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3 people, 5 years of questions

As Joseph Gatti faces ethics questions from the state, his main accuser and the former student's stepmother are also reliving the allegations.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Joseph Gatti, arrested in 1996, won a hearing in 1998 allowing him to return to the classroom.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002


When sheriff's deputies first came poking around his school, Joseph Gatti thought they were investigating vandalism that had left windows broken, aquariums smashed and tropical fish flopping on the floor.

When the deputies came back to get three computers from Gatti's office, and told him to leave while they packed them up, he grew concerned.

When they returned once more, Gatti just thought they had some questions. Then they arrested him, handcuffed him and, without revealing the charge, put him in the back of a police car.

When he arrived at the Sheriff's Office, Gatti finally learned what was going on. The Powell Middle School teacher, well respected up to that point, stood accused of being a child molester. That was Dec. 5, 1996.

More than five years later, Gatti still stands accused.

Yes, every criminal charge lodged against him that December was tossed out within a year. Sure, he won a resounding victory in a 1998 hearing that allowed him to teach again.

But on Monday, Gatti faces the same charges again.

This time the adversary is the Florida Department of Education. His freedom is no longer at stake, just his license to teach.

Gatti's life was held up to the light of the state's criminal laws and the requirements of his contract with the School Board. Both times he prevailed. Now, his actions will be measured against the Principles for Professional Conduct for Florida -- the teachers code of ethics.

At its core, the long Gatti saga is essentially the story of three people.

As another chapter is about to be written, it helps to understand who they are, what motivates them and how their lives have changed after five years of court battles and the events that prompted them.

At the heart of the case is Coy Burge.

He was the Powell Middle School student whose accusations made up roughly half the original charges against Gatti. This week, at age 20, he will be testifying for the first time as an adult. He says he wants to speak his mind, and agreed on Friday to talk on the record with the Times.

"He's a piece of s---, and I'd like to get his teaching license taken away for the things that happened and for him trying to say they didn't happen," Burge said of Gatti. "I sure hope they find in my favor. Because if he doesn't get his teaching license taken away, it's going to happen again."

From the first hearing in 1998, a stark image of Burge's childhood emerged.

Once, at age 3 or 4, his stepmother forced him to eat off the kitchen floor because she had grown tired of his throwing food. As a teen, his dad caught him with marijuana and then smoked it with him -- after making him promise to buy no more.

His stepmother once threw a chair at him, and his father beat him so badly about the face that the police took pictures of the bruises. He got in fights himself. He burglarized a home (in the eighth grade). He did time in juvenile detention.

Most of all, he ran.

Through the years, Burge ran away from home so many times his family lost count. He ran so much, his stepmother testified in 1998, that his parents didn't always report it to police.

They just waited for him to return, even if it took a day or two.

As an adult, Burge looks back on his childhood and doesn't see tragedy. He says now that he deserved to be put on the floor next to his food. He says now that his troubles with his parents were a result of his unwillingness to follow the rules.

Yet, life is still a struggle.

He says he works now as a roofer in Tallahassee and is off drugs. But records show that, since 1998, he has been arrested on charges of burglary, theft, dealing in stolen property and battery on a law enforcement officer. He has been to drug rehab, and he's been to jail.

And after all that's happened, Burge's relationship with Gatti is still conflicted.

He curses Gatti's name in one breath, then in the next says he called Gatti from jail to tell him he had received his General Educational Development certificate. When his parents wouldn't send money to the jail, he asked Gatti to send some. And he says Gatti came through, with $10 or $20 on several occasions.

Why would he seek out someone he says is a molester?

"More or less to be a p----, I guess," he said.

There is Burge's stepmother, Deborah Burge.

When Coy was 2 1/2 years old, she moved in with his father. She testified in the 1998 hearing that she had been molested as a child. That experience, she said, helped her sense that Coy was being abused.

Yet her relationship with her stepson was, at best, a struggle. She put a padlock on her bedroom door to keep him from stealing her things. She knew he did drugs, but seemed helpless to stop it. When she tried to punish him, he ran away from home.

Over time, her view of Gatti would change dramatically. Once she gave him a gift bag and a thank you card. A few months later, she said she would like to be alone in a room with Gatti so she could mete out justice however she liked.

For five years now, Deborah Burge's mission has been nothing less than the end of Joseph Gatti's teaching career. She declined to talk to the Times for this story. But in the past she has made her position abundantly clear.

"It is my responsibility as a parent to get this man away from kids any way I can," Mrs. Burge told the Times in 1999. " . . . I will follow him and pursue him the rest of his life to make sure he does not harm another child."

Finally, there is Gatti himself.

A devout Catholic, he is 41, single and still living at home with his parents in Brooksville.

On the day of his arrest, Gatti had been teaching at Powell for seven years. In the year prior to the arrest, Gatti had been named director of Powell's after-school program and nominated as the school's Teacher of the Year.

It was through the after-school program that Gatti met the Burges and agreed to become Coy's mentor. These days, the Burges are a thorn in his side.

In Gatti's view, Deborah Burge is carrying out a personal vendetta, channeling the anger from her childhood molestation against him.

"In her deposition," Gatti said, "she said there was nothing that we could present that would convince her of my innocence."

In Gatti's view, Coy Burge is his stepmother's "puppet," a boy psychologically manipulated by the parent he fears.

"I'm saddened to see the way that he has deteriorated," Gatti said of Coy. "He had considerable potential, and he was doing quite well when he was at Powell. I wish he had the guts to stand up to his mother and stop lying.

"He's just a shadow of what he could have become."

Gatti has never wavered from his belief that the truth is on his side. And despite everything, Gatti said, he still doesn't regret getting involved with the Burges.

Some say Gatti's involvement with Coy Burge went beyond the normal boundaries of a typical student-teacher relationship. Gatti and his attorneys say it was just an example of one teacher's extraordinary ability to care.

However you couch it, Gatti's involvement was extensive.

Two to three nights a week, Gatti visited the Burges' house to help Coy with homework. Frequently, he ate dinner there. He made Deborah Burge a pizza for her birthday. He knew where the Burges kept their spare house key.

Gatti offered Coy incentives to do his school work, including a trip to Walt Disney World.

Over two summers, the Burges allowed Gatti to take Coy to a summer camp in Vermont where Gatti was an assistant director. He arranged for the Burges to get a considerable discount on the camp's fees. His sister, a travel agent, made the arrangements.

Initially, with Gatti's encouragement, Coy's grades improved.

Gatti's relationship with the Burges gradually grew more complicated. During the second summer in Vermont, in 1996, Gatti allowed Coy to buy some CDs and a CD player with Gatti's credit card. Gatti says it wasn't a gift, that the charges were almost immediately debited from Coy's cash account at the camp.

Gatti also loaned Coy his credit card when the boy wanted to buy some boxer shorts online. Again, Gatti was supposed to be paid back.

Those days at the camp, Gatti insists still, were probably the best of Coy's life. Asked about that Friday, Burge said: "That's not a lie." Then he put a very specific qualifier on that assessment: "Not necessarily (the best of my life). Maybe when we went caving at camp."

After his last trip to camp in 1996, Coy moved to the ninth grade at Springstead High School's old west campus. That fall, there was another confrontation within the Burge home, and Coy ran away.

Gatti suggested to the Burges that they let Coy temporarily live with Gatti's close friends, Kevin and Peady O'Connor. At their wit's end, the Burges agreed.

And Gatti was never far away.

Routinely, he picked Coy up from school to take him home to the O'Connors; he took Coy to church.

Peady O'Connor, who took primary responsibility for Coy, needed some way to keep in touch with the boy. So Gatti, with her consent, spent $90 on a pager -- again with the understanding that he would be paid back.

Within a month, the Burges decided it was time for Coy to come home.

But when Charles Burge, Coy's father, went to get him, there was a violent argument. A witness said at the 1998 hearing that Charles Burge repeatedly pounded Coy in the face. When it was over, Coy was badly beaten, and his father was arrested. From there, everything changed. Within days, Deborah Burge mentioned to police that she suspected Gatti was molesting Coy.

Gatti's attorneys, now and in the past, have raised the question of whether that was a coincidence or whether there was a deal -- juicy allegations against the teacher in exchange for dropping the battery charge against the father.

At the 1998 hearing, Deborah Burge insisted there was never a deal.

Once the allegation was made, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office began a vigorous investigation that, within six weeks, led them to Gatti's office at Powell.

Once he got into the patrol car, Gatti's case seemed to take on a life of its own.

The allegations were sensational -- sexual relations, gay pornography from the Internet and fondling at school, on a boat, at Walt Disney World and at the Vermont summer camp. Authorities said three students were accusing Gatti. They seemed confident in their case.

But when it came time to go to trial, things fell apart.

Prosecutors were not ready for the first trial. In another case, the boy who said Gatti's hand had brushed his crotch admitted it might have been an accident.

And prosecutors dropped the charges they felt were most likely to stick after prosecutor Anthony Tatti concluded that the case could not be won. He said the boys had changed their stories too often and there was evidence Deborah Burge had coached Coy's testimony.

Ten months after the handcuffed ride from Powell, Gatti was clear of the criminal charges.

But his troubles weren't over.

The School Board still wanted to know if Gatti had done anything improper that should cost him his job. Unable to sort things out, the board asked an administrative law judge to decide.

At the seven-day hearing in 1998, Gatti attorney Chip Mander poked holes in every allegation.

He demonstrated that Gatti's boat was in dry dock the day Coy said he had been molested on the water.

He showed that Gatti was never alone with Coy the day Coy said there had been sexual relations.

He pointed out that another boy had multiple versions of an alleged fondling incident -- first he said his shorts had been pulled down, later that only his fly had been unzipped.

He showed that Coy initially denied that Gatti had done anything wrong and coughed up his first allegation only after repeated questioning, including a final session where he was told by authorities that he could not leave until he gave investigators a morsel.

To believe Gatti is a molester, Mander argued, is to believe Gatti sought cheap thrills in places with no guarantee of privacy -- a school workroom situated next to a snack-laden refrigerator, a parking lot at Walt Disney World or a Vermont summer camp cabin that was home to a crowd of campers.

It didn't hurt that Coy said he had previously lied to teachers, to attorneys and to police and that the other boy accuser said this: "I told the truth. Not much. But I told the truth."

When the ruling on that 1998 hearing came down, the judge could not have stated her position more clearly: The boys' stories were simply not believable, and Gatti should get his job back.

For Coy Burge, who has told his story countless times, the week ahead promises another turn on the hot seat. It was difficult in 1998 to remember old details, he said, when asked about his past inconsistencies. And he knows it promises to be harder now.

"It's kind of hard to remember things because I had smoked pot," he said. "I ain't got a very good memory. But I remember things that happened.

"I'd like to say it for one last time."

For Gatti, the courtroom winning streak has cost more than $300,000, not counting what the teachers union has contributed to his legal defense. Still, there is unfinished business.

Gatti says he is resolved to seeing it through. But he admits that his life is different now, that he is more fearful.

It is feeling uneasy about being alone with a student. It is demanding large glass window panes on the doors to your office. True comfort, it seems, comes only under the quiet gaze of a security camera.

It is praying to St. Benedict and St. Raphael and hoping their reputations for justice will bring some your way. Yet it is knowing that, even in America, sometimes there is no justice.

It is the hope that the people who have been lying about you will finally stand up and tell the truth. And it is living with the memory -- the fear -- that the lies could come back to your door at any time and haul you off to jail.

Finally, it is winning twice before and knowing that winning two out of three will still ruin you.

"Winston Churchill said that a lie goes around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on," Gatti said. "That's what we're doing. We're still putting our boots on."

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