San Jose police showed up to last month’s Alviso Neighborhood Group meeting bracing for a confrontation. So did Dick Santos, a retired firefighter, elected official of the Santa Clara Valley Water District and descendant of one of Alviso’s most powerful and propertied families. The 73-year-old marched into the Alviso Library trailed by an entourage and armed with a written admonition for his harshest critic, Mark Espinoza.
Espinoza, 43, was about deliver an update on a lawsuit he filed against developers of Topgolf, a controversial driving range and entertainment complex slated for a swath of land across from George Mayne Elementary School. The litigation over inadequate environmental reviews resulted in a six-figure settlement meant to benefit the small waterfront hamlet on San Jose’s northernmost edge.
But Santos had serious doubts about Espinoza’s credibility—especially after his Aug. 16 arrest for having 1,200 pounds of illegal fireworks at his house—and his ability to manage a small fortune in community funds. Santos wanted to call him on it. As Espinoza began to speak at the Sept. 13 forum, members of the Santos retinue began flipping the bird and shouting out questions, derailing the forum and prompting the two cops in the room to intervene. Jill Smith, who chairs the group, called for order and let Espinoza continue.
Still, tensions simmered until the end of the meeting, when, both Espinoza and Santos claim, things got physical. Each accuses the other of being the aggressor. Espinoza says Santos kicked him in the leg on his way out.
“As I’m walking out the door, I passed Dick, and then I feel a kick from behind me,” Espinoza tells San Jose Inside days later. “I mean, this guy is an elected official, he’s been in office for decades, how do you act like that? How do you get to that point?”
Santos argues the opposite is true, that Espinoza back-kicked him—”like a donkey,” as Santos’ friend Lurdes Rivera describes it—and then tried to play victim.
“The man is the most crookedest person that you’ll ever meet,” Santos says. “He’s a rat.”
Alviso has a raucous reputation, largely because of the Santos family. Longtime residents recall how Dick Santos’ father, Tony P. Santos, once punched a detractor at a flood-control meeting. At a task force convened to name a street after Santos Sr., Dick Santos reportedly threatened to fight someone who called his dad “a crook.” Though Santos’ charitable endeavors have earned respect and his work with the water district helped Alviso turn its marshy shores into a public park, his pro-development stance and fiery demeanor have also inspired resentment from residents who feel that he excludes them from decisions affecting their community.
“People have told me that they wish Santos would shut up and let other people talk,” says Smith, 56, a 17-year Alviso resident who has helmed the local neighborhood group since 2011. “Unfortunately, it seems that some people think their voice should count the loudest. And that really came to a head at this last meeting.”
Espinoza emerged as a prominent figure in Alviso, in part, by articulating that resentment and calling attention to longstanding divisions between the landed families of Portuguese descent—like the Santoses—and the predominantly working-class Latino residents. An outspoken Alviso native, Espinoza stood up against Topgolf and Trammel Crow to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlement money for the downtrodden bayside community. He also tapped into a widely felt frustration that developers prioritize Santos family concerns over those of other residents, and that Alviso has been left to suffer from decades of pollution by unscrupulous businesses.
Over the summer, Espinoza formed a nonprofit, the Alviso Community Fund, with four other trustees to manage the latest batch of settlement money. Though he declined to confirm a dollar amount, citing a confidentiality agreement, sources familiar with the case put the figure at $350,000. It’s the second lawsuit Espinoza brought against a developer in recent years, and he’s gearing up to litigate community benefits out of Microsoft, which announced last week that it plans to build in Alviso.
“He’s a shyster,” says Santos, who’s prone to invective, labeling Smith “lazy” and Espinoza’s ally, fellow Alviso Community Fund trustee Ruben Orozco, “treacherous” and a “dope smoker.” “You can’t just go around suing everybody to get your way.”
For all his bluster, Santos raises justifiable concerns about entrusting community funds to Espinoza, whose criminal past includes not only a felony arrest for illegal explosives but also fraud and a decades-long pattern of terrorizing his own family.
Espinoza’s first brushes with the law as an adult came at 18, when he was convicted of misdemeanor petty theft, felony burglary and other theft-related offenses. A year later, he was convicted of stealing a car. In 2002, he got hammered with several more convictions for grand theft, petty theft with a prior and felony burglary.
The moral turpitude is hardly a thing of Espinoza’s past, however. In September of 2016, the California Department of Consumer Affairs revoked his license to conduct smog checks after he was busted for fraudulently issuing certificates of compliance for 23 vehicles. Also last year, San Jose police arrested him for selling a stolen 1966 Volkswagen “Samba” bus to an unsuspecting buyer in Texas. According to court records, bus owner Trevor Rudd had kept the vehicle at a storage facility in Alviso for nearly a decade before it went missing in 2013, but it took a while to realize that it was gone.
Police found out that Espinoza posted a for-sale listing on a Volkswagen enthusiast website, TheSamba.com, and, according to 14 pages of text messages, spent the next three months corresponding with Edward Perez, a self-described “Volkswagen nut” in San Antonio. Perez paid Espinoza $17,000 for the bus and $1,000 to ship it.
Perez was so thrilled about his acquisition that he posted a photo of it on TheSamba.com, saying, “I am so proud of own it, I had to share.” Rudd saw the post and reached out, notifying him that whoever sold him the bus had no right to do so. When San Jose police called Espinoza about the theft on Feb. 13, 2014, he declined to answer questions.
“He asked me if I would like to speak to him about it,” the San Jose police officer wrote in his report. “When I replied, ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘Well, here is the number to my attorney. You can talk to him.’”
Though he pleaded no contest, Espinoza agreed to pay $18,650 in restitution. When San Jose Inside asked him about the incident, he brushed it off as a mistake, saying he bought the bus from a transient and resold it without verifying its provenance.
More disturbing than the crimes of theft and fraud, however, is Espinoza’s relentless abuse of his wife and children. From before his marriage in 1994 and up through this past summer, court records show, Espinoza has been arrested, jailed and named in restraining orders for violence against his own family.
In 2009, police arrested Espinoza after he tried to pull his mother-in-law off the couch while she was holding his infant son. His in-law said she had come to his house because her daughter, Espinoza’s wife, indicated that she was suicidal and wanted to leave her husband. Something the two women said set Espinoza off, prompting him to rush over and grab his mother-in-law by the throat, according to his children, who witnessed the scene. In an interview with an officer, one of Espinoza’s daughters describes pleading with her dad to stop.
“She told me that she was afraid that her dad was going to kill her grandma, ‘because it’s not good to grab someone by the throat. It could kill them,’” a police officer described in the incident report. “She said that is why she jumped on her dad. She didn’t want to see her grandma get hurt.”
The following spring of 2010, after being released from jail, Espinoza punched his wife in the right arm, inflicting a three-inch black-and-blue bruise, according to court records. Police at the time noted Espinoza’s longstanding history of domestic violence, including what one report noted as “attempted murder.” The wife told police that her husband had been arrested numerous times for abusing his family, but that there had been at least 15 other unreported assaults.
Over the years, Espinoza’s wife filed several restraining orders and tried to divorce him on more than one occasion. Espinoza would violate those protective orders and he and his wife would end up trying to work things out. She later became resigned to the idea that she would have to endure the abuse.
According to a report in late 2010, Espinoza’s wife told police that he had bitten her middle finger. She refused medical help and didn’t want the cops to take photos.
“It would not do any good to arrest him and he will take it all out on me anyways,” she said, according to police reports, “so I have nothing to say to you.” She added: “I do not want to have anything to do with this, you do not understand how it gets with him.” When police pressed her to get help, she demurred, “because nothing will happen to him and even if it does, he will just take it out on me,” she was quoted as saying. “Maybe I am the wife that has been abused too much.”
After the finger-biting incident, police asked a magistrate to increase Espinoza’s bail “due to the extreme nature of his intimidation tactics” against his wife. Records show that his physical assaults were accompanied by verbal abuse and other degrading behavior. Espinoza called his wife a “used bitch” and a “prostitute.” He sprayed her with a hose. He also tormented his children, according to police reports. He twisted the arm of one of his daughters until she screamed and collapsed in pain, and then ran away to her grandmother’s house for safety.
Earlier this year, Espinoza allegedly knocked his wife to the ground by yanking her arm as he backed his car out of the driveway. He also allegedly bruised her breasts and repeatedly mocked her until she broke down in front of their kids. He reportedly videotaped her breakdowns and, according to his wife, derived pleasure from seeing her in agony. In May of this year, Espinoza’s wife filed another restraining order and, yet again, set in motion their divorce. The protective order required Espinoza to stay 300 feet away from his wife, kids and their 13-year-old Chihuahua, Tawny. It also directed him to leave the family’s Alviso duplex and give her the 2011 Jeep Wrangler, which were both in his wife’s name anyway.
“Mark follows me, videotapes me, and tracks me all day long,” his wife wrote in her plea for protection. “He has shown up at stores taking away my belong[ings]. He recently followed me onto freeway trying to run me off road. He has recently pulled me off my bed by my feet, making fall to the floor in front of my children. He grabbed my car keys through his car window, taking off full force, making me stumble, landing on ground, hitting my hip. He verbally harasses me all day in front of my children, thinking it is funny to watch me break down. He makes my house a war zone. My children and I just want peace. I have left him several times and he follows me.”
The wife said Espinoza threatened to prevent her from pressing charges by telling prosecutors that she’s a liar.
“I feel like I’m losing my sanity,” she wrote. “I am scared going to the grocery store that he will follow me and who knows what he will do. He recently has hit my daughter … hurting her hand. He calls my children names always. Making them sad and insecure.”
Though she endured more than two decades of abuse by Espinoza, the wife said, she considers his current behavior worse than before.
“The abuse right now isn’t so much physical but mental,” she wrote by hand in her request for court-ordered protection. “I am filmed in my house 24/7, my car has tracker on it. He constantly calls and texts every hour or half, ‘Where are you?’ My belong[ings] are taken away if he gets angry.”
Even more chilling, she claimed, Espinoza threatened to take her life.
“Throughout our marriage,” she wrote, “he has taken me to the hills with a shovel in the back saying he was going to kill me.”
It took awhile for Espinoza and Santos to turn against each another. When Espinoza made his foray into activism in 2014 to oppose a large-scale manufacturing facility, Santos supported his lawsuit against the developer, Trammel Crow.
That year, Espinoza revived the long-dormant Organizacion Comunidad De Alviso, which had sued Alviso’s industrial businesses in the 1990s over pollution and asbestos. He took it upon himself to hold those same players accountable by reporting suspected violations to the city. He began posting old newspaper clippings on the Organizacion Comunidad’s Facebook page about various controversies involving the Santos family, including a 2010 civil grand jury’s allegations that Santos used his influence on the water district to line his own pockets. He also publicly questioned the financial stewardship of Santos’ favorite local charity, the Santa Visits Alviso Foundation. The assiduous Facebook campaign finally prompted Santos to threaten legal action.
“[Y]our organization has persistently harassed and defamed Richard (“Dick”) Santos including posting his personal address and a photo of his private residents, posting photos of him, posting negative articles about his father … and implying that Dick Santos discriminates against Hispanics,” reads a letter from Santos’ attorney, Adron Beene.
But Espinoza says he has done nothing more than cite valid critiques and historical records about the Santos family and other power players in Alviso. He calls Santos’ attempts to discredit him a distraction from the “real issues.”
As for his own criminal past, Espinoza acknowledges “mistakes” but insists that he’s paid his debts to society. Plus, he adds, prior offenses shouldn’t necessarily disqualify someone from being active in the community.
“If you have a criminal record, does that mean you can’t oppose a development that’s harmful to your community?” he asks. “Does that mean you lost your rights forever?”
Longtime residents say the conflict between Espinoza and Santos is taking away from a community-wide effort to build more grassroots involvement among locals.
Smith says she’s dismayed by how her neighborhood group meetings have been “hijacked” by Santos and his “goon squad,” and that she’s tired of every conversation being dominated by property owners and business interests at the expense of people who actually live in Alviso. She adds that Espinoza, for all his faults, at least seems more attentive to people than other community leaders.
“But honestly, they’re both taking up too much of the focus,” Smith says. “People get the impression, of course, that because these people are out of control that nothing is being done. ... Alviso deserves better.”