Who Burned Fort Bragg & Why (Part 4)

by Mark Heimann and Bruce Anderson, February 24, 1999

The Fort Bragg Fires In Chronological Order:

  1. Agostinos: Sept. 19th, 1986
  2. The Cliff House: July 16th, 1987
  3. The Cliff House: August 4th, 1987
  4. The Fort Bragg Library: Sept. 20th, 1987
  5. The Ten Mile Justice Court: Sept. 20th, 1987
  6. The Piedmont Hotel: Sept. 20th, 1987
  7. The Waterfront (formerly Agostinos): October 18th, 1987

Lying rides upon debt's back. — John Ray

Well, they hired the money, didn't they? — Calvin Coolidge

Superior Janitorial's distinctive red van was a familiar sight in late night Fort Bragg. Peter Durigan, Superior's owner, went to work about midnight with his wife Irene, formerly Irene Specie. The two Durigans were assisted by a series of young people who helped the couple sweep, mop, scrub, and tidy up businesses as various as several restaurants and bars, both branches of the Savings Bank of Mendocino in Mendocino and Fort Bragg, and even the Pacific Bell Telephone facility in downtown Fort Bragg.

Bill Dunham, the well-known vice-president of the Savings Bank's coast branches, approved the hiring of Durigan as late-night janitor for the two coast banks, both of them overseen by Dunham.

As Mrs. Dunham was going off to work every day as a Fort Bragg elementary school teacher, Mr. Dunham was cutting a wide swath through the more respectable and mostly unattached ladies of the community, among them Phyllis Holmes of the Holmes Lumber family, an association helpful to Dunham as he careened through his day job at the bank and his nights at Coast venues where cocaine was as available as alcohol. Dunham also flew off to the fleshpots of the Bahamas, Mexico and even Thailand where Banker Bill indulged himself in ways that would get him arrested in the United States.

Much of Banker Bill's activity should have gotten him arrested in the United States, but he had convenient friends in the right Mendocino County places. The joke going around the Mendocino Coast at the time was, "Take $50,000 to Bill if you need it hand-laundered." The larger mystery, and no joke, was how was it that there were so many people in a working class town who needed to launder large amounts of drug cash?

It was Dunham's many sins of the flesh that were seized upon by the bad guys, the guys who burned the town's heart out in that arson extravaganza of 1987. The thugs knew Dunham had a big drug problem, knew he was processing drug money, knew he was helping criminals to obtain lucrative parcels of Coast property on the cheap.

By 1986, Fort Bragg had a crooked banker in place at the Savings Bank of Mendocino; a janitorial service operated by a man with a vivid criminal history driving around town late at night delivering drugs and collecting drug money under the auspices of a janitorial service; a large pool of young men and women who were drug dependent and always short of cash; a failed restauranteur who was going broke again; large-scale drug enterprises; and new people in town who seemed to have endless amounts of cash that they were using to buy properties from Albion to Fort Bragg.

With the gang all here, Fort Bragg began to burn.

No one, least of all the one or two Fort Bragg cops who pulled the deep end of the night shift, suspected that "the hard-working big guy" swabbing out the banks and most of the restaurants that burned in 1986 and 1987 was anything but what he appeared to be — a family man pulling long, hard hours to pay his mortgage and feed his wife and children.

Appearances can be deceiving, as the cliche goes. "The hard-working big guy" was certainly a big guy; his weight once approached the piano-case dimensions of 600 pounds. The big guy had tried everything to lose weight — stomach stapling, to prescription drugs, to cocaine. For much of his life, Durigan fought to control his weight. He usually managed to keep himself to a manageable 300. Not surprisingly, by the time he was 40, Durigan was a walking catalog of medical problems. He was still distributing cocaine for the Coast's primary importers when the town began to burn.

Who was the hard working night janitor, the fat man behind the broom?

Peter Durigan was born in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1944. Always a guy who liked working nights, Durigan drove an ambulance contracted by the San Mateo Coroner's office to pick up corpses and haul them to the morgue. He and his co-workers had unchallenged access to the homes of persons who had just died. Durigan and his co-workers supplemented their pay by picking over the corpses and homes of the deceased until they were arrested in 1972.

In return for immunity from prosecution, Durigan testified against his co-conspirators, and a few years later relocated to Fort Bragg with his then-wife, Barbara. The couple divorced in 1982 when their two children were very young.

Barbara Durigan became well-known in the community as an employee of several agencies whose mission it is to help the drug and alcohol-dependent shake their addictions. Mrs. Durigan, post marriage to the corpse-robber, made a new life for herself while her ex continued his crooked, crooked ways in crooked, crooked Fort Bragg.

In 1991, Durigan was arrested and charged with 12 counts of forging or altering prescriptions issued by three different Mendocino County doctors. Represented by Fort Bragg attorney Bart Kronfeld, Durigan pled guilty to one count of illegally obtaining drugs; the other 11 counts were dismissed. A sentencing report said that "Mr. Durigan exhibits compulsive self-destructive behavior followed by remorse followed by repetition of the compulsive self-destructive behavior." Judge Henry Nelson sentenced Durigan to 36 months probation.

Durigan pulled long work hours, and he was certainly devoted to his family, so devoted he picked up hunks of cash routed through Vince Sisco to recruit young men to burn Sisco out of debt and to eliminate restaurant competition for Dominic Affinito, the ultimate beneficiary of the Fort Bragg fires, whether or not he was complicit.

Peter Durigan would later complain that the investigation into the fires of 1986 and 1987 ruined his health, although it was evident he'd ruined his health all by himself from years of over-indulgence in food and pharmaceuticals. The fat man also seemed to be constantly involved in high-risk, high-stress illegal activity, which surely couldn't have added much to his well-being. His Social Security number, for instance, is shared by nearly a dozen persons, all of them fictitious. What else Durigan was doing besides coordinating arson fires and selling dope, is not known.

Peter Durigan had had at least one major heart attack, and, at age 51, he died of the final one that carried him off at 9am on September 19th, 1995. He was in his home at 21590 Forester Lane, Fort Bragg. He was cremated the same day, and his ashes scattered the day after that.

Vince Sisco paid Peter Durigan to set fires in Fort Bragg, but Durigan was too large and immobile to commit arson himself so he recruited young Fort Bragg men to start the fires for him while he kept most of the cash for himself.

From the fall of 1986 until the fall of 1987, Durigan drove up and down Fort Bragg's Main Street coordinating arson fires along an almost straight north-south line from Gas 'N Grub north of town to the Cliff House at the south end.

Also at the south end of town, and just across the Noyo from the failing Cliff House, Vince Sisco was going broke at Agostinos where Sisco was in business under his daughter's name, having bought an agreement worth $75,000 not to compete with Tom Wisdom who was now doing very well operating Sisco's and Finnegan's old restaurant, The Wharf, down below in the harbor.

The $75,000 Sisco had paid Wisdom to buy back his promise not to compete within ten miles, Sisco had borrowed from his daughter and her husband, who'd had to mortgage their home to get the money.

Sisco owed everyone from his bookkeeper, Ruth Johnston, to the IRS. And he was way behind on his mortgage payments to the Sollini family from whom he'd purchased the already fire-damaged restaurant on the north cliff of the Noyo which he re-opened as Agostinos. Sisco was also into the Savings Bank of Mendocino for thousands of dollars loaned by the bank's high flying coast manager, Bill Dunham.

Dunham was already very close to the Affinitos who had just opened a competing restaurant across the Noyo from Sisco called the Cliff House, the restaurant Dunham had rehabbed with bank money for its previous owner, the unfortunate Mr. Johnson of Willits. The City of Fort Bragg was always after Sisco to do one thing or another he couldn't afford to do on his Agostino place. He was drowning in debt and, as he had before, to pay off his creditors, he burned his properties down.

Sandra Tonstad nee Sisco, did in fact work very hard at the revived Agostinos, but Dad's crude financial maneuverings — and constant till-tapping from the business' cash flow — trapped Sandra and everyone else who worked at the place in the fiscal quicksand her father created everywhere he went. The only person who wasn't after Sisco for one thing or another was Peter Durigan, the man who cleaned Agostinos at night.

Durigan had a pretty good year in 1985. He took in nearly $50,000 in gross receipts from his late night enterprise, but deposited only half that amount with his friend Bill Dunham at the Savings Bank, keeping some $21,000 in cash. The cash came from drug sales and arson commissions partially laundered through janitorial receipts.

Increasingly desperate, Sisco began to talk to the boys across the Noyo River, Dominic and Mario Affinito, about buying Agostinos from him. The Affinitos had long been interested in the place as an adjunct to their Dunham-expedited restaurant, the Cliff House, which was itself soon to be torched twice in Durigan-facilitated fires from which the Affinitos emerged well in the black.

The Affinitos wanted to buy Agostinos but they didn't want to meet Sisco's price. There are people who say they heard Dominic Affinito tell Sisco that Agostinos was worth more in cinders than standing. Sisco, a man whose businesses seemed synonymous with arson, hardly needed the suggestion, if that's what it was.

With 1986 only three months old, and Agostinos in serious financial trouble, Sisco approached a voluble Vietnam vet by the name of Robert Montini and asked him to burn both Agostinos and the Cliff House. "The guy's had a hard time," is how an acquaintance of Montini's assesses Montini's criminal potential. "He's the last guy you'd want to ask to commit a serious crime on your behalf because he talks too much."

In June of 1986, Bernard and Sandra Tonstad insured Agostinos for $500,000. The policy cost them a little over $10,000 for the year. Ten thousand was a very big bargain, as it turned out.

Agostinos went up in flames on the night of September 19th, 1986. Peter Durigan was seen behind the wheel of his distinctive red janitorial van on South Main Street just as the flames became visible.

In the months before the fire, Sisco had pulled large sums out of cash out of his magic purse, a purse assumed large enough to contain kilos of cocaine. By the time Agostinos went up in flames, Sisco had miraculously become current with his numerous creditors, but he was still being pursued by local officials who had the impertinence to demand that he get into compliance with local building codes. Sisco got nothing but grief from the Milliman-led Fort Bragg City Hall while the Affinitos got the red carpet from the same set of officials, at least one of whom, Andre Schade, they'd 'loaned' money to.

Early on the morning of September 19th, 1986, Agostinos was severely damaged by fire. The official cause was put down as a "smoldering cigarette." Ten days later the IRS placed a lien on Agostinos for back taxes in the amount of $66,284.38. In October, the City of Fort Bragg sent out a registered letter to Tonstad, with a copy to her father, Vincent Sisco, spelling out the conditions of a re-build. Frank Filice, Fort Bragg's Community Development Director, told Tonstad-Sisco they'd have to install a sprinkler system this time because repairs to the torched Agostinos would cost a lot more than the restaurant's assessed value.

But three months after the timely fire at Agostinos, in February of 1987, the Tonstads collected $220,000 from the insurance company and everyone got paid who had to be paid so they could reopen their business..

By April of 1987 the Tonstads and Sisco were again in business on the north cliff, this time as the Waterfront Bar and Grill.

"Sisco was elated," an employee recalls. "He said he was really going to make it this time."

But the City of Fort Bragg, with its Affinito-friendly administrator Gary Milliman leading the charge, told Sisco he was doing business without a license and that he wouldn't get a license until he got into compliance with various building codes. And there was that IRS lien for slightly more than $66,000 against whatever Sisco called his business; that lien hung over Sisco's toupee-covered head like the blade of guillotine.

And his star cook quit.

Sisco, helpful fire and all, was right back up to his rug in debt.

Across the Noyo on the south cliff, the Affinitos seemed to be doing well at the Cliff House restaurant when it was set on fire July 16th, 1987, the fire being called in at 3:25am and almost just as quickly extinguished.

Before the young Fort Bragg men who set these fires began to die or disappear, three of them said that Affinito's Cliff House was supposed to be partially burned so it would be closed for only a few months. Which made no sense to anybody except, perhaps, Sisco, if Sisco was signaling his rival on the south bank that he could play hardball, too.

The Cliff House wasn't even closed for a day, but the incompetent arsonists who'd torched it had been paid in advance by Ken Rick, Peter Durigan's sub-contractor for arson fires.

Peter Durigan, in July of 1987, solicited Rick, a 26-year-old Fort Bragg man, to burn the Cliff House, the Piedmont Hotel, Vince Sisco's Waterfront restaurant, and The Wharf restaurant down in Noyo harbor. Rick would later be airily dismissed by District Attorney Susan Massini as a "transient" and was occasionally employed by Durigan as a janitor.

Ken Rick was not a transient. He had been born and raised in Fort Bragg. His parents are hardworking, decent people as mystified as any other set of grieving parents at their son's descent into the drugs that placed him in the proximity of ruthless people. But his problems never took the work ethic out of Ken Rick; he was never unemployed for very long; he got up and went to work at whatever he could find before he killed himself in 1991, if suicide is what happened to him. Rick may have been murdered to prevent him from testifying before a Federal Grand Jury, which he was scheduled to do the very next day in San Francisco.

Ken "Kenny" Rick, criminal events involving him aside, was not a criminally-oriented person. In an earlier time he'd have been able to look forward to a lifetime of work at the Georgia-Pacific mill at a middleclass wage, but by the time he came along there weren't life time jobs at the mill available to Fort Bragg High School's graduating classes. The mill was steadily cutting back production at a time drug use had already grabbed many of the town's young people. But Ken Rick was always employed at something, until that last something put him in way over his head.

Durigan told Rick that Sisco wanted Fort Bragg's most popular restaurants burned. It seemed that Sisco thought that if his Waterfront went up in flames along with three of his competitors, the authorities would perceive him simply as one more victim of a pyromaniac with a thing about restaurants.

That seemed to be the thinking, but people close to the investigation are convinced that there were much smarter, much more dangerous people behind Sisco and Durigan, because as the fires began, a ripple of terror moved through the Mendocino Coast's drug community that instills real fear to this day. Sisco and Durigan didn't scare anybody by themselves. Sisco was regarded as a dummy and a "sleazebag," while Durigan was regarded as a sort of cripple only good for dope and a few nights' employment cleaning businesses around town.

But Durigan had often been underestimated and would fool people again and again. Sisco, too. And Dominic Affinito was smarter than all of Fort Bragg put together.

The offer from Sisco via Durigan to Ken Rick was $5,000 for each restaurant except for the Waterfront. Rick would get $10,000 for torching it. Sisco would be first among victims; he always thought he was better at the restaurant business than these other people even if he was always going broke.

Ensuing events occurred in a sort of cocaine frenzy. We're not talking clearheaded plotters here; we're talking the kind of people so limited but brazen they were sure to get caught and prosecuted.

But this was Mendocino County where bad things done by bad people were eminently doable in 1987, thanks to a suspiciously indifferent District Attorney, Susan Massini, and a cadre of local lawyers who roll over and say "arf" at the sight of cash customers. Add to the awol DA and greedy lawyers, add a superior court perennially in thrall to Mendocino County's primary institutions — particularly the Savings Bank of Mendocino — and, of course, the usual gaggle of incompetents and clowns functioning as supervisors. Add it all up and pass it along to a Mendocino County Grand Jury unable to decode a very simple, nearly retarded, criminal conspiracy, and you've got a paying crime, a series of paying crimes, none of them solved.

Oddly enough, especially considering the social-political context of 1987, law enforcement, especially the Fort Bragg Police Department under former chiefs Mayberry and Bickell, did an excellent job investigating the arsons. They solved the case in a month. They knew who did it, and they knew why it had been done. Unfortunately, the Fort Bragg Police Department doesn't have prosecutorial powers. That's for the DA, and she was hands-off, and always would be hands-off where Dominic Affinito was concerned.

Rick told Durigan he didn't want to set fires himself, but he'd find someone who would. By the time the fires ended, probably 50 people in and around Fort Bragg knew who did what, and for how much. Durigan assured Rick that the four restaurants could easily be set ablaze early in the morning during the time Durigan was cleaning the telephone company's office because, Durigan said, he knew how to pull the plug on the phone line to the Fort Bragg Fire Department; after all, he cleaned the place every night.

Early in July of 1987, Ken Rick tried to talk an old friend of his, Gary Cudney, into setting the fires. They'd discussed the job over cocaine and beer while visiting a mutual Fort Bragg friend named Dave Roberts.

The next day, Cudney, having declined the offer to pick up a couple grand burning his home town restaurants, went to see a Fort Bragg man named Gilbert Gudmundson who Cudney thought might be interested in the matches and gasoline end of arson. Gudmundson quickly agreed to risk a minimum of ten years in jail for an amount of money believed to be about $2,500. He talked over the how-to specifics with Ken Rick, sub-contractor to Durigan, the fat man being the co-ordinator and mobile command post for the Fort Bragg arsons.

Rick soon had Gudmundson on board for the proposed arson spree and Gudmundson, apparently excited at the prospect of quick and easy money, recruited his nephew Shawn, a registered member of the Green Party, as assistant arsonist, Fort Bragg Division. Maybe Shawn could get the job done without resorting to polluting chemicals.

These days Gary Cudney lives in a secluded old trailer on a coast ridge. He's a stocky man with blue eyes that betray hurt and suspicion, like a mistreated dog. "How the hell did you find me?" he snarled. "All that was a long time ago. I want to forget that part of my life. Why do you want to dig that up? I told the police every thing I know. I didn't burn anything. Kenny did it."

Kenny did some of it, not all of it.

On the morning of July 16th, 1987, the fire at the Cliff House was set by Gil and Shawn Gudmundson. Gil and Shawn had been seen after midnight at the Affinitos' Gas 'N Grub on the north end of Fort Bragg where they filled a large plastic container with gasoline. The Gas 'N Grub, the only gas station in Fort Bragg that was open all night, would also serve as logistics command post in September when the Piedmont Hotel, the Fort Bragg library and Ten Mile Justice Court were all destroyed by fire.

Buy a container of gasoline at Gas 'N Grub, drive to site, ignite gasoline on premises. This was the M.O. for all the Fort Bragg fires. The brazen simplicity of the plan — if it could even be called a plan — was breathtaking.

That July night, Gil and Shawn Gudmundson drove south to the Cliff House where Gil dropped Shawn off with the container of gasoline. Shawn emptied the gasoline at the back door of the restaurant and, with a fuse consisting of a lighted cigarette aimed at a match extended from its book, Shawn then walked around to the front of the Cliff House where Gil had reappeared in a car the Gudmundsons had borrowed from a woman named Virginia McNeil. The two would-be arsonists then drove out onto Todd's Point to admire the ensuing fireworks.

The cigarette apparently burned down and lit the book of matches, but the fire fizzled.

Durigan, as always up and around and on the job whether criminal or legitimate, was angry with his sub-contractor, Ken Rick, for hiring people to burn the Cliff House who hadn't managed to burn it severely enough to close it for the period of time the true arsonists wanted it closed for — long enough to collect interruption of business and remodel insurance in amounts greater than loss of business and a quick remodel would cost.

Apparently not too upset by the bungled arson at the Cliff House, Durigan asked Rick to recruit the Gudmundsons to burn The Wharf, suggesting pre-dawn Sunday and Monday mornings as the primo times to accomplish the task. But Durigan was still grumbling about the botched job on the Cliff House, which opened for business the same day the Gudmundsons tried to burn it. Durigan warned Rick that Sisco had "people in the city who would take care of him" if he ever said anything about these first stumbling arsons — if in fact they were the first. The old Agostinos seems to have been the first in September of 1986.

Ken Rick gave the Gudmundsons a certain amount of money — not much more than $2,000. Rick had gotten the cash from Durigan for the Gudmundsons to burn The Wharf. The Gudmundsons, however, took the money and ran off to Nevada, and then Wyoming, where it is known they got a traffic ticket. The Gudmundsons were afraid, very afraid, and have made themselves very scarce ever since, although they are in and out of Fort Bragg on a regular basis.

Rick was also scared. Everyone involved in these events was scared, and they're still scared. Dominic Affinito, whether or not he was the ultimate pupeteer, is the name that puts the fear into everyone, not Sisco. But Ken Rick was scared to death, and death was what he got because now he owed the bad guys for fires that hadn't been set.

The Gudmundsons failed to ignite the Cliff House on July 16th, but the restaurant did burn satisfactorily less than a month later. On August 4th at 4:37am the Cliff House, managed by Mario Affinito, was damaged by an arson fire which kept it closed for six months. The Affinitos, after a prolonged legal struggle with their insurers, collected almost a million dollars in damages, including interruption of business fees.

"Nobody," Mario Affinito said at the time the Cliff House burned, "burns down a gold mine restaurant. My restaurant was making money. It was filled every night."

Burned or unburned, the gold mine produced the nuggets.

The Cliff House planned to expand, business was so good. Plans for the expansion had been approved two months before the Cliff House was profitably torched the second time.

The night watchman at the trailer park just above the Cliff House the night it finally burned well enough to make more money closed than open, saw Peter Durigan in the Cliff House parking lot just before the fire was reported. Durigan later told police he'd just happened to stop there to urinate. "It was the first time in my life I'd ever peed by the side of the road," the fastidious fat man told the police.

This lame excuse for proximity to a major fire in a building he had no legitimate reason to be near was laughable. In fact, Durigan had stopped near the Cliff House to drop off his nephew, P.J. Kreidler with, guess what? a container of gasoline. Unable to rely on Ken Rick and his friends to get the Cliff House burned down, Durigan had gotten his nephew, Kreidler, to do it. One witness to the second Cliff House fire says he saw Durigan himself walk into the kitchen of the Cliff House while workers were cleaning up at the end of the night the night the restaurant was set on fire for the second time.

These things are best kept in the family, it seems. Kreidler, an ex-con still on parole when he arrived in Fort Bragg to work janitorial with Uncle Pete, would also help Uncle Pete attempt to burn down Vince Sisco's Waterfront just across the Noyo from the Cliff House.

The Cliff House burned in August, downtown Fort Bragg went up in September, Vince Sisco's Waterfront almost went up in October. Kreidler's a wiry little guy an acquaintance describes as "a mean, low-down little bastard who'll do anything." The low down little bastard is said to be in Oregon or Washington these days, on the lam for various run-ins with various authorities in several states. Kreidler is known to have children in the Fort Bragg area with two different women.

Approaching the Halloween season on the Mendocino Coast, the Cliff House had been set on fire twice in the month of August, but the gang that couldn't ignite straight had so far been unable to burn The Wharf down in Noyo Harbor where a night watchman had been hired by the ever-vigilant Jim Cummings who owned the building housing the restaurant. Sisco was going seriously broke up on the north cliff at his revived Agostinos now open again as the Waterfront.

Milliman was still after Sisco, the IRS was also nipping at his heels, his chief cook had quit, and Sisco was deeper in debt each day. As if that wasn't bad enough for a guy looking at his golden years, the incompetents he thought he'd paid to pour gasoline on his restaurant and put a match to the place so he could get some insurance money hadn't got it done. If the torches could finally get it together to burn the Waterfront down, Sisco, a career culinary Phoenix, might have enough money to again rise from the ashes. Or at least get out of Fort Bragg with a few bucks in his pocket. Even Sisco's famous white Cadillac was acting up so often it was in the shop more than it was on the road.

While Sisco was waiting for Durigan or Durigan's sub-contractors to burn his Waterfront restaurant, just before dawn on September 20th, 1987, the Fort Bragg Library, the old Ten Mile Justice Court next door to the library, and the Piedmont Hotel were destroyed by fire.

Peter Durigan orchestrated them all.

Ken Rick entered the Fort Bragg Library at the corner of Main and Laurel through its old wooden back door in the building's northwest corner at about 5am. He piled up papers and lit them on fire. Three blocks south at the Piedmont Hotel a man believed to be P.J. Kreidler had gained entrance to the old hotel's kitchen.

The fire in the library was spotted at 5:10am by officer Scott Mayberry of the Fort Bragg Police Department as he drove north to Gas 'N Grub in response to a phone call from Durigan to police dispatch that "a hippie driving a Volkswagon van was driving around shooting at dogs." Mayberry called in the fire at the library exactly at 5:10am. The strapping young officer did not see any dog-shooting hippies in the area of Gas 'N Grub or anywhere else at that end of Main Street.

Eight minutes later, the Piedmont Hotel went up. A number of people called it in, the first call arriving at 5:18am.

Erected just after World War One, the Piedmont burned hot and fast. It was the target. Burn down the competition, was the master plan. The Fort Bragg Library was set as a diversion. The Piedmont was the target. The library and the Ten Mile Justice Court next door were valued at $2.5 million but contained the entire historical repository of Fort Bragg.

The Fort Bragg Library, torched as a side show to distract firefighters while the Piedmont Hotel was set on fire down the street, burned so ferociously the great south windows of the Ten Mile Justice Court next door imploded and its telephones melted. A large crowd, including librarian Sylvia Kozak-Budd, gathered at the corner of Laurel and Main to watch the library die.

"We stood across the street from the fire," Kozak-Budd recalls. "We stood on this corner. People came up to us. It was exactly like a reception after a funeral. People would come up and tell me when they got their first library card; they would come up and say, 'Where am I going to get my Westerns?'"

Peter Durigan made at least two phony police calls that night. He'd called to say he saw a "hippie" on a pre-dawn dog hunt north of town in the general vicinity of Gas 'N Grub, and he called the Fort Bragg Police to report that the Pacific Bell office was on fire. The phone company was not on fire, and there were no subsequent reports of hippies shooting dogs anywhere in or around Fort Bragg.

By 8 am, the history of Fort Bragg was gone. The old library with its splendid archives, Ten Mile Justice Court with its records going back almost 150 years, and the splendid Piedmont Hotel, where generations of coast families had enjoyed everything from holiday meals to wedding receptions — the heart of the town had been burned out of it.

Imagine a library being burned as a diversion! And a poor diversion at that since the diversion was within sight of the crook's real target, the Piedmont Hotel.

The victims of the fires were the first suspects — Vince Sisco of Agostinos, which had burned in 1986 and had risen anew as the Waterfront; Dominic and Mario Affinito, who operated the Cliff House, which also was burned twice; and Jerry Ware of the Piedmont Hotel.

Ware was cleared of suspicion almost immediately. Among other reasons he had not to burn down the Piedmont, his youngest daughter was being married the day of the fire, and the banquet room was filled with food for the big event. Within hours after the fires, friends of the Wares ran home and turned on their ovens, returning a few hours later with a replacement wedding feast. Ware escorted the new bride through a field on his modest ranch north of town as the Piedmont smoldered.

Jerry Ware had devoted 27 years to the Piedmont, a Fort Bragg institution that had been visited and enjoyed by people from all over the world. Irreplaceable photographs from Fort Bragg's colorful past had lined its walls.

The late Mario Affinito, who in 1987, with his father Dominic, ran a raft of Fort Bragg businesses including the Cliff House, Tradewinds Lodge, a t-shirt shop called Sand Dollar Special T's, Gas 'n Grub, and a bed-and-breakfast called the Glass Beach Inn, was bitter about the two fires at the Cliff House. "To not prosecute felony arson for lack of money is the most bullshit excuse I've ever heard," he said when the investigation fizzled and the statute of limitations on the fires had run. "I'm not the only guy who was affected; I had thirty people working for me who were put out of work, I've got suppliers who lost business. The Feds look like idiots and the D.A.'s office looks like clowns."

To make matters worse, Mario said, "my good name was dragged through the mud."

Locals speculated about the Affinitos' involvement in the fires, based on rumors about the Affinitos' large business and real estate holdings in town, their coziness with the City Council and on a large loan they had made to Andre Schade, a Fort Bragg City Councilman. Mario eventually volunteered to take a polygraph and passed it. "Nobody burns down a gold mine restaurant," he repeated. "My restaurant was making money. It was filled every night." For four months the Affinitos battled with their insurance company and finally went to arbitration. "In the end we used our own money," Mario says, "and we sued those bastards later."

Almost immediately after the big night of September 20th, 1987, Ken Rick began talking. He told investigators everything, including the planned sequence of events. The Waterfront still hadn't burned, but it and The Wharf were still on an active list of restaurants for Peter Durigan's special Gas 'N Grub early morning cleansing.

What Ken Rick didn't tell investigators was that the person behind all the fires was very angry about the Gudmundsons running away with the money Rick paid them to burn the Cliff House. It is also believed that Rick owed "an Affinito" — that was the name — for a pound of cocaine. Rick had to participate in the September 20th fires because he owed people who had to be paid.

Why was the Piedmont burned? Simply to destroy competition in Fort Bragg's restaurant business. The person behind the fires wanted his restaurants to succeed even if it meant burning other businesses and killing people.

Incredibly, even with Rick talking to the authorities, the fires continued! The very heart and history of Fort Bragg had been reduced to cinders the morning of September 20th but a month later, on October 18th, early in the morning of course, Durigan and his little helper, P.J. Kreidler, went for Vince Sisco's Waterfront on the north cliff of the Noyo.

Durigan's unmistakable red cleaning truck was observed at Gas 'N Grub by the cashier, a woman named Flo Waszack who also occasionally did cleaning for Durigan's janitorial business. Ms. Waszack was at the cash register when Waszack said Durigan had been stopped by a Fort Bragg police officer because his headlights and brake lights were out. Durigan had switched to his wife's car to finish the night's cleaning jobs, one of which, he claimed, was on distant Mountainview Road above Manchester where there are no businesses of the type that require late-night cleaning.

A little after four in the morning that October 18th, with arson going from the tragic loss of the library, court and the town's oldest hotel to low farce, officer Fournier of the Fort Bragg Police Department drove on routine patrol beneath the Waterfront (which rested on piers) where gasoline dripped from the gasoline drenched floor of the restaurant onto the young policeman's windshield. Fournier may have thought the evening's fog was driven by unleaded regular rather than the usual Pacific winds, but another bungled arson was underway above him, and with gasoline running down his windshield, officer Fournier drove on.

At about 3am, the Fort Bragg PD took a call from Durigan at his usual command post at Gas 'N Grub. Durigan said his nephew, P.J., diligently at his janitorial duties as always, had entered the Waterfront to clean it only to discover the floor covered with gasoline. P.J. naturally informed Uncle Pete before calling the police or the fire department, because Unc would know exactly how to proceed.

What in fact happened was that Durigan had been spotted by at least two people dropping Kreidler off with a gasoline can at the Waterfront. The plan was to soak the place with the trusty inflammable, which would soon be ignited by the pilot light from a stove or water heater. When the pair knew they'd been spotted, Durigan, a good citizen, called the Fort Bragg PD to tell them someone was trying to burn down the Waterfront.

Sisco, who had been absolutely jubilant the morning Affinito's Cliff House across the Noyo had gone up in flames, had been trying to get the Affinitos to buy the Waterfront from him. The Affinitos broke off negotiations with Sisco after the arson attempt on the Waterfront. They knew Sisco was going under for sure now that the fire he'd hoped to bail himself out with had failed; he'd be even more desperate for cash. The Affinitos would be able to pick up Sisco's property on the other side of the Noyo for the proverbial song.

Next: DA, Feds Fiddle While Fort Bragg Burns

One Response to Who Burned Fort Bragg & Why (Part 4)

  1. petrip Reply

    June 21, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Please let someone, somewhere, find a way to send this series to the Coen brothers. The thought of the resulting movie makes me delirious with joy.

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