Subscribe
Hollie Clausen tapes up a sign calling for Windsor mayor Dominic Foppoli to resign during a protest at his family's winery, Christopher Creek Winery near Healdsburg, on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

Disgraced Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli now an outcast in his hometown after sexual assault allegations

Behind the bar at Christopher Creek Winery, a few miles north of downtown Windsor, is a picture of the thousand-year-old castle owned by the Foppoli family.

Castello Foppoli lords over the town of Mazzo de Valtellini, 75 miles northeast of Milan in northern Italy. When the castle went up for sale five or so years ago, Dominic Foppoli explained last year to a visitor to his winery, “I made a crazy lowball offer.”

This was 13 months ago, before the mayor of Windsor had pulled up the figurative drawbridge on his life and gone into seclusion. Once a rising star in the firmament of North Bay politics, Foppoli’s career in government at any level is now on life support.

Dominic Foppoli
Dominic Foppoli

The Windsor native stands publicly accused of sexual assault and abuse by seven women, whose accusations span from 2003 to 2020. Those allegations, and Foppoli’s defiance in the face of them — proclaiming his innocence, refusing to resign, describing himself as the true victim — have made national headlines, and convulsed this leafy enclave of 27,000.

The revelations left Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore reeling and smarting. He’d worked closely with Foppoli, and, like the rest of his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors — with the exception of Chris Coursey, who was elected in March 2020 and took his seat on the board in January — endorsed him for Windsor mayor last year.

“There are a lot of people in the community who feel they were made fools of,” said Gore, whose district includes Windsor. “They’re hurt, shamed — but that’s nothing compared to what the true victims are feeling.”

While he stopped short of calling Foppoli a friend, Gore allowed that he’d spent plenty of time with him “on the circuit” — local fundraisers, ribbon cuttings — and even socially. It’s clear now, he said, that he “didn’t really know him” at all.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore talks about the issue of homelessness during the Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat, 2019)
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore talks about the issue of homelessness during the Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat, 2019)

The portrait of Foppoli painted by his accusers is monstrous: He stands accused of, among other assaults, twice raping his 18-year-old girlfriend in early 2004, after she told him she was waiting until marriage to have sex. Another woman said he forced her to engage in oral copulation when she was nearly unconscious, too intoxicated to give consent.

Another victim recalled how, during a three-year relationship with him, Foppoli handcuffed her wrists and ankles to a bed without her consent, then sexually abused her. Esther Lemus, a county prosecutor and fellow Windsor Town Council member, accused him of slipping drugs into her alcoholic drinks to facilitate sex without her consent on two separate occasions last year.

Lemus is a prosecutor for Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch. Citing a conflict of interest, Ravitch announced on April 12 she was handing off the investigation of Foppoli to the California Attorney General’s Office, which will work with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s Sgt. Juan Valencia said “the investigation is ongoing,” and that there was “no additional information at this time.”

“There are a lot of people in the community who feel they were made fools of. They’re hurt, shamed — but that’s nothing compared to what the true victims are feeling.” ― Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore

Whether or not Foppoli is charged or convicted, many minds in the community seem already made up. The number of women stepping forward, and the highly detailed, extensively corroborated nature of their accounts, has summoned a whirlwind of furious, overwhelming opposition to him.

Even as he ascended the rungs of local politics and business, the 38-year-old bachelor raised alarms. Attorney and Healdsburg City Councilmember Ariel Kelley for the past five years heard “rumors of impropriety” concerning Foppoli — reports that “put me on guard to know that he should not be trusted, that I should never drink with him privately.”

Ariel Kelley, Healdsburg councilmember
Ariel Kelley, Healdsburg councilmember

When Kelley learned that a 20-something acquaintance of hers was renting a room in Foppoli’s Windsor home, “I sat her down and shared my concern. We had a very frank conversation.”

The need for such discussions was a clue that Foppoli was more than just an ambitious young mayor and scion of a local winemaking family. If guilty of the heinous acts of which he stands accused, he has also been a predator, hiding in plain sight.

Interviews with 17 people, ranging from Foppoli’s high school classmates and old political rivals to fellow Sonoma County politicians and a 25-year-old woman who rented a room in his house, tell the story of an ambitious and shape-shifting politician unencumbered by ideology. Also coming into focus was the picture of a reckless, selfish boy-man in love with the partying, the trappings of political power and, most of all, himself.

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 or online.rainn.org

The issues facing Sonoma County “are bigger than any one jurisdiction,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers said. Foppoli excelled at “networking, trying to build regional partnerships.”

That’s part of the reason Rogers and many others endorsed Foppoli in 2020. Now, in light of “atrocious” allegations against him, Rogers said, “none of us support him, none of us want to work with him.”

Maureen Merrill raises a sign in support of Windsor Councilmember Esther Lemus during a rally at the Windsor Town Green on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Maureen Merrill raises a sign in support of Windsor Councilmember Esther Lemus during a rally at the Windsor Town Green on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

Cavalcade of condemnation

“Oh, the castle,” recalled Caitlin Childs, a Santa Rosa woman who met Foppoli at a gathering of the Wine Country Young Democrats in 2018. “He was hitting on me, showing me pictures of the castle” on his phone. “I told him that it wasn’t that impressive. It only had one turret.”

When Foppoli invited Childs to join him and his friends, who were going out for drinks after the event, she declined — a decision for which she is grateful.

While all seven of the women publicly accusing Foppoli of sexual assault say he plied them with alcohol, at least two of them suspect he spiked their drinks with unknown intoxicants, to take further advantage of them.

Windsor Town Councilmember Esther Lemus at the Windsor Town Green on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat, 2019)
Windsor Town Councilmember Esther Lemus at the Windsor Town Green on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat, 2019)

One of those women is Lemus, who became the sixth woman to accuse him of sexual assault. She went to the Sheriff’s Office on April 8, the day the San Francisco Chronicle published the accounts of four women who accused Foppoli of assaulting or raping them. A fifth accuser contacted the Chronicle soon after, and Lemus shared her account with The Press Democrat on April 10.

Foppoli has called the accusations “false” and “unfounded,” the result of “clear political and social machinations” driving an effort “to put my head on a spike.”

He declined to be interviewed for this story, explaining via text that his attorney “is very conservative and won’t let me do live interviews right now.“

Fighting back

Foppoli’s Santa Rosa attorney, Orchid Vaghti, responded to a list of questions submitted by The Press Democrat by accusing the paper of trying to “further smear” his “name and reputation.”

“I do not believe that any answers he provides are going to be fairly portrayed in your article,” said Vaghti in an emailed statement, “and therefore, I don't see what useful purpose is served by having my client attempt to comment on or answer your inquiries.”

Foppoli also suggested his ex-girlfriend, Amy Holter, might offer perspective on his life that he could not share at this time. The two have dated off and on for ”more than 10 years,“ he told a reporter via text.

Holter, of Santa Rosa, responded to an interview request by texting, “I am cooperating with the ongoing investigation, and will not be able to make any public statements at this time.”

While not addressing the specifics of the detailed public allegations against him, Foppoli has expressed a determination to fight back and “clear my name,” a quest that, so far, has shown little if any success.

Joe Foppoli, brother of Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli and the owner of Christopher Creek Winery near Healdsburg, speaks to members of the press on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Joe Foppoli, brother of Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli and the owner of Christopher Creek Winery near Healdsburg, speaks to members of the press on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

He remains defiant in the face of widespread calls for his resignation as mayor, both from residents of Windsor, all fellow members of the Town Council, all of the five county supervisors, every other mayor in the county, and lawmakers at the state and federal level. He’s been stripped of his appointment to the district overseeing the Golden Gate Bridge, lost his leadership post in a statewide group of elected city officials and has been booted from the rosters of civic groups, including Santa Rosa’s Active 20-30 club.

The chilling accusations proved a bridge too far for even his older brother Joe Foppoli, chief operating officer of Christopher Creek Winery. He announced April 11 that he was stripping his younger brother of his CEO title at the winery, expressing disgust at Dominic’s lack of “moral character” and his “promiscuous lifestyle.”

Power play

Still, Mayor Foppoli went so far as to preside over much of an April 14 virtual Town Council meeting devoted to calls for his ouster.

That power play, likened by Kelley to “an abuser trying to manipulate and dominate a situation,” backfired badly, resulting in an unrelenting, nearly six-hour cavalcade of condemnation of Foppoli. Most who spoke during the meeting were livid. Many citizens who commented cursed him, and told him he was a rapist. Virtually all called for his resignation.

The most searing words came from survivors of sexual assault, whose voices broke as they reminded the mayor that by clinging to his office, he was victimizing them again, making them relive, as one put it, “the horrible things that happened to us.”

The next day, on April 15, citing “prayer” and feedback from constituents, Foppoli announced that he would “step back” from active duties as the town’s directly elected mayor. That is far different from stepping down, as pointed out by his sharpest critics, who vow to have him recalled from office, one of only two ways he can be removed under California law. The other would be a felony conviction.

Kimi Barbosa, right, protests Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli, who faces sexual assault allegations in Windsor. Photo taken Friday, April 9, 2021.   (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Kimi Barbosa, right, protests Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli, who faces sexual assault allegations in Windsor. Photo taken Friday, April 9, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

A bunch of frat boys’

Foppoli’s twin ambitions, in politics and the wine industry, have long been intertwined. He was still in college when he ran for California State Assembly, in 2004, citing his experience with the wine exporting business he and his older brother had started during his sophomore year at Dominican University of California, in San Rafael.

As of April 1, everything seemed to be going to plan. In a statement of economic interests filed that day with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, Foppoli listed himself as president of Benevelo Wines, general manager of Foppoli Wines, and CEO of Christopher Creek Winery, each with a market value over $1 million.

At a wine event three years ago, before her election to the Healdsburg council, Kelley was having “a professional conversation” with Foppoli, who then introduced her to several of his friends, one of whom exclaimed, upon hearing her name, “Did you say her name was areola? Who names someone areola?”

“And they all giggled like a bunch of frat boys,” the married mother of two young children recalled. “I walked away. I was disgusted.”

As a delegate for her state assembly district, Kelley attended the California Democrats 2019 State Convention in San Francisco, where she ran into Foppoli — “which surprised me,” she said, “because it was my understanding he was very active in the Republican party.” After attending the Republican National Convention in 2016, giddily posting about his dinner with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Foppoli later switched his registration from Republican to Democrat.

Later that night two years ago in San Francisco, at a North Beach bar called Kells, Foppoli bought a round of shots for everyone. Rather than drink her shot, Kelley splashed it against the wall behind her head. She was then pressured to down a second shot, of which she was especially leery, “because it had been out of my sight.” She’d heard stories about Foppoli, and was concerned the drink might have been spiked.

Lack of respect

Some male housemates of Foppoli’s found him so slovenly and self-centered that they booted him out of their shared residence.

Dominic Foppoli's senior year photo from Cardinal Newman High School’s 2000 yearbook.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Dominic Foppoli's senior year photo from Cardinal Newman High School’s 2000 yearbook. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

“I remember at a very young age being over at his house, riding bikes,” recalled Chris Nelson, who graduated with Foppoli in Cardinal Newman High School’s class of 2000. Foppoli went to Dominican, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in politics in 2005. Nelson enlisted in the Air Force, serving four years. Upon returning to California, he ran into Foppoli in Santa Rosa. His old classmate was looking for a place to live. Nelson offered him a room in a house he and some other guys were renting on Edinburgh Court in Windsor.

“We ended up having to kick him out of the house, he was such a poor roommate,” Nelson recalled. “He was just messy, and didn’t care. It was just a consistent lack of respect for people’s stuff.”

Nelson also remembered Foppoli as “a party guy, always surrounded with drinking, lots of friends and people and alcohol. I didn’t want to have people at my house partying at 4 a.m., ‘cause I had to work the next day.”

Close to his grandparents

Foppoli’s deep family roots in the area mean he had a wide network of people who knew him and tracked the arc of his career.

One of them was Alice Vipiana, 91, who in the mid-2000s sat on the central committee of the Marin County Republican Party. Vipiana and her husband lived at 51 Locksly Lane in San Rafael, across the street from Foppoli’s paternal grandparents, Pierina and Silvio. “And the car I would see visiting more than any other,” she said, “was Dominic’s. He was close to his grandparents, and I admired that.”

The Vipianas were close friends with the Foppolis, singing with them in the Coro Allegro, a Santa Rosa ensemble.

“My heart is aching for them now,” said Vipiana of the Foppoli clan, “because no matter which way this goes, it’s going to be horrible for them.”

Rising star

Vipiana was an early political influence on Dominic, but takes no credit for his decision to run for the State Assembly in 2004, as a 21-year-old senior at Dominican. He was trounced in the Republican primary by a Cloverdale rancher named Ray Tyrone, who despite the lopsided win still seems scarred, 17 years later, by his brush with the Foppolis.

“They harassed the heck out of me,” recalled Tyrone, who lost in the general election to Democrat Patty Berg. “They said I was stealing money from old people, clear cutting my property, running an illegal bar — it was all total bulls----t.”

While Tyrone was an outsider, he said, Foppoli was seen as a rising star in the Republican Party — “21 years old and stupid as hell, but he was gonna take over the world.”

Fast forward nearly a dozen years, to 2015, when in his first full year as a Windsor councilman, he appeared on national television, competing with six other guys on the Steve Harvey show for the title of Mr. California. Though the program’s female audience members chose someone else, Foppoli had by that point long been cultivating his identity as one of Wine Country’s most eligible bachelors.

For a 2010 fundraiser called “Single Night,” put on by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, he auctioned a lot called “Get Around With Dominic,” featuring a private plane ride, then a test drive of a new Audi at Infineon Raceway, followed by lunch at Foppoli Vineyards.

Two years later, he again auctioned himself off for charity, at the Affair of the Heart Valentine’s Bash in Santa Rosa, where someone paid $2,000 for a date with him.

“I absolutely do want to settle down in the next year or two and start a family,“ he told The Press Democrat in 2015, after appearing on the Steve Harvey show. ”Hopefully it will happen soon. Part of it is figuring out who I’m going to marry. I have to find the right girl.“

Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli rehearses for a public service video outlining a free shuttle service between Windsor's local hot spots, including the Russian River Brewing Co. on Mitchell Street.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat, 2019)
Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli rehearses for a public service video outlining a free shuttle service between Windsor's local hot spots, including the Russian River Brewing Co. on Mitchell Street. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat, 2019)

Becoming mayor

Foppoli failed in his first run for Windsor Town Council, in 2006. The Windsor Times had reported Oct. 30 of that year that the 24-year-old had exaggerated his experience, claiming to be a White House staffer and a “Policy Analyst/Adviser for Presidential Office for Drug Policy in Washington, D.C.”

It turned out Foppoli was not a member of the White House staff, but rather an intern who worked there for just over two months. According to the article, Foppoli chalked up the exaggerations to youthful enthusiasm and a desire to serve the community.

In 2014, after two years as a Windsor planning commissioner, Foppoli won a seat on the Town Council, whose members essentially took turns being mayor. Two years later, the youngest council member in Windsor history informed then-Councilmember Bruce Okrepkie he’d like to be mayor. Foppoli had plans to attend the 2016 Republican National Convention in Indianapolis, and “thought it would be good,” said Okrepkie, if he could tell people at the convention that he was mayor, rather than a mere council member.

“I told him that’s not how it works,” Okrepkie said. When it was finally Foppoli’s turn to be mayor, in late 2017, his fellow council members postponed the promotion, concerned by an email sent to Councilwoman Deb Fudge accusing Foppoli of sexual misconduct.

The writer recounted that while she was a guest at his winery in 2013, Foppoli invited himself to join her and her seven friends at a nighttime party. She said in her letter that Foppoli kept topping off the women’s drinks, and at one point tried to remove her friend’s bathing suit. In a recent interview with the Chronicle, the woman went further, saying Foppoli forced his penis into her hand in a hot tub. He has denied that account.

That email prompted the Windsor council to express its concern with Foppoli in a closed-door meeting, then to put him in timeout, basically, making him wait an extra year to be mayor. It did not share the email with law enforcement until early 2020, when another email came in alluding to reports of multiple sexual assault accusations facing the mayor.

By that time, however, Foppoli had realized his mayoral ambitions twice over, selected by his council members to the top post in late 2018 and again in 2019. To celebrate, he ordered polo shirts whose logo identified him, by name, as Mayor of Windsor. “I was mayor three times,” Okrepkie said, “and I’ve known a lot of other mayors, and nobody had a shirt that said their name and ‘Mayor of Windsor.’”

Windsor Town Councilmembers Debora Fudge, left, Dominic Foppoli, Esther Lemus and Sam Salmon consider the best way to draw a district voting map during a special meeting in Windsor on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat, 2019)
Windsor Town Councilmembers Debora Fudge, left, Dominic Foppoli, Esther Lemus and Sam Salmon consider the best way to draw a district voting map during a special meeting in Windsor on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat, 2019)

Finest hour

Sweeping down the Mayacamas Mountains from the northeast in the fall of 2019, the Kincade fire proved Foppoli’s biggest challenge, and in that disaster his finest hour in the public spotlight. Foppoli raced around town, meeting with Cal Fire and emergency management officials and even Gov. Gavin Newsom, at a news conference at Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds.

“I endorsed Dominic for mayor in 2020 because I’d seen how hard he worked for his community during the fire,” said Rogers, the Santa Rosa mayor, who remembered Foppoli sleeping in his car outside the emergency operations center as that blaze menaced Windsor from across Highway 101.

Also endorsing Foppoli in that race were Fudge, Lemus, Okrepkie, all five county supervisors — and The Press Democrat. Had they known of Foppoli’s dark side, Rogers said, “obviously no one would’ve supported him. But that’s not to say he didn’t do a good job for Windsor in its most desperate moment.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom shakes hands with Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli at a press conference at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019 in Petaluma. Windsor was evacuated during the Kincade fire. (Frankie Frost/Special to The Press Democrat)
Gov. Gavin Newsom shakes hands with Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli at a press conference at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019 in Petaluma. Windsor was evacuated during the Kincade fire. (Frankie Frost/Special to The Press Democrat)

With the blaze encroaching and the town under evacuation orders, and no one to staff the 85,000-square-foot Russian River Brewing Co., a large batch of beer was going to go bad. Foppoli interceded with National Guard troops, and “a bunch of beer” was saved, recalled Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of the brewery.

“He’s very pro-business, very passionate about his town, and that’s great,” she said. “But that doesn’t excuse his behavior. He has the right to defend himself, but he doesn’t have the right to drag the town down in the process.”

In addition to the shock and sadness she felt, following the accusations against the mayor, Cilurzo was incensed to learn that Foppoli and other elected officials were attending parties at his winery in August 2020 — one of the dates Lemus alleged she was drugged and sexually assaulted by him.

“That was the height of the pandemic,” Cilurzo said. “We’d shut down, and laid off over 90 employees. There were strict state and local health orders to stay the hell home. And he’s continuing to hold alcohol-fueled parties at his winery. That’s just incredibly poor judgment and a lack of leadership from our elected officials.”

“He has the right to defend himself, but he doesn’t have the right to drag the town down in the process.” ― Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing Co.

What pandemic?

It is one of Foppoli’s quirks that despite the family castle in Italy, the white Tesla Model S he drives and ownerships or partnerships in several businesses he’s amassed, he rents out spare bedrooms in his 2,642-square-foot house on Merlot Way in Windsor.

Morgan Santoro was 24 when she rented a room on the first floor of that house. Starting in the fall of 2019, Santoro spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer, working in Calistoga, living with several co-tenants in Foppoli’s house. That memorable year included the night one of Foppoli’s friends, “very inebriated,” she recalled, “told me I was hot, and that he wanted to seduce me, and then tried to grope me.”

On another evening, last spring early in the pandemic, Foppoli arrived home with a group of friends, and began pouring them wine. Santoro and a housemate, another 20-something woman renting a different bedroom, confronted them. “Guys,” admonished the roommate, “we’re not supposed to be doing this.”

Foppoli pushed back, ticking off various reasons why he and his friends needn’t be masked or distanced. “You’ll be laughing about this in a month,” Foppoli told them. In October, after feeling under the weather on a business trip to Tennessee, Foppoli was tested for the coronavirus. The test came back positive.

Foppoli’s symptoms were mild, and he recovered quickly. He won his race for mayor in November with 45% of the vote, then struck a conciliatory tone, following a contentious election, vowing to be a “mayor for the whole town, whether they voted for me or not.”

Supporters of Windsor Councilmember Esther Lemus walk together during a rally at the Windsor Town Green on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Supporters of Windsor Councilmember Esther Lemus walk together during a rally at the Windsor Town Green on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

With his past appearing to catch up to him, Foppoli has now succeeded in galvanizing the town, though not in a way he would have wished.

“You have a dark path ahead of you,” warned Windsor resident Julia Donoho on the night of April 14, during that remarkably raw town hall meeting. She is one of five candidates vying for the council seat Foppoli vacated when he became the directly elected mayor. All have called on him to step down.

“Your reputation is ruined. The longer you cling to power, the more pain you will cause.

“Your political career is over.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette