Tex McDonald Picayune Ranchera of Chukchansi Indians

Tex McDonald, leader of the group that stormed the Chukchansi casino last month, turns himself in. (Image: fresnobee.com)

Two tribal council members charged with serious offenses relating to last month’s armed standoff at the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino near Coarsegold, California have turned themselves in. The casino was stormed by 20 armed men on October 9, the culmination of a bizarre power struggle between rival factions vying for control of the casino.

No arrests were made at the scene, because the siege took place on tribal land, but Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz announced last Friday that 15 of the aggressors would be charged with serious felonies, including kidnapping, false imprisonment, assault with a firearm, assault with a deadly weapon, and battery inflicting serious injury.

The group’s leader, Tex McDonald, 64, and fellow council member Vernon James King, 59, turned themselves in on Monday, followed several hours later by two members of the security force that accompanied the group on the raid.

McDonald, who has previous convictions for assault with a deadly weapon and making criminal threats, is charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment, assault with a firearm, assault with a deadly weapon, battery causing serious injury, and assault with a stun gun, and his bail has been set at $1 million. The others face similar charges, with bail set at $800,000 for each.

Another security guard was arrested Sunday, but at the time of writing, 10 people remain at large.

Disenrollment Controversy

The origin of the dispute among the Picayune Ranchera of Chukchansi Indians seems to relate to the controversial practice of “disenrollment,” in which a tribe strips certain members of their tribal status, thus denying them the associated benefits, in this case profit from the casino.

Since 2003, hundreds of members have been stripped of their tribal affiliations, including some of the last native speakers of the Chukchansi language. This led to a disputed election in 2012 and a schism within the tribe between those who supported disenrollment and those bitterly opposed.

It seems the McDonald faction had been managing the casino from its base at a nearby business complex up until August, when the rival faction, led by Reggie Lewis, a proponent of disenrollment and incumbent leader of the council following the disputed election, occupied the 10th and 11th floors of the casino in the early hours of the morning, effectively taking it over.

Then in October, the Tribal Gaming Authority threatened to close the casino down and fine the tribe up to $16 million, due to late filing of audits. This prompted the McDonald faction to act, in what they claim was an attempt to retrieve the audits and save the casino.

Criminal or Hero?

And to some, despite the criminality of his tactics, McDonald is a hero, a “patriot” fighting for the good of the tribe. “My clients went in to recover documents so the casino wouldn’t shut down,” claimed his lawyer, adding that the faction represented the “duly constituted tribal council. They just took steps to protect the tribe.”

Others, however, don’t see quite the same heroic tactics in the break-in.

“Calling Tex McDonald a patriot is like calling a dictator democratically elected,” said Richard Verri, representing the Lewis group. “The criminal justice system will determine whether or not the images caught on video of the illegal actions and the violence he committed upon a casino employee was lawful or criminal.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, McDonald now faces a “significant amount of time” in state prison, according to District Attorney Keitz. And meanwhile the casino remains shuttered by order of a federal judge, with the consequence of lost revenue becoming devastating to the community.