An Orchard Park gym owner whose defiance of Covid-19 restrictions has earned him national attention has been accused of responding to a customer requesting a refund with a racist, profanity-laced attack.
Robert Dinero, owner of Athletes Unleashed, in July told the woman he would refund the $395 she was owed but not before calling her a "filthy, foreign, Third-World country piece of (expletive)" in his reply, which was punctuated with two other curse words.
The copy of the email obtained by The Buffalo News redacts the recipient's name, and she declined an interview request through an acquaintance, Sibu Nair. But she reached out to Nair, an active member of Amherst's Indian American community, after seeing the attention Dinero was receiving.
"This was horrible," Nair told The News.
Dinero, who Saturday evening returned a call from The News, said he is confident he did nothing wrong, though he declined an opportunity to directly refute the claim of racism.
In a brief phone interview, he accused The News of not wanting to know the full truth, and said he wouldn't release the full email exchange with the customer unless a News reporter met him at his gym.
"This is completely out of context, and she is being disingenuous," Dinero said. "Any of these accusations is disingenuous."
Dinero drew widespread notice after hosting a protest against Covid-19 business restrictions on Nov. 20 inside his California Road gym, where participants accused Erie County health inspectors of trespassing. A video of the raucous scene went viral, drawing the attention of Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News.
At least one supporter has condemned the offensive language Dinero used in the email after it came to light last week.
"Just learned of disgusting, vile and racist statements made by the owner of the gym in OP," County Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo tweeted Wednesday. "I wholeheartedly condemn the statements and behavior. My stance was solely on the fee — that it was excessive and retaliatory, and I was seeking justification for its issuance."
But Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr., who launched a GoFundMe page to help raise money toward Dinero's $15,000 fine, said he continues to back Dinero in his fight against rules that Mychajliw contends have devastated small businesses in the area.
"I'm not backing down one bit," Mychajliw said in an email Saturday.
Mychajliw wouldn't specifically address Dinero's remarks beyond saying "any remark believed to be racist is repugnant and abhorrent."
Dinero's Athletes Unleashed is a CrossFit-style gym that also offers personal training in weightlifting, boxing, self defense and other disciplines.
Dinero served as a Marine and his Facebook page features posts thanking veterans for their sacrifices, praising President Trump and touting the benefits of his Primordial Man Project.
This coaching regimen is meant to help men who have grown too soft on "pink socks, pleasant pastel button downs and piloting cars that do the driving for us" recapture their "warrior past," as exemplified by aggressive sports, exploration and empire building.
On Nov. 18, he posted on Facebook urging fellow small-business owners to join him in a protest two days later at his gym, which was required to close under the "orange zone" restrictions put in place in much of Erie County that day.
Video of the Nov. 20 protest shows 40 to 50 business owners and their supporters inside the Athletes Unleashed facility. When a health inspector accompanied by sheriff's deputies arrives, the protesters repeatedly told the county employees they were trespassing and yelled "Get out! Get out!" before the officials left.
The video has 760,000 views on YouTube. After the president's eldest son shared it on Twitter, Dinero was invited onto Fox News.
About two dozen people, without face masks, stood behind him as he tore up the county letter announcing the $15,000 fine on the program.
He received the maximum fine for violating Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive order prohibiting nonessential gatherings of more than 10 people and he was cited for allowing people without masks into the gym.
Dinero, who also organized an outdoor protest on Nov. 23, vowed as recently as Saturday morning that he would not pay the fine.
Dinero's stance caught the attention of Mychajliw, a critic of Cuomo's restrictions intended to limit the spread of the virus and an opponent of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who has urged the public to follow those rules.
Mychajliw urged people to donate to a GoFundMe page set up to raise money for Dinero, who is praised as a "proud patriot" pushing back against "tyrannical Covid shutdowns." The page as of Saturday afternoon has raised $45,552 toward its $100,000 goal.
Nair said the coverage of Dinero's protest, and the GoFundMe fundraising, convinced the woman who received Dinero's email she needed to let people know about it.
The woman had signed up for the Liberty Games, a team-based athletic competition Dinero had planned to hold on March 28 at the Buffalo Bills' ADPRO Sport Training Center, the team's fieldhouse.
Covid-19 forced the cancellation of the event. Four months later, on July 18, the woman emailed Athletes Unleashed to ask about a refund.
That's when Dinero sent back the reply featuring three swear words in two short sentences, according to a copy of the response obtained by The Buffalo News and other news outlets.
Nair said the woman told him that she challenged Dinero on his language. In reply, he said he responded the way he did because he receives voluminous spam email and he thought her email was more of the same.
The woman did get her money back but she is troubled at the level of support Dinero has in the community and she was reluctant to go public.
"She's very scared," Nair said.
Pegula Sports and Entertainment, asked to comment on the organization's relationship with Athletes Unleashed, said this was the third time the gym had rented the team's fieldhouse for an event. The 2020 version was canceled, refunded and there are no plans to reschedule it, PSE spokesman Don Heins said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated 2020 was the first time Athletes Unleashed held its Liberty Games at the Bills field house, based on information provided by a PSE spokesman. PSE on Wednesday said this was the third such time but the 2018 and 2019 events did not come up during a check of the company’s computer system on Saturday because they were filed under the name CrossFit, not Liberty Games.