The Cheese Factory siege of 1973

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.

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