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Joseph Gatto's shooting death stuns neighbors, artistic community

L.A. police investigate the shooting death of Assemblyman Mike Gatto's father, Joseph, a well-known artist and mentor, in his Silver Lake home.

November 14, 2013|By Kate Mather and Ari Bloomekatz

Joseph Gatto was a fixture in the quiet Silver Lake neighborhood he had long called home.

Friends knew the 78-year-old father of state Assemblyman Mike Gatto as an easy person to talk to, a well-liked artist who spent decades teaching at schools across Los Angeles. He was a patriarch — not just to his close-knit family, but to a vast community of artists, former students and neighbors.

So when news spread Thursday that Gatto had been shot dead in his home the previous night, those who knew him said it didn't make sense.

"No one in the world would have hurt Joe Gatto," longtime family friend Lauren Wayne said after placing red and white flowers next to crime scene tape near his home.

Gatto ate dinner with his daughter, Marianna, and her fiance every Wednesday night, Wayne said, and when she didn't hear from him, she went to his home on Bright Lane. Her father was slumped over his desk with a gunshot wound.

"She went over there and found him dead," a shaken Mike Gatto said early Thursday as he was preparing to fly home from Sacramento.

Joseph Gatto was shot at least once in the abdomen with a small-caliber handgun, and his home had been ransacked, Los Angeles Police Lt. Richard Parks said. But as investigators spent Thursday combing the house for evidence and talking to neighbors, they offered no details on a possible motive. One early theory is that Gatto, a jewelry maker, may have been targeted by robbers, police sources said.

"All possibilities are on the table," said Det. Gus Villanueva. "We're not ruling anything out."

The homicide was a rarity for Silver Lake. It was the first in the neighborhood since May 2012, according to the Times' Homicide Report.

City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area and knows the Gatto family, said tips were already coming in that could help the investigation. He spoke to residents and LAPD officials outside Gatto's home Thursday morning and consoled Wayne, the family friend, as she broke down in tears.

"I've been to crime scenes before, but when you know the people, it's worse," LaBonge said.

Gov. Jerry Brown and his wife offered their "deepest sympathies and condolences" to the family, as did fellow artists and neighbors. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said the LAPD had started an "aggressive investigation" into Gatto's death.

Former students recalled Gatto as a teacher with a tough-love approach, whose honesty and guidance made him a valued mentor.

Robert Vargas, an artist who recently painted the large "Our Lady of DTLA" mural on the corner of 6th and Spring streets, planned to draw portraits at Thursday night's Downtown Artwalk in tribute to Gatto, whom he described as "a pillar in my foundation as a young artist."

"His teaching style was very honest, it was very direct," Vargas said. "He challenged and inspired us to pull from within ourselves and not be afraid of that path of discovery, wherever that may lead us."

Even after graduating from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Vargas said, he would come back for critiques from Gatto — and sometimes even recorded their conversations.

"Mr. Gatto, he would hold no punches and tell you like it is," Vargas said.

Another of his former students, Malaika Zweig Latty, followed in his footsteps. She now serves as the high school's chairwoman of the visual arts department — the job Gatto held when the school was founded in 1985.

"I was Mr. Gatto's student 20 years ago when I went to LACHSA, and he was an incredible friend and mentor and teacher and all of us are just forever grateful for him," Latty said. "I told the principal today that I would never have even applied for this job if it wasn't for Mr. Gatto."

She described him as a legend.

"I can't even imagine how many thousands of people are affected by coming into contact with him as a teacher and as an advocate of the arts. He was someone that opened the door for us to realize that it's a possible life."

Gatto was also a supportive father, proud of his children's accomplishments, said City Councilman Joe Buscaino, another longtime friend.

"You saw Mr. Gatto at all of his kids' events," he said. "He was always the man behind the camera, taking photos. He would just swell with pride as a father."

Buscaino described the Gatto clan like family to him. He initially bonded with Mike Gatto over their shared interest in politics and respective large, Italian American families. Buscaino introduced Marianna Gatto, head of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, to her fiance.

Buscaino and Wayne said the family was looking forward to celebrating the wedding in May.

"Just to know that Mr. Gatto is not going to get to walk her down the aisle is hard for all of us to accept," he said.

kate.mather@latimes.com

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

Times staff writers Jason Wells, Kate Linthicum and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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