Cherie Lash Rhoades

Cherie Lash Rhoades faces charges of murder, attempted murder and child endangerment after a rampage in Modoc County that left four people dead -- including her brother -- and two seriously injured. (Alturas Police Department / February 21, 2014)

CEDARVILLE, Calif. — In the high-desert wilderness of Surprise Valley, where folks tend to say little and keep their distance, the mere mention of Cherie Lash Rhoades' name could evoke a wince.

Unpleasant, a few relatives and townspeople offered. A tangle of sheer meanness, said those feeling less charitable.

Even within her tiny Cedarville Rancheria tribe — a band of about 35 mostly blood relatives living in this sparse, northeastern corner of California — she could be confrontational.

"She's never been a nice person. I don't know why she's that way. She just is," Kendra Hill, who was adopted by tribal members and raised on the 26 acres of tribal land, or rancheria, said Saturday. "But no one thought —"

Accused of embezzling money and betraying her own, Rhoades was called before the tribal council Thursday afternoon at its headquarters in the town of Alturas, 20 miles to the west. She faced eviction from the rancheria, akin to banishment. Her brother, tribal chairman Rurik Davis, led the hearing.

Police say that at that hearing, Rhoades, 44, pulled out a gun and opened fire, then grabbed a butcher knife and continued on a bloody rampage. Four people were killed, including her brother, 19-year-old niece, 30-year-old nephew and the tribal administrator. Two others remain hospitalized in serious condition.

Rhoades faces charges of murder, attempted murder and child endangerment.

The ex-wife of one of those killed said animosity in the family was peaking, to the point where her former husband didn't trust Rhoades to be around his children. She asked not to be identified because of the publicity surrounding the shooting.

Rhoades' temper was well-known among the many small tribes settled in Modoc County, said Sonny Craig, a member of the Pit River tribe just outside Alturas. Craig said he starting avoiding her after witnessing an outburst years ago when the two served on a committee for a Native American healthcare clinic.

"Something didn't go her way, so she picked up the corner of the table and threw it," Craig recounted. "What did that accomplish?"  

Craig now worries that the deadly outburst will only worsen the underlying fractures between Native Americans and the mostly white residents living in the surrounding towns. Since the slayings, Craig said, he's often tailed by police when driving down the highway or through town.

"Racial blood lines have been drawn out, and, in my experience, it's only getting worse," he said.

Details of the strife within the Cedarville Rancheria tribe remain murky, masked by rumor and innuendo, and hidden from outside view by the tribe's desire to keep such matters to itself.

"This is a tribal fight," said Karen Knighton, a close friend of the 19-year-old woman who was killed. "They're still fighting over it." 

The divisions go back generations. This was the last territory relinquished to white settlers by local tribes, and in the late 1800s it was the site of the last of the Indian wars fought in California and Oregon.

In Cedarville, folks get along well enough but still tend to stick with their own kind, said Janet Irene, owner of the Country Hearth Restaurant and Bakery. Surprise Valley High School sports are among the few things that bring folks together, along with her freshly baked cinnamon rolls and sugar twists, she said.

Rhoades was the only tribal member not welcome at the Country Hearth.

"She was forceful. She was a loudmouth," Irene said. "She would threaten to beat people up all the time."

Irene never worried about the repercussions of booting her out. The soft-spoken Georgia native has a .40-caliber handgun behind the counter and a 10-gauge shotgun hanging on the wall. 

The tribe's rancheria is a few blocks west, bordered by the frost-bitten Warner Mountains and a vast open plain of grazing cattle. This weekend, doors were shut and shades drawn. The only one stirring was a Modoc County sheriff's deputy parked outside Rhoades' home, a simple ranch house with weathered RVs scattered across the yard.

The rancheria blends with the rest of Cedarville, an aging town striving to be more than a relic of the old West. A third of the town's population has left in the last 10 years, leaving Cedarville with just 500 people and Main Street dotted with a few boarded-up storefronts.

"People here have been here for generations. They're kind of stuck in their ways and don't want to see change," said Ray March, a writer and former newspaper editor who moved to Cedarville from Carmel a decade ago and runs a writing and poetry workshop with his wife. "If you weren't born here, you're a newcomer."

When the couple sponsored a symposium on alternative energy and local water policy, they drew the ire of local cattlemen who feared it was an attempt to grab their water rights. The morning of the event, the town was littered with fliers demanding they go back where they came from.

"It's a beautiful area, a beautiful landscape," he said. "But that can be deceptive." 

phil.willon@latimes.com