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Soboba, sheriff negotiate peace after shooting deaths

SAN JACINTO, Calif. - The chairman of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians is working with local law enforcement officials and federal agents on a plan to improve cooperation and reduce conflicts following the deaths of three tribal members in shootouts with sheriff's deputies on the reservation in early May.

Robert Salgado said he could not yet discuss the details of the negotiations that began at a May 16 meeting with representatives from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, the BIA and the federal Justice Department, which is acting as a mediator in the negotiations.

''Now we've got a little gag order going; then when we get done with all our package of changes, we'll have a press conference,'' Salgado told Indian Country Today.

The May 16 meeting occurred just four days after a deadly gun battle in which deputies shot and killed 36-year-old Joseph Arres and 30-year-old Angelica Lopez, also known as Tamara Angela Hurtado, both enrolled members of the Soboba Band.

According to the sheriff's department, deputies were dispatched to the reservation in response to a 911 call ''in reference to an assault by a deadly weapon.''

The Los Angeles Times reported that Arres had a warrant out for his arrest at the time of his death and, according to court records, he twice pleaded guilty in 2006 to being a felon or narcotics addict in possession of a firearm. Arres' mobile home in San Jacinto burned down shortly after he died.

Salgado said the tribe has hired a private investigator to probe the circumstances surrounding the shooting.

Those deaths followed the killing May 8 of Eli Morillo, 26, during a long gunfight with deputies and SWAT members in armored vehicles on the reservation. In 2002, his brother, Peter, was shot and killed by police off the reservation.

The May 12 incident provoked anger and frustration on the reservation after the sheriff's office sent in helicopters and a SWAT team of more than 100 deputies who locked down the reservation, refusing to allow residents to return to their homes and confronting others at gunpoint.

Salgado said the sheriff's department trampled on the tribe's civil rights by violating the limits of their jurisdiction under Public Law 280 - a 1950s termination-era law that gives certain states criminal jurisdiction on Indian land. He threatened to bring legal action against the sheriff's department.

Salgado carried a ceremonial eagle feather to the May 16 meeting, prayed for the families of the dead, and offered an apology for saying the sheriff's deputies behaved like Gen. George Custer and the ''7th Cavalry'' and turned the reservation into a ''war zone.''

''The escalation of violence has produced bad blood between myself and the sheriff's department. As the leader, you have to hold your cool; but when you get your back up against the wall, you express your feelings. If I offended anyone, I'm sorry,'' Salgado said at the start of the meeting, which was held on the reservation at the Country Club at Soboba Springs, according to the Los Angeles Times.

''I did apologize, yes,'' Salgado told ICT. ''Well, you know, the old Indian way is you've got to ask for forgiveness, but they didn't say anything, so I dusted my hands off. It's on them now.''

At the end of the meeting, the grim-faced participants filed out of the room, stood stiffly at a podium, read a prepared statement and refused to take questions.

Dale Morris, the BIA's regional director, said the meeting was ''an important and productive first step toward reviewing and defining policies and procedures to effect change that will benefit all those concerned,'' according to the report.

Salgado said the core issues to be resolved concern communication, cultural sensitivity and respect for tribal sovereignty.

''It's really about communications and the government-to-government relationship - mostly between the tribal government and the sheriff's department.

''We're looking for just the understanding that they recognize we are leaders, that they be sensitive to our tradition and beliefs, and recognize the tribe's sovereignty. And that they should not overstep the bounds of Public Law 280 and just acknowledge that we are running our community on a good merit and they shouldn't look at us all as criminals.''

The tribe will continue to meet with the sheriff's office and other parties around every two weeks to detail a plan of action. But a legal action against the sheriff's department is still an option. ''We're still in the process of looking at that issue.''

The reservation has remained calm since the tragic shootings.

The Soboba Band's security force does not carry weapons. The sheriff's office responds to 911 calls from the reservation. California was one of six states upon which P.L. 280 was imposed when that law was passed in 1953. The only way out of the mandate would be if the state were to retrocede from the law, giving back criminal jurisdiction over tribal land to the federal government.

But that's not likely to happen any time soon.

''It's kind of hard because you've got so many small tribes who don't have the finances to do their own police work, so they have to rely on the state,'' Salgado said. ''We have 108 tribes in the state of California and I'd say 75 to 80 percent of them are on the poverty level.''