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Change of venue request withdrawn for trial in South Forsyth grad’s beating death
Gatto-2 WEB
Michael Joseph Gatto

STATESBORO — One week prior to the scheduled start of jury selection, attorneys for Grant James Spencer withdrew a motion for a change of venue and other motions that prosecutors hinted might delay Spencer’s trial on charges of felony murder and aggravated battery in the August 2014 death of South Forsyth High School graduate Michael Joseph Gatto, 18.

“Right now, we’re headed in the direction of doing something Tuesday,” Ogeechee Circuit Chief Judge William E. Woodrum Jr. said at the conclusion of the Oct. 4 pretrial hearing.

He has jury selection scheduled to begin first thing on Oct. 11 for the trial in Bulloch County Superior Court.

How we got here

On Aug. 28, 2014, just 10 days after he arrived at Georgia Southern, Gatto was pronounced dead at a Savannah hospital hours after being found unresponsive at Rude Rudy’s, a bar near the college’s campus.

James Grant Spencer, an off duty bouncer who was 20 at the time, has since been charged with aggravated battery and felony murder in the case.

In October 2014, Woodrum chose to deny bond for Spencer, a former high school wrestler from Johns Creek.

According to Bulloch County Jail records, Spencer has been an inmate since his arrest the night of the incident.

A month after the incident, Rude Rudy’s closed permanently and owner Jonathan Earl Starkey voluntarily surrendered all alcohol licenses in his name or that he had a legal or equitable interest in.

Starkey also agreed “to forever forfeit all rights or privileges in obtaining an alcoholic beverage license from the city of Statesboro” and that no business he has an interest in will obtain one.

Named after Gatto, Michael’s Law, or House Bill 152, went into effect statewide this summer and defines what a bar is, prohibits those under 21 from working as a bouncer. Those under 21 can still work as servers and exceptions are made when attendees are paying admission to attend musical concerts or other live performances

Alcohol enforcement

Much of this past Tuesday’s hearing was taken up with contrasting statements regarding hundreds of pages of documents that Spencer’s defense attorneys, L. David Wolfe of Atlanta and Matthew Hube of Statesboro, obtained through a Georgia Open Records Act request to the city of Statesboro last month.

The documents have to do with the city’s handling of alcoholic beverage laws, including its own ordinance, and any investigations into lax enforcement.

District Attorney Daphne Totten said she wasn’t at that point requesting a continuance, but was expressing concern about the state’s readiness for trial if prosecutors had to respond to this material. Totten argued that the documents concerning the city’s alcohol enforcement and revisions of its ordinance were not relevant.

While repeatedly saying that the defense would not use the documents from the open records request, Wolfe argued that they would be relevant.

But the city documents, he said, would have explained how Gatto got into the club. The city of Statesboro, Wolfe asserted, allowed a culture to exist at Rude Rudy’s that encouraged customers under the legal drinking age of 21 to come in and drink.

While the city’s ordinance required places that served alcohol to get at least 50 percent of their revenue from food, the city allowed clubs to count Coca-Cola, other mixers and cover charges, including those paid by customers under 21, to count as nonfood items, he noted.

A city self-investigation in 2014 showed potentially thousands of violations were tolerated, and other documents would reveal that police were discouraged from enforcing the law, Wolfe said. Just this year, City Council adopted an entirely new Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance after discussing it off and on since before Gatto’s death.

Motions withdrawn

But Wolfe also said that, after Spencer has spent two years in jail without bond, they now put a priority on proceeding to trial.

“We’ll withdraw all the motions that we’ve filed, and we’re ready to go first thing Tuesday morning,” Wolfe said.

Besides the motion to compel discovery, and the Sept. 12 motion for a change of venue to another county on the basis of prior publicity, he withdrew two motions for special methods of jury selection.

Totten said she wanted the judge to consider a gag order prohibiting both prosecution and defense attorneys from discussing the case further with reporters, but Woodrum did not reply to that request during the hearing.

Staff writer Kelly Whitmire contributed to this report.