Even in a town where every month some major or minor political figure is caught with a conflict or an unreported loan or a few unpaid bills or some back taxes, Tony Inocentes stands alone.
Since his election to the Otay Water District board eight years ago, Inocentes has been accused of kidnapping, spousal abuse, threats against fellow board members, violence, harassment, unpaid bills, loan fraud, bankruptcy fraud, perjury, delinquent taxes, mental instability, and lots of other not-so-good things.
Friends -- now former friends -- of Tony Inocentes still can't figure out how his once-promising career as a director of one of the largest -- and richest -- water districts in California went so wrong so quickly.
Many of them gathered at a May 1 meeting of the Otay Water District in Spring Valley to ask -- plead -- that the now-disgraced Inocentes resign.
"I regret to ask for the resignation of Mr. Inocentes," said Pedro Morena, a former supporter and one of 25 Otay Water ratepayers in attendance to urge Inocentes's resignation. "But for the good of the district, as well as the good of his family and himself, Mr. Inocentes must resign."
Morena was referring to a string of incidents involving Inocentes going back to his first election to the board eight years ago.
The bizarre episodes culminated on May 1, when a Superior Court judge granted a restraining order to all of Inocentes's fellow board members and the head of the Otay Water District, barring Inocentes from harassing or even talking to them or to district staff outside of board meetings.
In documents supporting the restraining order, Inocentes made "physical threats by bringing his adult son" to a March 15 meeting with him, said Bob Griego, general manager of the district. "His son's aggressive remarks left no doubt that I would be subject to physical violence at a later time."
Other board members reported receiving dozens of phone calls throughout last year and the first three months of this year, many with the sound of someone kissing -- the kiss of death, said San Diego police officer and gang expert Felix Aguirre. "This was a very serious and ominous threat."
According to court records, Inocentes threatened fellow board member Jaime Bonilla after an October 2001 meeting, accusing Bonilla of reporting Inocentes's alleged misconduct to state and federal authorities. "You ought to know what happens to snitches," Inocentes allegedly told Bonilla. "Snitches disappear. Don't be surprised if something happens to you. Don't be surprised."
Aguirre was alarmed by the threat. "The term 'snitch' is common in gang culture and would indicate a threat to Mr. Bonilla," said Aguirre. "In gang culture, this is probably the most dangerous term to utter to another."
Inocentes's son Tony Jr. is a known member of the Old Town National City gang, a well-established Mexican street gang with a history of violence, Aguirre said. "And Mr. Tony Inocentes Jr. has a tattoo on his chest that reads 'Old Town National City.' "
Bonilla's office had been vandalized and gang graffiti with the letters OTNC scrawled on the windows. Aguirre called the defacement "gang graffiti."
Bonilla told police he suspected Inocentes and his son were behind the criminal acts. "Inocentes has also bragged that his son is a bodyguard for the Arellano-Felix cartel and that his son can take care of business," Bonilla said in a Chula Vista police report of the incident.
Despite at least five depositions alleging threats and harassment, despite phone records that match dozens of calls from Inocentes's home to the phones of board members at the same time they were reporting obscene and threatening messages, Inocentes and his son deny they ever threatened or harassed anyone. The allegations, Inocentes said, were the work of his "political enemies."
But the claims of Inocentes and his son were not helped when, the night before the hearing to make the temporary restraining order permanent, Tony Jr. was arrested (with blood reportedly still dripping from his hands for what police first called a gang-related attempted murder in National City but now are calling an assault). Because the younger Inocentes was incarcerated in the downtown county jail, he was unable to show up for the hearing contesting the allegations that he had threatened violence against members of the Otay Water Board.
A Superior Court judge did grant the restraining order against the elder Inocentes. At another hearing two weeks later in the same court, with members of the National City police gang detail in the audience and prepared to testify, the younger Inocentes agreed to the three-year restraining order.
Before his son was arrested, Inocentes told the Chula Vista Star-News on April 15 that the charges against him were "an attempt to muddy me up before the [election] filing period. They want to make me look bad. There's a strong possibility if I don't run, my son will run. And this is their way of killing two birds with one stone."
His tone hardly changed even after his son was charged with the gang-related assault, telling the San Diego Union-Tribune on April 16 that his son was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that his arrest was "irrelevant" to their pending hearing on threats of violence against fellow board members.
This was not the younger Inocentes's first brush with the law. In November 2000, the 21-year-old Inocentes was a candidate for a seat on the Sweetwater Union High School District board when the San Diego Union Tribune reported he had just been released from the custody of the California Youth Authority less than a year before.
"Inocentes was committed to the CYA on weapon charges June 21, 1996, and discharged from parole this February 28," the Union-Tribune reported. "When asked about his reputed criminal history during an interview last month for a story on the board election, Inocentes would neither confirm nor deny that he had a CYA record. Inocentes was sentenced in 1996 under penal code sections dealing with possession of weapons at school and making threats. Contacted again yesterday, Inocentes said he took a small knife to school. He said he served 18 months in a CYA facility in Ventura."