Newport Family Sees in Bonin Last Chance to Learn Son’s Fate
Angelo Gatti remembers nothing unusual about the morning of July 13, 1974, when he dropped his son Nick off along Ortega Highway for a hike in the Cleveland National Forest.
But that day is seared into his memory forever as the last time he saw his 21-year-old son.
On the eve of serial killer William G. Bonin’s scheduled execution, after so many years of searching, the Newport Beach family is hoping to find an answer to their heartache.
Could their son have been one of the Freeway Killer’s victims?
Gatti and his wife, Venetia, wrote Bonin’s lawyers on Friday and are still waiting for a reply.
“This has left doubt in our minds,” said Gatti, a retired aerospace engineer. “If he is executed, this is our last chance to find out if he knows anything about our son.”
Nick Gatti, an avid camper and naturalist, often went on solitary hikes through the wilderness. But his mother says he always called and he always came home.
Family members became worried when Nick was missing for several weeks and contacted the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Newport Beach police and a private search-and-rescue team.
Angelo Gatti said he was told that he had waited too long to report Nick missing, that there were no leads to follow. The Gattis hiked through the forest themselves, hiring an expert on the trails, every Saturday afternoon for four years. They studied maps and back trails and went into the caves along the mountains but found no sign of their son.
The Gattis have kept a scrapbook of letters, phone numbers and dead-end leads since their son vanished. They contacted everyone from the Boy Scouts to the FBI, to no avail.
In 1989, when serial killer Randy Kraft was sentenced to death for the sexual torture and murder of 16 men, the Gattis contacted authorities hoping someone had information on their son. But, Angelo Gatti said, detectives told him that there was little hope of Kraft confessing to any killings.
Having exhausted other options, the parents wrote a letter to state Public Defender Emry Allen, who is representing Bonin, but have not received a reply. Angelo Gatti followed up with phone calls on Wednesday but did not get a call back.
Allen could not be reached for comment.
Bonin confessed to killing 21 victims in 1979 and 1980, all of them young males, ages 12 to 19. Three victims were found along Ortega Highway.
Nick Gatti, who had vanished several years earlier near Ortega Highway, was not on the killer’s list of victims.
“It is hard to say,” said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan Brown, who prosecuted both Bonin and Kraft. “It is worthwhile asking Bonin. But [Nick Gatti] doesn’t fit much of what we know about Bonin and when we know Bonin started killing. From what I know about both cases, this would be more consistent with Kraft than Bonin.”
The Gattis concede that Bonin is a longshot.
“We need to know if he is alive or dead,” Angelo Gatti said. “We know that the chances are slim, but we just want to know.”
When Angelo Gatti drove his son south along Ortega Highway on that morning 22 years ago, they had a spirited conversation, he remembers.
Gatti recalls his son telling him that he did not like his parents’ style of life, owning a house, paying a mortgage, raising kids. Nick was a free spirit, his father said, who wanted to be like the Native Americans, living off the land.
His parents later noticed that Nick left his wallet, identification, Social Security card and watch at home. They considered that unusual but said it was unlike him to just take off.
“We thought about that as a possibility,” said Angelo Gatti, who also contacted the U.S. Consulate in Mexico. “But we never had an experience like that where he didn’t call or let us know. He was a good boy, and we didn’t have any problems with him, and he didn’t have any problems with me.”
Sitting in their airy Newport Beach home of 31 years, Venetia Gatti said that Nick’s younger brothers, Michael and Anthony, were also affected by their brother’s disappearance.
“He was our oldest child and a wonderful child,” said Venetia Gatti, who recently retired from her job at an Orange County department store. “I never had a problem with him growing up.”
From the scrapbook, a diary of sorts with faded, crunchy pages of handwritten notes, Angelo Gatti pulled out a yellowed edition of the “Nature Boy” newsletter. It is one of the last remnants they have of Nick.
“We have contacted almost anybody that would listen,” he said. “Life has to go on. We had two other children to take care of. But when we see pictures of our son, it makes you so sad that it makes you want to cry.”
The Gattis ask that anyone with information contact the Orange County Sheriff’s Department missing persons bureau at (714) 647-7055.