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.
“At present, kuruc.info is the most active hate group operating in Hungary,” said the Budapest-based Athena Institute. “Its main focus is the propaganda activities carried out on the group’s Internet site that it labels as a ‘news portal.’”
Although written in Hungarian, with content generated in that country, kuruc.info’s domain name was registered by Varga, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The lawsuit filed by Action and Protection Foundation, a Hungarian human rights organization, is seeking to gain more information about Varga’s ties to the website so that criminal and civil proceedings can proceed in Hungary, where there are laws against anti-Semitism.
“Under federal law, you can conduct discovery in support of foreign cases,” said Michael Sweet, the plaintiff’s attorney.
Last month, the human rights group obtained subpoenas issued by U.S. Magistrate Laurel Beeler to question Varga under oath about his links to kuruc.info, as well as a bank account in Sonoma County that he is said to have opened for the website.
Varga didn’t show up to contest the subpoenas.
Instead he is now accused of making death threats and stalking attorney Sweet over a period of six days in late April.
After being arrested, Varga pleaded not guilty to the charges on May 8 and was released from custody in lieu of $250,000 bail. But he subsequently failed to appear twice in court and his bail was forfeited, according to Assistant San Francisco District Attorney Alex Bastian, resulting in the $300,000 bench warrant issued last week.