MADERA COUNTY – It was a packed courtroom today in Madera County Superior Court as attorneys for 15 defendants presented their arguments in a motion to dismiss all charges against those arrested following an attempted takeover of the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino on Oct. 9, 2014.
Tex McDonald and Vernon King remain behind bars since turning themselves in to authorities in the weeks following the armed incident that shut down the Coarsegold casino, putting over 1,100 people out of work.
“This court has no jurisdiction over who is in charge of the tribe,” argued defense attorneys, who warned that allowing these charges to go forward would be, in effect, making the judgment that Tex McDonald was not a tribal leader with the authority to direct his own police. That issue is being taken up in federal court in Fresno, which is where it belongs, said the defense.
Attorneys argued that the tribe has the right to govern themselves as they see fit, and to have several councils, each with a police force, if they so choose.
Attorney Tom Johnson then charactarized the current legal situation as “putting the cart before the horse,” telling the court that if McDonald’s was a legitimate police force, then they were not acting improperly, and that that determination has not yet been made.
“They were acting in what they thought was a lawful manner,” argued Mark Coleman, who represents nine of the indicted men who served on the McDonald tribal police. “They did everything they could to avoid just this type of situation. They approached the County administrators, went to the Sheriff, the District Attorney, and the BIA to ask for help in retrieving the papers necessary to comply with the audit and keep the casino from being shut down.”
Coleman says the McDonald faction was told, “We can’t help, you are a sovereign nation, and we can’t get involved.”
Coleman told the court that, pursuant to the constitution of the tribe, McDonald had the authority to form a police force. He hired John Oliveira do just that, and a group of qualified individuals was trained and equipped to conduct this operation.
After entering the casino to retrieve the documents and detaining the “non-tribal members,” (the contracted private security company), Coleman says the McDonald group then called Sheriff John Anderson to come and take control of the detainees.
“But Anderson releases them, they re-enter the casino, pull the fire alarm and a melee ensues,” he told the court. “We would not be here if he had just done his job.”
Defense attorneys argued that the McDonald police force was operating under constitutional tribal authority, and as such, can not be charged with kidnapping, assault, or use of excessive force. They also noted that the District Attorney was not even alleging “excessive force,” which D.A David Linn seemed to affirm later when declined to agree with that characterization, and instead called it “inappropriate.”
Johnson said the court should dismiss these charges, let the factions fight their own battle over tribal leadership, and then the D.A. could refile charges at some later date once things have been sorted out.
The judge took the case under submission through a two-hour lunch break, to allow himself time to review case law. When court resumed, the judge denied the Motion to Dismiss, stating that the question as to whether those involved were acting lawfully was up to the “trier of fact,” (being the jury).
“The tribe can choose their own leaders, but can’t settle leadership disputes by means outside the law,” said Judge Dale Blea in his ruling. “This court lacks jurisdiction to determine that Mr. McDonald is not the legitimate tribal leader. However, if the court grants the motion and dismisses the prosecution, it is, by implication finding that the McDonald faction is the legitimate tribal government. I would, therefore, be finding that the personnel hired by the Lewis and Ayala factions, who were arrested and detained by McDonald police force, had no right to be on tribal land.”
The judge then moved on to finding a date for setting the preliminary hearing, which proved challenging with so many attorneys involved.
Also facing charges in the case are John Oliveira, Ronald Jones, David Lee Dixon, Brian Lec Auchenbach, Timothy Tofaute, Shawn Fernandez, Tyrone Mark Twain Bishop, Jim Glasscock, Benjamin James Rhodes, John David Cayanne, David Paul Anderson, and Miguel Ramos.
Each is charged with seven counts of kidnapping, seven counts of false Imprisonment, eight counts of assault with a firearm, one count of assault with a deadly weapon, one count of battery inflicting serious bodily injury, and five counts of assault with a stun gun.
Eric Domingo Flores Suniga is charged with five counts of assault with a stun gun.
Many of the defendants are also charged with various special allegations for possessing and using firearms during the alleged crimes. All of the charges against the defendants are felonies.
Each of the defendants waived their right to a preliminary hearing within the statutory 10 days, except Vernon King. He and Tex McDonald remain jailed as this case grinds its way through the judicial system, though all the other defendants are free on bail. McDonald’s bail is set at $2.45 million, and King’s at $1.5 million. King also declined to waive his right to a continuous preliminary hearing.
District Attorney David Linn says he is anxious to “get this over with one way or another, and anxious to take this burden off the taxpayers of Madera County.”
The judge set a date of Apr. 17 for everyone to return to court and work out a date for the preliminary hearing, which is expected, by some, to last four weeks.