Mailed Threats

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bullets began arriving before Christmas.

One was sent to an Irvine Co. vice president, another to Seal Beach's development director, and another to an American Indian leader.

But not until Seal Beach Mayor Gwen Forsythe announced her intention to resign after being sent a rifle bullet earlier this month was it made public that an array of people have been sent bullets in the mail.

Now the FBI is investigating at least six bullets sent over the past three years that appear to have one thing in common--the people they were sent to have ties to Orange County development projects being built on land containing Native American bones or artifacts.

This is a tale with elements of a Tony Hillerman mystery--an unknown tormentor, ancient burial sites, archeologists, powerful landowners and divisions among native peoples.

With the sender of the bullets still undiscovered, the uncertainty has laid bare tensions in a local Native American community already buffeted by the furor over the handling of human remains on Irvine Co. land, questions of federal recognition and dreams of lucrative casinos.

If the bullets were meant to intimidate, they have served their purpose.

"Boy, when I saw how sharp that bullet is, I can imagine that thing going through my body," said Jim Velasques, tribal chief of the Coastal Gabrieleno-Diegueno band of Mission Indians, who found a bullet inside an envelope in his mailbox March 21. "Our ancestors await you," the bullet said. Two friends have moved into his Santa Ana home to serve as bodyguards.

Since late autumn, the bullets have been arriving--usually in padded brown envelopes--inscribed with threatening messages written in felt pen or nail polish. Several people described them as long, like those used in hunting rifles.

But there was even an earlier bullet, mailed in early 1994 to the archeologist who unearthed Native American remains at a Bolsa Chica development site. That bullet also arrived in a padded envelope. Written on it in red nail polish was, "Remember our ancestors."

Bullet after bullet, speculation has mounted.

Maybe a maverick group of Native Americans is attempting to stir up trouble. Maybe militant environmentalists are sending the bullets in hopes of squelching developers' plans. Or maybe someone is trying to toss the blame on someone else?

"We're not ruling out anybody," said Lt. Kenny Mollohan, detective commander at the Seal Beach Police Department. "Someone could be trying to make the Indians look bad."

One possibility, Velasques said, is that the mailings are tied to his tribe's recent application for federal recognition, filed in hopes of opening a casino in Orange County. Rival tribal groups may be hoping to stifle that effort so that they can open their own casinos, he said.

Sonia Johnston, chairwoman of a group of Juaneno Indians, scoffed at Velasques' speculation. She said she doubted that anyone in her tribe was in any way involved in sending the bullets. "I don't know of any Acjachemem [Juaneno] who would do anything like that," she said.

Whether by coincidence or design, the trail of bullets has spotlighted the issue of building on Native American burial sites. The people who have been sent bullets are connected to three controversial Orange County development projects:

* Harbor Cove, Newport Beach, Irvine Co.: From 1994 to 1996 remains and artifacts were moved with the approval of some tribal leaders to make way for 149 homes above Upper Newport Bay. Other Native Americans were furious, saying they were not notified.

Norm Witt, an Irvine Co. vice president who worked on the project, received a bullet in a padded envelope Dec. 13, 1996, Newport Beach police said. And Velasques worked as a paid consultant to an archeologist hired by the company.

* Bolsa Chica, near Huntington Beach, Koll Real Estate Group: More than 20 clusters of bones and fragments were found during an excavation at the planned site of 2,500 homes above the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. The remains were reburied according to the wishes of some tribal leaders, Koll said.

In February 1994, archeologist Nancy Whitney-DeSautels, who had been hired by Koll, reported that she had received a 3-inch-long bullet in the mail. Velasques served as a consultant at Bolsa Chica. And Ernest P. Salas Tautemez, a tribal leader who lives in San Gabriel and who assisted with ceremonial reburials at Bolsa Chica, said he received a bullet Feb. 11 of this year. The bullet, inscribed with red nail polish, said, "The only chief--Ernie." Tautemez said he thinks the package is tied to disagreements within his tribe.

* Hellman Ranch, Seal Beach, Hellman Properties: Plans are just getting underway for 70 homes, a golf course and restored wetlands on nearly 200 acres that some call a burial ground. Some Native Americans have protested the project. City development director Lee Whittenberg was mailed a bullet late last year, and a package, addressed to Forsythe and containing a bullet, arrived at City Hall on March 6.

Velasques wonders if the bullets are aimed at influencing the selection of the Native American monitor who would oversee any excavation--a job that can pay $4,000 a month--and the consulting archeologist. Seal Beach has an Archeological Review Committee that in recent months has been interviewing archeologists who would be involved with the project.

"These bullets all have a specific timing, a specific purpose, a specific reason," Velasques said.

The bullet saga has surfaced at the same time as a controversy over how the Irvine Co. and some Native American leaders dealt with remains found at Harbor Cove.

Judy Suchey, an anthropology professor at Cal State Fullerton, estimated that the site contained as many as 600 burials. She said she documented her findings with 4,000 slides.

Suchey inspects such excavations as a consultant to the Orange County coroner to ensure they do not contain modern-day human remains.

"I think this is the oldest, largest site in the United States," she said.

She said she told the Irvine Co.'s Witt about the significance of the site.

But Irvine Co. spokesman Larry Thomas said he is mystified by talk of 600 burials.

"How she reaches that conclusion, we frankly are dumbfounded," he said. The Irvine Co. spent more than two years and $1.7 million to assess and excavate the site with representatives of two Native American tribes monitoring the project, Thomas said. They found only three full skeletons and hundreds of bone fragments, he said.

The remains have been reburied in consultation with tribal officials, Thomas said.

The controversy over the project has reached all the way to Sacramento, where an official with the Native American Heritage Commission said he has heard that many fragments were found at Harbor Cove.

"I think the developer was upfront and honest and did abide by all the laws," said Larry Myers, executive secretary of the commission, which deals with the discovery of human remains.

But Johnston, the Juaneno leader, said she is deeply angered by what happened at Harbor Cove, saying she and many of her colleagues only learned recently that 600 burials may have been involved.

"Everyone is devastated. We just can't believe that this could possibly have gone unreported to the descendants," Johnston said.

"It should have been protected. It should have been left alone. It should have been proclaimed as a historic place, a Native American cemetery."

The Native American leaders overseeing the excavation said they requested secrecy. Velasques said that he and David Belardes--leader of a separate Juaneno group--had told the Irvine Co. that no information on the Harbor Cove human remains should be given out. Velasques said they made the request to preserve the privacy of the site.

The furor has spilled into the planning for Hellman Ranch in Seal Beach.

About 50 Native Americans staged a candelight protest in January, expressing concerns about possible burial sites on the property and accusing the city of pushing through the project.

But it was the padded brown envelope containing a bullet and addressed to Forsythe that pulled the curtain from the controversy. A suspicious city clerk called police before the envelope could be delivered to Forsythe. Police confiscated it but did not tell the mayor until six days later. When she became aware of the bullet and the threatening note, Forsythe abruptly submitted her resignation--in part because of the time lag in notification, colleagues say. She later rescinded her resignation and said she would stay in office.

Inside and outside the Native American community, speculation continues.

But to date, no clear purpose has emerged. The trail of bullets remains a mystery, the ending still unwritten.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Developing Threats

Bullets have been mailed to several players involved in three controversial Orange County development projects. Each site contains Native American skeletons, burials or artifacts. Bullet recipients:

HARBOR COVE

* Norm Witt, a vice president of the Irvine Co., on Dec. 13, 1996

* Jim Velasques, tribal chief of the Coastal Gabrieleno-Diegueno band of Mission Indians and paid consultant to the Irvine Co., on March 21

****

BOLSA CHICA

* Nancy Whitney-DeSautels, archeologist hired by Koll Real Estate Group, received a 3-inch bullet in February 1994

* Ernest P. Salas Tautemez, a tribal leader who assisted with ceremonial reburials at Bolsa Chica, received a bullet Feb. 11

* Velasques served as a paid consultant at Bolsa Chica

****

HELLMAN RANCH

* Lee Whittenberg, Seal Beach development director, was mailed a bullet late last year

* A package containing a bullet and addressed to Seal Beach Mayor Gwen Forsythe arrived at City Hall on March 6

Source: Times reports

Researched by DEBORAH SCHOCH / Los Angeles Times

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