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The Butcher Shop — Las Vegas glitz and mafia aura

Big beef in Mission Valley

At midnight on Friday, April 25, 1986, DePhilippis and about thirty employees, family members, and patrons of the Butcher Shop annihilated the restaurant.
  • At midnight on Friday, April 25, 1986, DePhilippis and about thirty employees, family members, and patrons of the Butcher Shop annihilated the restaurant.

Roberto DePhilippis, the owner of the Butcher Shop Steak House, got very angry one night last spring. In fact he had been seething since November of 1985, when his landlord, the Plaza International Hotel in Mission Valley, sent him an eviction notice. After six months of legal haggling, DePhilippis reluctantly accepted the fact that the Butcher Shop would have to leave the premises it had occupied since 1971. DePhilippis would leave, but as testimony to his rancor, he made sure that not one usable chair, table, booth, appliance, or other Butcher Shop fixture would remain. At midnight on Friday, April 25, 1986, he and about thirty employees, family members, and patrons of the Butcher Shop wielded sledge hammers, knives, shovels, and other implements of destruction, and they annihilated the restaurant.

Buckner eventually lost all of his hotels except the Mission Valley Plaza International.

Buckner eventually lost all of his hotels except the Mission Valley Plaza International.

Unabashedly proud of what he had done, the stout, gregarious DePhilippis addressed reporters from local newspapers and television stations who had come to view the massacre the next day. DePhilippis was no stranger to the media. The Mission Valley Butcher Shop had long been known as a notorious hangout for organized crime figures. Its reputation was only enhanced by a highly publicized sting operation in 1980, in which authorities attempted to crack down on reported illegal gambling at the Butcher Shop.

Peter MacRoberts. Buckner prefers to let MacRoberts deal with public relations. “Pete protects me.”

Peter MacRoberts. Buckner prefers to let MacRoberts deal with public relations. “Pete protects me.”

Last April DePhilippis stood amid the remains of his cherished restaurant and told reporters that he was a patriotic American who had fought in World War II for liberty and justice but that frankly he was disillusioned that the American court system had allowed him to be swindled out of his lease, despite what he saw as a conspiracy by the Plaza International Hotel to steal his restaurant.

Roberto DePhilippis came to San Diego in the early 1950s with his family, which opened Filippi’s Pizza Grotto on India Street.

Roberto DePhilippis came to San Diego in the early 1950s with his family, which opened Filippi’s Pizza Grotto on India Street.

DePhilippis was in grand form with the press, pleading the cause of righteousness. To cap off this multimedia event DePhilippis had created, Lena Nozizwe of Channel 8 news got the star attraction to belt out a line or two from his singing radio commercial: “If you want a steak, give yourself a break, go to the Butcher Shop Steak House. I’ll be specific, the food’s terrific....”

Plaza Hotel pool. “That hotel ran at eighty-six percent occupancy from 1976 through the 1980s,” says Buckner. “DePhilippis had a built-in trade of 400 people a day."

Plaza Hotel pool. “That hotel ran at eighty-six percent occupancy from 1976 through the 1980s,” says Buckner. “DePhilippis had a built-in trade of 400 people a day."

But something was missing. Who, and where, was the enemy, the man who had driven Roberto DePhilippis to wage war against his restaurant fixtures? Could it be Peter MacRoberts, the Plaza International’s general manager and spokesman, who gave reporters the hotel’s side of the story that day? No, DePhilippis’s nemesis was far from the camera’s eye. His name is Robert G. Buckner, and he’s the chairman of the board of International Hotels Construction and Management, Inc., the owner of the Plaza International Hotel.

DePhilippis in radio commercial sang: “If you want a steak, give yourself a break, go to the Butcher Shop Steak House. I’ll be specific, the food’s terrific....”

DePhilippis in radio commercial sang: “If you want a steak, give yourself a break, go to the Butcher Shop Steak House. I’ll be specific, the food’s terrific....”

He is the man who raised Roberto DePhilippis’s ire to epic heights and the man DePhilippis accused in a 1985 lawsuit of assaulting Butcher Shop employees and suppliers; intimidating employees with obscene language, concealed weapons, and death threats; destroying fiimiture; kicking in doors; and screaming racial, sexual, and religious epithets at employees.

Sounds pretty serious, but it’s hard to take such things very seriously in litigation between Buckner and DePhilippis. If relationships were rated, theirs would be rated X, characterized as it has been by colorful, however repetitive, volleys of acrimonious insults and accusations that end up numbing the senses. During a trial last February to determine the legality of the Butcher Shop’s eviction from the Plaza International Hotel, Buckner accused DePhilippis of having said to him, “I’m going to [expletive] you in the ass. I’m going to [expletive] you in the mouth.” DePhilippis jumped from his seat and screamed, “Liar!” and the judge pounded his gavel and said he would throw DePhilippis from the courtroom if he didn’t keep quiet. During a recess, the judge warned Buckner and DePhilippis that if they had notions of assaulting and battering one another in the hallway, law enforcement officers were close at hand. Buckner has also accused DePhilippis of spitting at him — “He went Waugh’ and give it to me right in the face,” Buckner testified in court. DePhilippis admitted this latter indiscretion. “Yeah, I spit in his face,” DePhilippis said in a recent interview. “But do you want to know why? Because he called my secretary, Ann Chabo, a rotten cunt. You don’t call a sixty-five-year-old woman a rotten cunt.”

At the center of the Buckner-DePhilippis feud is the ten-year lease the Plaza International Hotel granted the Butcher Shop in April of 1972. Included in the lease — which was extremely favorable to DePhilippis and detrimental to the hotel — was an option to renew for an additional ten years under the same terms. The lease was to be renewed in writing 180 days before its expiration date, April 21, 1982. DePhilippis never gave such written notice, but he insists he exercised his option orally. According to DePhilippis, in about September of 1981, some eight months before the lease was to expire, he and his brother Richard met with Buckner in his office. During the meeting, Buckner asked if the Butcher Shop intended to extend its lease with the hotel, and Roberto said it did. Buckner said that was fine. Richard DePhilippis asked if Buckner would like a letter confirming this, but the hotel owner said that wasn’t necessary. Just before leaving Buckner’s office, Richard reiterated his offer: “Are you sure [you don’t want a letter]?” Buckner replied, pounding his fist on the desk, “We don’t need no fucking letters, Roberto and I.” DePhilippis also says Buckner gave him repeated assurances between 1982 and 1985 that the option had been exercised.

The basis for the Buckner-DePhilippis dispute is simple. Buckner says he remembers conversing with the DePhilippis brothers on several occasions, but he recalls none of the crucial exchanges cited above. He insists the option on the original lease was never exercised, either orally or in writing, and he says he asked DePhilippis on numerous occasions to negotiate a new lease. DePhilippis, who believed Buckner had breached not only a contract but an implied code of honor, adamantly refused.

Roberto DePhilippis is a loquacious, endearing fellow who relishes the limelight. At his new Kearny Mesa steak house — the big red sign just off Highway 163 says “Roberto DePhilippis’s Butcher Shop Restaurant” — he has installed the same large photographs that adorned the walls in Mission Valley: Roberto’s smiling mug with the likes of Bob Hope, Clint Eastwood, Robert Conrad, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tommy Lasorda, and others. DePhilippis serves steak, but he was born to be a ham, and he loves nothing more in life than moving lithely through his lunch crowd, pressing flesh, cracking jokes, and repeating at least 500 times a day to his customers, “Did the waitresses treat you well?” His is a never-ending campaign to be elected “World’s Nicest, Most Honest, Most Generous, Most All-Around Wonderful Guy in the Universe.” The success of his Chula Vista and Mission Valley Butcher Shops suggests he’s gotten a lot of votes. In Mission Valley alone, DePhilippis claims he was making $500,000 per year in profits.

Robert Buckner does not share DePhilippis’s gregariousness. Though one old friend of Buckner’s said “he can charm the birds out of the sky if he wants to,” most who know the hotel owner describe him as a cantankerous man and reclusive to the point of eccentricity. “I don’t want no glory roads; I ain’t gonna sing no songs on the radio about my shrimps and lasagne,” he says, in obvious reference to DePhilippis. “Hell, I don’t even know how to make lasagne.”

That comment came in a long-distance telephone interview from a location Buckner refused to reveal. It also came after ten days of repeated attempts to reach him through Plaza International Hotel’s general manager, Peter MacRoberts. No one — not MacRoberts, not his attorneys, not even Buckner’s own son — knew how to contact Buckner. All said he was on “an extended vacation,” and he called periodically when it suited him. Buckner finally consented to an interview, but only after his attorney, V’Frank Asaro, advised him that “no matter what’s written, it will help business.”

In general Buckner prefers to let MacRoberts deal with public relations. “Pete protects me,” he said when I told him I’d been trying to reach him for ten days. Others have suggested that MacRoberts “covers” for Buckner, whose volatile temper and Technicolor vocabulary are legendary at both the Plaza International and the Butcher Shop. “Sometimes he’s loud, sometimes he uses rough language, but that’s the way contractors are,” MacRoberts says. “I couldn’t tell you he isn’t a colorful person, but that’s good. He’s very outward and personable. He’s very honest.” Buckner was quite pleasant in our three-hour phone conversation and raised his voice only a few times, always when discussing DePhilippis. He most definitely lived up to his reputation for extraordinary candor and directness. Asked about his reputed quick temper and use of foul language, Buckner replied, “I talk the way I feel. If someone’s sticking a knife in my back, they’re going to hear it. I’m going to stand there and say my beef.” He acknowledged having called Butcher Shop janitor Dozell Thomas a “nigger.” He said, “There was never any love between him and me. Is there anything wrong with calling someone a nigger? He called me a honky. What’s the difference?” Buckner repeatedly mentioned DePhilippis’s singing radio commercial: “Every time I hear his song, it makes me want to throw up. He thinks he’s Frank Sinatra.”

I raised the subject of his legal problems — records in San Diego County Superior Court show that Buckner has been involved in at least twenty lawsuits since 1971, several of them against people he once considered close friends — and pointed out to Buckner that he seemed to get a lot of people mad at him. “Why? Darned if I know,” he said. “You don’t travel down the road and meet that many people and not make an enemy. Look at Howard Hughes. He was a great man, but everybody sued him. What am I supposed to be, a saint? I’ve never said I was perfect. I’ve never tried to be a politician or start any of those I-love-you deals.” When I mentioned that I’d spoken to many people who said he ruled through intimidation, Buckner didn’t deny that either. “I scare people, I guess. But I don’t try to hurt people. I come on strong, that’s all. I believe in what I think.”

Apparently, back in 1982 he firmly believed his ten-year contractual obligation to DePhilippis and the Butcher Shop was done with. On April 28, 1982, six days after the initial lease expired, DePhilippis received a letter from Buckner’s attorney, V’Frank Asaro, stating that the Butcher Shop was thenceforth on month-to-month tenancy (i.e., it no longer had a lease). On May 11, 1982, DePhilippis made a mistake that would from that time on cast doubt upon his credibility. He wrote a letter to Asaro stating that he had in fact given Buckner written notice and said he could produce four witnesses to prove it. During the trial last February, DePhilippis admitted on the witness stand that this wasn’t true, adding that when he wrote the letter, he was “furious” and in a state of “frustration and aggravation.”

Between 1982 and late 1985, nothing significant happened concerning the Butcher Shop’s tenancy. Despite the “month-to-month tenancy” letter, Buckner allowed DePhilippis to pay only cost-of-living rent increases and to maintain conditions identical to those in the original ten-year lease. Their relationship was tense — for months at a time they refused to speak to one another — but DePhilippis says that during this three-year period, he was so certain his lease had been renewed that he spent nearly $400,000 in advertising.

The tension turned to outright antagonism in September of 1985, when DePhilippis informed Buckner that he intended to sell the Butcher Shop for $3.2 million to a man named Doug Blankenship from San Clemente. A condition of the sale was that the buyer would assume the Butcher Shop’s lease, which DePhilippis thought was guaranteed until 1992 and would allow Blankenship to pay the same rent DePhilippis paid, $13,000 per month. But Buckner repeated what DePhilippis had been told back on April 28, 1982: the Butcher Shop is on month-to-month tenancy. And he added that the new tenant would have an entirely new lease, requiring that he pay either $15,000 per month or eight percent of gross revenues. Since DePhilippis was grossing about $300,000 per month at the time, under the new lease the rent would be $24,000. Blankenship was no longer interested, and DePhilippis says he lost the sale that would have allowed him to retire happily ever after.

He was outraged. On November 5, 1985, DePhilippis filed a civil suit charging Buckner with breaching their agreement concerning the lease. The following day, he received a letter from the hotel giving him thirty days’ notice to leave the premises. A month later, the Butcher Shop hadn’t left, so the hotel filed an “unlawful detainer” action to force eviction. This issue was argued in the trial held on February 13, 1986, and three weeks later, Superior Court Judge Jack R. Levitt ruled in Buckner’s favor. The lease option had not been exercised according to the terms of the lease, he decided, and the Butcher Shop would have to leave the Plaza International Hotel.

Whatever their differences in character, Buckner and DePhilippis {lave much in common. Both are stubborn, intransigent, self-made men with little education but plenty of street smarts. And both go out of their way to banner their unrelenting commitment to honesty, the irony of which is overlooked by no one, since it appears that one of the two men is telling one whopper of a fib concerning the Butcher Shop’s lease. Buckner, who is now fifty-one, referred in court documents several years ago to his “passion” for protecting his creditors and investors. Among the same documents, his attorney spoke of Buckner’s “fierce sense of pride and dignity. His word of honor is a benchmark of behavior.” Buckner’s former personal secretary, Michelle Dose, recalls that her boss took his image as a truthful man very seriously and would continually use the expression “My word is my bond.”

The sixty-year-old DePhilippis is no less insistent that he cannot tell a lie. Nearly every assertion he makes with regard to Buckner is followed by the words, “And I’ll take a lie-detector test on that!” One day a few weeks ago, as he sat eating one of his Nebraska corn-fed steaks at the new Kearny Mesa Butcher Shop (which opened in September), he called over his secretary and asked her, “Margie, do you know anyone who’s more honest than me?” “No,” Margie replied. “Honestly.” When asked how someone so honest could have an enemy like Robert Buckner, DePhilippis replied, “Does the pope have enemies? You couldn’t find a better person than the pope, but somebody tried to kill him, didn’t they?”

DePhilippis is a World War II veteran who grew up in the Bronx, New York. He came to San Diego in the early 1950s with his family, which opened Filippi’s Pizza Grotto on India Street, the first of a successful local restaurant chain. Roberto, one of five brothers, worked as a bartender for a while, then in 1955 he opened a pizza parlor called Roberto’s at Fifth and Market, downtown. DePhilippis, who never finished high school, ran several restaurants in ensuing years, including Caruso’s on Fourth Avenue, before finally making it big with the Butcher Shop, which he opened in Chula Vista in 1969.

Robert Gale Buckner was raised in Bellingham, Washington, and also came to San Diego in the early 1950s. In 1960, at age twenty-five, he began working as a carpenter for TraveLodge hotels, where his rise was meteoric. In a mere three weeks, he was promoted to foreman, and he eventually became a superintendent, supervising the construction of dozens of TraveLodges. In 1964, when TraveLodge executive Earl Gagosian started a new chain of hotels called the Royal Inns, he took Buckner along and made him a vice president.

Buckner supervised the construction of twenty-two Royal Inns, establishing his reputation as a remarkably speedy builder. A newspaper story claimed that he set a record with the Royal Inn and Sambo’s restaurant in Yuma, Arizona, which he completed in only two and one-half months. Buckner, who started working in construction when he was twelve years old and became an apprentice carpenter at age twenty, knew every aspect of his trade, having built bridges, highways, dams, and buildings. One person formerly close to Buckner said his experience, his take-charge attitude, and his toughness when dealing with subcontractors were what made him successful.

After four years with Royal Inns, Buckner, who has never been to high school, branched out on his own. In 1969 he and his partner Dennis Lang started their own firm. Evening Tribune columnist Neil Morgan trumpeted the move: “Now comes Bob Buckner, who left TraveLodge with Gagosian and is now leaving Royal Inns to form International Hotels Construction & Management, Inc., — whose plans could dwarf both of the other chains.”

But the company ended up building only four hotels, including three locally, in San Diego, El Cajon, and Escondido. The biggest was the $3.5 million, 220-room Plaza International, which opened in 1971 in Mission Valley’s Hotel Circle. At one point. International Hotels operated eight hotels, one in Tennessee and seven in California. But in 1974, about the same time Gagosian’s Royal Inns empire crumbled. International Hotels, with assets of $7.7 million, filed for bankruptcy under Chapter Ten, which allows a court-supervised reorganization plan to pay back creditors. As a result of the bankruptcy, Buckner eventually lost all of his hotels except the Mission Valley Plaza International.

The year after the bankruptcy, a biographical description of Buckner quoted him as saying, “They can fight me, they can beat me, they can knock me down, but they will never kill my ‘spirit’ to rise and keep trying until I reach my goal." Buckner has spent thirteen years paying back $21 million to bankruptcy-related creditors, and he sees his success in this endeavor as perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his indomitable “spirit.” He says, “At thirty-two I was a multimillionaire, and I lost everything. But I stayed and I fought and paid everyone back their money. At a time when your friends didn’t know you because you were so broke. I don’t know how to quit. A lot of people believed in me, trusted me — bankers, construction people — and I didn’t believe it was right to give up on them.”

Buckner and DePhilippis first crossed paths in 1969. When he announced construction of the Mission Valley Plaza International, Buckner intended to open a restaurant in the hotel called the Bwana Inn. An avid big-game hunter who has made several safaris to Africa, Buckner wanted to use the restaurant as a showcase for his stuffed animals. But he changed his mind and invited DePhilippis to open a second Butcher Shop at the Plaza International.

In the mid-1970s, Buckner and DePhilippis were both charged with criminal income-tax violations. DePhilippis pleaded nolo contendere to a felony tax charge in July of 1976. He was accused of dipping into the Butcher Shop’s till whenever he needed spending money. All told, the government determined that DePhilippis had evaded $56,000 in taxes by failing to report $108,000 over three years. The prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney William Bower, told reporters that DePhilippis was known as a “promoter” around town and that he’d been caught on a wiretap making a bet with a bookie in 1973. Bower recommended a six-year prison sentence, but the judge gave DePhilippis two years in Lompoc federal prison and a $15,000 fine. “I was guilty [of tax evasion], there’s no question,” DePhilippis said recently. “I went to jail as a man and came back as a man. If everybody went to jail when they didn’t pay all their taxes, how many of us would there be left?”

Buckner was served a federal indictment in April of 1977, just weeks after DePhilippis began serving what would be an eighteen-month sentence. In December of 1977, after a twenty-two-day jury trial, Buckner was found guilty of tax fraud and conspiracy to avoid paying taxes. Specifically, Buckner had listed improvements on his home in La Mesa as expenses in the International Hotels Construction & Management corporate records. The government alleged that Buckner allowed his bookkeepers to falsify the corporate records to hide the true nature of the expenditures. On January 30, 1978, he was sentenced to one year in federal prison and fined $15,000.

While serving his sentence in 1980 at the federal penitentiary in Boron, California, midway between Barstow and Mojave, Buckner was a model prisoner. He was president of the prison chapter of the Jaycees, and he helped build a hospital using fellow inmates as laborers, teaching them the construction trade. Some of the inmates were so enthusiastic about working for Buckner that they asked for brief extensions of their prison terms so they could complete the project under his guidance. Buckner received glowing reports from prison officials, and he served only four months of his one-year term. Buckner says of his confinement, “I had no business being there in the first place, but it was a good part of my life.”

The relationship between DePhilippis and Buckner during the 1970s was tolerable if not warm. DePhilippis claims to have given Buckner a personal loan of $500 per week for more than a year after the hotel went into bankruptcy in 1974. Buckner can’t remember the loan, but Allen Hitch, a former San Diego city councilman who worked for the Butcher Shop at the time, recalls delivering the money to Buckner in an envelope each Monday morning. Buckner apparently trusted DePhilippis’s judgment enough to ask him to manage the hotel. The San Diego Union announced on July 28, 1974, that “owner Bob Buckner needed strong management for the Plaza International Hotel in Mission Valley, and tagged Roberto DePhilippis for the job.” DePhilippis says that in fact he turned down the job. However, he says he did offer some management assistance and helped promote the hotel to increase room occupancy.

As one might expect, DePhilippis and Buckner have very different views as to why things went wrong between them. DePhilippis thinks jealousy is at the matter’s heart. One undeniable fact in their relationship is that the Butcher Shop was phenomenally successful, and the hotel has been struggling to get out of bankruptcy almost from the start. While DePhilippis was making millions, Buckner was losing them. DePhilippis thinks Buckner has always been jealous of his winning personality and of his “talent” as a restaurateur and businessman. “I used to counsel him,” DePhilippis says. “I’d say, ‘Bob, be a nice guy. That’s the key to success. It's easy.’ But it just isn’t in him.” Buckner acknowledges no jealousy. He never wanted to be DePhilippis’s sort of guy. He says that his bankruptcy obligations tied him down to the hotel and forced him to do a job he wasn’t suited for. “I was never interested in running the hotel,” he says. “People go to school to learn how to run them things. I don’t like standing behind a counter, having an eight-to-five job. When I used to go to work with my tools, building stuff, I was happy. I like to build. I like to create.”

Buckner believes DePhilippis destroyed the Butcher Shop’s relationship with the hotel by being so unyielding. The restaurant had what Peter MacRoberts calls “a sweetheart lease.” The court-appointed bankruptcy trustee for International Hotels, prominent local attorney Milton Fredman, reportedly called it “one-sided” and recommended to Buckner in the late 1970s that he try to renegotiate the lease with DePhilippis. Buckner thought it wrong that the Butcher Shop should pay straight rent (with cost of living increases, it rose from $4500 in 1972 to $13,000 in 1985) but pay no percentage of its revenues to the hotel. MacRoberts says such a relationship between a restaurant and a hotel is “unheard of.” So why did Buckner give DePhilippis such a favorable deal back in 1972? “Because he needed it,” Buckner says. “And because I was stupid. And ignorant.”

From Buckner’s point of view, DePhilippis, successful as he was, has been mean-spirited in his unwillingness to negotiate a more just lease. “That hotel ran at eighty-six percent occupancy from 1976 through the 1980s,” says Buckner. “He had a built-in trade of 400 people a day. Stop and think of what I gave him. But he never paid the going rate, because he was my friend. I gave Roberto DePhilippis millions by giving him such a good lease. He raped me.”

DePhilippis defends his position. “Of course I didn’t negotiate. We had a deal. Do you think he would have lowered my rent if I had been losing money?” To DePhilippis, Buckner’s resolve to obtain a new lease in 1982 only makes more plausible his belief that Buckner manipulated him, maliciously dissuading him from exercising his option in writing and then later denying that it had been exercised orally. Buckner shrugs off DePhilippis’s conspiracy theories. “I don’t make any accusations,” he says. “The man had a lease. The court said he didn’t have a lease any longer. DePhilippis is the kind of guy, the more stuff he can throw at the wall, the more he thinks will stick.”

Despite the Butcher Shop’s success and the business it brought to the Plaza International Hotel, the restaurant’s reputation as an organized-crime hangout bothered Buckner. “It gave us a black eye for fifteen years,” he says. In court documents, Buckner maintained that “because of Mr. DePhilippis and the people he entertained in the restaurant, the U.S. Customs Service and its agents would no longer be staying at the hotel.”

Ed Stevens, a former police intelligence officer who has worked undercover assignments at the restaurant, offers his explanation for the Butcher Shop’s attraction to hoodlums. “It was like a Chicago speakeasy. The girls wore skimpy costumes, the place was loud, the bar was always full, the bartenders were always bullshitting.

The Butcher Shop was a rip-roaring, go-get-em place.”

A mix of circumstances made the restaurant thrive. Mission Valley was growing in the early 1970s and was becoming the city’s hub. The Butcher Shop was located in a glitzy hotel that offered the trappings of Las Vegas. Today the Plaza International features valet parking beneath a lighted canopy and a lobby with orange-mauve carpet, gold wallpaper, red couches, crystal chandeliers in wrought-iron bases, and a staircase with burgundy carpet and a rail studded with glittering glass. The restaurant’s ambiance matched the hotel’s. It had rich red vinyl booths, dim, warm lighting, and lots of blue cigarette smoke. Nick Lore, a retired FBI agent, is not surprised that mobsters liked the place. “Organized crime people are guys of impeccable taste,” he says. “The Butcher Shop mixed a good drink, and you could get a nice steak there. Among the wise guys, it gained respect.”

More than that, it developed a mystique. Professional athletes, coaches, and sport announcers hung out there. Politicians, lawyers, and businessmen, too. It’s hard to say whether the Butcher Shop became a watering hole for organized crime figures as a result of its mystique or whether hoods helped create the mystique in the first place. In any case, local FBI agents, police, and California Department of Justice intelligence officers have long considered it the place in San Diego to keep tabs on bookies, loan sharks, pimps, mobsters, and other criminals. “You know how in Las Vegas they try to impress people by announcing over the P. A. system, ‘Paging Frank Sinatra’ or ‘Paging Ginger Rogers’?” Stevens asks. “Well, at the Butcher Shop, you’d hear them announce, ‘Paging Tony Spilotro. Paging Tony Spilotro.’ And every head in the place would turn.”

Charlie McGlaughlin, a retired intelligence officer with the department of justice who once trailed the late Chicago Mafia boss Tony Spilotro from Lindbergh Field directly to the Butcher Shop, says the restaurant “was always on our list. Our job was to keep on top of the upper-echelon crooks. And there’s a limited number of places where they go. If their car wasn’t at the house and it wasn’t at their place of business, it was probably down at the Butcher Shop.”

There were always rumors that the Butcher Shop’s waitresses were available after hours for a price. One former waitress swore the rumors were absolutely not true. However, she did say recently that hookers frequented the restaurant and would leave calling cards in the lobby and near the ice machines on each floor of the Plaza International Hotel. At one time, she says, the hotel had to hire guards to stop them.

All this talk angers Roberto DePhilippis. He admits the hoodlum mystique brought him business, but he denies having any association with criminals. “Yeah, the reputation helped me in a way, but all I can say is, don’t call me a pilot if I’ve never flown a plane.” DePhilippis is the first to point out that he has never been convicted or even charged with any crime related to gambling, prostitution, loan sharking, or any of the other foul play people say went on at his restaurant. He denies even turning a blind eye to such things. “I have a license to serve the general public,” he says. “Until a customer causes trouble. I’m not going to say they’re bad. If some guy is a criminal, what’s he doing in my restaurant? Why haven’t the police arrested him? Does that make me a bad guy because some hoodlum eats my steaks?”

The authorities realize they have never linked DePhilippis with any wrongdoing at the Butcher Shop. Ed Stevens expressed a sentiment shared by other intelligence officers interviewed for this article. “Despite all the talk,” he says, “I always thought DePhilippis was overrated as a crook. He always had a crowd of people in his bar looking for the crooks. And all the time, the undercover agents were buying his drinks and eating his steaks.” In 1980 several law enforcement agencies combined resources in a three-month undercover operation to investigate gambling and other organized crime activities at the Butcher Shop and at Eric’s Rib Place in Old Town. Key to the operation was the work of an undercover agent pretending to be a San Jose building contractor with a gambler’s itch. He ate and drank nightly at the two restaurants, making friends and placing bets with bookies. On December 12, 1980, the police raided the Butcher Shop with a search warrant in hand. They arrested one bookmaker, Alfredo “Fito” Vindiola, three bettors, and a bartender who passed envelopes between Vindiola and customers.

Judging from the authorities’ comments to the press at the time, the operation had been well worthwhile. But what had begun as an attempt to expose the Butcher Shop as a den of iniquity instead vindicated DePhilippis. In retrospect, the operation appears to have been a failure. “The police admitted afterwards that I didn’t know anything about the betting,” says DePhilippis. “After four months, all they got was one guy. They spent thousands of dollars of your tax money, and all they got was Fito.”

Deputy District Attorney Hugh McManus, who prosecuted Vindiola and was involved in preparing the raid, says authorities believed DePhilippis knew what was going on, but they didn’t have a case against him. “He just entertained and glad-handed organized crime figures,” McManus said in a recent interview. “We didn’t have evidence he did much more. And there’s nothing illegal about that.” McManus admits the raid was a disappointment but believes there is a good reason that the search warrant turned up little evidence. “There was a leak,” he says. “When we got there, Channel 8 and Channel 10 had already arrived. Someone had tipped them off and all the [gambling] paraphernalia were gone. We got burned on that one.”

Robert Buckner was never implicated in any of the Butcher Shop’s activities and has stated in court documents his moral objections to DePhilippis’s alleged ties to mobsters. Yet Buckner himself has been accused of having similar connections, although they are just about as poorly documented as DePhilippis’s. The most obvious link is Eugene Cimorelli, a Plaza International Hotel administrator from late 1984 until one month ago, when he died of a heart attack in Las Vegas. Cimorelli’s mob connections are alluded to both in Ovid Demaris’s The Last Mafioso and in Kitty Kelley’s His Way, the new biography of Frank Sinatra. In the latter book, Cimorelli is described as a “close friend” of Sinatra and an “associate” of Chicago mafia boss Spilotro. Michelle Dose, Buckner’s former personal secretary, says that during the 1970s, she and Buckner frequently traveled to Las Vegas’s Stardust Hotel, where Cimorelli was casino manager. Dose says they were given complimentary rooms at the Stardust and that Buckner would “comp” Cimorelli when he visited San Diego.

Last year a reporter for the Arizona Republic, John Winters, wrote a series of articles about the infiltration of mob figures into Lake Havasu City, Arizona. His interest was piqued when he heard that Buckner, along with Richard and Roberto DePhilippis, had formed a partnership in 1980 to build about one hundred condominiums in Lake Havasu City, on the Colorado River below Needles. Buckner built nine units before the project ground to a halt. Winters looked into Buckner’s past and, in an article that read like a who’s who in the West Coast mafia, included a paragraph suggesting that Buckner had connections with organized crime figures.

During his investigation, Winters discovered that Buckner, an antique gun collector who has admitted owning many guns, had purchased two firearms in Arizona in October of 1984. In doing so, he’d signed the obligatory form stating that he had never been convicted of a felony. Winters, who knew of Buckner’s felony income-tax conviction in 1977, contacted federal authorities and reported his findings. When he called Buckner to interview him for the story, Winters recalls that Buckner “abused me on the phone. He reeled off a string of crap. I’ve never had anybody talk to me that abusively.”

The United States Attorney’s office in Phoenix indicted Buckner for allegedly lying on the form. The indictment was dismissed last November, however, after Buckner persuaded assistant United States attorney Mark E. Aspey in Phoenix that he had been told that his tax conviction was a misdemeanor, not a felony. Three local attorneys, including the Plaza International’s court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, Milton Fredman, filed affidavits confirming that Buckner had in fact been told this. Also influencing Aspey’s decision to drop the indictment was the government’s inability to verify any of Buckner’s organized crime connections. “We tried to prove allegations that the guy was a big-time hood, but we couldn’t come up with anything,” Aspey says.

Buckner was not surprised when I told him that one reason Winters took an interest in him was his association the DePhilippis brothers in the Lake Havasu condominium partnership. “Every problem I’ve ever had has been by association with DePhilippis,” Buckner said. He claims that any mob “connections” he’s ever had he met through DePhilippis. This includes Eugene Cimorelli. DePhilippis acknowledges that he met Cimorelli in Palm Springs in about 1974 at the opening of a restaurant owned by Sinatra crony Jilly Rizzo and that Cimorelli would often come to the Butcher Shop. “Buckner and Cimorelli probably met in the restaurant,” DePhilippis says, “but I didn’t introduce them.” Buckner explains why he hired Cimorelli. “He had a restaurant in Las Vegas that wasn’t doing too good, and he asked Roberto for a job, but Roberto didn’t have anything. We were hurting for a PR man at the time, and I talked to him about making golf packages and fishing junkets. We decided to try him. I didn’t know anything about this organized crime stuff.” Cimorelli eventually became far more than a “PR man.” He is referred to in court documents filed late last year as assistant manager, and in February of 1986, Buckner promoted him to general manager in charge of daily activities at the hotel.

Buckner holds DePhilippis responsible for current problems at the Plaza International. “What do you think the publicity of him destroying that restaurant did for the reputation of the hotel?” Buckner asks. “It hurt us bad in terms of occupancy and cash flow. DePhilippis ruthlessly destroyed a business to hurt me. What kind of human being would do that?”

Besides the Arizona gun indictment last year, Buckner’s only other known criminal case was his 1977 tax conviction, which he also blames on DePhilippis. “My problems all started with DePhilippis,” he says. “They started with an IRS investigation of my associations with the DePhilippis family.” Buckner says he obtained a document from the IRS that proves his allegation.

Though Buckner blames DePhilippis for his woes, many people will testify to Buckner’s ability to bring misfortune upon himself; for example, Rand Conley, a former comptroller at the Plaza International who began working for Buckner in 1978 but left in October of 1985. “I’ve seen Bob try to undermine everything he had at that hotel,” says Conley. He claims that “the employees live in fear” of Buckner and that on numerous occasions bell hops and valet parking attendants would be summarily fired by Buckner, only to be hired back the next day by MacRoberts, who would persuade Buckner he’d made a mistake. Both Conley and Buckner’s former personal secretary, Michelle Dose, recall that Buckner would often make derogatory comments to minority employees and that some would quit as a result.

Conley recalls instances in which Buckner’s temper got out of hand. He says that several times Buckner damaged telephones by ripping them off the wall and that the phone company, which repaired the phones without charge, eventually became suspicious. “Michelle (Dose] would be calling them all the time to come and fix the phones,” Conley says. “But after a while, they didn’t believe her stories anymore, and they made the hotel pay for the phones.” Conley says that one morning Buckner appeared in the lobby in his bathrobe and began cursing at some valets. “The lobby was filled with guests,” Conley says. “You have to believe some of them never came back to the hotel. I don’t see how it couldn’t hurt business to an extent.” Charles Renshaw, Buckner’s attorney from 1971 to 1981, can cite numerous examples of Buckner’s temper causing him grief. Renshaw was at one time a close friend of Buckner, but despite a falling out the two men had in 1981, Renshaw came to the rescue last year when Buckner was indicted in the Arizona gun case. He was one of the three attorneys who signed affidavits on Buckner’s behalf. “What was happening over there wasn’t right,” says Renshaw. “I don’t like Buckner, and I wouldn’t cross the street to spit on his grave, but whatever the son of a bitch has done, it wasn’t right for him to be convicted on that violation.” Renshaw’s relationship with Buckner ended abruptly over lunch at the Butcher Shop one day in 1981. Renshaw recalls the incident: “It was at a meeting between me, (bankruptcy trustee] Milton Fredman, Peter Mac Roberts, and Buckner. We were sitting in the Butcher Shop, and Buckner, out of the blue, got his foul mouth going and started yelling at Fredman, MacRoberts, and me. He called me cocksucker this and motherfucker that. I said to him, 'I don’t need this.’ I got up from the table and left and never worked for him again. I don’t take that shit from anybody.”

Renshaw left Buckner’s employ because he became “fed up” with his client’s temper. “Buckner is a first-rate builder,” says Renshaw. “If I wanted a contractor, I’d hire him. But his own temper is his worst problem. It gets him into all kinds of trouble.” For example, Buckner was extremely testy with the IRS investigators looking into his tax case back in the 1970s. “He got going with his mouth,” Renshaw says. “He got the government agents mad as hell. I think he could have gotten out of the thing if he hadn’t acted that way.” Buckner confirms Renshaw’s story. “Yeah, I didn’t like the IRS guys,” he says. “I didn’t do what they said to do, and they went on a march and they got me. That’s another thing with my temper.”

In 1977 Buckner filed suit against the City of San Diego and two police officers, alleging in his complaint that on May 22, 1976, at the Plaza International Hotel, the officers beat him up. The San Diego City Attorney’s office answered the complaint, explaining that the two officers, working undercover, were trying to arrest a man named Richard E. Dillon when Buckner intervened and became “abusive.” The officers claimed that they had merely defended themselves. Buckner said in a recent interview that his friend Dillon had been sitting at the Butcher Shop bar when he was solicited by a female undercover police officer posing as a prostitute. According to Buckner, the officer followed Dillon to an elevator, where Dillon told her to leave him alone. “Next thing you know, two other cops are holding him [Dillon],” recalls Buckner. “I come up and ask what’s the matter, and one guy lets go of him [Dillon] and knees me in the groin and hits me in the face.” The city ended up offering Buckner a settlement of $4000 (which he accepted), and one of the officers was disciplined.

After he was convicted of tax evasion, this incident came back to haunt him. Buckner had a serious personality conflict with his probation officer, who apparently had little sympathy for guys who fought with cops. In a motion to the court asking to reduce his one-year prison sentence, Buckner explained that “the probation officer seemed to have an anti-Buckner attitude from the onset” Renshaw, then Buckner’s attorney, filed a statement saying the probation officer “didn’t want to hear the facts” concerning the scuffle with policemen at the hotel and apparently held a prejudice. Buckner ended his plea for leniency as follows: “Your affiant [Buckner] has been often categorized as a ‘hothead.’ Time and, hopefully, maturity has mellowed this categorization, and your affiant assures the court that he no longer is adolescent in terms of temperament. Perhaps the hard work of the past two and a half years has been a sobering element, but whatever it is, it has happened and your affiant is a much more disciplined person.”

During my recent telephone interview with the Plaza International Hotel owner, he sounded at times more like Henry David Thoreau than Robert Buckner. He says he’s stopped drinking, and he has not eaten meat in two years. And it was in a philosophical, almost didactic, tone that he told me, “You know. I've never found that success and money have brought happiness. I’m happy right now. When all this shit [concerning the Butcher Shop] started, I said to myself, a weak-minded person has to put up with this stuff every day. But I’ve been canoeing, fishing, riding my motorcycle. I caught some bass this morning; tomorrow I might catch a marlin. All this stuff will work itself out. I wish Roberto DePhilippis a lot of success.” Has Robert Buckner mellowed with age? Several lawyers who have interviewed Buckner recently in depositions find him to be as fiesty as ever. Attorney Paul Mirowski, who is representing interior designer Ann Tremble in a breach of contract lawsuit against Buckner, deposed Buckner last January. At one point, Mirowski referred to a bookkeeper who had left the Plaza International, and Buckner said. “I would have fired him if he hadn’t left.... He was too goddamn fat. I think anybody that can’t take care of their personal appearance doesn’t work for me too long. I’m prejudiced too.” During my telephone interview with Buckner, when I referred to this passage, I could almost see him wince at the other end of the line. He thought for a moment and said, “Well, he was too fat! I'm too fat, too. And it bugs me."

I mentioned to Buckner that in general he seemed extremely uncooperative in the Mirowski deposition and that at one point he told the attorney, “You’re full of shit.” It may have been the long-distance telephone connection, but I thought I heard a groan from Buckner. “Hmmm,” he said. “I probably didn’t like him.”

But it was during a deposition held last June in another case, filed by Ali Assi of Del Mar, that Buckner revealed the true depth both of his expressive power and of his capacity to insult. Assi sued Buckner one year ago for breach of an agreement to provide a lease for a travel agency Assi operated at the hotel. At one point, Assi’s attorney. Bob Russell, asked Buckner why he refused to discuss a lease with Assi. “I don’t like him,” Buckner replied. ‘‘He’s like a rattlesnake. If it was there, I would try to jump away from it. I don’t want to talk to it, but I don’t want to kill it. So I’m just going to walk away from it.” Buckner’s candor and his language, which borders on the poetic at times, were extremely offensive to Assi, who sat through the deposition. At one point, Buckner addressed Assi, who is from Lebanon, and said, “A tent and a camel and winds in the desert is where you should be, fellow.” At another point he taunted Assi: ‘‘Bah, bah, bah, Ali Baba. Remember that guy?” Assi indignantly retorted, “I’m not going to allow you to say that again.” To which Buckner replied, ‘‘Ali Baba. Ali Baba.”

Russell asked Buckner whether he had broken his arm trying to knock down the door of Assi’s travel agency. At first Buckner hedged, but he finally admitted it was true. “I think I tried to kick that goddamn door and I fell. I slipped and landed on the concrete on my elbow and smashed it all to hell.” He added, “Think maybe that’s the strongest door I ever kicked.”

At the end of the deposition, Russell asked Buckner if he’d ever referred to Mr. Assi as anything other than “Mr. Assi.” Buckner replied, “An asshole.” Russell asked if he used any other names. “No, I said that he should be over there with those camels in the desert in a tent with the shifting sand, go be with Ali Baba, one of those guys.” Russell asked him if he ever called Assi “an Egyptian carpetbagger.” Buckner said, “Shit, he ain’t Egyptian ... I don’t remember calling him an Egyptian carpetbagger.” And finally, Russell asked if he’d merely called Assi a carpetbagger. “I'm not saying I didn’t,” Buckner replied. “I don’t remember ever calling him a carpetbagger. What the hell is a carpetbagger? Tell me what it is and I’ll tell you if he is one.”

Buckner may not be a charmer in legal proceedings, but overall his courtroom scorecard is good. Against DePhilippis he’s got a shutout going so far. To date, four matters have been litigated concerning the disputed lease, and four different judges have ruled in Buckner’s favor. However, DePhilippis’s appeal of Judge Jack Levitt’s ruling last spring in the Butcher Shop’s eviction case is pending in the California Supreme Court. Once that is decided, DePhilippis intends to proceed with his civil suit, attempting to reclaim the $3.2 million he claims to have lost because his lease was denied.

After DePhilippis was soundly routed in the eviction trial last February, he went to extraordinary lengths to prove that the courts had erred. He arranged to take a lie-detector examination with Backster and Associates, San Diego-based polygraph experts. The results showed that DePhilippis “was not attempting deception” when asked the questions, “Did you tell Mr. Buckner you were exercising your option to renew your lease?” and “Did you advise Mr. Buckner that you were exercising your option to renew your lease?” Peter Orciuoli, a parking attendant who worked for both the Butcher Shop and the Plaza International Hotel, took a polygraph exam and was found to be truthful in his assertion that Buckner told him numerous times between 1982 and 1985 that DePhilippis's lease had been renewed. And Michelle Dose, Buckner’s former secretary who now works for Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, was considered to be truthful when she said she overheard Buckner and hotel general manager Peter MacRoberts in 1981 discussing how they were going to take over the Butcher Shop from DePhilippis.

On April 4, 1986, three weeks before the Butcher Shop was destroyed, DePhilippis staged a media event. At the entrance to the restaurant, in the Plaza International Hotel lobby, he placed a clipboard with a sign that read, in big letters, “Polygraph Test Results,” and in smaller letters, “Justice Will Prevail. The Truth Will Prevail.” As diners filed into the restaurant, they were handed a tract written by DePhilippis and copies of the lie-detector results. The tract began, “I have always believed and been a proud participant in the American way of life,” and went on to talk about DePhilippis’s heroism during World War II. “My belief in the court system of the American way was recently shaken by a trial court decision,” he wrote. The judge had made an “oversight,” and these lie-detector tests offer proof of it, said DePhilippis, who challenged Buckner to take a test as well. DePhilippis also suggested that Judge Levitt was an improper arbiter in the trial because both he and Buckner are members of a secret organization, the Freemasons. Peter MacRoberts dismissed this notion contemptuously in a recent interview. “That’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard,” he said.

A few weeks ago, DePhilippis sat imperially in one of his rich red booths at the Kearny Mesa Butcher Shop and gazed at his bustling dining room. “Everyone in this town knows that they [Buckner, et al.J swindled us out of our lease,” he said. “You see all these people? They've followed us here. We’re doing bigger business than we did in Mission Valley.” DePhilippis has heard “reports” from friends that Plankers, the new restaurant in the Plaza International, hasn't been doing very good business. This news obviously pleases DePhilippis, and it assures him that even if the courts can’t tell the difference between Dudley DoRight and Snidely Whiplash, the people can. DePhilippis has this to say about Eugene Cimorelli, the alleged mobster who, according to DePhilippis, ran Plankers before he died in late September, just a few weeks after the restaurant opened. “What killed Cimorelli was the shame,” DePhilippis says. “When nobody came to the restaurant, w'hen he saw it was a complete failure, I think the shame and the stress helped to kill him. I’m not a medical person, but that’s my opinion.” A recent stop at Plankers — which specializes in beef and seafood and has maintained the Butcher Shop tradition of leggy waitresses in miniskirts — revealed a respectable, if not overflow lunch crowd. Buckner admits that frankly he’d be much happier if DePhilippis were still running the hotel’s restaurant. He says that although publicity surrounding the Butcher Shop’s departure last April hurt him badly, “it didn’t hurt DePhilippis at all, did it? I heard DePhilippis’s new place is packed. But I’m a survivor, and I’ll work to make it [Plankers] better than ever. I hate restaurants, but a restaurant is a necessity in a hotel. I’ll have a restaurant, but you won’t hear me singing about shrimps.”

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