Armed Tribal Factions Square off Inside Their Casino

Monday, October 13, 2014

A federal judge abruptly shut down the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold, east of Merced and “near the majestic splendor of Yosemite National Park,” the day after  armed rival tribal factions squared off inside during business hours.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill issued an emergency order temporarily closing the place and indicated the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians may have violated its compact with the state by endangering the health or safety of their gambling clientele.

The judge was reacting to a federal lawsuit filed by the California Attorney General’s office seeking a restraining order that would forbid any of the factions vying for power to “use force to change the circumstances currently in effect with respect to the operation of or control over the casino,” according to the Courthouse News Service’s reading of the complaint. In other words, there should be no attempt to repossess the casino.

The judge ordered that tribal police or other armed guards (presumably not including official security personnel) to stay at least 1,000 feet from the casino and nearby tribal properties. 

Tribal members have been battling since the casino opened in 2003. Hundreds of members have been stripped of their tribal affiliation and have shrunk from an estimated 1,800 to 900. That’s a lot fewer people to share in the considerable profits generated by the casino, the hotel, some restaurants and shops.

Disenrollment of members has been at the heart of other tribal disputes. Along with a share of proceeds, disenrolled individuals lose education, medical and tax benefits that come with tribal affiliation. 

Four factions with four different views of who is a true Picayune Rancheria Chukchansi have been going at it for a decade. In 2011, the tribal council changed the rules for disenrolling a member from a supermajority to majority. In February 2012, people who opposed that change won control of the council on Election Day. But the incumbents invalidated the results on a technicality.

Both sides formed their own tribal councils and appealed to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for recognition. The feds told them to work it out among themselves.

They did that by attacking each other physically. The faction that did not have physical possession of the casino gathered across the street in protest on February 27, before cutting off power to the building. They tossed bottles through windows and one person heaved a flaming log.

The sheriff watched and waited. The next day 20 people clashed in the street. One man was stabbed in the stomach, a security guard got hit in the head and more than 100 deputies swarmed the area, according to the New York Times.   

Last Thursday night, they were at it again. Around 10 armed members of the Tex McDonald tribal council took over the Chukchansi gaming commission office in the casino complex, controlled for the past month by the Reggie Lewis/Nancy Ayala faction. The McDonald faction said they were looking for, but did not find, critical audits of the gaming operation.

In the process, a few security guards and on McDonald member were said to be hit by stun guns. Around 7:45 p.m., security guards shut down the casino and told around 500 customers to leave. The workers left and the next morning, someone shut off power to the building.

Judge O’Neill scheduled a hearing for Wednesday to review his temporary order.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

State Gets Court Order to Temporarily Shut Down Chukchansi Gold Casino (by Marc Benjamin, Fresno Bee)

Calif. Steps in to Stop War over Tribal Casino (by Elizabeth Warmerdam, Courthouse News Service)

Federal Judge Orders California Casino Shut Down (by Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times)

Sheriff: Tribal Infighting Leads to Abrupt Chukchansi Casino Closure (by Marc Benjamin, Rory Appleton and Jim Guy, Fresno Bee)

Power Struggle over Indian Tribe Splinters Into Violence in California (by Ian Lovett, New York Times)

Chukchansi Dispute Reviewed (by Jacob Rayburn, The Collegian at California State University, Fresno)

Attorney General Sues to Halt Armed Inter-Tribal Warfare over Northern California Casino (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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