SAN JACINTO, Calif. - The chairman of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians said the tribe is planning to sue the Riverside County Sheriff;s Department after a deadly gun battle in which deputies shot and killed a tribal man and a woman on the reservation May 12.
''We're planning to bring legal action against the Riverdale County sheriff's office. We think our civil rights have been violated and there were clear violations of jurisdiction. We're meeting with our attorney at 1 o'clock today,'' Chairman Robert Salgado told Indian Country Today May 14, less than 48 hours after the shootout.
At the center of the jurisdictional issue is Public Law 280, a 1950s termination-era law imposed on the nations that gives states criminal jurisdiction on Indian land.
The deaths occurred less than a week after sheriff's deputies shot and killed another tribal member on the reservation.
According to the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, deputies responded around 6:20 p.m. to a 911 call ''in reference to an assault by a deadly weapon.'' Police said they were told that unknown suspects were firing at a ''guard shack'' on the reservation where two tribal security personnel were on duty.
A sheriff's department helicopter arrived and came under fire, according to the police report. The deputies drove to the location of the initial call and came under fire there, the report said. The suspects fled, police followed and an exchange of gunfire ensued, lasting about one hour.
A SWAT team from the sheriff's Special Enforcement Bureau was called in to help. Nine deputies fired on the suspects, leaving 36-year-old Joseph Arres, and 30-year-old Angelica Lopez, also known as Tamara Angela Hurtado, both enrolled members of the Soboba Band, dead near a football field where the battle occurred.
Several incidents have occurred on or near the reservation in recent months. On May 8, Eli Morillo, 26, was shot dead during a long gunfight with deputies and SWAT members in armored vehicles. In 2002, his brother, Peter, was shot and killed by police in an off-reservation incident. Morillo's mother, Rosemary, is a former tribal chairman.
All three of the recently killed were Salgado's cousins.
In December, two deputies sustained minor injuries when they were shot chasing suspects heading for the reservation.
''When they come out, they come out with war zone-type tactics. They shoot first and ask questions later. Every time there's an incident, they say they've got control, they've got full authority, and I can't even do anything.''
Some of the problems between the tribe and local police may stem from the 2006 cancellation of a $400,000 contract for police services.
''We weren't really getting any benefits from it.''
Salgado said the incident began when Arres and Lopez were firing shots near the security kiosk at the casino. He didn't know who made the 911 call, and the police did not release that information.
''The police came and we - the tribe - knew who it [the shooter] was and the police had a chance then to go and take care of the problem at that point. These are our people, we know them and we think we could have talked the problem out, but they didn't do that; they waited until the SWAT team came and that's when the chaos started. They brought in 100 - 150 people.''
Salgado and tribal members searched for the death scene to perform a traditional blessing. When they found it - 12 to 15 miles from the police barricade - they were stopped by heavily armed deputies. A deputy stopped the group and would not let them pass even after Salgado said he was the tribal chairman.
''They wouldn't say that if I was the mayor of Los Angeles.''
The police promised tribal members that they would be able to perform a ceremony before the bodies were removed, but reneged on the promise. ''They said we would mess up the crime scene.''
The bodies remained on the ground until May 13, at which point the tribal members were allowed to perform a ceremony.
The police barricaded the reservation, confronting people at gunpoint if they tried to leave or enter their homes or enter the reservation. Those who were locked out of their homes spent the time at the casino parking lot.
''They took out our security and took over the man posts and everything. We weren't allowed to come into the reservation. There were elders who are diabetic; and myself, I'm diabetic, and I couldn't come home to get my medication for 16 - 18 hours.''
Tribal members were tearful and exhausted by May 14. The leadership had scheduled a meeting for members to come and record their encounters with the police to build the record for the lawsuit.
Salgado has talked with the state attorney general's office, the U.S. attorney's office, the BIA and others. A meeting has been scheduled with Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., and others.
The tribe has also consulted with Carole Goldberg, an expert of the jurisdictional issues of Public Law 280.
''She said the police are supposed to cooperate with us. I think they've been violating 280 since it came in the 1950s.''
The tribe intends to conduct its own investigation and will request a special investigation of Capt. Glenn Worby, who commands the sheriff' s department station that responds to crime on the reservation.
Worby told the Los Angeles Times that he has offered to meet with the tribe to discuss problems, but no one has taken him up on it.
''I have no desire to meddle or get involved in tribal matters. But when it comes to public safety, we will do whatever is right, legal and in the best interests of the tribe and the community at large,'' he said.
But Salgado said Worby is painting a false picture.
''He's trying to say I'm against the police in the press and that we don't want to meet with them and won't cooperate. We meet with them every second Tuesday of every month. We got into it the other day, and he kept saying, 'You people do this, and you people do that, and you people all have guns in your houses.' I said, 'What do you mean, you people? I have a home, but I don't have any guns in my house.'''
Salgado, 65, recently was honored for his decades of leadership to his tribe with the National Indian Gaming Association's Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award, NIGA's most prestigious honor.
He appealed to the nations for support.
''We ask for support from other tribes to keep us in their prayers during this time. We're trying to do the best we can as tribal leaders to protect our people and to protect our reservation, because we were put here, not because we wanted to be here. We were put here and we have jurisdiction over our people.''