Business & Real Estate

Tribal dispute prompts judge to temporarily ban firearms at Rolling Hills Casino

Citing a potential threat to public safety, a federal judge has imposed a temporary restraining order on the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians prohibiting warring factions from deploying armed guards or bringing firearms within 100 yards of the tribe’s Rolling Hills Casino in Corning.

The judge also extended the weapons ban to tribal properties around the casino, including nearby hotels, a gas station and RV park.

But U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller stopped short of closing the $100 million-a-year casino, as one faction had requested, until the battle over who controls the tribe and its resources is resolved. A mediation between the two sides has been scheduled for Friday under the supervision of Troy Burdick, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Central California superintendent.

The Tehama County dispute has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster – a missing private jet and gold bars, a cyberattack that shut down some gambling machines, a former FBI agent and tribal treasurer who are accused of embezzling millions of dollars, blood relatives trying to kick each other out of the tribe and alleged death threats and guns for hire armed with semi-automatic weapons on both sides.

“The intra-tribal dispute involves armed factions and has taxed the resources of the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office, and thus poses a threat to the public health, safety and welfare,” Mueller said in her ruling late Wednesday. The restraining order “preserving the status quo and avoiding injury to the people of the state” will remain in effect until 6 p.m. July 2, Mueller said. A June 30 court hearing is scheduled on the issue of whether the casino should shut down in the interests of public safety, Mueller said.

Under Paskenta’s 1999 gambling compact, or treaty, with the state, “the Tribe agreed to ensure the physical safety of Gaming Operation patrons and employees, and any other person while in the Gaming Facility,” Mueller said. Court documents indicate each side had about 50 armed security guards, and that the faction trying to regain control of the casino considered a helicopter assault on the facility.

Deputy Attorney General William P. Torngren, who filed the state’s request for the restraining order, praised Mueller’s decision: “We believe the judge is absolutely correct in taking action to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare.”

Law enforcement officials feared the dispute would escalate into another Cedarville incident. In February, Cherie Lash Rhoads, the former chairwoman of the 35-member Cedarville Rancheria in Modoc County, allegedly pulled a gun at a tribal meeting to discuss her suspension and eviction on embezzlement charges and fatally shot her brother, tribal chairman Rurik “Two Bears” Davis, and three others. Rhoads, who pleaded not guilty, is being held without bail until trial.

Tribal suspensions – and who qualifies for membership and the $54,000 a year in casino payments, trust funds and scholarships for their kids – is at the core of the Paskenta dispute. Chairman Andy Freeman suspended three Tribal Council members – Treasurer Leslie Lohse, Vice Chairman David Swearinger and Geraldine Freeman – along with about 40 others, including Tribal Economic Development Director John Crosby, a former FBI agent.

Andy Freeman produced canceled checks to support his allegation that Crosby misappropriated $1.4 million from tribal accounts to pay for his house, swimming pool, basketball court and remodeling work, along with several cars and $209,000 worth of gold.

Crosby and Lohse, who also has been accused of embezzling money and misusing the tribe’s jet, produced employment contracts indicating they were each granted $5 million lines of credit “to either be paid, forgiven or extended” after 2020 if they negotiated a new gambling compact with the state. Both said they’ve acted in the tribe’s best interests, but at a special tribal council meeting May 10, tribal members voted 110-5 to reaffirm the removals and suspension, Andy Freeman said.

On June 9, the BIA’s Burdick issued an “administrative cease and desist order” saying the new tribal leadership violated federal law by taking control of the casino just off Interstate 5. Burdick said the BIA will continue to recognize the old Tribal Council of Andy Freeman, Swearinger, Lohse, Geraldine Freeman and at-large member Allen Swearinger “until the internal dispute can be resolved by the tribe.”

Mueller’s ruling is seen as a victory for the new leadership, which remains in control of the casino. Their attorney, Richard Armstrong, had argued that shutting down the casino would not only hurt the tribe but more than 500 employees as well.

“It effectively will prevent the other faction from creating a hostile environment at the facility. It’s a victory at least in the short-term,” Armstrong said.

But the attorney for the old council, McGregor Scott, said, “We agree action needs to be taken to defuse the situation, but dispute the remedy – the 100-yard buffer zone can’t be adequately enforced. Shutting down the casino will compel a speedy and meaningful mediation.”

U.S. Marshal Albert Najera, whose office is charged with enforcing the restraining order, said both sides have contracted with licensed security firms armed with assault weapons. “What gives me a little bit of hope is that the Tehama County sheriff is heavily involved and has done a good job up to this point and avoided any issues,” Najera said. “We have seen that nationwide, other intra-tribal problems can get pretty ugly.”

But in his declaration in support of the restraining order, Tehama County Sheriff-Coroner Dave Hencratt detailed a June 9 “armed confrontation” between rival security forces and said the weeklong standoff that ensued required more than half of his department’s sworn officers. As a result, deputies “have been forced to cease actively working ongoing investigations, including a homicide ... (and) daily patrol shifts have not been fully staffed.”

Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston said in a court declaration that he saw at least four people employed by the new council’s security firm, Zak’s Security, show up on June 9 “with assault-type weapons, multi-round magazines and dressed in a manner to conceal their identity. Such dress included military-type, dark clothing and masks ... the assault-type weapons I could best describe as AR-15 assault rifles,” he stated.

They faced off with self-identified “tribal police” who showed up at the casino, Johnston said. Both sides “told me they would resort to any measure to defend or to take over the casino.”

On June 11, Chairman Freeman issued an executive order prohibiting all firearms on tribal lands until further notice. The deposed vice chairman, David Swearinger, said Mueller’s ruling “cleared the decks for mediation and she made it clear the clock is ticking, given that the (temporary restraining order) is set to expire in two weeks. ... It will become abundantly clear whether everyone is really interested in resolving this dispute, or whether mediation talk is simply a stall tactic.”

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