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In Michael's Memory: law named for slain South Forsyth grad
Gatto-2 WEB
May 2014 – Michael Gatto graduates from South Forsyth High School. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

What is Michael's Law?

House Bill 152, or Michael’s Law, goes into effect today. Its goal is to prevent another family from having to go through what Michael Gatto’s family did by preventing underage deaths in bars.

• According to the law, a bar is defined as any establishment that “derives 75 percent or more total annual gross revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages” on premises

• Starting today, anyone under 21 is prohibited from working as a bouncer at or attending a bar in Georgia

• The only exception for allowing anyone underage into a bar is when they are paying admission to attend musical concerts or other live performances

• People under 21 can still work as servers in bars

SOUTH FORSYTH -- Michael Gatto’s time at Georgia Southern University was brief and muddled with tragedy, but it will have a lasting impact on college campuses and throughout the state.

Michael’s Law went into effect today to define what a bar is and who is allowed inside. It was named in memory of the South Forsyth High School graduate who was beaten to death at a bar during his freshman year in Statesboro.

One of the law’s key components is prohibiting anyone under 21 from working as a bouncer. The man charged with Gatto’s murder was 20 at the time of the incident.

“I have yet to hear a sound reason as to why that would make sense to have someone under 21 years old being solely responsible for looking at an ID and letting a patron in to verify their age,” said state Rep. Geoff Duncan, who sponsored the bill.

Duncan, whose District 26 covers east and north Forsyth, said the law was the first in the state to legal-ly define what is and is not a bar.

According to the statute, such an establishment is “any premises at which a retailer licensed pursuant to this title to sell alcoholic beverages derives 75 percent or more total annual gross revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises.”

Duncan said another change will strengthen a law that has already been on the books for about 30 years, which says that cities and counties that issue alcohol licenses are required to report violations to the state Department of Revenue.

“This bill tightens up this reporting and adds a shot clock,” he said. “It says if you receive a citation you have 45 days to inform the Department of Revenue that you received an alcohol citation. [The city or county has] 45 days to inform the Department of Revenue that [they] handed out handed out a cita-tion.”

He said the bar where Gatto’s incident took place had 70 citations within a three-year period and said the new rule will add a “dual accountability piece.”

The law also prevents anyone under the drinking age from entering bars, unless they are “attending a live musical concert or live presentation of the performing arts for which he or she has paid an admis-sion charge.”

An unexpected last-minute change before the bill passed also banned the manufacture, possession or sale of powered alcohol in the state.

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How we got here

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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 aggra-vated battery and felony murder in the case.

In October 2014, Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Chief Judge William Woodrum Jr. 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 — more than 670 days.
It appears no trial date has been set.

A month after the incident, Rude Rudy’s closed permanently and owner Jonathan Earl Starkey volun-tarily 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.

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What’s next?

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Though Michael’s Law is in effect, his parents are not done fighting to prevent something like this from happening again.

“We have some other things we are going to pursue in the next year to help tighten things up a little bit,” said Gatto’s father, who shares his son’s name.

One of those changing is adding bartenders and servers to those that need to meet the drinking age.

“One of them is very simply making bartenders 21,” Gatto said. “Again, you go back to the fact that the legal drinking age is 21, so if they’re saying if you’re under 21 you’re not mature enough to handle al-cohol, then how can you have people serve people?”

Another change he said he would like to see is more training for both bouncers and bartenders, which could include how to deal with dangerous situations and intoxicated patrons.

“Serving alcohol is a privilege. It’s not a right. It’s a privilege,” he said. “You’re putting peoples’ lives at risk because bouncers are not trained, servers are not trained.”

A slightly controversial proposal being pursued would require bars to carry liability insurance, which is not required by state law. The measure was initially introduced in Michael’s Law but did not pass.

Gatto said while many businesses have been supportive, some have seen the changes as an attack.

“That’s kind of the big misconception about Michael’s Law and some of the other things that we are looking to do, people think we are trying to hurt these establishments and attack them,” he said. “We’re not. We’re trying to even the playing field and protect people.”

Gatto’s high school Alma matter, where he ran track and field team, honored him at a ceremony before a 2014 football game and presented family members with a flag, which said, among other things, “Do it for Gatto.”

“He had a very outgoing personality, had a lot of friends. His main focus in life was making sure his friends were happy,” Gatto said. “He loved life. He really had no enemies.”

The university also held a candlelight vigil a month after the incident, which was attend by more than 70 students and faculty members.

“Even comments that we got from the 10 days that he was at Southern, people who had just met him were talking to us like he was their best friend, and he had just met them,” Gatto said. “He was a hardworking, wonderful kid, a great son, good to his brother and sisters.

Obviously taken too early, and his effect on people in the future will definitely be missed.”