Image: Florida condo in Celebration
John Raoux  /  AP
The crime scene at a condominium in Celebration, Fla., where police are investigating the first-ever homicide in the Disney-developed community.
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updated 12/2/2010 2:23:35 PM ET 2010-12-02T19:23:35

Celebration, Disney's master-planned, picture-perfect central Florida community, has never reported a homicide in its 14-year existence — until this week.

Residents of the town five miles south of Walt Disney World woke up Tuesday to the sight of yellow crime-scene tape wrapped around a condo near the Christmas-decorated downtown, where Bing Crosby croons from speakers hidden in the foliage. A 58-year-old neighbor who lived alone with his Chihuahua had been slain over the long Thanksgiving weekend, Osceola County sheriff's deputies said.

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The community's famous friendliness is what brought investigators to Matteo Giovanditto's body: Neighbors hadn't seen him for days, so they filed a missing person's report, then went into his condo a day later and found him.

A few years ago, a resident joked with a reporter that Celebration would feel like a real town when a bike was stolen. Now, it has an unsolved killing on its hands.

With 11,000 residents, Celebration is something of an anomaly in Central Florida. There's no suburban sprawl — the entire place is reminiscent of a quaint New England village.

It's the kind of town where people give Christmas gifts to their favorite Starbucks barista, where welcoming wooden rocking chairs sit lakeside on a sidewalk without being stolen, where neighbors tend to get suspicious if they notice you're not around.

And that's what happened with Giovanditto, detectives say.

Neighbors hadn't seen Giovanditto, who owned a bottom-floor condo at a building called The Idlewyld, since the day before Thanksgiving. His black Corvette was also missing. A neighbor was supposed to walk Giovanditto's dog, Lucy, over the weekend, but he wasn't responding to her calls.

A missing person's report was filed Sunday, and the next day neighbors went into his apartment and found his body. Investigators won't say what type of scene they encountered, or how Giovanditto died.

"This is very rare and unusual for a crime of this magnitude to occur in this community," said Twis Lizasuain, a sheriff's spokeswoman.

On Tuesday, detectives poked a Crimestoppers sign offering a reward into the lush grass outside the condo, next to a receptacle for dog waste bags. They found the Corvette at an apartment building in a neighboring Orlando suburb. His relatives were notified of his death.

As word of the homicide blew around town like the leaves from the maple trees that line the sidewalks, people started to worry.

"I've always thought of Celebration as a very safe community," said Heather Hardy, who lives there six months a year and was sitting on a wooden rocker downtown, reading a book.

Officials were quick to soothe people who live here: Even with the killer still at large, there was no need to worry; no, not here. Giovanditto's death was an isolated incident, Lizasuain said.

"We don't believe the safety of the residents is in jeopardy," she said.

Few neighbors would talk about Giovanditto, who moved to Florida from Massachusetts. The Orlando Sentinel reported that he had once been a teacher; one neighbor thought he was retired.

The killing sullies the type of perfection envisioned in 1989 when Peter Rummell, then-president of the Disney Development Corp., wrote to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner about building a new town on vacant, Disney-owned land in Osceola County.

The community would be a "wonderful residential town east of I-4 that has a human scale with sidewalks and bicycles and parks and the kind of architecture that is sophisticated and timeless. It will have fiber optics and smart houses, but the feel will in many cases be closer to Main Street than to Future World," Rummell wrote in the letter.

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Houses incorporated "New Urbanism" ideas such as placing the garage out of sight in the back and a front porch close to the sidewalk to encourage neighbor interaction. Restrictions on home color and architectural details also were in the community's rulebook. Colonial, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts-style homes grace the streets; the downtown is a mix of postmodern buildings and stucco condos.

Residents arrived in 1996. Critics viewed it as something out of "The Truman Show," or "The Stepford Wives."

Fans saw other things. A return to small-town values. A walkable community. Safety.

Disney relinquished control of Celebration several years ago; the town is now maintained like any other in Osceola County. But it still retains theme park-like flourishes: a colorful kiosk sells tickets to a little train that ferries children and adults around town, tourists in Disney sweat shirts roam the streets, taking photos and, on a recent sunny day, Crosby's "White Christmas" could be heard playing all over downtown.

This bucolic landscape makes it all the more difficult to believe that there actually was a homicide here, just steps from Celebration's downtown, where people stroll with their tiny dogs and pause to enjoy a small, glittering man-made lake.

Over the years there has been crime in Celebration, but always much less than in neighboring communities.

And the town has not been immune to the effects of the Great Recession. Last year, the Washington Post wrote a story about the town's dropping real estate values; homes are now available for under $300,000, and condos for $120,000, unheard-of prices just a few years ago.

In the summer, Celebration residents lamented the fact that the Veterans Memorial was marred with painted black graffiti.

On Wednesday, the town's K-8 school was on lockdown, because a woman going through a divorce told officers that her husband might have been driving around with a gun.

And now this, the first homicide in Celebration, the town that Disney built.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Killing shocks Disney town

  1. Closed captioning of: Killing shocks Disney town

    >>> so this is supposed to be a picture-perfect paradise in central florida . it was named celebration for pete's sake. disney dreamed up this community. it became a reality 14 years ago. somewhat like a realistic version of pleasantville. last week, celebration had its first homicide. a 58-year-old man kill over thanksgiving weekend. we have more from an investigative crime reporter. this has to be devastating to theto town that pride itself on being picture perfect .

    >> reporter: it is. complete devastation for the town. it's a very small community, contessa. i'm told by investigators that it appears at the this particular point to be an isolated incident. this is a man who lived by himself. and his neighbors really kind of noticed something was wrong. he was missing so they filed a missing persons report on sunday. then by monday, the manager let investigators into his home, and that's where they found his body.

    >> and so this has got to be the point where you've got the police scratching their heads and saying, well, now we've got to involve the investigation. does celebration even have police who are capable of doing a murder investigation? i don't mean to make it sound like they're barney pfeiffer cops, but they don't have crimes like this.

    >> reporter: no, they don't, but it's the sheriff's department that takes over the investigation. i also confirmed with authorities that the residents themselves that, although the sheriff's department does regular patrols, they also hire outside patrols to come in and to make sure that their neighborhood is secure and safe. i thought that was interesting because it's a -- you know, it's a place that's monitoring closely. but they also told me that unfortunately there may not be a lot of surveillance around the area. now his vehicle was taken, his black corvette was taken, but it was located the next day, about 25 minutes away at an apartment complex . so i'm sure that authorities at this time are pulling a lot of the surveillance from different routes in the area, possibly from the new apartment complex . just to kind of see who was getting out of the vehicle, what may have wanted to targ threat man, and -- target this

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