Former Packard Plant owner, who fought city for property, dead at 61

George Hunter
The Detroit News
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Detroit — Dominic Cristini crouched behind a large oak conference table in his office, gripping a semiautomatic rifle, an array of pistols and long guns on the floor nearby, while outside the locked door, dozens of police officers were gathered.

"The cops want to take me out," Mr. Cristini told a Detroit News reporter who was present as he huddled in his office in the Packard Plant on Detroit's east side. "If they come busting in here, I'm taking some of them out with me."


Detroit police never entered Mr. Cristini's office after storming the property on Nov. 20, 1998, but the raid kicked off a nearly two-decade fight over the decaying, 3.5-million-square-foot plant on Detroit's east side.

Mr. Cristini died of cancer on Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. He was 61.

"His wish was to restore that plant, and at first he was gung-ho about fighting the city for ownership," longtime friend James Vinas said. "The city pulled so many dirty tricks, and he fought for 18 years, and won — but in the end, what did he win? The plant ended up looking like Beirut."

The 42-acre property is owned by Peruvian businessman Fernando Palazuelo, who has spent millions of dollars clearing more than 17,000 yards of debris. He has said he plans to convert part of the complex into commercial use.

Palazuelo bought the site out of foreclosure for $405,000 in 2013, ending years of legal disputes over the plant that began the night Mr. Cristini holed up in his office following the police raid, which included top commanders and then-Detroit police chief Benny Napoleon.

Although the officers, who did not have a search warrant, never entered Mr. Cristini's office as he feared, a team of cops stayed in the guard shack outside overnight — and four-person Gang Squad units remained there on 24-hour guard duty for eight months. 

At the time, police and city officials said the Detroit Planning Department asked officers to guard the plant because of an unspecified threat. Napoleon told The News last year he did not recall what threats necessitated a months-long, 24-hour police presence.

After the raid, as officers gathered near the plant's entrance, Mr. Cristini allowed a News reporter into his office and said he feared police were planning to kill him and steal his property.

The next day, city workers erected a 12-foot fence around Mr. Cristini's office, but did not explain why.

The fight over the plant continued for years, with Mr. Cristini and the city each claiming ownership, until the Michigan Supreme Court in 2007 denied the city of Detroit's appeal of a lower court's decision that put the property back in his hands.

By that time, Mr. Cristini was in federal prison for selling the drug ecstasy, and couldn't pay the back taxes, so Wayne County foreclosed on the property.

"I went through hell and back trying to prove I was the owner," Mr. Cristini told The News last year. "I put on a hell of a fight and won. But really, what did I win? I lost a ton of money fighting the city."

Mr. Cristini claimed he started selling drugs because he'd lost so much money trying to keep the plant. "I own up to it," he said last year. "I'm not going to cry about it; I got caught and did my time."

Mr. Cristini served four years in prison on the drug charge. He was released in 2011. 

"The fight for the Packard Plant took a lot out of him," Vinas said. "He lost a lot of money trying to keep it."

However, last year, Mr. Cristini told The News he thought it was worth the fight.

"The city thought I was someone they could push around," he said. "I lost nearly everything, but I'm pretty proud that I gave the city way more than they ever bargained for."

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

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