It's a sad tragic story, yet this final odd ending makes the family of this man quietly happy.
A homeless man known in the area, was found dead two years ago on Thanksgiving in a posh shopping area of Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. People knew him, some even offered him money and occasional food, and he never seemed a threat to anyone.
It took a while, but the 49-year-old was identified as Robert Cattarini—he had a history of substance abuse, mental illness and a bit of mischief.
A month after his body was found in the fountain, strange things started happening to the shops in the mini-mall complex. Doors closed by themselves, lights flickered on and off for no reason, water was found in the elevator and other strange things. (I talked to at least half a dozen shop people who would only talk off-the-record and were already concerned that the landlord would evict them if they spoke any more about the friendly poltergeist.)
Many of the new tenants didn't even know about Cattarini's body found in the two-tiered shallow fountain where pigeons come to bathe playfully at the busy corner of Ventura Boulevard and Laurelgrove Avenue. Now, many of them are convinced it is his ghost that haunts the area. This is where he last splashed his face before he collapsed and died of an aneurysm the day after.
“In reflecting about being at the fountain where my brother was found, the only thing I constantly thought about was if Robert knew what was happening to him during his final moments, and what was going on his mind at that time,” said younger brother Leo Cattarini, who with his wife Patricia visited recently from Mamaroneck, New York, where he runs a family restaurant, Rini's, that specializes in Italian food. Leo said he is glad that his brother didn’t die the way people first thought.
It wasn’t foul play. It wasn’t a homicide. It wasn’t a drug addict on an overzealous bender that went awry. But on the busiest shopping day of the year, it was a shock to find a body in that pristine tiled fountain. On that morning of a slow news weekend, TV station helicopters swarmed the area, and police cordoned-off the California Pavilion shopping area. Speculation was rampant.
“He would have loved all the commotion—the police all around, the helicopters overhead,” Leo said, sitting near the edge of the fountain. “He would have loved all the attention.”
Months later, Lt. Cheryl MacWillie of the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office confirmed that Robert died of an aneurysm “with absolutely no signs of foul play. It was natural causes.”
The medical examiner said the aneurysm could have happened anywhere and wasn't triggered by the drug abuse that haunted the homeless man much of his life. Robert wasn’t starting an early celebration of his 50th birthday—which would have occurred in only 18 days. Toxicology reports showed no evidence of alcohol or drugs. Robert’s Thanksgiving meal appeared to have been light—only some undigested vegetables were found in his system.
Robert may have felt ill for a while. An unidentified woman reported that the elevator in the complex was soaking wet that morning. He may have felt ill for a few hours and went upstairs to a more isolated space, and then came back down to the fountain to cool off. Police thought perhaps the homeless man was bending over and hit his head while fishing for coins in the fountain.
“There probably wasn’t enough coins to bother with,” Leo said, looking into the fountain where people throw money to cast wishes. “And there weren’t a lot of coins found in his pockets.”
Robert, who was nine years older than Leo, was diagnosed with mental illness as a teenager and abused drugs and alcohol. He went through a familiar cycle of drug rehabilitation programs and mental institutions and then back on the streets again, but he was also smart enough to avoid being institutionalized for very long, and he managed to take care of himself.
He was strikingly handsome, said Leo’s wife Patricia, “and everyone who met him loved him, he was a real easy-going guy.”
The family tried to help Robert—as much as they could, as much as he would accept. They sent money when necessary. Six years ago he was diagnosed with an aneurysm, some specialists recommended surgery while others thought that surgery was too risky. But, Robert lived on and he always kept a positive outlook.
“I just want people to know it was not a waste of life,” Leo said of his brother. “He did have an impact on people who knew him. He made people laugh.”
Perhaps it’s a story only good for Halloween, perhaps it’s simply an uncanny coincidence. But, now some tenants blame Robert for being the “playful poltergeist.”
“They are telling me that there are some mysterious things going on around the building—things that can’t be explained,” said Leo. “They think maybe there’s something unresolved, or something he still needs to say.”
Representatives from various businesses in buildings near the fountain said that they have seen and heard things.
“Only since he was found there, only since last Thanksgiving, this strange thing happens,” said a longtime shop owner. “I go to my car, I am alone, I hear footsteps behind me and I turn around and there is nothing. I don’t see anything, just hear it. It is like a playful poltergeist.”
Similar reports came from other businesses in the area. Lights that were definitely turned out were suddenly back on. Radios or answering machines were flipped on or off. One shop owner even asked a Catholic priest to bless the area to settle the prankster spirit there.
“It happened so much that we first contacted the building manager, but it wasn’t wiring or electrical problems,” said another store manager. “It happened so often that we finally did some research and we contacted the family in New York to tell them about it. We have no other explanation.”
At one place, where there is an all-female staff, the toilet seat was constantly left up. The women would also come in the next morning to hear the radio blaring full blast. They would even unplug the radio, but the next morning it was on and blaring again.
“We knew that no one else would be coming in, but we told the police anyway to keep an eye out, but there was never any sign of a break-in,” said one of the women. “Sometimes we would walk in and feel something, like a presence. Our hairs were standing up on end.”
What’s most unusual is that Leo Cattarini said that all of the antics—the radio, the lights, the toilet seat—were all jokes that his mentally ill brother would play on the family when he was alive. He liked to blast the radio, and he liked to make himself known.
“It’s strange to say, I know, but it really sounds just like him,” the brother said from New York. “I guess it’s nice to think that maybe he liked it there in Studio City so much he decided to stay around a while.”
A group of local psychics went to the fountain the weekend of his death to see if they could come up with any evidence of foul play. They brought a Ouija Board, and one of the participants said, "We didn't get any readings."
Artak Dovlatyan, of Specialized Realty, who manages one of the buildings near the fountain, wouldn’t talk, but did investigate some tenant inquiries and ruled out any mechanical failures or issues.
Police said when they found Cattarini’s body, there was a puddle of water near an elevator not far from the fountain, showing that perhaps the homeless man splashed himself and walked around disoriented before he stumbled into the water and died.
One woman said she saw sees a puddle of water regularly near the same area. “I went inside to get a roll of towels and I came back out and it was gone,” she said. “It could not have dried up that fast.”
Recently, the only thing one shop gets is a distinct scent of flowers—not anything that anyone is wearing or could come from any shop nearby. “If something like that happens now, we just say we blame it on Robert,” the tenant said.
Brother Leo said, “I think Robert would like that just fine.”