BARTOW, Fla. (AP) — Two decades have passed since gunshots shattered the night at Bartow’s Erie Manufacturing plant, robbing George and Mary Ann Patisso of their only son and leaving Phil and Nicoletta Dosso inconsolable.
It was three days shy of George Patisso Jr.’s 28th birthday.
His brother-in-law, Frank Dosso, 35, had planned to celebrate his twin daughters’ 10th birthday that evening — Dec. 3, 1997 — and was bringing home Chinese carryout for dinner.
Diane Dosso Patisso, 28, had stopped by Erie to pick up her brother and husband, who worked together in the family business, before meeting with her parents for the birthday party.
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Erie partner George Gonsalves, 69, anticipated locking up after everyone had left.
Then, the gunshots.
Two hours later, the Dossos would discover the bloodied bodies of their son, daughter, son-in-law and business partner in the company’s offices. The 911 call that followed would capture their horror and anguish.
“Oh my God, my God,” Phil Dosso shouted to the dispatcher, his words clouded by his thick Italian accent. “My children!”
In October 2006, a Polk County jury convicted former Erie partner Nelson Serrano of the worst mass murder in Polk County history, and he’s spent the past decade on Florida’s death row for those murders.
Still, time has done little to heal Nicoletta Dosso’s heartache.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” she said as the anniversary approached. “All the time, I turn around and want to ask a question, and they’re not there.”
The Patissos remember the promise their son’s life held. Newly married and embarking on a new career in his wife’s family business, George Patisso Jr. had everything ahead of him, they said.
“Every day I think about them,” Mary Ann Patisso said. “I feel like Georgie and Diane are stopped in time. I think of them as traveling somewhere far away and they just haven’t come home. That’s the only way my mind can let me live.”
During Serrano’s 2006 trial, prosecutors told jurors he was angry with Gonsalves, who Serrano believed had orchestrated his ouster from Erie in July 1997.
In the days following the killings, authorities dismissed Serrano as a suspect after surveillance video confirmed he was in Atlanta on business the day of the killings. He told investigators he’d been in his hotel room throughout the day with a migraine, but Tommy Ray, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, continued to question that alibi.
“Everything we found pointed back to Nelson,” he said.
In 2001, Ray discovered Serrano’s fingerprint on a parking garage ticket at Orlando International Airport dated the day of the murders, breaking his alibi and placing him in Florida hours before the killings.
Ray’s investigation revealed that Serrano had secretly returned to Florida that day using aliases to book airline reservations and car rentals, setting the stage for him to commit the murders.
And when Serrano fled to his native Ecuador after he became a prime suspect, Ray and Assistant State Attorney Paul Wallace orchestrated his deportation back to the United States.
Serrano, now 79, has denied any involvement in the killings, and continues to appeal his convictions.
Ray, who has retired from law enforcement, said the Erie case has stayed with him more than any case he’s worked. Perhaps it was the complexity of it, he said, or the friendships he forged with the families left behind.
“If there ever was a case that begged and cried out for justice, this was the one,” he said. “Serrano was so driven by hatred, he kept working and planning until he accomplished what he set out to do. He just wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.”
In December 1998, as the first anniversary of the murders approached, the Patissos, along with their daughter, Ann Marie Ferraro, established a scholarship honoring Diane and George Patisso Jr. and Frank Dosso. To this day, it continues to award a $2,500 scholarship annually to a football player at Clarkstown South High School in West Nyack, N.Y., where George Patisso Jr. played football.
“The scholarship is awarded to a player who emulates Georgie’s character, academics and drive in life,” his mother said, “but the scholarship is in memory of all three of them.”
She said each day still remains a challenge, and her son and his wife are never far from her thoughts.
“I have to try to look at my life as half full, but it always hurts,” she said. “I think about what that monster took from them – that my son will never be a father. I hurt so bad, and when I stop to think about it, I could lose my mind.”
In 2008, the Patissos won a $60 million jury verdict in Polk County in their wrongful death lawsuit against Serrano, knowing they would never see any of the money.
“This is the final chapter in a long book,” said George Patisso Sr. after the jury returned its verdict. “This is to say that we have done everything we said we were going to do for our son.”
For years after her children were murdered, Nicoletta Dosso dressed in only black as she struggled through each day. After Serrano’s conviction, she began sprinkling some color in her wardrobe as she tried to move on.
Still, her thoughts never stray far from the tragedy that has dominated their lives for two decades.
“Maybe someday it will come, it will be easier,” she said. “But for now, no. No.”
Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), http://www.theledger.com