For the Cattarini family, the fountain in front of the in the heart of Studio City will always be a poignant memorial marker.
The two-tiered shallow fountain where pigeons come to bathe playfully at the busy corner of Ventura Boulevard and Laurelgrove Avenue is where 49-year-old homeless 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 on Monday that Robert Cattarini 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.”
He traveled to Florida, Alaska, even Hawaii, but seemed to settle in sunny California, particularly in Palm Springs and The Well in the Desert, a facility that he was in and out of over the past three years. On their recent pilgrimage to understand Robert’s last days, Leo and Patricia visited the facility and the nearby Church of St. Paul in the Desert, where Robert was known. (See the photos that they shared with Studio City Patch in the gallery above.)
Charles Wells and Marissa Diggs from The Well in the Desert told Leo how Robert would share his money rather generously, but when he had nothing left, those friends disappeared.
“Robert was like that in New York as well, but knowing Robert the way that I do, he never cared that much when that happened,” Leo said. “He lived for the moment and always liked being around people, and he always knew that they would be back. His enjoyment was watching other people have a good time.”
Robert once told people at an institution that he was from Finland, even though his birth certificate clearly showed he was born in Brooklyn. Leo said his brother kept going back to The Well in the Desert because they understood how to handle homeless drifters like Robert.
“They really understand how to handle homeless people and the underprivileged,” Leo said after his visit there. “They treat everyone normally, and accept people the way they want to live offering assistance when they need it. It is truly a thankless job but you can see how rewarded Charles and Marissa feel when they talk about how they help people. After leaving The Well in the Desert, my wife and I followed Charles to St. Paul in the Desert where my brother's ashes were placed.”
The rest of Robert’s ashes were placed in a family plot at Ferncliff Cemetery in New York.
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.”
Meanwhile, the Cattarini family seem at peace with the place where Robert lived his last few moments.
“It’s a beautiful and peaceful place,” said Patricia.
And Leo added, “That fountain at 12265 Ventura Boulevard will be a place that I will always come to when I am in California to pay my respects to Robert.”