Murder in the utopian town that Disney built

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The Independent US

Unfamiliar angst has arrived in Celebration, the picture-perfect town that Disney built 15 years ago in central Florida. While they are still piping Irving Berlin's "Happy Holiday" into the main square and spraying its pavements hourly with fake snow, the season of joy has been torn by rare violence.

Built from scratch complete with schools, shops, churches and homes both expansive and modest to embody the company's shiny values, Celebration was successfully marketed as a new and unique utopia in urban living. But in a few short days last week it seemed suddenly to have fallen under a curse, as if Walt Disney himself had conceded from the grave that every good fairy tale must come with a little evil.

It started on Tuesday when police responded to an emergency call and discovered the body of a man identified as Matteo Patrick Giovanditto, 58, dead on his kitchen floor covered by a blanket. It was quickly recorded as a murder, the first that the town, population 11,000, had suffered in its existence.

As the police expanded their investigation into the slaying of Mr Giovanditto, more trouble arrived. A man named Craig Foushee, 52, also a Celebration resident, barricaded himself in his own house on Thursday for 14 hours and began shooting at police officers outside. None were injured, but when they entered the house early yesterday they found Foushee dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In a few short days Celebration has become a town turned upside down. Yellow crime tape competes with Christmas wreaths and instead of carollers, SWAT teams have been seen roaming the streets.

Illusion has been the first ingredient of Celebration since it was first conceived. There may be palms on every verge and crocodiles in the drainage canals, but its tidy street grid, church spires and skating rink are all there to conjure the feel of life in the Hamptons or the villages of Vermont.

The fantasy was spelled out in the Disney sales blurb when the first homes went on sale in 1996. "There once was a place where neighbours greeted neighbours in the quiet of summer twilight, where children chased fireflies."

Just 15 miles south of Cinderella's Castle in Disney World, Celebration seemed at first to achieve its pixie-dust aspirations, attracting both employees of the theme park and pensioners looking for a worry-free retirement.

Perhaps they were always hostages to fortune. Their first burst of the bubble came in 2002 when a couple were bound and gagged in their home by a gang of masked burglars. More recently, residents have watched as the values of their homes have tumbled. And on Thanksgiving Day just over one week ago, its only cinema closed down, unable to sustain itself even on a heavy diet of Disney films.

But the notion of Celebration being insulated from the rest of the world may now have fractured for good. "This definitely has thrown me for a loop," said Lauren Hower, 23, who recently arrived in Celebration from southern New Jersey.

Twis Lizasuain, spokeswoman for the Osceola County Sheriff, said: "It is very rare and unusual for a crime of this magnitude to occur in this community. We are working this as an isolated incident. We don't believe there is an individual out there targeting other individuals in Celebration."

Meanwhile, investigators believe that the stand-off with Mr Foushee and his subsequent suicide may have been prompted by a domestic dispute. He had recently broken up with his wife and lost his business. They said they saw no connection between his death and the slaying of Mr Giovanditto.