Fort Bragg Burned In More Ways Than One (Part 2)
by Mark Heimann and Bruce Anderson (1999), February 10, 1999
Affinito family roots run deep here in Pittsburg, not the east coast steel town, but Pittsburg, California, a sprawling Contra Costa County community where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers combine to become Suisun Bay, then San Pablo Bay, then San Francisco Bay.
Pittsburg is no longer the sleepy, but prosperous, Italian-American farming and fishing town it was before World War Two. Today, it takes a concentrated search to even find downtown Pittsburg amid the gated hillside communities that look down on booming commercial development, sprawling strip malls and cookie-cutter housing tracts. Remnants of what was once a coherent and even charming downtown remain, but these remnants of a less frantic time are now bracketed by slums or, if you prefer, suburban decay.
Pittsburg these days is a surreal skein of prosperous excess and a beat down poverty, all of it jumbled up beneath the industrial smoke stacks and looming towers of oil and chemical plants to the east that separate Pittsburg from Antioch. To the west is the Concord Naval Weapons Station, containing enough high explosives and chemical weapons to wipe out all life in the East Bay if the unthinkable should ever happen. It also contains Port Chicago, half way between the Naval Weapons Station and Pittsburg where the unthinkable did happen in July of 1944 when the the entire ammunition store blew up, killing more than 300 men, most of them the African-Americans who loaded the explosives on ships bound for the Pacific Front.
Dominic Affinito's grandparents had settled in Pittsburg's burgeoning Italian community at the end of the 19th century, a community that included the famous family of baseball players, the DiMaggios. The first Affinitos had come to Pittsburg from Naples by way of New York. The first American Affinitos made their way as grocers. Dominic's parents, Alphonse and Marie, also were grocers who raised Dominic, his two brothers and his sister in an apartment above their Pittsburg store.
Alphonse Affinito was a tireless worker who was able to expand his ma and pa enterprise into a small shopping center and, from there, into warehouses and other real estate, making a name for himself as an astute businessman and one of Pittsburg's most prominent citizens.
One of the Affinito boys, Alfred Affinito, took his father's legacy of commerce and public service one step further. A good student, Alfred parlayed his law degree into a position as Mayor of Pittsburg and then became Pittsburg's City Attorney.
Pittsburg politics have always been dominated by the Italian-American community, and the Affinitos have long been at the center of that domination. Like all locally prosperous families anywhere, some people are fond of the Affinitos, some people aren't.
Few white Pittsburgians would talk about the Affinito family. The town's Black residents weren't as reticent. Whenever an African-American old timer mentioned the name Affinito, he applied the ethnic slur "Mafia" to describe them, casually resorting to an enduring blood libel all persons whose names end in vowels have suffered ever since Hollywood began cranking out gangster movies back in the 1920s.
Wild talk of the Mafia aside, the Affinitos have in their recent history more violence, more litigation, more convenient arson fires than other similarly blessed but less controversial families.
Pittsburg old timers still marvel at the Ice House fire.
The old Union Ice Company building sat next to the Santa Fe railroad tracks on Rail Road Avenue, close by downtown Pittsburg. It was owned by Dominic's father, Alphonse. A dilapidated wood frame structure, the Ice House sat empty for years although Alfred Affinito, the attorney in the family, had apparently stored a mix of city records and old files from his successful law practice in this huge relic of a building. If there were records in the Ice House they seem to have been of the type whose preservation was not a high priority with Alfred Affinito. Transients often slept in the place, and when the Ice House went up in flames one night, the conveniently anonymous transients got the blame for torching it.
What is known for certain about the Ice House is that it covered 10,500 square feet and the Affinitos received $901,368.58 in 1986 for it when it was gone, which isn't a bad insurance pay out for a structure of no value sitting on a piece of ground appraised at less than $25,000 in a barren, mostly deserted neighborhood.
Where the Ice House once stood is now a trash-strewn empty lot bordered by ragged wood-framed houses on one side, and pieces of downtown Pittsburg on the other. Between the Ice House site and the up-scale condos by the river is a maze of empty streets and wide avenues — containing nothing at all the streets are crumbling, leading only to more decay.
In 1970, the blasted area between the long gone Ice House and the water, in 1970, became the City of Pittsburg's urban renewal project. The stately but dilapidated Victorian homes, which once lined the then-proud little town's streets, were torn down, but the City never got around to the renewal part of the project, and the area remains a bleak emptiness.
Old timers remember the promises made by Mayor Alfred Affinito. He and Pittsburg's allied movers and shakers promised a revived downtown complete with low income housing for working people, a new Pittsburg fueled by those famously low interest federal redevelopment loans. But, as happened all around the San Francisco Bay, most famously in San Francisco itself, that cheap federal money unerringly found its way into condos, yacht harbor developments and other buildings that attracted the well-heeled, not people who needed an affordable roof over their heads.
Informed that the Ice House fire had brought the Affinito family nearly a million dollars, Pittsburg old-timers didn't seem surprised that the Affinitos would make out so well in a decaying neighborhood, though one man bluntly stated that "the Ice House building was probably worth closer to $90,000 than $900,000."
With the Affinitos, business has always been a family affair. In Pittsburg, the family's holdings are managed by Alfred's daughter, Mary, under the name Affinito Enterprises. But tracking the family's real estate and business holdings isn't easy. The Affinito fortune is concealed in a multitude of holding companies and corporations in which individual family members seem to have interests of varying value, but those that are discernible all lead back to the family patriarch, Alphonse Affinito, and would probably remain altogether hidden if the Affinitos weren't as litigious as they are.
The Affinitos are primary owners of these Sacramento-area enterprises: Black Company; White Company; Walcat Inc; Walcat II; Walcat III; WAAF Inc; Quality Supermarket; Northridge Bottle Shop; Hugh Brothers and Gold Dust Development Company.
And Sacramento is where the proceeds from the fortune-enhancing Ice House fire in Pittsburg were invested in another warehouse ten times the size of the Ice House, with enough money left over to buy a bingo parlor and a dreary little shopping center, all with their own histories of suspicious fires.
The family's Sacramento holdings are extensive, and, as in Pittsburg, are headquartered in a small Italian grocery store, the Quality Market, at Folsom and 50th Street. It's owned by brothers Dominic and Mario Affinito. Most of the family's Sacramento holdings are modest rental properties — small apartment buildings and single family homes, warehouses, fading strip malls. The family also own valuable but empty commercial lots and at least two homes occupied by family members in Sacramento's wealthiest neighborhoods.
Dominic Affinito's Sacramento home was built in 1971, well before Dominic and his son, who shared the name Mario with Dominic's brother Mario, began investing in Fort Bragg. That Sacramento home is located in the upscale Del Dayo Estates (called Del Dago by River City wits), and consists of four bedrooms, three and a half baths, a swimming pool, and a four car garage. Many of the family's properties are in the Italian neighborhood around 51st Street. On the city's property tax rolls, the names of one or all of the three brothers, Dominic, Alfred and Mario, or Dominic's sons, Mario and Robert, are listed as owners of these parcels.
The Quality Market was founded years ago by Alphonse Affinito, and was passed on to his sons Dominic and Mario in 1971. A convenient fire a couple of years ago resulted in the Affinitos remodeling the store, turning it into a strip mall that they lease to a variety of businesses, including an Italian deli.
Whatever else might be said about the Affinitos, they work hard. Various members of the family put in long hours at their various enterprises, performing every task from sweeping up to manning the cash register.
In July of 1966, Mario Affinito, Dominic's brother, was listed as the manager of Quality Market, although the store was actually run by a man named R. H. Vice and owned by Alphonse Affinito. The old man, right up until his death a few years ago, kept the reins of his family's multitudinous businesses firmly in his hands, perhaps because the volatility of his sons Mario and Dominic left him no choice. His third son, pillar-of-the-community Alfred, spent a lot of his lawyer time bailing his brothers out of trouble. It was always handy to have a lawyer in the family.
On July 5, 1966, Quality Market was picketed by 35 United Farm Workers in support of a boycott of S&W and Treesweet products. Their peaceful protest — Cesar Chavez, the UFW's founder and inspiration, was synonymous with peaceful protest — consisted of carrying signs up and down the sidewalk next to Folsom Street in front of the store. According to a lawsuit brought by George Mower, one of the picketers, Mario Affinito was leaving the store's parking lot in his car and stopped at the picket line before exiting onto Folsom Street. Mower, who was on the sidewalk, motioned for Mario to proceed, but as traffic on Folsom was heavy, Mario waved Mower to walk on past in front of Mario's vehicle as if he were merely waiting for the next break in the traffic to pull out into the street. But as soon as Mower stepped in front of Mario's car, Mario hit the accelerator, knocking Mower to the ground. Before Mower could get up, Mario was out of the car, hitting the downed man with his fists. Dominic and R.H. Vice, who were watching from in front of the store, joined Mario in his attack on Mower, Dominic kicking the downed man and Vice hitting him with a broom handle.
The Affinito brothers claim Mower challenged Dominic to fight, but Dominic declined because Mower was "larger and stronger." Mario said Mower deliberately stepped in front of his car and blocked his way, then came around and dragged Mario out onto the pavement and started beating him. Mario defended himself and "people pulled Mower off."
The Affinito version of these events is highly unlikely given the UFW's history of non-violent protest.
George Mower couldn't be located, but we did talk to a woman who was one of the picketers. Even after 33 years, the woman, now quite elderly, is still afraid of the Affinitos, and asked that we not use her name. (People in both Pittsburg and Sacramento refuse to talk on the record about this hard working family of honest grocers and businessmen.) She vouched for Mower's version of events, and said she believed the case was settled out of court for "a small amount" in favor of Mower. The record does not reflect the amount, if any, of the settlement, only that the case against the Affinitos was eventually dismissed, with prejudice, in May, 1968.
In November, 1971, the Affinito brothers, Dominic and Mario, together with an older Affinito, believed to be their father Alphonse, again reacted violently to people they disapproved of, in this instance, hippies. The field of combat was again Quality Market, where a couple of long haired college students, Brad Booth and Stephen Crowle, had gone to buy dog food. Crowle wanted to pay for his purchase with a check, but the old man at the counter said Crowle's driver's license and draft card were not sufficient identification. An argument ensued, with some derogatory remarks about hippies from the Affinito side of the cash register, and equally unkind words from the hippies for the store keeper. The exchange of insults completed, as Booth and Crowle were leaving the store, they were attacked from behind by the old man, reinforced by his sons, Dominic and Mario, with at least one of them wielding the grocer's weapon of choice — a broom handle.
Booth, now a Sacramento area attorney, was not available for comment, but Steve Crowle, now an architect, said what struck him about the Affinitos' attack was the pure irrationality of the Affinitos' hatred for "hippies." Crowle said there was a uniformed Sacramento police officer chatting with Dominic when the attack began, but the cop threatened to arrest him and Booth after they'd been thoroughly hammered by the three Affinitos.
The two men sued for a total of $135,000 each, and in 1974 the case was settled out of court with the Affinitos paying Booth and Crowle $1,500 each. Crowle says it was his encounter with the Affinitos that prompted his friend Booth to go to law school.
As previously noted, business for the Affinitos is a family affair, especially when they are being sued. And they get sued a lot.
The attorney of record for most of the dozen or so Sacramento-area lawsuits listing Dominic Affinito as a defendant is his brother, Alfred Affinito. Of these suits only one lists Dominic as a plaintiff, and in none of them could the Affinitos be said to have won. Their pattern is to settle out of court — the actual outcome is not recorded — wearing down their adversaries until an exhausted settlement to the advantage of the Affinitos is finally reached.
The one suit that Dominic brought — a tangled dispute over money loaned to a corporation, Walcat Inc, which in turn loaned the money to other incarnations of the same corporation, Walcat II and III, was "won" by the Affinitos through default. But then the judgment was mysteriously set aside by stipulation of both parties.
The suit seemed to be about who controlled the three Walcats, which in turn ran a Sacramento bingo parlor and conference center-cum-card room. Perhaps all the different parties invested in the gambling hall gave up when the County of Sacramento took away their license to operate the bingo parlor.
Two other law suits are instructive as a guide to the Affinitos' business practices. One was brought by a pair of business partners of Mario and Dominic Affinito named Mike and Anthony Rios, who accused the Affinitos of fraud and conspiracy. At issue was Gold Dust Development, builders of a subdivision in Placerville. The Affinitos held a 10% share in Gold Dust, and the Rios' 40%. The Rios' claimed the Affinitos held a secret meeting where they dissolved the partnership and sold Rios' share to themselves at below market value and then refused to account for the development company's funds.
Alfred Affinito was the attorney for his brothers on this one too, and the case was "settled" when it was dismissed with prejudice by stipulation of both parties when the Rios' missed a filing deadline.
The second illustrative suit was brought by the City of Sacramento against Mario, Dominic and Juliette Affinito, Dominic's wife. (The couple has since divorced) The City wanted a right of way to install a storm drain across the backside of two commercial lots the Affinitos own. The City offered $5,960 for the easement. The Affinitos refused and counter sued, attempting to take the $5,900 as a deposit on a larger amount they said the right of way was worth. The City's attorney blocked this move and it was a stalemate, with Dominic dodging the process servers in an attempt to further impede the City from its responsibility to protect everyone's property from storm damage. In the end the City of Sacramento gave up and paid the Affinitos $22,136.98 for the privilege of burying a drainage pipe under the property rather than fight it out for another year and risk even more costly flood damage.
Dominic Affinito refuses to talk about his years in Pittsburg or Sacramento, responding to questions with a faux-humorous pugnacity that conceals a bitter anger driven by self-pity.
"It's none of your business," he said in response to inquiries, which, narrowly considered, depends on where one draws the line between public and private business as Affinito has done business in Fort Bragg.
Dominic Affinito has benefited mightily from public-private business deals orchestrated for him by former City Manager Gary Milliman and a pliant Fort Bragg City Council. Affinito's business has become Fort Bragg's business in many ways. Affinito claims to be retired, but says, "Where other men play golf when they retire, I work." He has become locally infamous for sweeping condemnations of wide swathes of the Fort Bragg population, publicly dismissing an entire City Council audience as "parasites, professional protesters and mental cases" on one memorable occasion.
Affinito refuses to say why he chose Fort Bragg to "retire" to, and said he would only talk "in person, not over the phone, so you can see what a nice guy I am."
But without visiting the nice guy in person, let's guess why the Affinitos came to Fort Bragg in 1981, kicking off investment in some 50 Coast properties with a $2 million cash purchase of the Tradewinds restaurant and motel complex on Fort Bragg's Main Street.
Looked at from the perspective of a business family with a well-documented tendency to ruthlessness, Fort Bragg was a big fat mark sitting in a mostly rural, loosely administered county from its nominal seat of government in Ukiah. County authority was vested in a conservative, business-friendly district attorney, Susan Massini, who'd never brought a case against a white collar criminal. The Sheriff was a lame duck whose department lacked both manpower and expertise to take on complicated, time-consuming cases. The Fort Bragg Police Department was small and closely tied to the town's political establishment. But yummiest of all to the calculating eye, the Fort Bragg City Council and its City Manager were clearly the kind of covetous people who'd do handstands for anyone with lots of cash to invest in the town. And Fort Bragg was a pretty little place just about to catch on with the ever-increasing tourist mobs who loved the Mendocino Coast and came back, year after year to enjoy its beauties.
Fort Bragg was a place where a guy with money could make lots more money. There would be no one in the way, least of all the Fort Bragg City Council and its pliant city manager.
Fueling much of the enterprise on the Mendocino Coast of the 1970s and 80s was white powder, specifically cocaine. Otherwise respectable people in positions of public trust found themselves dependent on chemicals for that super-plus free enterprise get up and go. Where there's lots of dope and plenty of dopes to consume it, there are plenty of ways to compromise authority, including bankers, cops, city councils, and city managers.
And that's a lot of what happened in Fort Bragg, culminating in the famous fires of 1987 the night the history of the town went up in flames to ensure one man's success in the restaurant business.
Dominic's son, Mario, was initially the man in charge of the Affinito family's Fort Bragg holdings. Not quite 30 when he arrived in town, Mario was movie star handsome, smart, charming and, like all the Affinitos, hard working. Mario's father, Dominic, stayed in Sacramento and left Fort Bragg to Mario, in many ways a much more capable, far more charming person than his old man.
A local reporter remembers the two Affinitos when they arrived in Fort Bragg. "Mario ran everything. He took care of the Tradewinds, presented plans to the Building Department, made appearances before the City Council. I liked him. Everyone liked him. Even when he was unhappy about something he didn't like in the paper, Mario was cool about it. He didn't flip out. He was a nice guy."
Mario Affinito married a nice local girl, too, by the name of Regalia, but Mario's late nights and the loose women who come with late nights, conspired to ruin the marriage. The young couple's brief union produced a daughter but soon ended, as did Mario, tragically, because he'd contracted a fast moving cancer. Mario went home to Sacramento where he died in March of 1996. Dominic Affinito, and his other son, Robert, returned to Fort Bragg to run the family's Coast mini-empire they'd begun with the cash purchase of Tradewinds in 1981.
Dominic Affinito was quickly the beneficiary of a series of public-private schemes he'd worked out with then-Fort Bragg City Manager Gary Milliman or, as Milliman was known around town, Gary Middle Man. Milliman had come to Fort Bragg from a job as City Manager of Cotati in Sonoma County. He's a portly, low-key type of bureaucrat whose college training was in journalism, not city government. Milliman's resume includes an award he received as a high school student of the Boy Scout's Silver Beaver badge.
The silver beaver and the Sacramento Valley fox certainly seemed to hit it off. Dominic Affinito never had a better friend in government than Gary Milliman, and Milliman's inert City Council never questioned their City Manager about the wisdom of Fort Bragg's increasing obligations to the new guy in town.
Nor was Fort Bragg's attorney, Tom Lonergan, exactly a lion at the door of the town's purse. Lonergan waved the ensuing public-private deals right on by without so much as a timid, "What if Mr. Affinito doesn't sell his homes and lots at Glass Beach and the City of Fort Bragg is left holding the bag for the water, sewer and roads we built for him on top of the ocean view property we gave him?"
Leaving nothing to chance, Affinito loaned Councilman Andre Schade money to prop up Schade's failing real estate speculations. Affinito bought Schade's vote for amounts of money a Sacramento City Councilman would sneer at. Schade, now hiding out in Oregon to elude creditors, was soon revealed as a beneficiary of Dominic Affinito's special little charity for rural officeholders, and his life as a politician was over.
Affinito, however, just kept on getting spectacularly lucrative deals from the City of Fort Bragg, routed to him by old faithful, City Manager Milliman. And the Fort Bragg City Council and the Fort Bragg City Attorney just kept on approving whatever Milliman brought before them on behalf of Citizen Affinito.
Fort Bragg issued bonds in the late 1980s to build a badly-needed new police station. The construction of the new facility was delayed for so long that costs outstripped the amount of bond money finally available to build it. By the time the green light for construction of the new station flickered on, Fort Bragg needed to raise more money to do the job. Affinito, as always Johnny on the spot, quickly bought, at a bargain price, part of the land set aside to build the police station on. With former fourth district supervisor Liz Henry leading the charge, Affinito proceeded to erect the nearby County of Mendocino's Social Services building at the south end of Franklin Street.
Before construction began on the jerry-built structure — the origin of many subsequent claims of building-induced illness from the county employees working in it — Fort Bragg had promised locals that a row of magnificent old cypress trees would be spared. One morning Affinito went out with a crew at day break and cut the trees down, much to the disgust of the many residents who'd fought to save them.
(Several years later, Affinito ordered a worker to cut down several stately old eucalyptus trees separating an old Native American inholding from Affinito's Coastal Act-defying, one-story-too-tall, North Cliff Hotel. When the Indians complained that the trees were on their land, Affinito ignored them, explaining to the workman, "My lawyer down below will handle it; go ahead and take the trees down.")
His South Franklin Street desertification project complete, Affinito put up a quickie structure on the site which he now leases to Mendocino County for top dollar in a deal that weds Mendocino County to him for the next 25 years. Supervisor John Pinches argued in vain for county ownership of the structure and the land it sits on because, in the long run, taxpayers would amortize their investment and come out way ahead. But the supervisors outvoted Pinches 4-1, and Affinito had himself another sweetheart deal, this one sponsored by Mendocino County.
Even before Gary Milliman and Liz Henry gifted their Sacramento buddy with the Social Services building, Milliman, Patti Campbell and the rest of the Fort Bragg City Council, presented Affinito with a much larger gift. They gave him Glass Beach at about $12,000 per lot with the City of Fort Bragg putting up the money for water, sewer hook-ups and streets. Affinito promised that the houses he built at Glass Beach (which in theory would increase Fort Bragg's tax base and pay the City back for its investment) would sell for $130,000 to $150,000 and he'd throw in some low-cost apartments to house a few struggling blue collar families. But the houses were priced from $180,000 to $280,000 while the lots he'd bought for $12,000 went for a minimum of $57,000. And the low cost units Affinito promised? "Don't rent a U-Haul any time soon," is the way one disgusted City Hall watcher summed up yet another Affinito promise vanished into the Pacific fog.
In an episode almost humorous in light of subsequent events at his now legendary North Cliff maneuverings, Affinito floated a proposal to build a 39-unit low income apartment complex at Glass Beach, but withdrew his plans when his project was declared too large for the site. Too tall, too, just like the North Cliff.
The site of the phantom low-cost apartments also turned out to be uniquely landlocked; the City of Fort Bragg hadn't punched roads into the parcel which, in any case, was soon abandoned as the locale for housing for respectable people on fixed incomes. Affinito, of course, came out ahead on the farcical series of events because he'd sold the site to HUD at a profit well before the phantom HUD units were priced right out of the neighborhood. The few units of low-cost new housing in the area were constructed out of Community Development funds near Denny's Restaurant at Glass Beach.
Fort Bragg contractor Joe Moura built a few Glass Beach houses for Affinito before he and Affinito came to a bitter parting of the ways. Moura was replaced by Mark Mitchell, brother of then-Fort Bragg Financial Officer, Roy Mitchell. Mark Mitchell has been Affinito's builder-of-choice ever since.
Mitchell's most recent edifice for Affinito is the hotly contested and still unoccupied North Cliff Motel at the north end of the Noyo Bridge where once sat the night spot and restaurant that was destroyed by fire with You Know Who winding up as owner of the ocean view parcel, now the site of Affinito's North Cliff hostelrey.
The Glass Beach development was to be completed by 1997. That was the agreement the City of Fort Bragg signed with Affinito. Glass Beach is unfinished, Affinito's in ongoing battles with at least two persons who bought houses from him, threatening one to report her in-home business to the authorities for displaying the election signs of political candidates he didn't approve of, and battling the other over inferior workmanship on the house she purchased.
Fort Bragg's suspiciously generous investment in Glass Beach hasn't worked out, to put it mildly, and, in most other jurisdictions would be deep in foreclosure on behalf of taxpayers. Not in Fort Bragg, however, even though the town teeters on the edge of bankruptcy because of the investment in Glass Beach and in private motel infrastructure, also on the north end of town.
But here's how Affinito, speaking to the ever credulous and religiously uninformed KZYX News, sees Glass Beach: Dominic Affinito is a victim and a much misunderstood man who wants to do right, but Fort Bragg, especially its newly elected majority on the City Council, has gotten in his way: "There's space for more which we anticipated building, but because of the attitude the City is taking we don't feel that the climate is... um, how should I say it, there's not an open mind there, and the people running this city in the new regime are anti-Dominic, so whatever I tend to want to do the answer is no before I even say it. So we decided not to do anything there... One Glass Beach parcel was for an apartment building we'd hoped to build this year — nine two-bedroom units in the $400 to $500 a month range. But because of the attitude the City has taken — they're just so anti whatever I do — we decided that we can't fly unless the skies are friendly. So we decided not to do that at this point in time because we're spending all our money defending ourselves on the motel (the North Cliff) project."
Affinito also has to answer to felony charges of assault on an elected official, Dan Gjerde. The next hearing on that case has now been put off until April.
(Next: Willy Loman As Arsonist)