JOHNSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Feisty and colorful Louis Vinagro, who dipped his toes into the political arena a couple of times and battled environmental agencies during a long business career that included hog farming and trash hauling ventures, died Friday morning, according to his family. He was 66 years old.
His niece Lisa Vinagro Leonard fielded more than 50 condolences on her Facebook page by early afternoon.
“He had the biggest heart. He cared for people,” she said. “”We’re really going to miss him. It doesn’t seem real. He really was bigger than life.”
Vinagro died at his home in Fountain Hills, Arizona after a long illness, and during his final months, his niece said he was visited by several friends and even a few people who might’ve been considered “enemies.”
“He said, ‘I was probably the first person to have a wake before I died,'” Vinagro Leonard said.
“If he believed in something, he fought for it.”
A range of legal and political concerns over the past three decades put Vinagro’s face on television and sprinkled his name into headlines, making the Johnston native a well-known personality throughout the state at various times.
Vinagro spent about $8,000 on an unsuccessful 2016 run for the State Senate District 25 seat.
He also ran for mayor of Johnston in as an independent write-in candidate, picking up nearly 3,000 votes in 2000, in a loss to the incumbent, the late William Macera.
As the often prickly race was bubbling with pointed back-and-forth comments, Johnston police pulled over Macera and a campaign aide, who was charged with driving while using marijuana.
Around the same time, Vinagro had been charged with threatening a Department of Environmental Management (DEM) official who was trying to inspect his land.
Those developments prompted the headline ‘Mayor’s race featured ‘pothead’, pig farmer,’ in an Associated Press article that ran in the San Diego Union.
Vinagro told Eyewitness News a number of times over the years he didn’t really like politics.
Vinagro Brothers Disposal Company was started in the 1970’s by Vinagro and his brother Joseph.
More recently, Vinagro opened what he called “a green energy company.”
According to its website, Agro Energy Solutions provides construction or retrofitting of waste-to-energy plants.
In a company video, Vinagro calls himself an “environmental maniac,” saying “I was born on a pig farm…raised in trash, educated in recycling and now, [I’m] a developer of world energy.”
His nearly 50-year business career was also peppered with scrapes with the law and time behind bars.
In 2013, he was charged with malicious injury to property and trespassing for allegedly vandalizing his nephew’s backhoe by piling a haul of old tires on the machine that was valued at about $20,000. The incident was provoked by an ongoing land dispute with his nephew, according to police.
In classic Vinagro fashion, he told police he was returning the tires to his nephew. Court records indicate the charge was dismissed about a month after the squabble.
Vinagro was locked up for 90 days in 2008 for misdemeanor assault and battery after he was caught on video hitting a DEM officer. Vinagro claimed it was self defense, saying the officer came after him first with a flashlight.
About five years earlier, there was said to be an underground fire at Vinagro’s Johnston property that he blamed on composting. Vinagro also clashed with DEM in 1999 following an order to clean up debris at his business.
Vinagro often said the state and DEM had it out for him because he would not sell some of his land to Rhode Island Resource Recovery to expand the landfill.
His many disputes with DEM also provoked a 2002 lawsuit that included some playful wording in a filing by now-retired Judge Ronald R. Lagueux.
“Defendants ask this Court to trash plaintiffs’ amended complaint, while plaintiffs plead for leave to recycle it a second time,” Lagueux wrote.
Lagueux also stated the case was “the latest episode in the contentious relationship” between the Vinagros and DEM that “arises out of a series of inspections or intended inspections of the Vinagros’
property over the course of more than a year.”
Vinagro Leonard summed up her uncle’s persistent style this way.
“If he believed in something, he fought for it,” she said.
Vinagro’s funeral is in the planning stages, with the services expected to take place next week in Rhode Island.