Tribal factions collide at Chukchansi Gold hotel-casino
Michael Gray has a stack of casino chips on his desk and a T-shirt he still wears from what was once his favorite gaming venue.
The Southern California resident and his wife, Stacy, would spend vacations by sightseeing at Yosemite National Park during the day and enjoying the nightlife at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold. They would have dinner, a couple drinks and do a little gambling.
On Oct. 9, 2014, the Grays were in the casino when a takeover occurred, and law officers were called to restore order. The next day, the casino was shut down by the authorities. A year later, it remains shuttered, and when it will reopen is unknown.
And a year later, the bedlam of that last evening at Chukchansi is still vivid in Gray’s memories.
“We just came back from Yosemite,” he says. “It was a beautiful day.”
The Grays were just starting their evening in the casino when, in another part of the complex, an office raid sparked clashes between rival tribal security and police forces.
Madera County sheriff’s deputies arrived and took members of one security force into custody. After a while, deputies let the security team members go.
Those security members returned through the basement of the casino about 7:30 p.m. and had one of their associates pull the fire alarm. That brought the rival police force downstairs, where members of the two forces wrestled for control of the facility.
They told the dealers to cover the chips and take the cards off the table.
Michael Gray, a Chukchansi guest the night of the raid on the resort
The Grays were playing blackjack when they were hustled out of the casino along with about 500 employees and patrons.
“They told the dealers to cover the chips and take the cards off the table.”
Gray, a frequent visitor to casinos, had seen it before – usually during power outages.
But this was different, he sensed. He and his wife asked what was going on and were only told to leave the casino. They grabbed their chips, tried to get back to their room, then attempted to cash out their chips, but were ordered outside.
His wife overheard a walkie-talkie transmission indicating there was a man with a gun.
“Then we heard the alarm,” Gray says. “There were guests all over the driveway, guys in dark clothes running out of the casino and getting in dark vehicles.”
Then a seemingly endless line of law enforcement and fire vehicles came roaring up Lucky Lane and into the casino’s parking lot. As authorities began to shutter Chukchansi – at the time, most thought, only a temporary closure – Michael Gray repeatedly asked to return to his room. His persistence paid off, and the Grays were ushered by a sheriff’s deputy to their room to collect their belongings. They had two nights left on their stay. Instead, they got home about 2:30 a.m. the next morning.
Gray says he still wears his Chukchansi shirt and his wife has a favorite blanket from the hotel. But when the resort reopens, he’s not sure they will return.
On their trips to Yosemite since last year, the couple has gone to Black Oak Casino, a slightly smaller Indian gaming resort run by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk in Tuolumne County, more than an hour’s drive north of Chukchansi Gold.
“It’s not the same part of Yosemite and it takes a long time to get up to the park,” Gray says. But, “I usually do what my wife likes to do and she’s reluctant to go back.”
Phil Hogen, a retired National Indian Gaming Commission chairman, has signed on as the new Chukchansi gaming commission chairman for the next 90 days along with former commission audits chief Joe Smith.
Now that the election for a Chukchansi tribal council is over and it was orderly, Hogen says, it shouldn’t take too long for the tribe to prove its new government is stable.
National Indian Gaming Commission officials say they would like to see stability in the tribe before allowing the casino to open.
A proposed agreement to reopen the casino will be more lucrative for Madera County. Such a deal “should be significant” in moving toward resuming operations, Hogen says.
The draft agreement says the tribe owes the county about $4 million in payments that haven’t been made in three years.
Under the law enforcement agreement, the county wants the tribe to pay for the round-the-clock services of one deputy sheriff, which would require five full-time equivalent deputies. The county also wants payments for firefighters to be available seven days a week around the clock, which is equivalent to two full-time firefighters.
The county also is seeking $1.1 million for a new aerial firefighting helicopter or plane and a $75,000 annual contribution to Cal Fire; $1 million annually for roads and transportation; $1 million in a general contribution; $250,000 annually for the economic development department, which oversees housing and job programs for the county; and $25,000 for alcohol education and treatment and problem gambling and gambling disorders.
The National Indian Gaming Commission isn’t putting any time frame on the reopening.
“Government stability is a key component in ensuring the gaming facility reopens under circumstances that protect the safety of the public, employees and tribal members,” says Michael Odle, the agency’s Washington, D.C., spokesman. “How long it takes and when it will occur will be determined by the actions of the tribe. The agency must be confident that the activities that led to the closure in the first place are not repeated.”
$4 million what Madera County says the Chukchansi tribe owes in three years’ worth of missed payments
1,000 Chukchansi employees before the closure
20 Chukchansi employees now
That agreement “should speak volumes about how well the pieces are in place,” Hogen says.
Once the county is satisfied with the agreement, state and federal officials probably would feel more secure in supporting the reopening of the Coarsegold resort, he says. “I don’t have a crystal ball, and we don’t know how everything will unfold. But, it’s my hope the doors will reopen while I’m still serving my 90-day term.”
The effects of Chukchansi Gold’s closure go beyond revenue for the tribe.
The hotel-casino’s payroll is about $32 million annually. The county is owed $924,428 based on services it provides to the tribe, says Eric Fleming, county administrative officer. Local nonprofits were gifted $1 million a year from casino proceeds. There are also effects on the local economy from fewer tourists and local purchases made by the hotel and casino.
The tribe employed more than 1,000 last year. Today, about 20 are working at the resort.
And Chukchansi was a key partner in many civic enterprises. For instance: Sharon Fitzgerald, president of Eastern Madera County Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and owner of The Cat’s Meow, a crafts store in Oakhurst, says the organization was granted $50,000 annually by the tribe.
The money went to spaying and neutering. It was used to pay the procedure costs for local veterinarians. The SPCA also is trying to build an animal shelter, and the Chukchansi spay-and-neuter grants allowed the volunteer agency to keep money from being diverted from the project.
“At some point, we were hoping to involve the tribe in the shelter project, but the closure came at a critical time,” Fitzgerald says.
Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler remains hopeful that the tribe can open the casino soon. He says he is eager to work with the newly elected council to get the agreement finished between the tribe and the county.
“I want the casino to open, I want to see the jobs return and I want all their citizens to get what they have coming to them,” Wheeler says.
Bringing them back
Clovis resident Pat Yama recalls playing the slots a year ago when the fire alarm sounded and security officers ordered patrons to leave.
Standing outside, he wanted to get back in the casino, but then saw the rows of patrol-car light bars rolling up the hill to the casino and gave up.
“As I left I saw all the blue and red lights flashing and I thought something was happening that was worse than a fire,” Yama says.
He had $750 to cash out and nothing to show for it. Toward the end of November, he got a surprise: a check in the mail from the casino because of his frequent-user card.
Now Yama says he is hesitant to return when the resort reopens.
Christian Goode, chief operating officer for Chukchansi Gold, says he wants patrons like Yama back.
“As with any kind of consumer business you have to be honest and take it head-on,” Goode says. “I think if you’re transparent and honest, people will be understanding.”
Goode says Chukchansi will rely on the “Players Card” program that Yama was in to reach out to regulars, offering incentives – think bonus points, passes to the resort’s spa, or food and beverage discounts.
Yama says incentives could help entice him to head back once the casino returns. Oh, and one other thing.
“Maybe looser machines.”