Fourteen members of the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino tribal police force and security team have filed legal claims against Madera County saying they were falsely arrested and jailed for trying to take back a casino gaming office from an opposing faction.
Among those named in the claims are former District Attorney Micheal Keitz, retired Sheriff John Anderson and prosecutor Nicholas Fogg. The claims suggest that county officials are also involved in malicious prosecution and civil rights violations.
The claims say that each man is seeking in excess of $1 million. The members of the security force claim monetary losses from being unable to work, emotional distress and loss of reputation. Many of the men had to pay bail amounts of hundreds of thousands of dollars, with some in excess of $1 million.
The Madera County Board of Supervisors reviewed the claims Tuesday during the closed session of its weekly meeting.
“Because they have the potential to be litigation, we will make the board aware of them,” said Regina Garza, Madera County counsel.
If, or when, supervisors reject the claims, it will allow the men to file civil lawsuits against the county.
Claims were required to be filed by last week, which marked six months since the gaming office raid at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.
Overall, 15 were charged in the case. Only security officer Miguel Ramos did not file a claim. There are provisions in the law that allow him to file a late claim.
Judge Blea rules county acted properly in making arrests
On April 10, Madera County Superior Court Judge Dale Blea would not dismiss criminal charges against the 15 men. Blea said the county acted properly in making the arrests and that none of the defendants had immunity in the casino office raid either as police officers or members of the tribe.
Blea said the county acted properly in making the arrests.
“California has a right and obligation to enforce its criminal laws on tribal lands as it would anywhere else in the state,” he said. “I do not find a distinction between crimes committed on tribal land and crimes committed by rival factions acting against one another.”
Blea said none of the defendants had immunity in the casino office raid, which resulted in charges of kidnapping, assault and other crimes.
“Even if some of the defendants were acting as officers of the legitimate tribal government, they cannot use the doctrine of sovereign immunity as a criminal defense against criminal prosecution for the violation of state laws,” said Blea. “Equally clear is the role that peace officers may be prosecuted when they effect arrests by the use of unreasonable force.”
Blea said that if he had dismissed the criminal cases, that would have sent a message that a tribal faction headed by Tex McDonald, which hired the police force, was the legitimate government and had the right to forcibly evict security employees who were hired by another faction headed by Reggie Lewis and Nancy Ayala.
Such a ruling would be saying that the Lewis-Ayala employees had “no right to be on tribal land, notwithstanding that they were employed by the Lewis-Ayala faction,” Blea said.
“The potential for escalation of violence absent state intervention is obvious,” Blea said.
Anderson said no arrests were made the night of the raid because the sheriff’s office couldn’t figure out what happened.
“We didn’t know who was right or wrong,” Anderson said last week. “We separated them, obtained statements and later were able to make some pretty good cases against the one group.”
Ten of the men were hired as tribal police officers and were being paid by the Tex McDonald faction of the tribe when they raided the casino office on Oct. 9. The takeover took about five minutes. During the raid, the men handcuffed and detained security forces paid by the Reggie Lewis-Nancy Ayala faction, which had control of the casino and hotel. The men were charged with kidnapping, assault with deadly weapons and a variety of other crimes.
McDonald tribal police chief John Oliveira said the office raid only took a few minutes and his forces never stepped foot on the casino floor. His group’s video shows much of the hotel operations continuing normally as his men detained the other security team. It was not until 90 minutes later when the fire alarm was pulled in the hotel basement by those associated with the Lewis-Ayala security team that the casino and hotel was evacuated.
The following day, the NIGC and the state Attorney General’s office shut down the casino because of concerns about the safety of patrons and employees. The casino has been closed since.
Mark Coleman, who represents nine of the men involved in the raid, said the men hired by Oliveira were all in law enforcement or retired from law enforcement or had military backgrounds. Some even train military and law enforcement officers.
“What’s happened to these guys is terrible,” he said. “They are all honorable men who thought they were doing legitimate work.”
The men hired as tribal police officers came from California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Virginia and South Carolina.
Chukchansi functions under federal Public Law 280, which spells out policing guidelines on certain Indian lands. Under its rules, tribe members can only be arrested by tribal police for offenses on tribal lands and nontribe members can be arrested by other law enforcement agencies. They also can be ordered off the property in lieu of arrest.
If the police were acting in good faith and on behalf of the tribe, Hansen said, then it is conceivable that McDonald and King could be viewed in the same light.
“Vernon and Tex might be protected under 280 because they were attempting to act on behalf of the government,” Hansen said. “If the situation is murky enough to where they can’t say Tex, Vernon and the tribal police weren’t representing the tribe, then how do they prosecute? I would think the burden of proof falls on Madera County to prove Tex and Vernon were not the tribal government.”
That is the argument being made by the American Indian Movement, which is working with McDonald’s family to secure his release.
“AIM is supporting the process and we are very much concerned over this because of the way the federal government had not stepped in to prevent this from happening,” said Laura Wass, AIM’s Central California director.
The federal government failed the tribe, she said, by not putting a government in place sooner. Much of what has occurred at Chukchansi relates back to the tribe’s “historic trauma.” She said the federal government created sovereign nations without teaching tribes how to govern. In the meantime, massive disenrollment has been allowed and government upheaval has continued.
“It’s the federal government’s trust responsibility to see that protocols, policies and procedures are adhered to,” Wass said. “It has run amok for so long and destroyed a lot of lives.”
District Attorney David Linn said the actions of police were not the point of Friday’s hearing.
He said the county has “far more pressing issues ... rather than trying to mediate a family dispute,” especially with fire season coming. “I would like to get this resolved and move on,” Linn said. “The people are totally sickened by it.”
But, he said, prosecutors will prepare for the preliminary hearing. The defendants will return to court next Friday to schedule a three-week preliminary hearing that will most likely take place this summer.
Gaming commission laid off
In a separate action, the casino’s gaming commission was recently laid off.
Tribal chairman Reggie Lewis said the council ordered the gaming commission out of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino last week, but commissioners said the contract they agreed to was supposed to keep them there until two months after the next tribal election.
The gaming commission was continuing to safeguard more than $400,000, as well as gaming chips valued at nearly $5.8 million and $120,000 in gift cards at the casino. The commission’s letter also said a bank account with $190,000 was frozen by the tribal council on Feb. 26 and the gaming commission was prohibited from accessing it. The commission also oversaw removal of 276 gaming machines not owned by the casino. The casino still has 1,397 machines on the gaming floor, according to the letter to Lewis from the gaming commission.
In the letter, Dilweg said the gaming commissioners believed the “cease and desist” letters were targeted at all employees, even non-gaming workers who remain employed at the casino. There was no additional documentation sent to commissioners, he said.
The tribal gaming commission has “been provided with no additional documentation, the commissioners have assumed that the cease and desist letters you sent reflect the desire ... to terminate the appointments of the commissioners.”
But Lewis said the gaming commission was the focus of the “cease and desist” notices, not the roughly dozen maintenance people who watch over the wastewater treatment plant and other basic work required at the hotel and casino.
“We don’t have a gaming commission because there isn’t any gaming going on up there and their job was to make sure the casino was following regulations,” Lewis said.
This article is an edited version of four separate stories written by the Fresno Bee’s Marc Benjamin. For complete stories visit fresnobee.com.