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Two people with ties to Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli drawn into criminal investigation of him

It’s been more than six weeks since Sonoma County sheriff’s detectives opened a criminal investigation into Dominic Foppoli, the Windsor mayor who abruptly resigned Friday in the face of mounting claims from women of sexual assault, abuse and mistreatment by him over a span of 18 years.

Those allegations now include a ninth woman, a social media influencer and former reality TV personality, Farrah Abraham, who went to police in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 2 to report that she had been the victim of “very serious” misconduct “of a sexual nature” at the hands of Foppoli, according to her attorney.

Abraham’s attorney, Spencer Kuvin, said she had physical and digital evidence from the March incident in Palm Beach that has been turned over to police. He confirmed Abraham has talked to Sonoma County investigators but wouldn’t clarify the extent of their communication.

“I can’t get into the specifics of what she is alleging, but it was of a sexual nature. It was a very serious issue. The issue, the details of any type of particular conduct that's alleged, I need to leave that up to the police to investigate,” he said. “And I want that to be between her and police and, ultimately, if there are charges filed.”

Foppoli, 39, now faces criminal probes on opposite coasts and is without a political platform for the first time since 2014, when he was first elected to the Windsor Town Council. The wealthy son of a local wine family, he has already been stripped of his titles with the family’s Christopher Creek Winery, ousted from government leadership posts and booted from local civic clubs.

But little is known or has been reported about the scope and timeline of the investigation being led by the sheriff’s office and involving the California Attorney General’s Office.

Sheriff’s officials acknowledged Friday that detectives were aware of the Palm Beach accusation and that investigators from the two departments have compared notes while working separate cases.

“During the scope of the investigation, we became aware of it and spoke to detectives about it,” Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Juan Valencia said of the Florida incident.

Authorities continue to keep a tight lid on updates about their progress, even amid enormous public interest in the local investigation.

At least two people tied to Foppoli who are said to have knowledge of the allegations leveled against him by Windsor Councilwoman Esther Lemus have been contacted by law enforcement and are cooperating with investigators. Lemus has accused Foppoli of drugging her on two occasions in 2020 to facilitate sex without her consent.

Until the claim made by Abraham, the alleged assaults against Lemus were the most recent in a series of predatory and abusive encounters that the nine women have publicly said they had with Foppoli stretching back to 2003.

Foppoli has continued to proclaim his innocence. “I have always and will always maintain that I did not engage in any non-consensual acts with any woman,” he said Friday in the written statement announcing his resignation.

Recall organizers welcomed his departure, calling it “long overdue.”

Meanwhile, Foppoli’s defense attorney, Orchid Vaghti of Santa Rosa, voiced confidence that the local criminal probe would not result in prosecution.

“I do not believe he will be charged of any criminal wrongdoing,” Vaghti said.

Foppoli has been “cooperative” with the investigation, Vaghti said, though she declined to elaborate or say whether he had been interviewed by authorities.

Tracy Carrillo, the lawyer for Lemus — herself a deputy district attorney — said that she thinks there is sufficient evidence to file criminal charges against Foppoli.

Carrillo, however, has also publicly questioned the urgency and aggressiveness of the criminal investigation into Foppoli.

“While I am concerned about what I perceive as a lack of urgency, I am also aware that these investigations can take time,” Carrillo said in an email. “I continue to hope the Sheriff is dedicating significant resources for a thorough investigation and treating this case with the urgency and aggressiveness it demands.“

In an interview, Carrillo told The Press Democrat she would have expected to hear by this point of warrants being served on the mayor or other public indications of a more aggressive investigation.

Still, law enforcement contact with two people with ties to Foppoli indicates that Lemus’ allegations have been a focus of the investigation. One of those contacts is publicly known — Foppoli’s ex-girlfriend Amy Holter. The other, previously unreported subject, is Chris Grabill, a Santa Rosa housing policy advocate and utility board appointee well known in political circles.

Grabill declined requests to comment about his involvement. “I'm assisting with a sensitive ongoing investigation right now, in any way I can,” he wrote in an email response to The Press Democrat.

According to Lemus’ attorney, Grabill was with Lemus and Foppoli on a night in February 2020 when Lemus said she suspects she was raped by Foppoli.

Lemus previously told The Press Democrat that she, Foppoli and others visited a brewpub after a crab feed hosted by the Windsor Boys & Girls Cub — the type of North Coast winter event that brings politicians together with civic groups across the county. Foppoli and another man — Grabill, according to Carrillo — drove Lemus home after she became violently ill during the after-party, Lemus told The Press Democrat.

Carrillo said authorities told her of the law enforcement interview with Grabill.

“We learned from that contact that only Dominic Foppoli took Ms. Lemus into the home and we understand only that Mr. Grabill has remained fully cooperative with the investigation,” she said.

Lemus has said her memory loss and illness on the night in question led her to believe Foppoli could have drugged her, and that she suspects she was sodomized by Foppoli inside her house.

Foppoli’s then-girlfriend, Holter, later told Lemus that Foppoli said he tucked Lemus into bed that night, according to Lemus.

Grabill, who sits on Santa Rosa’s Board of Public Utilities, declined multiple requests to comment or be interviewed by The Press Democrat.

“I want to be respectful of that, as justice for survivors is so deeply important,” Grabill said in an email, referring to the investigation. “First and foremost, I believe and support women and survivors.”

He was outspoken on social media in the aftermath of the initial story by the San Francisco Chronicle detailing the allegations of sexual assault and abuse against Foppoli from four women.

“What I read this morning is horrifying and makes me want to throw up,” he wrote on April 8. “Men especially, need to speak up, hold each other accountable, humble themselves and support survivors in seeking justice and accountability.”

“We should believe women and survivors first, while constitutional law and due process take their course and (Foppoli) has an opportunity to both defend himself and be held accountable,” Grabill said.

He described Foppoli as a friend and said he regretted not being more aware of the alleged behavior.

“I am ashamed and disturbed,” Grabill said. “I have worked with him on many policy issues and considered him a friend. ... I apologize for not seeing this and for the complicity that entails. I’m deeply ashamed and also accountable for that.”

Lemus went to sheriff’s investigators with her account on April 8. On April 10, when she went public with her account in The Press Democrat, Grabill took to social media to voice support for Lemus. “I’m here to support you Esther,” he wrote.

“Men must speak out and stand with survivors, men must hold each other accountable without hesitation,” he wrote. “I take full responsibility for my working relationships or friendships.”

Grabill since appears to have taken down his Facebook page.

Grabill is the son of the late local affordable housing champion, David Grabill, and longtime Santa Rosa Junior College trustee Dorothy Battenfield. He is the housing director at the nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County, which is run by his friend, Santa Rosa Councilman Jack Tibbetts. The charity has contracted with Sonoma County to manage housing sites for homeless people. Until recently, it contracted with a Foppoli-backed company to provide security at those sites.

Vaghti, the lawyer for Foppoli, disputed that law enforcement officials would have given details about a witness statement to Carrillo. “More than questioning the reliability of Ms. Carrillo's statement, I am not going to comment on what she is reporting — thirdhand — to the press,” she said in an email.

Holter did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment for this story. In a text message last month, she told a Press Democrat reporter she was “cooperating with the ongoing investigation and am not able to make any public statements at this time.”

Before Abraham’s allegations became public Friday, Lemus’ accusations were the newest of those made against Foppoli, with others dating back a decade or more, raising the question of the statute of limitations for any criminal prosecution. Besides Abraham’s and Lemus’ accusations, the most recent alleged sexual assault was in the summer of 2019, according to a Chronicle report.

Through his own public statements and a Washington, D.C., lobbyist and political operative, Robert Stryk, Foppoli has fiercely disputed the allegations from Lemus. In a lengthy written statement April 10, he also accused Lemus of pressuring him into a sexual encounter with her and seeking to silence him afterward.

Stryk has sought to discredit Lemus and suggested a tape exists showing Lemus engaged in a sexual encounter with another man at Foppoli’s Christopher Creek Winery. Lemus described one such encounter as the other instance, in August 2020, where she suspects she was drugged by Foppoli and again became confused, ill and lost her memory.

She said she remembers Foppoli at one point introducing her to a man who led her through the dark to the winery’s tasting room, where the two engaged in a sexual act that the mayor “made sure” she knew he knew about the next day.

She and Carrillo have decried Stryk’s comments and overtures to Bay Area media about the video as blackmail and said any such tape is evidence of a crime if one does indeed exist.

Law enforcement officials have declined to say whether other accusers have approached them in the weeks since the initial four women went public with their allegations in the Chronicle. Sheriff Mark Essick opened an investigation into the Windsor mayor that day.

Since then, five other women, including Lemus, have publicly accused Foppoli of assault, abuse or misconduct. They included the former mayor of Sonoma, Rachel Hundley, and Abraham, a Los Angeles resident who in 2009 first appeared in the MTV show in “16 and Pregnant,” and later in MTV’s series “Teen Mom.”

Foppoli, in his written statement Friday, falsely accused Abraham of going to police only after the initial Chronicle story on April 8. In fact, the report to the Palm Beach Police Department was filed April 2, according to her attorney.

“I recently learned that a woman in Palm Beach, Florida is accusing me of non-consensual acts while I was visiting there in March of this year,” Foppoli said in his statement. “... I have no doubt she is making these allegations in an attempt to leverage the situation to her advantage.”

Kuvin, Abraham’s attorney, said the incident occurred at the end of March in Palm Beach when Abraham was in Florida for an animal rescue organization called Big Dog Ranch. He would not disclose the type of location where the alleged crime took place or if other people were present.

“It happened in a very discrete period of time,” Kuvin said.

He said he had shared photographs, video and audio evidence with police that he said supported her account. Abraham lives in Los Angeles, but Kuvin wouldn’t comment on how well she knew Foppoli or if they communicated after the incident.

He declined to elaborate further on the encounter and said Abraham was not giving interviews. “She is still incredibly upset, trying to stay away from media and publicity,” Kuvin said.

Staff Writers Colin Atagi and Mary Callahan contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to specify that St. Vincent de Paul has served as a homeless services contractor for Sonoma County. It is not a contractor for the city of Santa Rosa. The revised story also clarifies the timing of the alleged sexual assault reported by Farrah Abraham involving Dominic Foppoli.

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