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The Cheese Factory siege of 1973

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In 1969, when I got back from Vietnam and went to work for the family business, it had a very small staff. I was the sports editor and also covered the school board, the police, fire and sheriff’s beats.

One early December morning, I got a phone call from the Sonoma police dispatcher that there was something dramatic happening at the Cheese Factory. It was dark and starting to drizzle out, but I got dressed and drove down to the Plaza. The streets on the north side were blocked, so I parked behind City Hall and walked across the lawn toward what was obviously some kind of confrontation.

Spotlights were focused on the front of the Cheese Factory and local cops aimed shotguns and rifles from behind their cars. I heard, then saw, Pete Viviani, the owner of the Cheese Factory, shouting “Jorge, Jorge!” over and over.

Sonoma Police Chief Gene Cartwright, who was a good cop and a great guy (and kept a potentially ugly scene from becoming deadly), gave me a quick briefing on the situation, but asked me to stay well behind his officers in case shooting started.

The next day, I wrote down what happened. The story was published in the Dec. 13, 1973, issue of the I-T. It went the closest thing to viral (before the days of the Internet). Frank Bartholomew, who was the head of United Press International and lived in Sonoma (and owned Buena Vista Winery), sent the story to his San Francisco bureau and it was sent all over the world, and republished all or in part by many daily newspapers. Frank changed some things and embellished a little, but it was still my story.

In 1974 my original story won first place news-writing awards in state competition and at the San Francisco Press Club.

Here is that story:

Pickled pair, shotgun blasts and tear gas

Two men, one a baker’s assistant and the other a cheese maker, got pickled Monday night and wound up sandwiched between city police and sheriff’s deputies in a four-hour siege of the Sonoma Cheese Factory on Spain Street.

A 34-year-old cheese factory employee, and a 36-year-old employee of the Sonoma French Bakery, who share a small apartment above the cheese factory, apparently had quite a party for themselves Monday night and on into the early morning hours Tuesday.

They were spotted in the store sales room at 3:45 a.m. Tuesday by city patrolman Bob Wieworka. According to Wieworka’s report, the two appeared to be having an argument. Suspecting a possible burglary attempt, Wierworka called for assistance from the Sheriff’s substation in Agua Caliente. Upon the deputy’s arrival, both lawmen checked the side and back of the building. At some point, while the two officers were checking the exterior, one of the suspects left the sales room, and then the second man left.

A garbage man making his early morning pickup in the back of the building came out front and reported that he had seen a man with a gun inside.

A deputy soon spotted one of the men upstairs with a shotgun in his hands. A few minutes later the man came downstairs toward the front of the building brandishing a double-barreled shotgun. At this point the lawmen backed off to talk over the situation.

A few minutes later, a muffled gunshot was heard from inside. At the time, the officers thought that one of the men had shot the other. They called for more assistance (as it turned out the bakery worker had accidentally fired the gun, blasting a chest of drawers to bits.)

Cheese factory owner, Pete Viviani arrived on the scene as did Police Chief Gene Cartwright, a second sheriff’s unit and six more Sonoma policemen, and yours truly, the Index-Tribune’s police-beat reporter at the time.

Viviani called the store on the telephone and spoke to his employee, Jorge. He asked him to put down the gun and come out. Viviani said the man sounded highly intoxicated. Shortly after that conversation, a second blast was fired out of the window from inside the building.

Not knowing who or what the men were shooting at, Cartwright kept hoping to talk them out. Viviani kept shouting “Jorge, come out!”

No response was heard. Viviani wanted to enter the cheese factory to talk the men into coming out, but Cartwright felt that it would be too dangerous.

Tear-gas canisters were fired through the upstairs window. The men inside didn’t react. It was speculated that they were “too drunk to be bothered by the gas,” or they had finally passed out from over indulgence.

Not wishing to risk getting someone killed, Cartwright tried to play a waiting game and let the tear gas flush the men out.

A Sonoma fire truck was also called to be on standby for possible fires that could be caused when the gas canisters ignited.

Spain Street between First East and First West, was blocked off.

As the early morning wore on, a cold drizzle began falling. A Greyhound bus attempting to turn down the street was stopped by the roadblock at First Street East. While backing up, the bus plowed into a fire hydrant and started a major geyser-like water leak that shot into the air.

Cartwright and Sgt. Bill Rettle and officer Bob Sheets climbed on the roof in an attempt to gain entrance behind the suspects, but found no access. Leaning down over the building’s facade, the chief attempted to lob a canister of “CS” gas into the second-floor room. It hit the window frame instead, fell to the pavement, ignited and sent deputies and policemen who were downwind scattering out of the gas’ path.

As the rain fell harder and the siegers got colder and wetter, it was decided to enter the building and attempt to apprehend the two men. The gas almost overpowered the lawmen as they went in a downstairs side door. Several times they exited, coughing and wheezing, eyes filled with tears.

Cartwright, Rettle, Sgt. Don Bettencourt and sheriff’s Lieutenant Larry Kobza moved upstairs with their search and finally located the men hiding in the attic, the shotgun near the bakery worker.

The men, still very drunk, surrendered without a fuss and were escorted to waiting patrol cars (one of which had a dead battery from using its spotlight through the four-hour affair).

Thus ended the great Sonoma Cheese Factory siege of 1973. Why the baker fired the shotgun is not clear. The pair’s account of what happened is confused. They apparently knew they were in trouble when the police arrived, but were either too drunk or frightened to know what to do.

No one was killed or injured. Twelve lawmen coughed and cried a lot. Several windows were broken. A dresser drawer was left in pieces. Cheese Factory customers thought there was a bit too much pepper dust in the air that day and the city had a broken fire hydrant.

Cartwright credited Viviani for his help in trying to talk the men out. He complimented his officers and the four sheriff’s deputies on their handling of the affair.

“Everybody took their time and were careful not to push the suspects into a corner. I’m delighted that were able to get the men out without our firing a shot,” the chief concluded. Both men may face immigration authorities and the bakery worker will also be charged with illegally discharging a firearm in the city.