Dog's Owner, Hotel Muzzle Settlement

Times Staff Writer

No one would commit to anything, money probably changed hands and all lips were sealed.

The saga of Gaetano Spinosa and his faithful dog, Taur, made its way into Municipal Court on Thursday, with the key word being Thursday .

The resolution of Spinosa's conflict with the plaintiffs--the Cotton Ritchie Co., which runs the New Palace residential hotel, is renovating it and wants Spinosa and his dog out of there--took all day. Observers were led to wonder about the fate of John Tower, Salman Rushdie, Steve Garvey or whether a solar eclipse had occurred while the weighty matter was being decided.

A Long Wait

The litigants and Judge Peter E. Riddle kept the media and a courtroom throng waiting. Finally, they got a verdict--sort of.

Riddle's festival of postponements began at 9 a.m., continued to 10 a.m., 10:30, 11, 11:30; a recess was declared until 1:30. Delays were announced at 1:45, 2, 2:20, 2:45, 3, 3:30 . . .

At precisely 4:37 p.m., Riddle provided the answer to the riddle:

A settlement had been reached.

The renovation of the aging New Palace, at 480 Elm St., would proceed forthwith. Of course, that's what the Downtown Senior Center--headed by Mayor Maureen O'Connor's twin sister, Mavourneen, that owns the building--had wanted all along.

Presumably, Spinosa and his part husky, part Samoyed dog, Taur, would have to join 40 other New Palace tenants in finding new homes elsewhere.

After a day of popping in and out of the courtroom, sans robe, saying it would be "just a few more minutes," or, "this is a matter of some complexity," Riddle took the bench and began his black-robed oratory. He effusively praised the Downtown Senior Center, saying that through "firsthand experience" he knew that its work was "vital to this city." And furthermore, terms of this settlement would not be disclosed under any circumstances.

All parties stuck to the bargain.

On the Run

The plaintiffs and their attorneys bolted from the courtroom. The pony-tailed Spinosa--sporting a gray sport coat and a thin, New Wave tie--refused to talk about the settlement but did let a few hints eke out.

"If renovation is to proceed, can we assume he's out of the hotel?" one reporter beckoned to know.

"That's probably a reasonable inference," said Richard Steiner, Spinosa's counsel and a member of the Legal Aid Society of San Diego.

Spinosa went out of his way to laud Steiner and allowed as how "it's all been very upsetting. It hasn't been comfortable for me or the hotel. Or for my dog. How's my dog? Oh, she's fine. Thank you, she's fine."

For months, hotel managers had been trying to persuade Spinosa, who says he's a 35-year-old laboratory medical technician and unemployed, to leave to make way for renovation. The long-awaited facelift involves a $1-million loan from the state Department of Housing, so the hotel was obligated to pay tenants up to $250 in moving expenses. It was required to help tenants find comparable living quarters or pay the difference in rent if new quarters were more expensive.

High-Priced Rents

That was fine with Spinosa, until he found out that other landlords wanted $90 to $180 more a month in rent than the $260 he pays to the New Palace. The hotel balked at paying the difference, leaving Spinosa and Taur as the last remaining tenants in a crumbling building, which also once housed the Bowery Theatre.

The Spinosa-Taur drama escalated, with Spinosa claiming in interviews that his dog's watchful eye and menacing bark had averted many a hotel disaster. But, Spinosa failed to tell reporters that he had been sued five times in the past three years for failing to pay rent at five locations. In four of the cases, judges found in favor of the landlord; the fifth was not pursued after Spinosa moved out.

The Cotton Ritchie Co. had offered Spinosa $1,600 if he would leave immediately; he held out for a reported $5,000. The state maximum for relocation benefits is $4,000 a tenant.

Did he finally get his $5,000, and in return his silence, accompanied by an exit?

"I can't say," Spinosa said. "I just can't say. . . . But be sure to mention how much I appreciate Mr. Steiner."

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