HANFORD, Calif. - The lawyer for two sheriff's deputies who were shot in the line of duty is trying to collect more than $1.5 million from the Tachi Yokut Tribe and Chairman Clarence Atwell.
A Kings County judge awarded them the money in a civil default judgment. The Tachi Yokut say the judgment was wrongfully executed. They tribe resides on the Santa Rosa Rancheria near Hanford in Kings County.
In 1996, tribal members Burley Dick and Manuel Carnero shot and injured Kings County sheriff's deputies Mark Bradford and Patrick Huddleston with a 12-gauge shotgun filled with bird shot cartridges. The deputies had responded to a call at the Santa Rosa Rancheria. Dick and Carnero were minors at the time but were tried as adults and are serving 21-year sentences for the crime.
Kaya Atwell, reported by the Fresno Bee to be 21 at the time, supplied the shotgun used in the crime. The gun belonged to his father, Tribal Chairman Atwell. The younger Atwell had been convicted in a drive-by shooting earlier in the day and also was convicted on charges of supplying the gun. He was sentenced to five years in prison and has since been freed.
Chairman Atwell says his son had no knowledge that Dick and Carnero had taken the gun. The chairman was several hours away in Half Moon Bay when the incident occurred.
The sheriff's deputies and their lawyer, Paul Abram, have decided to go after the tribe in civil litigation citing, among other things, California parental liability laws since Atwell owned the gun.
Atwell points out that his son was 21 at the time and questions how he could be responsible for the actions of an adult. He also says the shooters were tried as adults.
"First they make them adults so they can be responsible and then they say that the parents are responsible. How can it be both ways?" asks Atwell.
Abram and the deputies also brought suit against nine tribal members and are trying to make the Santa Rosa Rancheria as a whole accountable.
"That's just stupid," says tribal member Creig Marcus. "I mean, you can't hold the city of Sacramento responsible for a crime that's committed there. The people who did this crime are in jail. The whole tribe is not responsible for the independent actions of its members."
Michelle Le-Beau, a lawyer for the tribe, says the award was given by default judgment, given when a party in a court case does not appear at the hearing. She says tribal members did not appear because they were improperly summoned. The summonses were dropped off at tribal headquarters when they should have been served directly on tribal members.
"What basically happens in this case and other civil cases of default is that the party that's suing gets a blank check. They (Abram and the deputies) got to fill in the numbers," Le-Beau says.
Le-Beau added that the statute of limitations has run out on the improper summonses and her law firm, Monteaux and Peebles of Sacramento, was called in on the case late. She said her strategy now is to say the statement of damages was improperly served.
Le-Beau and Marcus say the primary reason for the suit is money. They feel Abram mistakenly believes the tribe has deep pockets because of a tribal casino operation called "The Palace."
Tribal sources say most of the money in the casino operation is put back into the casino. The only money tribal members receive is a per capita payment. Le-Beau says that Abram does not understand the difference between tribal money and that of individual tribal members.
"There is no law or statute on the books that holds a tribal chairman liable for the actions of his tribe," Le-Beau says.
Abram has accused the tribe of trying to hide behind sovereign immunity. Le-Beau, Atwell and Marcus all deny this. Le-Beau says the tribe has plenty of other legal reason for opposing the payments that do not include tribal sovereignty.
Marcus also has accused Abram with racism.
Asked if he was a racist, when reached at his Hanford offices, Abram replied in a belligerent tone, "How dare you call me a racist. I will not sit here and be accused of being a racist."
Marcus says Abram screamed at him in the halls of the courthouse and told him, "Any time you want to protect yourself like a squaw and hide behind sovereign immunity, you do it."
These allegations are backed up by a Fresno Bee report on the incident.
Abram said that he was "going after Mr. Atwell's paycheck" at one of the many hearings later in the week.
Tribal sources say that Abram launched a blitzkrieg of propaganda to tribal members including various documents and negative press clippings about the tribe. Sources say this is because he is attempting to confuse the matter and tribal members are confused as to which papers are which.
The tribe will attempt to get a dismissal of default at an Aug. 10 hearing, officials said.
Editor's note: A gag order was imposed July 20. All interviews for this story were conducted prior to that date.