WHEN COMETS COLLIDE: To my great relief, we learned last week — thanks in part to a team of five UCSB scientists — that the universe is expanding a lot slower than most of us had been led to believe. But for Santa Barbara’s biggest, baddest landlord, Dario Pini, last week was when the universe seemed to collapse and fall on his head. For Pini, it proved to be a cosmic bad-hair week of epic dimensions. As is often the case with Pini, he had it coming. But also, he didn’t.
Two Tuesday nights ago, Pini was front and center in the City Council chambers as Westside residents blasted his plans to max out a duplex on the 1900 block of Chino Street. They had reason to worry he’d pack it with out-of-town City College students who’d disturb the neighborhood’s carefully cultivated peace and tranquility by throwing massive dude-bra’ keggers on the roof deck overlooking their collective backyards. The neighbors’ case rested on Pini’s well-earned reputation as public enemy number one when it comes to building-code violations, painstakingly amassed over a 40-year career in the landlord business. Going into the meeting, I didn’t think they had a legal leg to stand on, and neither did city planners, who recommended Pini’s project be approved. The neighbors, however, took us all to school, having strip-mined the fine print of city codes to pull the proverbial rabbit out of their hats that would allow the council to unanimously dispatch Pini back to the drawing boards..
But that was just the start.
On Friday, the Santa Barbara Police Department issued a press release announcing Pini had been arrested around 3:30 in the morning on felony charges of commercial burglary and that he’d spent the night in jail. They issued a booking photo of Pini looking every bit as pissed as he was exhausted. Having looked into the matter, I’ve concluded that Pini — as usual — was guilty, though not as charged. If I have it right — and I think I do — Pini illegally trespassed onto the site of a recently demolished rental property owned by the Craviotto family on the 300 block of West Carrillo Street and attempted to take, without the owners’ permission, a few items of negligible value that otherwise would have been trucked off to the dump: several feet of coaxial cable, some copper tubing, and an old machine used by an out-of-business restaurant to crank out paychecks. That someone as stratospherically wealthy as Pini — he owns more rental units than Michael Towbes and Tony Romasanta (Islay Investments) combined — would engage in such low-level, opportunistic scavenging suggests a profound pathological condition. The man clearly needs help. But incarceration? Felony charges? Pini’s grown accustomed to being called a slumlord. But being tagged as a thief and a felon on what passes for Santa Barbara’s front pages? I can see why he looked mad. And no wonder there’s no room in the jail for serious offenders.
All this came to light because of Raquel Mendoza, a tenant who lives next door to the demolition site that Pini attempted to pilfer two Sundays ago. Of all the people on the planet, Mendoza is the last person Pini needed in his face. Mendoza stands maybe four times taller than her pet Chihuahua — Amber — that she takes everywhere. She’s utterly fearless and ruthlessly outspoken. Mendoza and Pini embody a weird yin and yang of the California immigrant experience. Pini’s parents weren’t technically straight-off-the-boat Italian immigrants, but their socks were still plenty wet. Pini grew up in a household where English was the second language and the workday ended well after the sun went down. Pini famously claims he’s looking out for immigrant workers, but as such, he’s been a mixed blessing. He rents to people many landlords won’t. When tenants get behind, he’s willing to work things out. But Pini’s rents are no bargain, and his quarters, often thrashed and crammed. Mendoza — who moved from Mexico to the United States in 1965 — is that immigrant Pini says he’s helping. She wants no part of it. A 40-year resident of Santa Barbara, Mendoza finally got her papers together in 1992 with help from then-congressmember Walter Capps. In that time, she’s made it her business to be everywhere, know everybody, and know pretty much everything, too. She helped found La Casa de la Raza; she’s volunteered for Planned Parenthood; when the school district shut down three elementary schools — way back when — Mendoza led the charge to keep them open. Last week, she donated two guitars to a struggling youth mariachi program. Mendoza never rented from Pini, but she knows people who have. And no, she says, he’s not doing them any favors. “Five, seven, 10 people in one apartment,” she spat. “And he charges them all $100.” When she heard Pini was trespassing next door, she wasted no time confronting him. “Where are your papers?” she demanded. “Who told you you could take this?” She was relentless. “He never expected this short lady with the big mouth” she laughed. Pini, a muscular man who once played minor-league baseball, found himself totally surrounded. He had no chance. When Mendoza threatened to call the cops, he dropped what he’d scavenged and split. Later, the police would have her pick Pini out of a photo lineup, a waste of time in her estimation. “I’ve lived here 40 years,” she said. “I know Dario.” Mendoza speaks with a notably thick accent. When she rolls her r’s, you can pretty much surf the curl into infinity. “Poorrrr Dario,” she said, laughing again. You could almost hear the waves crash.
Santa Barbara may be a small town, but the universe is still a pretty big place. That Dario Pini and Raquel Mendoza would collide as they did on St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t necessarily prove the existence of God. But it does suggest that Justice still happens. In the meantime, “Poorrrr Dario.”