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Threat of Tribal Violence Keeps Casino Closed

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in California's Central Valley to remain closed indefinitely, as feuding factions of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indian tribe continue to fight over who should be in charge.

The closure was triggered after one of the factions - led by Tex McDonald - launched an armed takeover of the lucrative gaming hall on Oct. 9. He and a group of approximately 26 security personnel used firearms and other weapons during the incident, prompting members of the competing factions to also draw their weapons.

U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O'Neill granted California a preliminary restraining order on Oct. 10, which created a 1,000-yard weapons-free buffer zone around the casino and nearby properties and prohibited operation of the casino.

The National Indian Gaming Commission also issued a temporary closure order the same day, finding that the feuding factions' actions created concerns for public health and safety.

The court-issued restraining order was modified on Oct. 15 to permit the tribe to re-open the casino if the commission lifted its closure order, with a provision that gives the state a half-day to object.

But on Wednesday, O'Neill extended the terms of the temporary restraining order, finding that the factions' inability to resolve their ongoing intra-tribal dispute over who should govern the tribe indicates that another armed conflict could happen.

"If ever there were irrefutable proof of the need for an injunction to continue, it would be the opposition documents received from the McDonald Faction. The McDonald Faction argues that its armed incursion was a lawful effort to evict 'trespassers' from the Casino, namely members of the Lewis/Ayala Faction and their 'mercenary' private security service. This twisted statement of facts, coupled with the statement of position, belies any semblance of truth or reasonableness. It is simply an admission that the emotional and explosive keg that existed the day before the armed and illegal takeover that occurred on Oct. 9, 2014 still exists," O'Neill wrote.

Although the disagreement over who should be in charge of the tribe and the casino has been going on for years, the violence of the most recent takeover has put a new twist on the dispute that puts the public's safety in jeopardy, according to the ruling.

"This act was illegal in the eyes of any lawful body, and constituted the worst sort of street injustice. It was dangerous to everyone present, including participants, other tribal members, customers and patrons, and general members of the public within the vicinity. In spite of the passage of some time, the illegal aggressors continue to claim that their misbehavior was both legal and responsible. It is that faction, the McDonald faction, that continues to be the threat to public safety, and it is with that focus and finding that this injunction must issue," U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O'Neill wrote.

Although there has been no armed activity or violence since the temporary restraining order was issued, this merely suggests that the order was needed and is working, and that a preliminary injunction is also needed, O'Neill added.

"In evaluating the appropriate form of a continued injunction, the court acknowledges that the TRO has prohibited certain payments to tribal government bodies, because the various factions are unable to agree upon the appropriate body to administer such payments. This is unfortunate, but the court is without jurisdiction to adjudicate the underlying tribal governance dispute," O'Neill wrote.

The need for injunctive relief to prevent potential violence far outweighs any temporary financial hardship the closure causes the tribe, he said.

Under the injunction, no one is allowed to change the circumstances that were in effect at the casino as of the day before the takeover, including any attempts to take control of the casino in whole or in part.

Payments, including mandatory fees to the gaming commission supervising the casino's operations as of Oct. 8, 2014, and per capita tribal distributions based on the tribe's membership list as of Dec. 1, 2010, can still be made. However, no discretionary payments can be made to any group claiming to be the tribal council.

Furthermore, tribal police, other armed personnel and members of any faction cannot be within 1,000 yards of the casino, the property on which the casino is located, or on the tribal properties surrounding the casino. Prohibited weapons include firearms, tasers, knives, clubs and batons.

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are allowed to be armed on the tribal properties, however.

The casino must stay closed until it is established that there is no threat of further violent confrontations between the tribal groups. But the closure will be lifted if the gaming commission decides to allow the casino to reopen, O'Neill said.

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