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15 Charged in Armed Takeover of Central California Casino

Nov 04, 2014 - by Monica Erdei
Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino will remain closed until the tribal dispute is over

Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino will remain closed until the tribal dispute is over

Reports say the incident was at the center of a power struggle between factions of a Native American tribe.

Prosecutors have filed charges against 15 people involved in the armed takeover and one of the defendants was arrested by Madera County authorities. Eric Domingo Flores Suniga, 30, was charged with five counts of assault with a stun gun. The other defendants were accused of kidnapping, false imprisonment and assault with a firearm.

According to online gambling news, it all started from a dispute between two rival tribe factions. They fought over who gets control over the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino, located northeast of Fresno.

After one tribal group attempted a takeover last month, authorities decided to close the gambling venue. Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz gave the suspects two options, to either surrender or be arrested, but lawyer David Leibowitz said his clients did nothing illegal and did not endanger the lives of any casino customers.

Associated Press: 15 Charged in Armed Takeover that Closed Casino

Prosecutors have charged 15 people in an armed dispute between two rival factions of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, who fought to get control over the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino.

More than a dozen people stormed the venue last month, in an armed takeover that sent hundreds of gamblers running for their lives, while their chips were still on the table. Luckily, no one was hurt.

After another suspect was arrested last week, the group’s leader, 64-year-old Tex McDonald, surrendered to the Madera County Sheriff’s Office on Monday. The court set his bail at $1 million.

According to Sheriff John Anderson, three other suspects did the same, but deputies are still looking for the other 10 people charged with kidnapping, assault with a firearm and false imprisonment.

Following a federal court order and the approval of the National Indian Gaming Commission, the casino was shut down and will remain closed until the dispute is settled. The gambling business was an important source of revenue for members of the tribe. It also employed around 1,100 workers.

Fresno Bee: 15 charged with felonies in Chukchansi Gold casino armed confrontation

Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz announced that 15 people involved in the armed confrontation at the Chukchansi Casino on October 9 have been charged with multiple felonies. Led by Tex McDonald, a faction of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians used firearms to take over the gambling venue from a rival faction overseen by Reggie Lewis and Nancy Ayala.

McDonald, his fellow tribal council member Vernon King and his tribal police chief John Olivera were among those charged with felonies including kidnapping, assault with a firearm, false imprisonment, assault with a deadly weapon, battery inflicting serious injury and assault with a stun gun.

Bail for the group leader was set at $1 million, 13 will have to come up with $800,000 apiece if they want to make bail, and Eric Domingo Flores Suniga was charged with assault with a stun gun, so his was set at just $25,000. In 1992 and 1995, McDonald was taken in for assault with a deadly weapon and making criminal threats.

The two tribal groups have been fighting over the casino for a while now. For most of 2014, the venue was controlled by McDonald and his men, but on August 24 the Lewis group entered the hotel and set up offices on the 10th and 11th floors. Their rivals forced an armed takeover on October 9.

During a hearing in U.S. District Court in Fresno on Wednesday, Judge Lawrence O’Neill referred to a declaration filed by the state Attorney General indicating that at least one member of the Lewis-Ayala security forces was armed with a gun. Other guns were found on the casino grounds, too, in the possession of the Lewis-Ayala faction’s security forces, the declaration said.

According to Madera County district attorney Michael Keitz, if convicted of all charges, the accused could face a “significant amount” of time in prison.

David Leibowitz, a spokesman for the McDonald faction, said: “We fully intend to work cooperatively with the District Attorney’s Office to bring this matter to a quick conclusion and to clear these trained professionals’ and leaders’ names, just as we will continue to pursue justice for the Chukchansi people in the eyes of the law.”

AllGov: Armed Tribal Factions Square off Inside Their Casino

The Chukchansi Gold Resort Casino in Coarsegold was shut down by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill, following an armed dispute between rival factions of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians.

The judge issued an emergency order temporarily closing the place and said that the tribe may have violated its agreement with the state by endangering the health and safety of customers at the casino. He wanted to stop both factions from using force “to change the circumstances currently in effect with respect to the operation of or control over the casino.”

Tribal police and other security personnel have to stay at least 1,000 feet from the gambling venue.

Ever since the casino opened in 2003, tribe members have been arguing and battling. The tribe shrunk from 1,800 to 900 as hundreds have been stripped of their tribal affiliation. Along with their share of casino profits, disenrolled members lose education privileges, as well as health and tax benefits.

Two sides were formed and they both have their own council. After appealing to the US Bureau of Indian Affairs for recognition and being told to work it out themselves, they started to attack each other.

The temporary order issued by Judge O’Neill will be reviewed soon.

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