On a ditch bank south of Fresno stands a white cross, marking the December 2015 deaths of Matthew Cuellar, 26, and his 24-year-old wife, Sharnae Cuellar.
A week before Christmas, the Cuellars were killed in a head-on collision with a suspected drunken driver that left their three daughters, ages 6, 4 and 2, as orphans.
The children have recovered from their injuries, but they now are innocent victims of a custody battle that pits their relatives in Visalia against relatives in the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians in Placerville.
The case in U.S. District Court in Sacramento is being watched closely because a federal judge has ruled that Visalia residents Efrim and Talisha Renteria, who are Sharnae Cuellar’s uncle and aunt, should have temporary custody of the three children.
The Shingle Springs tribe is crying foul.
“This challenge of Tribal Court authority is a significant national issue for the country’s tribal courts,” said Nicholas Fonseca, chairman of the Shingle Springs tribe.
At issue is the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, known as ICWA, which gives tribal governments a strong voice in custody proceedings that involve American Indian children. The act was enacted in 1978 because American Indian children were being removed from their traditional homes at a high rate and placed in non-Indian homes, thus preventing them from knowing their culture.
In court papers, Shingle Springs contends it has custody rights to the children because Matthew Cuellar was a member of the tribe and therefore his three children are members. Shingle Springs wants Matthew Cuellar’s aunt, Regina Cuellar, to get custody of the children.
“Tribes have a unique legal and political status as sovereign nations within the United States, as provided by the U.S. Constitution, treaties, court decisions and federal law,” Fonseca said. Therefore, “Tribal Court decisions dealing with Indian children must be honored off the reservation in full faith and credit.”
While the public interest may favor the placement of tribal member minors with tribal member guardians, it favors the prevention of child sexual abuse even more strongly.
Judge Morrison C. England of U.S. District Court in Sacramento
But in his Sept. 2 ruling, Judge Morrison C. England Jr. said the Cuellar children never have lived on tribal land and the Renterias have cared for the children since their parents were killed. The judge also noted that before the Cuellars were killed, their children had little contact with Matthew Cuellar’s side of the family “and almost no contact with the tribe.”
England also had concerns about the tribe’s Tribal Court granting custody to Cuellar after the Renterias contended they didn’t get a fair hearing in front of Tribal Court Chief Judge Christine Williams. In his ruling, England noted that Williams serves at the pleasure of the Tribal Council, and Regina Cuellar is on the council.
What apparently swayed England was that two of Cuellars’ children have told authorities they were sexually abused by one of Regina Cuellar’s relatives during a custody visit.
“While the public interest may favor the placement of tribal-member minors with tribal-member guardians, it favors the prevention of child sexual abuse even more strongly,” England’s ruling says.
Regina Cuellar has asked England to reconsider his decision. A hearing on her motion is set for Thursday, Nov. 3.
The Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians is a federally recognized tribe located in El Dorado County. The Shingle Springs Rancheria is just off Highway 50 and the tribe owns the Red Hawk Casino in Placerville.
The tribe’s website outlines a rich history about its members, who are descendants of the Miwok and Southern Maidu “Nisenan” Indians who thrived in California’s fertile Central Valley for thousands of years before contact with Europeans. The history includes the Indians being devastated by violence during the California Gold Rush in 1849, forcing them to lose their native lands and scatter.
After regrouping around 1916, the Shingle Springs tribe finally gained federal recognition in the 1970s. Since then, the tribe “has sought to honor and protect its territory and cultural heritage to benefit future generations,” the website says.
The Shingles Springs tribe contends England’s ruling is an attack on the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which gives tribal governments a strong voice when it comes to custody proceedings that involve American Indian children
AmyAnn Taylor, attorney general for Shingle Springs, said the tribe’s history serves as an important backdrop to the custody dispute being played out in England’s courtroom. “These are our children. They have a right to know their culture,” she said.
But the Renterias said it would be traumatic to yank the three girls out of the only home they have ever known.
In making their argument, Matthew Cuellar didn’t grow up on the reservation. He was born and raised in Visalia, and he and Sharnae were high school sweethearts, said Efrim Renteria, whose sister, Susanna Renteria, is Sharnae’s mother.
Efrim and Talisha Renteria, both 32, also grew up in Visalia and lived near Matthew and Sharnae Cuellar and their three children. “We lived so close that we saw them almost every day,” Talisha Renteria said.
The Renterias, who have been married nearly eight years and own a used furniture store, said they and the Cuellars shared a love of family and of God. Until the fatal collision, the Renterias said they seldom saw or heard from Matthew Cuellar’s family. “They were never in the picture when it came to family gatherings,” Efrim Renteria said.
In late 2008, the Cuellars moved up north, Efrim Renteria said, because Matthew Cuellar wanted to connect with his family on the reservation. The Cuellars’ first child was born in February 2010. Their second child was born in May 2012.
In November 2013, Matthew Cuellar had second thoughts about his relationship with Sharnae, and dropped her and the children off in Visalia, Efrim Renteria said. But he quickly changed his mind once the couple’s third child was born in December 2013. The Cuellars got married at the Fortress of Truth church in Visalia in March 2014, the Renterias said.
All was going well for the Cuellars, especially financially. Because he was part of the Shingle Springs tribe, Matthew Cuellar received about $3,000 a month from the tribe, Efrim Renteria said. He also had a job with Harris Ranch Beef Co. in Selma.
Their lives changed on Dec. 17, when Sharnae Cuellar packed the kids in the car and went to pick up her husband, who had just finished his work shift. On the way home, the Cuellars’ Honda Civic collided head-on with a 2002 Chevrolet near Clarkson and Bethel avenues near Kingsburg around 5:20 p.m., the California Highway Patrol reported.
Matthew and Sharnae were killed; their oldest daughter suffered a serious head injury and was taken by helicopter to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. Their other two children suffered minor injuries.
The driver of the Chevrolet, Randall A. Corcoran, suffered a broken leg. He was arrested this month and charged with two counts of murder, court records say.
On Thursday, the Renterias looked back on that fateful day.
“It was just horrible,” Efirm Renteria said. “They were so young. But I knew right then that we would take care of their children. That’s what they wanted. They wanted to keep the family together.”
The Renterias’ intention is to adopt the girls.
But Taylor said the tribe’s goal is to gain custody of the children. “We want them to know their culture. We want what’s best for them,” she said.
Sexual abuse raised
Soon after the fatal collision, the Renterias, who have no children of their own, began caring for the Cuellar children. Two girls came home with them; the oldest remained in the hospital.
Then, without their knowledge, Matthew Cuellar’s mother, Stephanie Cuellar, got an emergency order from Shingle Springs Tribal Court to take custody of the girls. On Jan. 5, Stephanie Cuellar went to the Renterias’ home, gave the couple the order, and “forcibly removed the two youngest minors,” England’s ruling said. Later that month, the oldest Cuellar girl was released from the hospital and began living with Stephanie Cuellar and her family.
In accordance with the rules, Williams, the tribal court judge, held a review hearing on Jan. 22 and found Stephanie Cuellar unfit to be the girls’ guardian. She then gave temporary custody of the girls to the Renterias, saying it was in the children’s best interest. Williams also established a visitation schedule for Matthew Cuellar’s family on the reservation.
The visits to the reservations didn’t go well because “the two older children repeatedly reported that (a relative of Stephanie and Regina Cuellar) sexually abused them during their visits,” England’s ruling said.
The Renterias reported the allegation to the Visalia Police Department and Tulare County’s Child Protective Services. The two girls were interviewed three times outside the Renterias’ presence “by social workers with no connection to the family,” the ruling says.
After the reports were made, Williams modified the visits so the relative who allegedly abused the girls would not have access to them.
In all of my years of practice, this is the first time I felt like the fix was in.
Fresno attorney Charles Manock
After several months, however, Williams appointed Regina Cuellar as the minors’ permanent guardian, over the Renterias’ objections. The Renterias were ordered to turn over the girls by June 12. They were worried, they said, because Williams’ order failed to restrict the suspected relative from seeing their nieces.
On June 4, the girls went to see Regina Cuellar, which “resulted in yet another instance of alleged sexual abuse,” England’s ruling says.
Before the June 12 deadline, the Renterias filed a report with the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office that allowed them to keep the girls. They then filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court in Sacramento to prevent Williams’ order that gave guardianship to Regina Cuellar from being enforced outside tribal lands.
At a hearing on Aug. 31, lawyers for the tribe and Regina Cuellar told England that because the Shingle Springs tribe is a sovereign nation, the judge has no jurisdiction over tribal affairs. England agreed that he didn’t have jurisdiction over the tribe, which the judge dismissed from the Renterias’ civil complaint. But England said he did have jurisdiction over Regina Cuellar.
In making his ruling, England sided with the Renterias, saying if Williams’ order was enforced, it would re-expose the minors to their alleged abuser. “The sexual exploitation of children is not only morally repugnant, but results in long-standing and serious harm for the rest of their lives,” the ruling says.
The Renterias also have cared for the girls and “served as their guardians for an extended period of time, and they have a close familial relationship,” the ruling says.
Therefore, Williams’ order is not enforceable outside tribal lands, England ruled.
Taylor, the tribe’s top lawyer, said England’s ruling was “a direct attack” on the Indian Child Welfare Act and was built on speculation since the child abuse allegations were unfounded and no evidence of it was presented in court. “It’s unfortunate that he made this ruling,” she said.
Battle in court
Family and friends of the Renterias have set up a website called Tribalpredator.com that gives details about their legal fight.
Fresno attorney Charles Manock, who represents the Renterias, said there shouldn’t be an issue because Regina Cuellar is unfit to be a guardian. He said the Renterias have no criminal record, but court records reveal Regina Cuellar associates with criminals, and her husband has a criminal record.
In December 2008, Regina Cuellar was arrested during a traffic stop on Highway 99 near Merced. She was in a car with Joseph Florez, a Norteño gang member who was wanted for the killings of Tommy Madrid Jr., 33, and Lisa Bourget, 27, both of Visalia.
Visalia police and the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department had been tracking Florez after receiving information that he was staying in Shingle Springs to avoid arrest. About seven pounds of marijuana and seven ounces of hashish were found in the vehicle Florez was driving.
In March 2011, Florez was found guilty of the double murder. Court records say Regina Cuellar never was charged.
In 2005, Regina Cuellar filed for a restraining order against her husband, Richard Vasquez, court records show. In her petition, Cuellar says that her husband came into her home “and pushed me against the wall and started choking me” while she held her son. In the petition, Cuellar also said Vasquez has “threatened to kill me and my kids,” several times.
Vasquez, however, said in his response to the petition that he is the victim, alleging that Cuellar “shoves me, spits on me and calls me every name in the book.”
Manock said, to the best of his knowledge, Cuellar still lives with Vasquez. Regina Cuellar and Vasquez could not be reached for comment.
In the Renterias’ corner are Matthew’s father, Johnny Porras, and Sharnae’s mother, Susanna Renteria.
Porras said Matthew and Sharnae Cuellar made it clear to him in November 2013 that if anything happened to them, they wanted the Renterias to raise their children. He also said it would be a bad idea to let the children live with Stephanie or Regina Cuellar and their families.
Susanna Renteria said in a court declaration: “Matthew and Sharnae on several occasions stated in my presence that if anything should happen to them they would want my brother, Efrim, and his wife, Talisha, to raise their three children.”
We want them to know their culture. We want what’s best for them.
AmyAnn Taylor, attorney general for the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians
But the Shingle Springs tribe sees it differently.
Taylor said Regina Cuellar has no criminal record and the tribe’s social workers have found her fit to be the children’s guardian.
Taylor said she hopes England reconsiders his decision on the tribe’s behalf, saying the tribal order that gave guardianship to Regina Cuellar was built on solid evidence and legal authority. She noted that Williams, a member of the Yurok Nation, earned her law degree from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
“Judge Williams is no stranger to ICWA and has distinguished herself in juvenile and family law,” Fonseca, the tribal chairman, said in a news release.
Manock, however, questioned Williams’ decision.
“In all of my years of practice, this is the first time I felt like the fix was in,” said Manock, who has been practicing since 1992.
Because the Renterias fear the tribe will try to enforce Williams’ order and take the children from them, they have recently moved and are on high alert when they go to the store or take the older child to school. They also have filed for custody of the children in the Tulare County courts. But the county courts are waiting for England’s ruling on the motion for reconsideration.
“It’s been tough,” Talisha Renteria said of the legal fight. “We haven’t been sleeping well.”
But they said they have put their time to good use: They recently received results from a DNA laboratory. Talisha said she is 9 percent Apache, and Efrim said he is 4 percent Blackfoot and 7 percent Taino, a subgroup of the Arawakan Indians, who lived in northeastern South America at the time when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World.
“We have American Indian blood, too,” Efrim Renteria said. “So why are they doing this to our children.”