DA, Feds Fiddle While Fort Bragg Burns (Part 5)
by Mark Heimann and Bruce Anderson, March 3, 1999
In September of 1987 the Fort Bragg library was burned to the ground at the corner of Main and Laurel. The arson also destroyed the adjacent Ten Mile Justice Court. Just down the street, the torches burned down a third landmark — the Piedmont Hotel.
The cocaine incendiaries had burned the library and the courthouse to get at the Piedmont. The library and the courthouse were mere diversions to draw attention from the arsonist at work in the Piedmont. Firefighters battling to save the library and the Ten Mile Court, looked down the street to see the Piedmont fully engulfed in flame.
In eleven months it will be too late to prosecute the villainous crew who did it because the statute of prosecutorial limitations for the crime of arson, even serial arsons like these, will have run. The crooks will have gotten away with it.
At this point, and unofficially, some $100,000 in local investigative time has been invested in trying to pin down enough information to take the case to trial. Additionally, the ATF has investigated the fires and the FBI has had a team on the case. The county's Sheriff's Department has pitched in, and the Fort Bragg Police Department has done its share and more to identify the persons responsible. Locals joked that there were more FBI and ATF agents walking around town in their agency windbreakers than there were tourists.
Much of the information is confidential until it hits the courtroom, and nobody wants to jeopardize the case. But two years is a long time to wait for answers when the right questions were asked of the right people within a month of the big event. And as spectacular and as destructive as the fires were, Fort Bragg has moved on. The town has a new library, is closer to having the old courthouse restored as a community events building, and there's a comprehensive landscape plan for the grounds where the old library stood. A quarter mile down Main Street, wildflowers cover the lot where the Piedmont Hotel once stood.
Life has gone on in Fort Bragg, but the fire remains major unfinished business. If it remains unfinished, blame the District Attorney's office of Susan Massini. What hope can the DA have in re-election if the biggest criminal case in Mendocino County history remains un
The normally somnolent Fort Bragg Advocate News, editorialized in October 1989, that DA Massini would have to campaign before the June, 1990 election before the statute of limitations on the spectacular crimes runs out the following September.
Of the 40,862 registered voters in Mendocino County, 16,128 live on the Coast in the 4th and 5th districts. That's 39.47% of the vote. Can Massini successfully gain re-election with the crimes unresolved? The Advocate thundered, "Don't look for pre-election promises. Look for that case to go to trial."
District Attorney Susan Massini was easily re-elected in 1990; she ran unopposed. And the Fort Bragg arsons never made it to court, although a very strong case was ready to go.
The "victims" of the arsons -- Vince Sisco, the Affinitos and Jerry Ware of the Piedmont Hotel -- never made a single phone call to Ukiah demanding that the arsonists be pursued and prosecuted. None of the "victims" lost money on the fires; indeed, they all came out ahead — in the case of the Affinitos, way ahead.
Neither Sisco nor the Affinitos, although their businesses had been torched twice, took steps to protect their property against late-night visitors carrying containers of Gas 'N' Grub gasoline.. No evidence was ever turned up to even remotely implicate Ware in the destruction of the Piedmont Hotel whose ground floor premises he leased to operate a successful restaurant and bar. Ware said he was adequately insured "but far from over-insured."
The persons directly responsible for the fires -- Vince Sisco, Peter Durigan, Ken Rick, Gilbert and Shawn Gudmundson, P.J. Kreidler, and, perhaps, Gary Cudney -- were known to the authorities within a month of the three arsons that destroyed the library, the court and the Piedmont Hotel. Sisco refused to cooperate with the investigation while Durigan promised to cooperate, but when cooperation time arrived, appeared with his lawyer, Bart Kronfeld, to announce he had nothing to say.
But Ken Rick talked.
At first Rick talked because he thought he might be able to get the reward money by fingering Sisco as Mr. Big, who of course was a key player, but not the franchise, not Mr. Big. Ken Rick knew who the most dangerous person involved was and wanted no part of him. The word on the street was that anybody who got in the way of the drug transactions or property deals of the main man of the arsons, that person would be murdered.
The Gudmundsons prudently ran away and hid for a long time, and even now are extremely circumspect when they visit Fort Bragg. Gary Cudney talked to the police but never would talk to the media about the case; he remains deeply fearful of the fires' architect. P.J. Kreidler headed north without ever being asked an impertinent question by the authorities, not that he waited around for them to come knocking. Ken Rick stayed in Fort Bragg, his home town, and because he didn't run Rick may have paid with his life.
What happened to the investigation? Why weren't the indentified culprits arrested and prosecuted?
Bureaucratic inertia is one reason. Official indifference at the level of DA Susan Massini over the hill in Ukiah and an equivalent indifference in the US Attorney's office in San Francisco were big factors. And, it seems, the bad guys had convenient friends in high places.
The Fort Bragg police knew within days who did the fires. The why of no prosecution was more complicated. Rather than simply squeeze the identified arsonists and working up from them to what an ironist might call the "masterminds" if the crimes had been any more complicated than the incendiary equivalent of a smash and grab robbery, then-chief Mayberry called in the feds to help unravel what was clearly a more complicated conspiracy involving well-connected criminals with the resources and ruthlessness to defend themselves against all comers.
The feds investigated for a year before turning over their findings to Susan Massini. Mendocino County had first dibs on jurisdiction. Massini sat on the case for another year before she turned it over to her assistant, Myron Sawicki. Sawicki worked on it for nearly a year before Massini took it back to the feds and asked them to prosecute it. The feds sat on it one last time before tossing it back to Massini in Ukiah.
By the time it got back to Mendocino County for the last time, there was about a month to go before the sand in the statute of limitation's clock ran all the way out.
Thousands of hours and perhaps as much as $2 million were spent at all levels of the investigation before the case was permanently filed in that mysterious place where the people who paid for it, American taxpayers, can never see for themselves a sad story of official neglect. The attitude of prosecutors at both the Mendocino County and the federal level was: "Fort Bragg? Who cares?"
At the Mendocino County level, District Attorney Susan Massini blithely remarked to a reporter, "It wasn't as if voters were beating down my door to get me to prosecute. Until late in 1990, there was little pressure to prosecute the case. There were no letters to the editor, no phone calls. There was no hue and cry, no demand for action."
Yeah, Sue, but crimes aren't a popularity contest. Crimes are crimes, and it's your job to investigate and prosecute them.
Perhaps because people assumed, after all the activity they'd seen around town from nearly 50 investigators who arrived in Fort Bragg soon after the the heart and soul of their town went up in flames, that the case was proceeding, was finally going to court.
But the DA, in a classic case of blame-the-victims, said it was Fort Bragg's fault for not demanding that she do her job!
Sylvia Kozak-Budd is still heartsick at the loss of the library she'd devoted much of her working life to. She probably represented most people in Fort Bragg when she said, "I'm a midwestern child of the 1950s. I believed implicitly in the criminal justice system. I didn't worry about it. I thought, My god, these important guys from the FBI, these bomb people are here. They know how to solve these things."
Kozak-Budd initially assumed the library fire was the work of a deranged person. "It never occurred to any of us that this was anything but an evil, malicious act directed toward the library. I took it very personally. I was afraid for a month that someone was going to burn down my home, that my animals would die. I woke up every morning at 4am in a panic attack for weeks and weeks afterwards."
At the police level there was outrage. And there still is. "Basically, thugs from the Sacramento Valley rode into town to buy up property, sell dope, burn out their competitors, and thumb their noses at us," is how one investigator put it as recently as last week.
Les Pierce, who'd been assigned by the Fort Bragg Police Department to work with Bill Mallory, the man in charge of the ATF's 30-person investigative team, told the local media back in 1991 that he didn't think "the story will ever come out."
Pierce is widely believed to have resigned from his job in disgust at the lack of prosecution of the case. He is also said to have been terribly depressed at the death of Ken Rick, the primary witness in the case. "We know exactly what happened," Pierce forthrightly declared more than eight years ago now. "I can walk downtown and pass people on the street who signed confessions saying what they burned and what they were paid. But in respect to the California Judicial system, we have no right to say what we know because no one was ever charged in a court of law. That's the part some of us have to live with for the rest of our lives."
Pierce resigned from his cop job and went to work as a truck driver. He still lives in the Fort Bragg area.
Susan Massini, right up to her final month in office, made excuses for not opening up her files on the case. "Because there may have been a murder involved, the case is still open so a lot of the evidence is still confidential." But only weeks later, she said at a candidate's night in Philo that the case was not prosecuted "because there was insufficient evidence."
The results of the federal part of the investigation will never be made public. They were even kept from the Mendocino County Grand Jury who heard the case in 1991 after pawing through the 26 boxes of evidence amassed on the fires by the Fort Bragg Police Department and the DA's office. The Grand Jury concluded that it found "no evidence of a conspiracy to obstruct justice," but that "lack of cooperation, lack of direction, and lack of consistent effort might suggest to the casual observer that such a conspiracy existed." The Grand Jury pointed vaguely to the "inertia of some officials" without naming those officials.
The Mendocino County Grand Jury in all its modern history has never indicted a local official.
The US Attorney at the time, William McGivern, said the death of Ken Rick in 1990 had wrecked prosecution of the case. Congressman Frank Riggs relayed McGivern's weasely and demonstrably false reason for the federal disinterest in the case to Ed Kowas one morning on Kowas's KMFB talk show. Riggs told Kowas's coast radio audience that "without Ken Rick there is no case."
There certainly was a case without Ken Rick because he and at least three of his fellow arsonists had long before told investigators exactly what happened, who paid them, and who had paid their paymaster, the late Peter Durigan.
Durigan got the money for the fires from Vince Sisco; Durigan paid Ken Rick to set the fires. Rick looked around for assistant arsonists and found them in Gil and Shawn Gudmundson and maybe Gary Cudney. (Cudney denies all involvement in the arsons, although he implicated the Gudmundsons.) When Rick and the Gudmundsons failed to adequately carry out the torching of the Affinitos' Cliff House in the summer of 1987, Durigan got his nephew, P.J. Kreidler, to do it.
This fumbling apparatus had also been commissioned to burn down The Wharf restaurant in Noyo harbor but was unable to pull it off because people with guns were sleeping in the place when it wasn't open. One of those persons was the man who owned the structure housing the restaurant, Jim Cummings.
The big fire spree of Sunday, September 20, 1987, was supposed to make all the fires look like the work of a pyromaniac, thus diverting attention from the true perpetrators.
There is ample evidence that Vince Sisco and Peter Durigan were working for a far more clever and much more ruthless coast entrepreneur. When the fires finally ended in 1990 with the arson fire at the Reed Manor Inn in Mendocino, an arson fire only tangentially related to those up the road in Fort Bragg, Dominic Affinito had emerged with his restaurant businesses enhanced, a commercially-zoned ocean view property he'd bought cheap, and a friendly Fort Bragg City Council even more inclined to give the arson-lucky Affinito everything else he wanted. The Fort Bragg City Council was so fond of Affinito that when Patti Campbell, a member of the council, went over the hill to Ukiah as 4th District supervisor, Affinito got to build the county's coast offices, which he leases back to the county for much more money than it would have cost the county to build its own offices in Fort Bragg.
Ken Rick had begun talking to investigators within a week of the fires. He'd been urged by his girl friend to come forward and get it all behind him. Rick had just become a father and he desperately wanted to be a real father. He wanted to leave the joyless murk of drugs and badly paid crime behind him. He was still young, and he had a new family to support. Rick was not a thug and didn't want to pretend to be one as a career.
The Fort Bragg Fire Department, immediately after the September, 1987, blazes, asked the State Fire Marshal for help. Monte McGill, whose investigations would later be described as "flawless" by attorneys assigned to the case, went right to work. McGill proved beyond all doubt the fires had been deliberately set. The State Fire Marshal then enlisted the assistance of the ATF to re-check his findings. ATF dispatched two top agents who in turn summoned what the ATF calls its National Response Team -- all 30 of them. By the first week of October, 1987, there were about 40 people -- 32 of them from the ATF alone -- in Fort Bragg, all of them investigating the fires. At least two FBI agents were also in town to help track down the arsonists.
"They were all over the place," a local recalls, "talking into portable phones and sticking out like sore thumbs. It was almost funny."
The ATF contingent brought everything they needed to track down the crooks except for stenographers. The mob of sleuths, including the FBI agents, took their investigative findings to Fort Bragg City Hall to be transcribed. The persons believed to be directly involved in the fires were also interrogated at City Hall. Polygraph tests were administered there, too. The ATF delegation stayed at the Affinitos' Tradewinds motel, although the Affinitos' Cliff House had burned twice and the Affinitos were among the persons supposedly being investigated.
ATF agents enjoyed themselves evenings at the Tradewinds bar in the company of at least one City Hall employee -- Paula Forsyth, now Paula Donovan. Ms. Forsyth was one of the City Hall staffers assigned to transcribe reports for the ATF. She was a close friend of Dominic Affinito, and she quickly became a very good friend of the ATF's lead investigator, Bill Mallory.
With the arrival of the ATF, Ken Rick's name was quickly out in the community as the lead informant on the case. Fort Bragg City Hall leaked like the proverbial sieve because Ms. Forsyth-Donovan was running straight from her word processor at City Hall to the Tradewinds with all the news about her exciting work day, including the names of persons who'd been interviewed by the ATF or the FBI and what they'd said.
Eleven years later, Paula Forsyth-Donovan is still running errands for the Affinitos. During a recent hearing before the Fort Bragg City Council on Dominic Affinito's one-story-too-tall North Cliff Motel (on the site of Vince Sisco's long-gone Agostinos-Waterfront Bar and Grill), Paula Donovan, appeared on behalf of Affinito to berate the council for what she claimed was its unfair treatment of Affinito. Affinito, obviously, and as the paper trail on the North Cliff makes abundantly clear, had erected his oversized Northcliff in flagrant disregard for state and local building codes. "Get the thing built, and what are they going to do, push it into the Noyo?" is how an admiring former Mendocino business owner described an old local tactic for avoiding step-by-step bureaucratic interference with new structures. Build and dare the authorities to do something about it. (Typically, the authorities simply bump up the offender's property taxes, if they do anything at all.)
But back in the big fire year of 1987, Ken Rick was immediately known to the bad guys as the man who was naming names. Everything said at City Hall went straight to Affinito's Tradewinds, and Ken Rick was soon dead.
Paula Forsyth arrived in Fort Bragg in 1966. Her father had assumed the pulpit of the Trinity Lutheran Church on Redwood Avenue after a career as a Navy chaplain. Forsyth, now in her mid-40's, completed high school in Fort Bragg. She was an honor student and won lots of her graduating class's college scholarships, which she used for a year at Cal Lutheran before returning to Fort Bragg. There was an early failed marriage to a Fort Bragg man and, in the ensuing years, struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. Freed from her mistake of an early first marriage, and never much constrained by the austere tenets of Lutheranism, Forsyth took a job at City Hall under City Manager Gary Milliman.
Milliman eventually fired her.
Ms. Forsyth's strenuous night life apparently got in the way of her daytime duties. From her side of the dispute there were allegations of sexual harassment aimed in the direction of the scrupulously correct and seemingly aesexual Milliman. Forsyth's personnel file was sealed and the matter swept under Fort Bragg's commodious carpet. It is not known if Ms. Forsyth's claim of sexual harassment was sustained.
An attractive woman who always managed, and still manages, to appear for church on Sunday no matter how rigorous her Saturday nights might be, and certainly an efficient and skilled worker most of the time, Paula Forsyth went to work, variously, for D.I.A.L., the organization serving the handicapped; for Thanksgiving Coffee; for Walsh Oil; for the troubled Westport Water District; and for Dominic Affinito as Affinito's representative where Affinito's multitude of private Fort Bragg interests collide with Fort Bragg's public domain. As a graduate of Fort Bragg High School, Paula Forsyth was an old girl in good standing and, as a way into the more insular segments of the community, she was very useful to Affinito in getting Affinito what he wanted.
Such are the ongoing tensions in Fort Bragg that few people will allow themselves to be identified in talking about anything related to either Affinito or the fires. A former co-worker, however, describes Forsyth as "the kind of person who wings everyone she works with." This man said fellow employees could predict her daily disposition by her clothes. "When she was dressed up, look out. When she came in in jeans, everything was sweetness and light."
Sartorial personality indicators aside, at the time of the fires Paula Forsyth was the person through whom confidential information from the investigation was getting to the people being investigated.
Even with local cops, ATF, FBI, and State Fire Marshal investigators swarming Fort Bragg trying to figure out who burned the library, Ten Mile court and the Piedmont Hotel, the arsonists tried to burn Vince Sisco's Waterfront Bar and Grill. The torches probably could have burned the bar at the Tradewinds and gotten away with it so long as they didn't do it before 2am.
All the rumors said the Waterfront arson was done for Sisco and Sisco's silent partner whose name, the rumors said, was Affinito. That attempt went no further than the damage caused by soaking the restaurant's interior with so much gasoline the fuel seeped clear through the floor and onto the windshield of an uncomprehending police officer patrolling below.
The late Peter Durigan and his spry little nephew, P.J. Kreidler, did that one. Having been alerted by Kreidler that they'd been spotted by several persons passing by as Kreidler was dropped off with a big can of gasoline by none other than himself, Durigan called in the aborted fire from his Gas N Grub command post. Durigan explained to the police that his nephew had discovered the petrol-soaked premises when he'd arrived to work his janitorial magic. Durigan and Kreidler had saved Sisco's restaurant from going up in flames!
The arsonists, obviously, were underwhelmed and undeterred by the huge police presence in town to track them down, so underwhelmed one Fort Bragg officer awoke one morning to find a murder scene chalk silhouette drawn on the pavement of his driveway. Durigan, of course, in his career as a corpse robber drove a coroner's wagon for San Mateo County prior to his arrival in Fort Bragg; he knew all about crime scenes. He also knew what suicides look like even when they aren't suicides.
Billy Phenix remembers Ken Rick and the combustible summer of 1987. "We were roommates for a little while in '86," Phenix recalls. "I traded a car with Kenny for his 1962 Ford pick-up. It struck me as odd, but after we made the deal, Kenny told me that someone might follow the truck at night. He said the police knew the truck but it wouldn't be them following it. But before I could ask him about it, Kenny said, 'That's all I better say about it,' and I just let it go. It was only after he died that I thought about it again."
About 4:30 the afternoon of January 12th, 1990, Ken Rick's roommate, Royce Waadaja, walked in to the tiny, forlorn house they shared at 387 South Sanderson Street, Fort Bragg, just across the street from the elementary school Rick had attended as a child, and found Ken Rick dead from a shotgun blast to the head. The shotgun belonged to Waadaja. Rick had left a note for his girlfriend that read, "I don't know why you couldn't come by and wish me a happy birthday -- that hurt me bad. Love, Ken."
The Fort Bragg Police Department treated Rick's death as if it were a crime, not a suicide. They knew he had talked with an attorney representing the feds, Sandra Teeters, the summer before he died. And they knew he' d been of enormous help to the feds. What the Fort Bragg Police Department didn't know was that Rick was scheduled to appear in Ukiah the very next day to talk to DA investigators.
Dead on Sunday, no interview Monday.
US Attorney Teeters apparently had concluded she didn't think the torches would make effective witnesses; she recommended that the feds drop the case, and the ball was back in Mendocino County's disinterested court. With the case returned to Mendocino County, and the statute of limitations ticking, there wasn't much time to get going on it.
The Fort Bragg police knew that Rick was the best witness they had. The department's Les Pierce had been on the case full-time from the morning of the fires until Rick's death. Rick had told Pierce everything and then some. Fort Bragg had more than enough for Susan Massini to have the big guys arrested and to take them on into court. Backed up by the ATF's findings, they had double enough. Ditto for the feds. But Ken Rick died in a conveniently-timed "suicide," and the feds lied and said without him there was no case. Then Susan Massini lied and said the feds had screwed up the case by releasing Rick's name to Congressman Riggs who announced it on the radio. The supervisors then said they wouldn't give Massini the money she said she needed to continue the investigation because she had enough money already. Then Massini lost her lead guy on the case, Myron Sawicki, to employee contract negotiations. When Sawicki came back onto the case a year later he was inexplicably pulled off it again. And the statute of limitations ran out. It was too late to prosecute.
All this back and forth was a lot of excuse-making for not taking the Fort Bragg Police Department's and the ATF's comprehensive findings into a court of law at either the federal or local level.
Rick had told friends he was afraid he was going to be killed. "They know how to make it look like a suicide," the doomed young man told one close friend. People afraid of being murdered don't ordinarily commit suicide. What would be the point if you think you're going to be killed anyway? There were recurrent rumors that Rick owed powerful people for a pound of cocaine he hadn't paid for. Drugs and drug sales are the arson fires sub-theme, of course; all the people involved were involved in drug sales, drug use and drug distribution, the proceeds of which, at the upper end where the real money in the dope trade is made, were recycled as real estate investments.
Tom Bickell succeeded Joe Mayberry as Fort Bragg's police chief when Mayberry retired early in 1988. Six months after the fires, Bickell said that Rick's death was treated as a homicide. "But we couldn't find anything to indicate, or prove, that he had been shot so Rick's death was ruled a probable suicide."
The police drawing depicts Rick lying on his back on a bed with his legs wrapped around the butt of a shotgun whose barrel is aimed at his head. He is alleged to have pulled the trigger with his toe. The autopsy report declared that no traces of either drugs or alcohol were found in Rick's blood. There were no fingerprints on the barrel of the shotgun. Ken Rick's obituary was withheld from the local newspapers, the idea being that conspirators higher up the arson chain would be scared out of town and into hiding. Everyone involved had known Rick was talking since the week of the fires more than two years before he died. Ken Rick's sister said only last week that "my brother would never commit suicide. Maybe if he was drunk or stoned, I could believe it. But Kenny would never kill himself while he was sober. He wasn't that brave."
And Rick's was substance-clean when he died.
Chief Bickell says that semi-acrobatic suicides are not all that uncommon. "I've seen some like this one," the chief, who is also now retired, said recently. Although swabs were taken of Rick's legs and dispatched to the Department of Justice lab to examine for gunpowder residue the results were said to be "inconclusive."
Ken Rick's girlfriend remembers that Rick had once made a sort of symbolic suicide attempt. "When we were together, Ken locked himself in the garage one night after we'd had an argument, started up his car and let the motor run. We had to get the neighbors to help us break in to stop him."
Just before Ken Rick's suspicious death almost two years after the fires, and after Rick had told federal and local authorities all about what had happened, the ATF sent a criminal case report on the arsons to DA Susan Massini. The report recommended prosecution of six suspects. The ATF volunteered its considerable resources to assist the DA and the Fort Bragg Police Department in prosecuting the case if requested, but no such request was made. Massini said in 1991, "They were always assisting us, they never stopped."
But she did.
Massini's understanding with the Feds was that when the case was fully prepared, the US Attorney's office would prosecute. Sandra Teeters, Assistant US Attorney, was assigned to the case. Teeters was new to her job, inexperienced according to Massini, which might or might not explain why in August of 1988 Teeters refused to take the case to the Federal Grand Jury which had been convened for the purpose of hearing it.
Fort Bragg's police chief, Tom Bickell, says, "I kept asking Sandra Teeters, 'Is this a good case? Can you prosecute?' and she said, 'Yes, yes.' But then an ATF agent told me, 'Tom, the US Attorney's office never rejects a case. They just let 'em die'."
But Teeters tortured the case then killed it.
Late in the summer of 1988, Teeters convened the Federal Grand Jury in San Francisco to hear several suspects, including the star witness Ken Rick, testify about their roles in the arsons, but at the last minute she refused to let the Grand Jury hear the testimony.
The 1991 Mendocino County Grand Jury blamed Teeters for missing "an opportunity to acquire important information that was heretofore unavailable to investigators."
According to Massini, Teeters found the witnesses less than credible, and Mallory's investigative work for the ATF "inadequate." Massini said that Teeters failed to tell Mallory what she wanted done and what needed to be done before she would feel confident enough in the case to bring it back to the Federal Grand Jury.
"Sandra was new, not experienced," Massini summarized. "But the real problem was Mallory. My opinion is that he was sent up to Fort Bragg to retire. The quality of the work was really shoddy -- in my opinion."
In late November of 1988, Bickell, now Fort Bragg's police chief, called Massini and told her Sandra Teeters had rejected the case. Bickell asked Massini to review the case for prosecution.
Massini says she didn't have the staff to take on the case. Her office had one investigator who worked for 14 attorneys on six or seven hundred cases a year. Moreover, Massini insisted that the evidence, thanks to ATF's Mallory, was inadequate, and besides which the arsons were old news, and the three year state statute of limitations had just about run out.
In fact, the investigative work of Les Pierce of the Fort Bragg Police, combined with Mallory's who Pierce had worked with on the case for two solid years, was more than adequate to prosecute.
"I told Tom Bickel," Massini recalled in 1991, "we're all booked up here. We've had a murder and an embezzlement case.The Fort Bragg fires was a paperwork case. It was going to take someone time. I called it 'The 16 Box Case' because we had 16 boxes of stuff."
Massini has always made the case seem as complicated as the logistics for D-Day. Really? What we had was four young bumblers hired and paid by Sisco and Durigan who were truly working for, that name again, the alleged Dominic Affinito. The alleged Affinito was freed by these six gofers to fulfill his free enterprise ambitions in Fort Bragg. How complicated is that?
But in the spring of 1989, Massini turned the 16 boxes of stuff over to the famously thorough Myron Sawicki. "Everyone agreed he was the right man for this case, meticulous and unintimidated by volumes of paperwork."
Sawicki, however, didn't get at the 16 boxes until September of 1989, almost a year after Chief Bickell had asked for help from the DA's office.
In the year between the time Chief Bickell asked for the DA's help, and when Sawicki finally began his slog through the 16 boxes, ATF's Mallory had retired. His replacement didn't do much of anything to advance the prosecution of the fires and, soon, the absent Mallory was getting the big finger of blame pointed at him.
Mallory rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He seems to have annoyed US Attorney Sandra Teeters to the point where she refused to take the case to the Federal Grand Jury. DA Massini politely described the Mallory interlude as "maybe a little incompetence, perhaps a little negligence."
Les Pierce never bought into the Mallory-bashing. Pierce defended Mallory by pointing to the easy target he presented to persons much higher up the chain of authority. "What about Sandra Teeters? What about Susan Massini?" Pierce asked. "Mallory was competent. Maybe he retired before this case was over, but while he was still involved in the investigation, I remember him standing at a telephone, yelling to his boss, 'There's more to this case than meets the eye. Damn it, I need more bodies.' He was no diplomat, but he conducted himself as a professional."
When Sawicki finally began work on the case, he told Massini that with a great deal of work there was a "possibility of prosecution." But then he was inexplicably pulled off the case, and the statute of limitations was up. The case couldn't be prosecuted. These days, Sawicki makes it clear there was definitely a case to be prosecuted.
Tom Bickell says the failure to prosecute the arson fires was "the biggest disappointment of my career in law enforcement. We knew who the people were and we had the evidence to prove it."
"I played by the rules," Les Pierce, the Fort Bragg Police Department's lead investigator on the case said in 1991 just before he quit the force in apparent disgust that major crooks had gotten away with a flagrant arson for profit and maybe murder. "The community played by the rules, and we all lost. We spent a lot of good money doing nothing."
DA Susan Massini, whose foot-dragging throughout got seriously in the way of a prosecution, is on record as saying the ATF sent Mallory up to Fort Bragg "to retire early." Massini has a whole bag full of excuses for not pursuing the case. Mallory is only one of them, and if the ATF wasn't serious why had the agency dispatched its best technical team to work under Mallory?
The various levels of authority are all quick to belittle the efforts of authority lower down the ladder, but the investigation clearly shows a first-rate effort by the Fort Bragg Police Department and State Fire Marshal McGill, but sloppy security by ATF and an utterly appalling performance by DA Susan Massini and her federal colleagues.
Massini and the feds burned Fort Bragg as flagrantly as the crooks had.
In 1990, Barbara and Monte Reed's Reed Manor Inn in Mendocino was badly damaged in an arson fire. A young woman involved in the case allegedly committed suicide in Merced soon after.
Where Are They Now?
Vince Sisco. Lots of people assume he's dead, but there's no evidence he is. Sisco was seen a few years go on highway 101 between Cloverdale and Santa Rosa headed south in his distinctive white Cadillac. He'd be in his 70s now.
Bill Dunham is working in a savings and loan somewhere in the greater Bay Area.
Peter Durigan is dead. Ken Rick is dead. Gary Cudney still lives on the Mendocino Coast. The Gudmundsons are in and out of Fort Bragg. P.J. Kreidler is believed to be in either Washington state or Oregon.
Dominic Affinito emerged from the fires with his fortunes greatly enhanced. He owns more than 50 parcels of real estate and several businesses in and around Fort Bragg, which now include the County of Mendocino's court and social services complex, which Affinito leases back to the county at top public dollar. He presently faces felony assault charges for a November attack on Fort Bragg councilman-elect, Dan Gjerde in the lobby of Fort Bragg City Hall. Susan Massini didn't prosecute him for that one either.
Paula Forsyth-Donovan is still running errands for Affinito.
The Investigation, A Chronology
- The Fort Bragg Police Department knows within a week of the famous library, Ten Mile Court and Piedmont Hotel fire who the arsonists are, who hired them and how much they were paid to set the fires.
- The Fort Bragg Fire Department, with the permission of the Fort Bragg Police Department, requested assistance from the State Fire Marshal's office.
- The State Fire Marshal's Office, seconded by the Fort Bragg Police Department, asked for the assistance of the US Department of the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. ATF dispatched two investigators to Fort Bragg the first week of October, 1987. The two ATF investigators called in the 30-person ATF unit known as its National Response Team. This group arrived with a mobile lab; they lodged at Affinito's Tradewinds Motel on Fort Bragg's Main Street.
- Overall responsibility for the investigation was assumed by the United States Attorney at the request of ATF. The US Attorney's Office at the time was headed up by Joe Russinello, an old family friend of the Affinitos. The US Attorney kept control of the case until August of 1988 without prosecuting it.
- In May of 1989, ATF sent a comprehensive criminal case report to the Mendocino County District Attorney. The ATF recommended that Mendocino County prosecute the case and promised to help with the prosecution. DA Massini assigned Myron Sawicki to work on the case.
- Sawicki did not start work on the case until November of 1989 because until then he had been working as the negotiator for the County Employees Management Negotiating Team, which he apparently can do while he's drawing a public salary as a prosecutor.
- DA Massini, also in November of 1989, requested more money from the Board of Supervisors to proceed with the Fort Bragg arson case. The supervisors gave her an additional $42,000 but denied subsequent requests for additional funds to prosecute.
- Massini stated on several occasions the Fort Bragg arsons were not her first priority -- violent crimes were her first priority. Most people think of arson as a violent crime.
- In May of 1991, the City of Fort Bragg, obviously aware that prosecution of the case was slipping away, pledged $50,000 to pursue the case.
- The Board of Supervisors, also in May of 1991, declared that law enforcement was the responsibility of law enforcement and that they should maintain an "arm's length" between themselves and the DA's office.
- On September 20th, 1991, the statute of limitations freed the arsonists from the possibility of federal prosecution. The statute runs a year longer than the state's clock on arson. And now the federal statute of limitations has run out, too.
- When he took office (2011), we asked DA Eyster if we could see the case files on the fires. They'd disappeared.
The bad guys won.
* * *
BETSY CAWN of Lake County Writes:
Affinito and Mitchell made their move on Lake County about a decade ago; Affinito proposed a 65-acre, “multi-scale” housing subdivision in what remains of lake-freshened wetlands on the eastern end of the Nice-Lucerne Cutoff (between Hwys 20 and 29). Thankfully, the project collapsed — after a bad infrastructure job undercut the light industry investments on Stokes Lake, the permit was not renewed by the Board of Supervisors following a hotly contested application (fought by the industrial operations his work threatened to destroy).
Mitchell made out better, reinventing himself as Origin Construction, and launching a few “high end” SFD subdivisions in the North Lakeport area — but missing the mark on failed “multi-use” major subdivisions proposed to the City of Lakeport as well as next door to the Northwest wastewater treatment plant. At one point, a Ft. Bragg lawyer (Jim somebody) offered a similarly grandiose scheme to the City of Clearlake, while Mitchell’s former contract manager — Dale Neiman — was that city’s manager, after a stint as the City of Lakeport’s liaison between two shady council members, a couple of equally shady former planning commissioners, and the city’s then attorney (later dismissed, but still costing the tax payers a small bundle in out-of-county legal fees).
These shylocks all attempted to sell the County of Lake their cheap land conversion schemes, the largest of which (Cristallago) was promoted by Boeger Land Development, which quickly went bankrupt after the “fall of 2008” — and the Chamber of Commerce was their biggest fan, based on the developer claims that the project would result in “hundreds of new jobs” (all minimum wage, and none accommodated with the affordable housing workers would need to survive — the presumption being that they would all commute from Ukiah!)
Sleaziest of all was the attempt to convert the City of Lakeport’s publicly owned waste water disposal fields (most of the city’s sewer system is not connected to the pipeline feeding the geothermal steam fields on Cobb Mountain) into a golf-course based, clubhouse centered, gated subdivision without the city’s tax payers agreement or funding of a substitute for the waste water disposal requirement. An investigation by the Lake County grand jury, in 2009, was sufficient to halt the progress of this bad deal, but Mitchell and his pals have made their mark on the County of Lake, like a bunch of bad dogs marking their territory.