Judge Moves Forward on Trial Against Casino Raiders

The 15 law enforcement and military professionals who took part in an armed raid on the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold, California on October 9 will stand trial, a state judge ruled last week. They are not protected by tribal immunity said the judge.

A state judge last week declined to dismiss charges against 15 people who are accused of leading an armed raid into the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold, California last October. Defendants entered pleas of not guilty.

The raid, which was led by Tex McDonald, leader of one of the factions that was then vying to run the tribe, included tribal police officers and security personnel. They were after financial records that they said were needed to give to federal authorities to keep the casino open. They also wanted to seize control from a rival group, the Lewis-Ayala faction.

The 15 have been charged with kidnapping of some casino personnel they encountered during the incursion and assault with a deadly weapon. During the raid they handcuffed and detained members of the rival group.

Several days later the Madera County Sheriff made arrests in the incident.

Defense attorney Patrick Hanly commented, “Our defense was that as tribal police, they’re immune from prosecution because they were just conducting standard police presence, the arrest and detention of individuals committing crime in their presence.”

Judge Dale Blea disagreed. “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.”

He said that part of his decision to hold the case over is the possibility that the McDonald faction used excessive force. “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 the judge. “Equally clear is the role that peace officers may be prosecuted when they effect arrests by the use of unreasonable force.”

The casino remains closed, ordered shut by a federal judge and the National Indian Gaming Commission.

McDonald’s faction contends that the Sheriff acted improperly in making the arrests and acted outside of his legal authority. Last week Judge Dale Blea ruled that the Sheriff had a legal obligation to enforce state criminal law on tribal land, even if some of those participating in the raid were legal tribal officers carrying out their duties.

Judge Blea added, “The potential for escalation of violence absent state intervention is obvious.”

Participants will return to court this week to schedule three weeks of preliminary hearings that will probably be held this summer.

Thirteen of the 15 defendants last week filed claims in civil court against Madera County, claiming they were improperly arrested and jailed. The County Board of Supervisors must hear the claims and either reject or accept them. If rejected, the claims will go to civil court.

The claims are the first steps towards filing a potential multi-million dollar civil rights lawsuit against the county. Much of what the armed group did that night is captured on a surveillance video. They hope this will show that they acted as police officers. They also claim that they told their plans ahead of time to Michael Keitz, who was then county district attorney—and that he did not try to dissuade them. Keitz is one of those named in the complaint.

Each claimant seeks more than $1 million in lost wages, emotional distress and loss of reputation.

Meanwhile the acting tribal council voted to lay off its gaming commission because there is currently no gaming to regulate. Commissioners dispute the action, saying that their contract with the tribe keeps them in office until two months after the next tribal election, which is supposed to be held in May.

The commission was not exactly doing nothing. It was continuing to look after about $400,000 in cash and gaming chips worth nearly $6 million.

The “unification” tribal council, headed by acting Chairman Reggie Lewis, says that it is working with the federal government to reopen the casino.