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Police: More students speak of abuse // A CLOSE RELATIONSHIP

Long before Joe Gatti was accused of sticking his hand down her son's pants, a Spring Hill mother said she was troubled by the computer teacher's intense friendship with her son.

Weeks after meeting the 13-year-old boy in 1995, Gatti sponsored him to attend a summer camp in Vermont where he worked. During the school year, he lavished the boy with gifts, including shoes, clothes and a $150 pass to Disney's Epcot Center. At night, he did the boy's homework.

When the boy left Powell Middle School this June and moved on to ninth grade, Gatti bought him a beeper so the two could stay in touch.

"That's when I started getting suspicious," said the boy's mother. "Joe was getting so possessive. I told him to back off."

Gatti didn't. Instead, he encouraged the boy, who had run away from home in October, to stay away from his parents, said the mother, whose name is not being published to protect her son's identity. That's when the mother met with detectives to discuss Gatti's interference. That meeting launched a five-week investigation that culminated Thursday in Gatti's arrest on 12 sex-crime charges involving the boy and two other pupils. Gatti also was charged with one count of interfering with custody of the boy.

"He's a sick, sick man," she said. "We're going to do all we can to make sure he stays behind bars."

The mother said Gatti entered her life in April 1995, when her son, then a Powell seventh-grader, met Gatti through the school's after-school tutoring and recreational program. Within weeks, Gatti arranged for the boy to spend the summer in Vermont with him at Camp Fangamon, where he was assistant director. The boy's family told Gatti they couldn't afford the $4,000 camp fee. Gatti said he would cover all expenses except for the $250 registration. The family agreed.

The boy loved the camp and returned with new shoes and expensive clothes, his mother said. Gatti bought them, he said. Gatti continued to lavish gifts on the boy during the school year, including a one-year pass to Epcot Center. The eighth-grader, who was never in any of Gatti's classes, was becoming enamored by the man's generosity, his mother said.

Day by day, Gatti began spending more time with the boy. The two would hang out in Gatti's computer classroom until 9:30 at night. They would snorkle together on the weekends. Three times a week, Gatti would tutor the boy for free at the boy's home in Spring Hill, often completing his assignments. After the boy, who is now 15 years old, began ninth grade this August, Gatti would pick him up from school and bring him to his classroom at Powell.

When it came time for parent-teacher conferences, Gatti was there.

"It was like he was trying to raise him," the mother said. "I couldn't believe how much time this man would spend with my boy."

Gatti, 36, had plenty of time for pupils. He has few friends, no girlfriends and never married, according to his brother, John Gatti. Since 1981, when his family left Toms River, N.J., Joe Gatti has lived with his retired parents, who are immigrants from Italy, and his brother and sister. Few visitors ever stopped by the aging mobile home in northeastern Hernando to visit Gatti, his brother said.

"Teaching is his life. All he ever wanted to do was to help troubled kids," said John Gatti, 48.

But Joe Gatti didn't always want to be a teacher. After graduating from Saint Leo College in Pasco County in 1985 with a biology degree, Gatti opened his own computer consulting company in Hernando. From an early age, Gatti was a whiz with electronics, his brother said.

"He could take apart a computer and put it together blindfolded," he said.

The computer business never took off. In 1986 Gatti accepted a six-month teaching position at Hernando High School in Brooksville. He was hired at Powell, at Powell Road and Barclay Avenue, south of Brooksville, three years later as a full-time science teacher and remained there until his arrest Thursday.

At Powell, Gatti held a number of leadership positions, including chairman of the science department, newspaper adviser, Student Council sponsor and technology coordinator. In 1995, his peers nominated him as Powell's entry in the countywide Teacher of the Year contest. Gatti, who friends say is extremely modest, turned it down.

"I'll admit, we loved Joe Gatti," said the mother who later accused him of fondling her son. In a card to the computer teacher dated July 6, she wrote:

"We cannot tell you how much we appreciate all you've done for (my son) this year. You have had a very positive effect on our entire family."

But the relationship between Gatti and the boy's family soured after the boy ran away from home this fall. Gatti, who maintained contact with the boy after his parents reported him missing Sept. 18, suggested he stay temporarily with a family Gatti knew from St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Brooksville. The boy had been fighting with his parents, at times physically with his father, and both families agreed a month away from home might help alleviate tension. The boy consented.

On Oct. 24, the boy's father went to bring his son home. A fight broke out between the boy and his father on the lawn of the boy's temporary home.

"The father was holding him by the neck, slugging him in the face," said one member of the family the boy was staying with.

Deputies arrested the father, a tire mechanic, and charged him with one count of child abuse. The charge was later dropped. The boy refused to go home, and the next night, he was taken to a Pasco juvenile shelter. He escaped hours later, his mother said.

Gatti immediately learned where the boy was and picked him up, she said. He told the boy to report his father's abuse to the state Department of Children and Families and encouraged him to seek a divorce from his parents, the mother said. Gatti arranged for the boy to stay with the family of another teacher at Powell.

"Don't believe a word of what his mom tells you," said the father of the family with whom the boy stayed for a month. "Joe never manipulated the boy."

The father disputed authorities' allegations that the boy stayed with Gatti while he was running away from his parents. The boy's mother also said her son never spent a night in Gatti's home.

The family who hosted the boy for a month said Gatti discouraged the boy from returning home only because he feared for his safety.

"Joe loved that kid and was just trying to help," said the father of that family. "Joe was doing a great job with the kid, and his mom resented Joe for that."

The boy's mother admitted she resented Gatti for "getting involved in things that weren't his business."

She said she was so outraged by Gatti's interference in the custody of her son that she met with Hernando County sheriff's detectives Oct. 28 to find out what actions to take. During that meeting, she also revealed her suspicions that Gatti may have had more than just a friendship with her son.

"I know the signs. I know what depression and low self-esteem can mean," she said.

The mother disclosed that she was raped by her father as a child and identified her son's moods as indicative of sexual abuse. After the meeting at the Sheriff's Office, she said she hoped her son would tell detectives what Gatti did to him.

Two weeks later, the boy told. He said that four times, beginning in June 1995, Gatti put his hands down the boy's pants while the two were sitting in Gatti's classroom after school. He said Gatti also asked him to masturbate him, which he did.

"This whole thing has left him full of hatred," his mother said. "I'm sure he's going to need a lot of counseling."

The mother said she plans to cooperate fully with prosecutors. She encouraged her son to tell the detectives if Gatti had similar relations with other boys. Within days, investigators were led to two other Powell pupils who had worked after school with Gatti.

The mother says Gatti is a danger to children and deserves to be seriously punished.

Gatti's few friends cannot believe the dedicated teacher is capable of molesting a boy.

"He's the proverbial do-gooder," said the father of the family where the runaway stayed for a month. "I've trusted him with my own kids and know for a fact these allegations aren't true."

Some of Gatti's pupils were shocked Thursday when they learned their teacher had been removed from Powell in handcuffs.

"He was always friendly," said Andrew Allen, an eighth-grader who used to surf the Internet with Gatti twice a week after school. "I used to think he was one of my favorite teachers."