WICHITA, Kan. - With an air of incredulity, the community of Wichita has been watching a very unusual court case unfold.
The Kaweah Indian Nation, which was denied federal recognition by the BIA in 1984, has been charged in federal court with selling tribal memberships to illegal immigrants in about 15 states under the pretense that American Indian membership documents would grant legal status as a U.S. citizen, allowing the ;'tribal member'' to apply for a Social Security number and other benefits.
In a trial that began Aug. 5, Malcolm Webber, 70, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV of the KIN, has been charged with two counts of harboring illegal immigrants, two counts of possession of false documents with intent to defraud the United States, two counts of conspiracy with intent to defraud the United States, one count of mail fraud and one count seeking criminal forfeiture. Webber has no verifiable Indian ancestry, according to the BIA.
Last year, federal prosecutors charged the tribe and 11 people in a 17-count indictment. Seven defendants have pleaded guilty to reduced charges and are to be sentenced in October, one remains a fugitive and charges were dismissed against two of the defendants. A motion was filed by prosecutors to dismiss charges against the tribe, leaving Webber at the center of the trial.
Ron Sylvester, legal affairs reporter for The Wichita Eagle, has been covering the case from inside the courtroom. ''The defense has two contentions,'' he said. ''One, that this is a real Indian tribe even though it is not recognized by the U.S. government; and two, that he [Webber] was working for people that took advantage of him. Friday [Aug. 8] was the first time Webber mentioned that he had a 'boss,' but nobody has been indicted.''
According to Sylvester, in testimony given by tribal secretary Eduviges del Carmen Zamora, Sam Waters is the name of the person who Webber claimed was his ''boss.'' ''I was talking to people not involved in this trial but who are close to the case, and they said apparently he [Sam Waters] is a real person, but no one seems to be able to find him.''
According to the U.S. government, between 10,000 and 15,000 people bought memberships in the KIN ranging anywhere in price from $50 to $1,000. ''We are talking about a real vulnerable population, many of whom have risked life and limb just to come to this country. Then all of a sudden somebody is saying, 'Hey, for some money we can immediately give you legal status by giving you this card.' I think a lot of people just wanted to believe this.
''In testimony on Friday [Aug. 8], he [Webber] told people from Mexico they were descendants from Indian tribes that were run out of the country and so they deserved to be here more than anybody else. I think that plays into what people want to hear. The Hispanic community feels victimized; the allegations are that this office [KIN] was going to Spanish-speaking churches and recruiting members,'' Sylvester said. ''It is such a strange case; there is a lot of disbelief in the community.''
According to testimony, memberships increased when the Spanish-speaking Zamora joined the office in the spring of 2007.
Zamora also stated during testimony that she gave the money orders collected from the membership applications to Webber, who processed them to a tune of about $30,000 a day. The government seized about $300,000 from a tribal bank account, about the equivalent of 10 days' worth of new memberships.
Webber has a history going back to the early 1980s that, according to Interior Department documents, allegedly shows that he and the KIN had been selling ''tribal'' memberships for $10 and had claimed ownership of a small town in Arizona telling ''tribal'' members they could build on vacant lots without owner approval. Residents of this small Arizona town were also allegedly told by Webber they could not buy or sell property without prior approval of the KIN. Then, in June 1982, Webber was arrested for child molestation and spent a year in jail.
''People were actually coming from California and driving to Wichita to try and find the Kaweah Indian Nation and apply for membership. As far as we know, nobody was ever turned away who paid their money,'' Sylvester said. ''I have been to their reservation; it's a rented office building.''
The ''tribe'' allegedly talked about purchasing 1,000 acres in Colorado to use as a reservation. ''Evidentially, that never got done,'' he said.