First Murder in Disney-Planned Florida Town Involved Popular Teacher Who Allegedly Molested Male Students for Years

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.”

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