Murder in Celebration: Axe Bludgeoned in a Time of Artificial Innocence

Help Us Street SignFor Autumn, the lampposts lining the streets of downtown Celebration, Florida belch out leaf-shaped confetti onto the sidewalks to simulate the falling of leaves that mark Winter’s approach. After this, the Disney-built town switches the leaves for soap flakes to simulate snow, adding water so soap bubbles create imitation snow drifts. Somewhere between the seasonal artifice, one man spent Thanksgiving beating another man to death with an axe and leaving the body on the kitchen floor over the holiday weekend; two days later in an unrelated incident another man held a standoff shootout with armored police until he concluded it with a suicidal shot to his own head.

Today a homeless man was arrested for the axe bludgeoning.

At which I read, and scratched my head thinking, there are homeless people in Disney’s Celebration?

Princesses, certainly. Misunderstood monsters, of course. But while my visions of Celebration includes conjured images of Stepford smiles and nuclear shelter milking machines, the only homeless personalities I imagine might be cute little mice in threadbare waistcoats. Hey – right now it is “snowing nightly” in Celebration, Florida. I expect the homeless people to break into song and dance routines, not into my house for a scene out of The Crazies.

Fourteen years ago the Walt Disney Company established the Celebration Company to create a master planned community – its own city – in Florida near the Walt Disney World resort. Disney’s early brochures marketed the town to would-be inhabitants as, ”a place that takes you back to that time of innocence.” Along with the timed, manufactured seasons, the company “imagineered” an idyllic town and established strict guidelines for inhabitants to reflect the values of the simpler – better – time they imagineered.

The focus is on appearances. Celebration is designed to “look like a town,” music is piped onto the streets (right now it is Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin for the holidays), the white picket fences are plastic and pillars are artificial, a contract of rules and covenants strictly governs that every homeowner must follow regulations regarding the appearance of houses, lawns – and include details from front-yard shrub selection to the colors of curtains visible from the street. The Celebration Company decided which businesses came to town and were allowed to set up shop in the pastel-colored business district. Celebration is divided not into neighborhoods, but “villages.”

The population is almost entirely white, clocking in at around 94%. Celebration broke ground with its first couple hundred residents in 1996 and now has an estimated population of around 12,000 – this was Disney’s ideal. Originally Disney estimated a population of 20K, but later stated 12K was the right size for the town that hearkened for an innocent, if not wholly imaginary, time.

In 2004, Disney sold Celebration but it was never clear who it was sold to; the sale was negotiated in secret. However, some of us bad kids like to peek behind the curtain and see who pulled magical levers and turned mysterious knobs to create a town out of wishes. Celebration was master planned between a few renowned architects and a nice company called EDAW (now AECOM) – interestingly, a company originally from San Francisco. AECOM did Celebration’s engineering. AECOM is known for being green civil engineers.

AECOM has had a lot of projects. As they had a direct hand in planning the core of Celebration’s infrastructure, it should be noted that AECOM’s portfolio also includes a $210-million contract to provide program management services for Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; a $17.4-million contract for the King Abdullah Financial District in Saudi Arabia, a port project in Qatar, a $53-million IDIQ contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide economic-consulting services to Iraq through the Iraq financial sector development program, among many other interesting projects. SF Bay Area locals will be interested to find out that AECOM also got the $147-million program-management contract for MUNI that began in 2009, and got the Central Subway project called financially out of control, in addition to being put two years behind schedule.

But I digress.

Celebration is a Disney-Utopian town built on Disney values, and so are its stories. Matteo Giovanditto, 58, was a former teacher who lived alone with his Chihuahua, and just as Disney soap flakes were getting ready to flurry every hour on the hour during winter evenings over the next few weeks, had gone missing for a few days. Three days later Craig Foushee, 52, shot himself after police threw tear gas canisters into his home, in which he had barricaded himself. 28-year-old David-Israel Murillo beat and strangled Giovanditto to death over Thanksgiving, with Murillo telling police that they got into a fight, and he beat Giovanditto unconscious with an axe he found in the closet. According to ABC News,

“He got what he deserved,” Murillo reportedly said as he was escorted out of the sheriff’s office.

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