Six lawsuits were filed against Madera County officials over the past month by former Chukchansi tribal police officers who were prosecuted following the Oct. 9, 2014, raid of a casino office that led to the 14-month closure of the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.
Of the 10 officers who were jailed, nine have filed civil lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Fresno naming former District Attorney Michael Keitz, retired Sheriff John Anderson, current District Attorney David Linn, his prosecutor, Nick Fogg, and other members of the Sheriff’s Office.
The suits claim malicious prosecution, arrests without probable cause, false arrests, economic losses, emotional distress and excessive bail. They seek damages, lost wages, bail, attorney and court costs.
27Number of felony counts originally filed against Chukchansi tribal police officers
The nine claim their arrests, just before a contested election for district attorney, were politically motivated, and also say the sheriff’s office improperly carried out the tenets of Public Law 280, which gives tribes the power of criminal-offense jurisdiction within the Coarsegold rancheria’s borders. Public Law 280 allows arrests of non-Indians and detention until local or state law enforcement arrives.
Madera County supervisors rejected the original claims, which lets the plaintiffs file lawsuits.
So far, county lawyers haven’t been advised that county officials and former employees have been served with paperwork about the suits. When that happens, county supervisors will be asked to indemnify workers who were carrying out their jobs, said Scott Cross, Madera County’s deputy counsel.
Initially, the men were charged with 27 felony counts including kidnapping and false imprisonment, which led to them being held in jail on high bails, some in excess of $1 million. As a result, they claim, some defendants lost their homes and their families were broken up.
Many of those arrested, who included three security guards and two tribal council members, eventually plea-bargained the charges down to misdemeanor trespassing, and the charges never went on their records so long as they steered clear of rancheria property and stayed out of trouble for up to a year.
Linn, who prosecuted the cases and accepted the reduced pleas, said he expects any portion of the lawsuits in which he or Fogg are named will be kicked out.
“I’m not going to comment on it in depth, but any litigation against my deputy district attorney or me will be over very quickly,” Linn said.
Many of the tribal police had federal security clearances and experience in national security missions. Their national security clearances were at risk as criminal counts loomed for more than a year.
“It has been emotionally distressing, an absolute nightmare,” said John Cayanne, a former Chukchansi tribal police officer. “This has caused divorces, losses of homes, affected clearances and employment capability.”
Cayanne, who with two other members of the police force, Ronald Jones and Jim Glasscock, did not take a plea bargain in settling his case, said the district attorney and sheriff’s office didn’t properly investigate. Vernon King, a Chukchansi tribal council member, also was allowed to settle his case without pleading guilty to trespassing.
“They hadn’t spoken with both sides before forming an opinion,” Cayanne said. “The investigation was done in 72 hours, but they had 600 hours of video available for review. If they had looked at that, the case wouldn’t have been filed in the first place.”
Because he didn’t file a plea in the case, Cayanne said he is unsure if his lawsuit will be consolidated with four other suits that have been combined. His suit, in which Cayanne is joined by Jones and Glasscock, was filed by Oakland lawyer Baron Drexel. It names Keitz but doesn’t name Linn or Fogg. Linn took over for Keitz at the start of 2015.
A suit filed by Officer Brian Auchenbach was filed after the others were consolidated and could be merged with them.
John Oliveira, the former tribal police chief, said issues with Chukchansi seemed to always surface when he and his fellow officers were trying to get new jobs while out on bail.
“The nature of our jobs requires security clearances,” he said. “This clearly affects your reputation, which is clearly part of the hiring process.”
They were operating under the belief that they were lawfully deputized law enforcement officers.
Mark Coleman, defense lawyer who represented nine tribal police officers
He said he lost out on three lucrative employment contracts.
Mark Coleman, a defense lawyer who represented nine of the men in their criminal cases, said their policing authority came from a tribal council resolution by the faction led by Tex McDonald.
“They were operating under the belief that they were lawfully deputized law enforcement officers,” Coleman said.
The tribal police officers, he said, came “from a strong history of law enforcement and military service. The impact of these charges (the original felony counts) alone to their reputations had an incalculable impact.”
In most cases, their bails were set higher than bail for murderers and child molesters, and the charges were clearly unwarranted, he said.
“Each one of these guys has just an impeccable background,” Coleman said. “I was going into court and meeting in jail with a Purple Heart recipient, a Silver Star recipient who fought as a Navy Seal.”
All about the audits
The casino office raid stemmed from an effort to get information for federal audits that hadn’t been filed for two years. On Oct. 7, 2014, the National Indian Gaming Commission threatened to close the casino because of unfiled audits from 2012 and 2013.
At the time of the raid, the tribe had four active factions. The two most active at the time were led by McDonald and Reggie Lewis. McDonald’s group was trying to find audit documents to provide to federal examiners when they raided the casino office.
The McDonald faction had been running the tribe’s business and was in charge of the casino for much of 2014 before members of the Lewis faction got inside the casino on a predawn morning in August 2014. The McDonald group continued to run the business complex about a quarter-mile away from the casino.
The following month, the McDonald faction hired Oliveira as tribal police chief and others as officers. Much of that month was dedicated to planning the office raid, and the preparations intensified after the National Indian Gaming Commission warned the tribe that it would shutter the casino if the audits weren’t filed by late October.
Lewis faction members filed the audits at the end of October, but by then the casino had been closed by state and federal officials because of the raid and the ensuing fight between McDonald’s police team and the security officers employed by the Lewis faction.
The lawsuits say tribal police officers gave advance notice to Keitz, the district attorney, about plans to enter the casino office to get the audit documents. The plan included removing the Lewis group’s security team. Oliveira said the team didn’t tell Keitz when the raid would occur.
Members of the Lewis security team were handcuffed and detained in a separate room by the McDonald police officers until the Madera County Sheriff’s Office arrived, when they were placed in the custody of deputies.
But instead of detaining Lewis security team members or leading them off the rancheria grounds, sheriff’s officials released them in the casino parking lot, and they re-entered the casino through the basement.
Shortly afterward, members of the McDonald police force and Lewis security team wound up fighting in the basement. A fire alarm was pulled, sending hundreds of hotel and casino patrons and employees running from the building.
The following day, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill supported a state attorney general’s motion to close the casino. It didn’t reopen until the last day of 2015.
Three weeks later, the district attorney issued arrest warrants for the McDonald faction’s police force members, McDonald, King and three security guards affiliated with them.