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Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Tribal Casino Closed; Tense Standoff Continues

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - The temporary restraining order preventing all Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indian tribal members from being armed within 1,000 feet of their casino will remain in effect for now, and the three feuding factions must schedule a settlement conference, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill, who issued the temporary restraining order on Friday after a violent showdown between factions at the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino the day before, made one message clear throughout Wednesday's hearing: The tribe is heading down the road to losing everything if they cannot figure out a mutual agreeable decision.

The casino has been closed since Friday by order of the Attorney General's office and the National Indian Gaming Commission, causing enormous losses in profits.

O'Neill likened the situation - in which the factions cannot agree on who the rightful tribal council members are - to a family law case, in which the sides "argue and spend thousands of dollars to get back that one clothespin."

He warned the parties that while they fight over leadership, it is the tribal members, casino employees and their families, businesses in the community, and ultimately whoever wins control of the casino who will suffer.

"All-or-nothing scenarios are often nothing," O'Neill said.

O'Neill's role was not to resolve which faction should control the casino, but whether the restraining order should remain in place for the safety of the public.

Casino employees and patrons do not care "where the bullet comes from," O'Neill said. He said that no matter who is in charge, having factions that "disagree and believe they can take the law into their own hands" by use of force puts the public in jeopardy.

The state and the attorneys for the three factions agreed that the temporary restraining order prohibiting weapons of any nature - excluding those held by the FBI, Madera Sheriff's Office, California Highway Patrol and other nontribal law enforcement officers - within 1,000 yards of the casino or on tribal properties should remain in place.

However, the factions were not united on how to handle necessary, ongoing casino business during the closure. Bills need to be paid and food needs to be kept from spoiling, among other issues. In addition, the slot machines need to stay on, or it will take 6 months for the casino to reopen, which would result in massive layoffs, one lawyer said.

The Lewis/Ayala faction argued that the casino should temporarily be run based on the status quo - in which they were in charge - before the attempted armed takeover on Oct. 9 by the McDonald faction.

The latter group asked the judge to ban all factions from the casino, effectively avoiding a ruling on who is in charge.

O'Neill favored the status quo, ordering operations of the casino to revert to as they were on Wednesday, Oct. 8, the day before the armed attack.

However, the casino is to remain closed until the National Indian Gaming Commission orders it to be reopened.

In the meantime, only disbursements for bills and mandatory fees, including funds for tribal housing, are allowed. None of the factions or their boards can receive any sort of payments.

Any sensitive documents taken by the McDonald faction during the attack on the casino were also ordered to be returned.

O'Neill additionally issued an order mandating the parties to meet and decide on a time when they can all meet for a settlement conference before a magistrate judge.

"I would like nothing better than to be out of this dispute, but that does not look like it's going to happen anytime soon," O'Neill said.

The state was ordered to file a motion and documents for injunctive relief by Monday.

The next hearing on the matter is set for Wednesday, Oct. 29.

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