To his neighbors, Bela Varga seemed like a nice guy who kept to himself. The owner of a short-lived specialty spice shop in downtown Healdsburg, he played the keyboard and claimed to have learned about winemaking in his native Hungary.
One resident on the quiet cul-de-sac where he lived called Varga, 51, “a man of mystery,” especially after authorities showed up about a month ago to ask about him.
“An FBI woman agent showed me a picture. She asked me if I was familiar with him,” neighbor John Manning said.
Although some of his neighbors were unaware of it, Manning had heard previously that Varga was associated with a far-right Hungarian website known for its anti-Semitism and homophobia, which has drawn attention from the Hungarian government and even U.S. congressional representatives.
“I’m shocked. He’s always been so sweet and kind when I’ve talked to him,” said one neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous.
“It doesn’t fit the limited interaction we’ve had with him,” said Andrew Beard, his landlord of more than six years.
Last week, Varga also became a wanted man. A $300,000 bench warrant was issued for his arrest after he failed to show up twice in San Francisco court on criminal charges of stalking and harassing an attorney who obtained a subpoena to question him about his ties to the Hungarian website.
Varga’s family told neighbors he is in Canada, where he is a citizen.
The Fitch Mountain Villas townhouse where he lived with his wife Judit Pesti and their sons, 18 and 20 years old, now is empty, scarred from an upstairs fire on June 16. The cause appeared to be an electrical malfunction, according to the Healdsburg Fire Department.
Human rights groups say the website that Varga allegedly registered, kuruc.info, regularly disputes the Holocaust and organizes hate campaigns against Hungary’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and Roma communities.