A grim-faced Dominic Affinito, flanked by a pair of attorneys from the Ukiah law offices of Jared Carter, appeared in Fort Bragg’s Ten Mile Court Tuesday morning to answer charges that he’d assaulted Fort Bragg councilman-elect Dan Gjerde the afternoon of November 12th, 1998. The preliminary hearing before Judge Joe Orr lasted until mid-afternoon.
District Attorney Vroman is prosecuting Affinito himself to emphasize that the DA’s office no longer downplays crimes committed by well-placed Mendocino County citizens. Former District Attorney Susan Massini had charged the wealthy Fort Bragg developer with one count of misdemeanor battery for his attack on the slightly-built and mild-mannered Gjerde. Upon his upset election victory in November’s election, Vroman immediately charged Affinito with three felonies, all of them related to assault on an elected official.
Affinito’s attorney, John Behnke of Jared Carter’s Ukiah law firm, presented no witnesses for the defendant. Vroman introduced five, including Gjerde, whose testimony unanimously supported Gjerde’s account of the startling events which occurred in the middle of Fort Bragg’s city hall on a work day.
Gjerde said he entered City Hall shortly after 1pm. “I saw Robert Affinito,” Dominic Affinito’s oldest son, “and I paused. I also saw a man standing next to Robert who had white hair. I saw it was Dominic Affinito. I walked past them on my way upstairs and I was hit from behind and pushed into a wall. My head hit the door of the Planning Department.”
Gjerde went on to testify that Affinito, as the developer pummeled him, shouted, “You motherfucker, you caused this. It’s your fault.”
Affinito was apparently upset that the Fort Bragg City Council, on the advice of their attorney, had decided not to allow Affinito to open his controversial North Cliff Motel, a structure erected in blatant disregard of state and local height limitations imposed on buildings along California’s coastline. The City Council deciding against Affinito, three of whose members no longer sit on it, two of whom were reflexively friendly to Affinito’s many Fort Bragg projects, had been advised that were Fort Bragg to grant Affinito an operating permit, the City of Fort Bragg would quickly find itself sued by the State of California. Affinito, unaccustomed to not getting his way from a grotesquely unethical city council majority, somehow blamed Gjerde for his own miscalculations.
A series of City Hall staffers verified that Affinito had shouted at Gjerde, as Gjerde reeled his way into an office to call the police, “Dan, you better not use my name! If you use my name, you’re going to get it!” And, “If you use my name, you’re going to be dead meat.”
Photos of Gjerde’s bruised back were introduced into evidence by prosecutor Vroman.
Affinito’s sedate lawyer, John Behnke, seemingly resigned to the obvious fact that his volatile client will be fortunate to avoid a stay behind bars, calmly cross-examined Gjerde with questions whose answers confirmed Gjerde’s account of the attack on him.
Gjerde, along with three other reform-minded candidates for the Fort Bragg City Council, had been critical of City Hall’s obvious bending of the rules for a few Fort Bragg developers and contractors. He hadn’t been any more critical of Affinito’s flagrantly illegal North Cliff than any number of Fort Bragg residents. The election results, which overwhelmingly returned the vote for reform of City Hall, in large measure represented a repudiation of Affinito and the favoritism clearly extended certain Fort Bragg business interests by councilmen Melo, Olbrantz, Peters, and Huber. Huber and Olbrantz were replaced by Gjerde and Michelle White, whose majority was the largest in Fort Bragg’s history. Reform candidate Vince Benedetti was also elected, replacing Darrell Galli who had chosen not to run for re-election. Galli had been an independent voice on the council.
At the end of Affinito’s preliminary hearing, judge Orr bound Affinito over for arraignment June 1st on one charge of making terrorist threats, one misdemeanor charge of dissuading a witness (Gjerde), and one charge of misdemeanor battery on a public official. The judge said the injuries sustained by Gjerde during Affinito’s prolonged attack on him were not serious enough to warrant felony assault charges. The judge’s peculiar logic suggested that a victim must suffer much more severe injury to warrant felony prosecution.
DA Vroman seemed pleased that he’d been able to make at least one felony stick but conceded it was unlikely that Affinito would do any jail time. Vroman predicted that the 63-year-old Affinito, who has never been convicted of a crime although he has been involved in litigation of various kinds much of his adult life, would “plead out” on the charges resulting, Vroman hopes, in his being placed on felony probation.
If Affinito decides to take his non-existent case to a jury, he faces two-to-three years in state prison on the felony threat charge, and up to a year in the County Jail on each of the two misdemeanor charges. In addition to the charges he faces in the Gjerde episode, Affinito is suing Fort Bragg for the City’s refusal to allow him to open the North Cliff, and he is being sued by the State of California for deliberately building his ocean view motel overlooking the mouth of the Noyo River one story taller than is permitted by the Coastal Act.