The first blow cracked open his head.
"Faggot!'' screamed one of the hooded attackers. "You're gonna die!''
Joe Catania believed him. A lamp crashed against his face. Blood flew.
"Kill his dog! Kill the faggot's dog!''
In his 64 years, in all his openly gay life, Catania had never endured a beating. But now, in the bedroom of his own home just two blocks from the restaurant he lovingly tended for 15 years, he touched his unrecognizable face and it crackled like paper.
"I looked like the elephant man,'' he said. "My sinuses were ripped to shreds, my face was shattered.''
Sometime before 5 a.m. Aug. 23 on quiet, tree-shaded Illinois Avenue in New Port Richey, Joe Catania fell victim to a hate crime. He has no doubt about that. But he has plenty of doubt that the local police gave it much attention.
He also has several friends in town, people who admired what he did with the Cafe Grand before retiring in 2004. Last week, some of them started complaining. Now Mayor Scott McPherson and City Manager Tom O'Neill are involved. They have a meeting scheduled this week with police officials.
"I don't have enough information to form an opinion about it,'' said McPherson, "but when any citizen accuses our police of being unprofessional, I think it's appropriate for the mayor to get involved.''
Catania is crystal clear about that: "The police blew it,'' he said. "The officer who came to the house that morning said, 'Your story doesn't add up.' She said, 'Are you sure you weren't entertaining these gentlemen and something went wrong?' "
"I've been in this city a long time. I've been a respected member of the community, and I've been openly gay. I don't deserve to be treated this way. But more important, these guys are mean, dangerous killers — and they're still out there.''
Catania said that after he was beaten, one of the men said, "If you don't die, we'll come back and kill you.''
The police officer who responded to the beating, Kimberly Cosimi, was fired Sept. 22 after only a year at the department. Lt. Jeffrey Harrington said it had nothing to do with Catania's case, and her personnel file includes a letter from Chief Martin Rickus saying she had excessive sick time and a "lack of commitment.'' Cosimi, who was a Pasco sheriff's deputy for 10 years before joining the city force, declined to comment.
Harrington provided only the cover sheet of the incident report, saying the case is under investigation. "I'm aware Mr. Catania doesn't think it was given sufficient priority, but it was assigned to a detective. I can appreciate any anxiety he has as a victim of a crime. But the chief has directed that it be made a priority.'' He said the department is awaiting some results from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab in Tampa.
Catania complained that police didn't take fingerprints until four days after the beating. The assailants took his iPhone, which had a tracking system, but Catania said police ignored his suggestion to pursue it.
Catania also gave the police a name — Chad. And though the two men were disguised, one had a Hispanic accent, he said. Catania was certain he knew the two men.
Just how he was certain is a matter of embarrassment.
"I'm an old fool,'' Catania said.
Several weeks before the attack, Catania met a young man on an online dating service. They partied. The man brought a friend, who was Hispanic.
Catania said he later rejected "Chad.'' A week before the beating, Catania went outside his home to find his tires had been slashed.
That's a lot of information to work with, "if the police are interested,'' he said. "Clearly, they weren't. On the report, they label it a home invasion. This was an attempted murder. They wanted me dead. You can tell the police didn't take it seriously because they didn't even report it to the public. You can burp in New Port Richey and it makes the papers. You have a brutal beating in a residential neighborhood, nothing.''
Meanwhile, Catania says he suffers dizziness and can't sleep. Worried that his assailants would return to finish him off, he took his 15-year-old Westy, "Woo,'' and left town.
"This was my home,'' Catania said. "I never wanted to leave. But I am terrified.''