First homicide rattles "Disneytown'

Dec 2 2010 - 6:15pm

CELEBRATION, Fla. -- At first blush, Tuesday was a typical November day in the town that Disney built.

Children skated on fake ice in the middle of downtown. A worker sprayed a layer of soap designed to look like snow on Market Street as "Happy Holiday" by Irving Berlin played on loudspeakers. Tourists shopped and admired the towering Christmas tree at the lake. Locals strolled or relaxed in rocking chairs at the lakefront, enjoying the postcard-perfect Florida weather.

A block away, however, crime-scene tape surrounded a condominium where the first homicide in Celebration history injected a dose of grim reality into this fantasyland of large homes, pristine landscaping and candy-colored office buildings.

"Everyone calls it 'the bubble' here," said Katie Sobczewski, 23. "You don't want people to pop your bubble."

Sometime over the Thanksgiving weekend, however, somebody killed Massachusetts native and former teacher Matteo Patrick Giovanditto, 58, in his condo here, the Osceola County Sheriff's Office said. The killing was an isolated incident and the public has nothing to fear, investigators say.

Neighbors, who hadn't seen Giovanditto since the day before Thanksgiving, went inside his unit Monday morning and found a body on the kitchen floor covered with a blanket, they said.

Following a tip to hotline Central Florida Crimeline, detectives Tuesday found his black Corvette abandoned at the Reef Club apartment complex in Kissimmee, Fla., sheriff's spokeswoman Twis Lizasuain said. An autopsy was performed, but investigators would not disclose its results.

Most people interviewed Tuesday said they heard about the killing -- a Crimeline sign asking for tips was in the grass outside The Idelwylde condos, and a deputy guarded Giovanditto's unit -- but only a few were rattled.

Lauren Hower, 23, said she moved from a "super-sheltered" town in southern New Jersey to Celebration because it's safe and close to her job at Walt Disney World. She and her cocker spaniel Ella had doggie play dates with Giovanditto and his Chihuahua, Lucy, she said.

"This definitely has thrown me for a loop," Hower said. "I never in a million years expected something like this to happen in the town, let along downstairs."

Several vacationers and residents said the killing hasn't frightened them or changed their feelings about Celebration, where the first residents arrived in 1996. Disney developed the town but has largely divested itself of any interest. There have been robberies, burglaries and a spate of car burglaries, but perhaps the most violent crime until now was a robbery in 2002 in which a couple were tied up in their home and robbed by masked men armed with knives and a gun.

"There are a lot of places I feel less safe," said Robert Schuster, a retired Navy captain from the Harrisonburg, Va., area, who was taking a hand-in-hand stroll downtown with his wife, Shirley, 79. "I feel less safe in downtown Orlando."

Jimmy Charles, 49, another neighbor of Giovanditto, had a similar view. He and his son, Joseph, 10, were on their way home with a pizza when they stopped to reflect on the killing.

"People get a little hysterical about stuff like this," Charles said. "But the fact is, it happens all over, and this is still one of the safest communities."

Larry Spain agreed. He and his wife run a company that gives carriage and wagon rides in Celebration.

"People in this day and age are so used to violence," Spain, a former Chicago police officer, said as he waited for customers near the lake. "It isn't going to affect our business."

A cousin who lives in Massachusetts told the Orlando Sentinel that Giovanditto moved to Florida to teach. He had a teaching certificate from 1983 until 2004, the state Department of Education said. Public records show he moved to Celebration from South Florida in 2004. A neighbor said Giovanditto had been working with troubled youths as a psychologist, but that could not be confirmed.

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(c) 2010, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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