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Viejas chairman arrested and released

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CHULA VISTA, Calif. - A bizarre altercation that led to the stabbing death of one man at an Oct. 18 rap concert left the chairman of the Viejas tribe as a suspect in the custody of the local police, a charge that was later dropped for lack of evidence.

The incident has also exposed racial tensions between San Diego County's Samoan and American Indian communities.

Viejas chairman Steven TeSam, 42 was arrested after the incident along with his 26-year old nephew, Hank Benegas and a 16-year old juvenile identified by a tribal spokeswoman as TeSam's stepson.

Chula Vista police issued a press statement stating that Faitamai Tauanuu, 30, died on Oct. 19 as a result of multiple stab wounds to the back.

A second victim, 27-year -old Sean Bowers, was reported to be in good condition at an area hospital as of Oct. 19.

Lt. Peltakian of the Chula Vista Police Department confirmed that TeSam was originally a suspect. According to published reports, the Viejas chairman was released for lack of evidence. The juvenile was also released for unspecified reasons.

Benegas, however, was charged with murder and attempted murder during his Oct. 23 arraignment. Eyewitness reports state that 10 bailiffs had to separate a contingent of Samoans and Viejas tribal members during the arraignment.

Though earlier press reports indicated that the department's gang task force was involved, Peltakian said that it happened to be a gang task force officer who was on call at the time and who responded to the incident. However, Peltakian also said that this does not mean there will not be an investigation into gang ties.

"The backgrounds of the people involved will come out as the investigation moves along, right now we're just looking at the incident," said Peltakian.

Peltakian said that the arrests were made after getting information from several witnesses who were among a throng of thousands of concert attendees who were leaving at the same time.

"We're confident that we got the right people involved, we're just doing fact finding right now and making a report for the District Attorney."

Viejas vice-chairman Bobby Barrett said that he can not comment on the case and referred all phone calls to the tribe's public relations publicist, Nikki Symington, of Symington Communications. She characterized much of her information as hearsay provided from those on the Viejas tribe's side. Peltakian has also corroborated the basic facts, minus the racial characterizations.

"It's wrought with racial shit," says Symington of the information received.

TeSam had rented a limousine for a party of concert goers who were on their way out of the tribally sponsored concert. A group of African-American men were allegedly beating up an unidentified white man, and the tribal party had gotten out of the limousine to intervene in the altercation.

The tribal members allege that for some reason the unidentified white man turned on the Viejas group and a group of Samoan gang members came to his aid, among them the now deceased Tauanuu.

Symington said it is not clear what happened next, adding that the police investigation is attempting to figure out why the Viejas tribal members had at least one knife. It is unclear who had the knife and how it came into the Viejas member's possession. It is equally unclear to what involvement, if any, TeSam had in the actual stabbings.

When asked what a 42-year old man was doing at a rap concert, Symington said that TeSam had come to escort his stepson to the event and that several other older tribal members had also brought their children.

Viejas sponsors many events at the Chula Vista Coors Amphitheater including the concert with rapper Nelly where the incident took place.

Though police did not confirm this, Symington claims that Tauanuu had a long police record and was possibly involved with a Samoan gang.

Racial tensions between American Indians and Samoans were reportedly a problem a decade ago. Symington said that incidents involving roaming Samoan gangs coming out to San Diego area reservations looking for trouble were fairly common incidents in the 1980s and hinted that there were some lingering racial tensions between the two groups.

TeSam took over for the popular longtime Viejas chairman Anthony Pico last year. The Viejas tribe is an economic powerhouse whose holdings, in addition to the casino, include Borrego Springs Bank and a factory outlet mall. Viejas is also one of four tribes partnering to build a Marriott hotel on the National Mall.