For years, Bob Slobe has personified privilege in Sacramento.
He's the great-grandson of the man who launched development north of the American River a century ago, he manages the family's still sizable land holdings, and he's married to Sacramento's first female federal court judge.
Slobe sits on the city's top arts boards. He hosts an annual "who's who" bash at the family ranch in the Colusa hills; and when his dog recently died, Darrell Steinberg, president of the California Senate, took time to send him condolences in the form of an official state resolution.
Robert Johnston Slobe is not a guy you'd expect to find stewing in jail.
But that's just where the 57-year-old businessman wound up for several hours last month, after his arrest at a community forum for threatening to burn down a neighbor's house.
That neighbor was former Sacramento City Manager Bob Thomas. A police officer happened to be standing a few feet away when Slobe shouted at Thomas.
The arrest in the hotel ballroom was dramatic. But for people who know Slobe, it wasn't shocking. In a city with its share of acid-tongued activists, Bob Slobe stands out.
Over the past quarter-century, the burly, square-jawed Slobe has fashioned a double persona: a gracious philanthropist in the social realm, a flame-thrower in the political world. Lately he's been on a roll. This summer, he shotgunned almost daily email screeds to a long list of prominent recipients some of whom now refuse to read them featuring photos he's taken of what he terms the desecration of the American River Parkway land his family once owned.
"Grainy but about 100 ghouls feeding at 5pm today," said one email last month describing his photo of food distribution to the homeless under Highway 160.
In a sense, Slobe embodies the bitterness some longtime residents of the neighborhoods along Del Paso Boulevard hold toward the city for what they say is its historic indifference to the needs of residents in the former city of North Sacramento, which once encompassed neighborhoods such as Del Paso Heights, Woodlake, Strawberry Manor, Hagginwood and Dixieanne.
Speaking to The Bee last week in his rustic office on Slobe Avenue a block from the hotel where he was arrested last month Slobe offered no apologies for his outburst and said the incident was overblown.
The Sacramento district attorney dropped charges, concluding Slobe did not intend to act on his threat.
Slobe conceded it was a poor choice of words on his part to shout, "Bob, I'll burn your house down!" in front of 100 people.
Yes, he'd had a couple of drinks in the hotel bar, he said. But everyone knows he's no arsonist. The combative language that's just his style.
"I was talking to a friend afterwards, and he said, 'You say that all the time!' " Slobe explained. He chuckled. "I said, 'Well, I interchange it with 'I'll eat your children!' "
The incident occurred during a community meeting over a cardroom proposed for the Red Lion Hotel Woodlake. Slobe contends he lashed out because Thomas, who was running the meeting and works for the card room proponents, let audience members heckle speaker Bill Farrell, a close friend of Slobe's and president of their Woodlake Neighborhood Association.
The deck was stacked in favor of the card room, Slobe said.
Thomas declined to press charges and refused comment when called by The Bee.
"It's a private matter," Thomas said, his voice tense. "They are neighbors of mine, and they are friends. I just don't want to get into it."
Thomas' reaction is typical. A handful of politicians and people active in the community told The Bee they'd prefer not to talk about Slobe or be mentioned in a story about him.
A wonderful life
Slobe's antipathy toward what he jokingly refers to as the "evil downtowners" has half-century old roots. The old city of North Sacramento where Slobe (pronounced slo-bee) grew up was, in his memory, a homey place that resembled the fictional Bedford Falls in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life." He and friends would ride bikes on the boulevard to the two movie houses and the ice skating rink. They'd drop by the five-and-dime store and hang out in the coffee shops. Their parents never worried.
In 1964, with a narrow annexation vote, Sacramento swallowed up the little city, and immediately neglected it, Slobe contends. "The city of Sacramento just abandoned this place," he said.
He noticed the decay when he returned home in the late 1980s from Stanford University and a brief period in New York and took his place in the family business the now 103-year-old North Sacramento Land Co. as a vice president under his mother.
The company's main task is to manage about 100 properties it owns in northern Sacramento and elsewhere, including vacant lots, rental houses, offices and warehouses.
Slobe also devotes time and money to philanthropy, which he views as an important outgrowth of his membership in one of Sacramento's leading families.
He has backed the Sacramento Ballet financially, and for years he and his wife have championed the arts on Del Paso Boulevard and written checks to community organizations on both sides of the river.
His family donated land to Women Escaping a Violent Environment for a safe house. WEAVE Executive Director Beth Hassett said Slobe was upset for a while afterward because her agency failed to adequately thank his family. But, after a series of meetings, Slobe donated land for a WEAVE playground.
He founded the Sacramento Valley Conservancy, a group that buys land for preservation; it is now working on a plan to turn Camp Pollock in the American River Parkway into a nature center with programs for children, in cooperation with the state Lands Commission.
Slobe served on the Crocker Art Museum board during its fundraising drive and wrote a $50,000-plus check, big enough to earn a plaque on the museum wall.
"There are a number of people well known in the arts world who have influence, power and resources, and Bob is in that mix," said Crocker director Lial Jones.
His arrest likely won't change that status. Buck Busfield of B Street Theatre said he's counting on Slobe to play a key role in fundraising for a new theater. "He knows all the players. He is really good at putting mutual friends together.
"And," said Busfield, echoing a comment several of Slobe's friends made, "he's a lot of fun."
On Valentine's Day, a friend said, Slobe showed up at Español restaurant dressed as Cupid, with bow and arrow, to surprise his wife, Judge Kimberly Mueller. The friend, Denny Anspach, turned to Mueller: "I said, 'You're married to the biggest eccentric in Sacramento.' 'Oh, I know!' she said."
Mueller declined to comment about her husband's arrest, but simply said, "He accepts more responsibility than he should for saving North Sacramento."
She says Slobe is smart, has a strong sense of right and wrong, and is not entirely hardheaded. They've been married 17 years and were together seven years before that, she pointed out. "Anyone knows, that's evidence of some ability to compromise."
But as his recent outburst shows, Slobe has a hot button that's easily triggered.
Slobe, who also chairs the volunteer California State Railroad Museum Foundation, was accused in a recent internal state parks department memo of shouting during a 2011 board meeting that he wanted a state parks official's head delivered to him to be put on a stake on his ranch. Slobe denies saying it.
Cathy Taylor, the official he was talking about, has since been transferred. "We were friends for 20 years," she blurted when called by The Bee. She declined further comment.
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, who has been working to get homeless campers out of the parkway, recently had Slobe's emails blocked by the county's IT staff. He said he regretted doing it but felt Slobe's incessant harangues about the county's failures were too often personal and offensive.
"It becomes this personal adolescent exchange," Serna said. "I don't have time to engage that. He's not my only constituent."
Serna said the final straw came after he was pricked by a syringe during a recent parkway cleanup event, leaving him fearful he might have been exposed to HIV or hepatitis. Soon after, Slobe sent out a mass email making light of it: "I heard a funny joke last week," Slobe wrote. "What's worse? Being pricked by a needle or being needled by a prick?"
The homeless camping issue has been a 20-plus year mission for Slobe. He treks frequently through the area once owned by his family, taking pictures and plotting homeless camping sites on maps for his emails. He has given repeated parkway tours to officials and news media, and is upset by what he calls the lack of serious response.
"The county," he says, "is the worst steward on the planet." Some of his harshest blasts are reserved for Sister Libby Fernandez, the nun who oversees the homeless services charity Loaves & Fishes. In a mass October email, he called her a "nut that has advocated bum camping in the Parkway for decades" and displays photos of homeless criminals in her office "like trophies."
"We, the poor, are unable to use our parkway because of Sister Libby's policies," he told The Bee.
Fernandez said she has not read Slobe's email comments about her. But she countered his criticism with this suggestion: "I know he has influence and land, and I would love to negotiate with him to help me find (an organized homeless camping site) outside the parkway."
A rich history
Slobe's tirades against the homeless and his displeasure over the deterioration of Del Paso Boulevard suggest a man with a strong sense of turf.
Slobe became president of the family's North Sacramento Land Co. in 2009 when his mother retired. (His father, a Rotary Club district governor, died when Slobe was in high school.) Slobe said the company mainly manages properties and collects rents.
These days, the company headquarters on Slobe Avenue looks as much like a museum as it does a workplace. Slobe, its curator, takes delight in guiding visitors through cedar-paneled rooms with displays of old photos, newspaper clippings and other artifacts from the city of North Sacramento, including original subdivision maps, now yellow and mottled.
A locked vault holds the packet of 1910 stock certificates that launched the family company. Slobe fingers through them lovingly, reading stockholder names. On the shelf are table settings his mom lent for a historic dinner in a railcar where she and others successfully pitched Gov. Ronald Reagan on the idea of building a California Railroad Museum. A teenage Bob Slobe served as waiter that night.
Nearby, a room Slobe calls the "accolades" room is filled with the plaques his family has been given for its philanthropy.
Slobe's tour isn't complete, though, without a stop, and some choice words, in front of a political poster showing a big fish swallowing a small one, and the words: VOTE NO.
It's the still-resounding shout from the day the Slobe family of North Sacramento lost its biggest turf battle, the annexation fight over the little city they founded.