boston Mafioso Frederick Champa, convicted of racketeering and conspiracy charges in 1995. A former Villa Oasis student who asked that his name not appear in this article said Mr. G used to tell students that he received a monthly stipend from his family to “stay away from them.” His Villa Oasis colleague Hendricks knew about the organized crime ties. She believed Giovanditto had “a pretty brutal childhood with his awful stepfather who was in the Mob.” Giovanditto’s parents are dead; one cousin hung up when asked to talk about him, and another, who had not seen or spoken with him in decades, said she remembered him with love.

Hendricks added that it never surprised her that Giovanditto moved to Celebration. “I just always felt he was never a kid and he loved being a kid. He loved Disneyland.”

Although his online activity may not have been easy to uncover when he was alive, forensic analysis of Giovanditto’s personal computer after he was killed established that Giovanditto used the Internet, and specifically Craigslist, to seek out male partners for sexual encounters, according to the court file. While the analysis mentioned Giovanditto’s “propensity towards young men,” it is unclear whether any of these partners were underage.

The analysis also revealed Giovanditto’s habit of photographing men and their shoes. His shoe fetish allegedly played into Murillo’s violent rage when he woke up in Giovanditto’s one-bedroom condominium and found him on top of him on the couch. Murillo told police that he was going to leave the apartment but couldn’t find his shoes, which further enraged him. While searching the closets for them, he came across the ax that became the murder weapon. Before Giovanditto drew his last breath, Murillo told police that he whispered in his ear: “You’ve been a bad boy lately. You ran into the wrong guy this time, bro.”

Giovanditto died on Nov. 25, 2010 and was found by his worried neighbors four days later on his kitchen floor, covered by a blanket. Seven days later, after staking out Murillo and securing his confession, police charged Murillo with the gruesome crime. Murillo’s trial is set to begin Oct. 8, but could be postponed—his lawyer, Michael Nielsen, is seeking to have Murillo’s statements to the police thrown out. Nielsen would not reveal his defense strategy to The Daily Beast, but did acknowledge that he has been investigating the darker elements of Giovanditto’s secret life, referring to “information presented that hasn’t come out yet that will be favorable to Mr. Murillo.”

Many mysteries about Giovanditto’s life remain. Chief among them, of course, is whether he victimized other children during his lengthy teaching career.

“He clearly had another life,” said Doranz, who was Giovanditto’s student in the early 80s. “No one has no personal life and no friends. There was something missing we never saw. But he clearly had something going on that we weren’t privy to and wasn’t good. And now I look and wonder, what kind of guy hangs out with 12- or 13-year-old boys? And I think, ‘Jerry Sandusky.’”

Editor’s Note: The first-person narration used in this story is from the perspective of Barbara Spindel. She conceived of the story, was its primary writer, and conducted interviews. Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to the story’s writing and also conducted interviews, particularly of people Spindel knows personally.