Some fights start small and build into a rage that ends in bloodshed. Others begin with a man shouting, “Hey, fuck face!” at 8am on a Saturday morning in early November in downtown Fort Bragg. In this case, Fuck Face is Jim Muto, the owner of the Italian dinner house V’Canto; the shouter was Dan Hemann, the artiste behind Green Door Studio’s howling coyote. So, what brings a bronze sculptor to stand on a public street and scream obscenities at his neighbor, the mild-mannered restaurateur?
On this day, at least, the cause for conflict was eggs. The walls of Hemann’s studio had been pelted with them—and Hemann believed Muto was to blame. So, after his shouts were ignored, Hemann came through V’Canto’s door uninvited. Muto was in the restaurant’s dining room working on his laptop. His friend, Robert Van Peer, was there, too.
Here, it must be said that this entire account comes from Jim Muto himself. Though police reports were filed, they’re not yet publicly available. Dan Hemann declined to comment for this story, as did Van Peer, who said it would be inappropriate to do so since criminal charges may still be pursued in the case; if they are, Van Peer will likely be called to testify.
In this, Muto’s version of events, Hemann entered V’Canto angry, with his morning cup of coffee in hand. “Tell Jim to quit throwing eggs at my building,” Hemann said, addressing Van Peer. Muto told Hemann to leave. “We were closed,” explained Muto. “He had no right to be in [the restaurant].”
“Tell that asshole to stop throwing eggs,” Hemann said, again addressing Muto indirectly, through Van Peer—and again Muto demanded that Hemann leave.
“I went and pushed at him, just like this,” Muto said, demonstrating a slow, steady shove, “and pushed him out the door.”
Then, according to Muto, Hemann flung his coffee—and Muto lost it. “I went up – jumped up, because he’s tall – and just wrapped my arms around his neck.” Muto, a comparably small man, took the much larger Hemann to the floor. “At that point, the whole military thing came out of me: ‘Get on him, get the weapon away.’” Muto, a former Navy petty officer, says he saw the coffee cup as a weapon—a weapon he wanted out of Hemann’s hand.
From the periphery, Hemann’s girlfriend joined the fray—trying to break up the fight. A crowd assembled. The police were called. Muto said he doesn’t remember hitting Hemann, but that he may have. When the police arrived, each man filed a report against the other.
As Hemann was leaving, he gestured at his girlfriend and said to Muto, “If you got in a fight with her, she’d kick your ass.”
“And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I’m 63 years old,” said Muto. “I’m embarrassed. I’m like a wet rag—covered in coffee and tea and getting in fights.”
Retelling the story this week, Muto still seems embarrassed at how a Saturday morning at his Fort Bragg restaurant devolved into his first physical fight since he was 13 years old. But those who have watched over the last three years as Hemann and Muto have stared each other down across Laurel Street are probably not surprised that this escalating feud would eventually lead to fisticuffs.
Even before V’Canto opened its doors in 2007, Hemann had complaints about the new restaurant. Its paint job was not to his liking; neither were its proposed hours. The fact that V’Canto stays open an hour later than most Fort Bragg restaurants was a major issue. That live music is played on weekends further riled Hemann, who took his complaints to the city. When that failed, he challenged V’Canto’s liquor license with the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control department. Hemann lost there, too.
Months passed, but the hostility didn’t dissipate. Instead, it seemed to simmer. Hemann believed Muto was egging his building and his cars and putting glue in this locks. Muto laughs at the idea. This was, after all, the week after Halloween, when the petty vandalism of teenagers is a notorious holiday pastime. But Hemann remains convinced Muto is to blame.
Now, after months of radio silence, the District Attorney may take action. Muto recently received a letter informing him that, given his lack of a criminal history, the DA’s office was prepared to offer an “alternative” to filing criminal charges. The charges against Muto—assault and battery—would be dropped if he were to pay $150 to a Utah-based private contractor, Western Corrections, Inc., and submit to their “Values Improvement Course” via DVD. It’s a process the DA’s office calls mediation.
Muto, who is adamant about his innocence, rejected the DA’s offer and hired an attorney. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
Muto’s lawyer, Patrick Pekin, is confident and said he’s not interested in a settlement in the case. “I like the facts,” he said. “It looks to me like Dan crossed the street, walked into another man’s business, refused to leave and then threw coffee on the man. If it comes down to it, we’ll let the people of Fort Bragg decide what they think.”
It may come to that. With Western Corrections off the table, Tim Stoen, the prosecutor, says he’ll review the case and decide whether to pursue criminal charges. There’s no word yet on whether Hemann would submit to having his values improved—though without Muto’s participation, that option is no longer available to him.
Earlier this week, after interviewing Muto at V’Canto, I returned to my car to find a note on the windshield. It was unsigned, but read: “Be sure to ask Jim if he finds it appropriate adult behavior for him to throw eggs on our cars and building, and to put superglue in our door locks.” I had noticed Hemann, who frequently stands outside his studio, staring at me when I arrived. While inside, one of the patrons—overhearing my questions to Muto—said she’d seen Hemann circling the block. By her count, his truck passed by 13 times in about two hours. When I called Hemann for comment on the note, he denied having written it. “What makes you think I would do that,” he said before hanging up the phone.