Tulare County tribe stunned by slayings


TULE RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION — This is a sovereign land of otherworldly beauty. Mist spills down a valley that winds from the giant sequoias to the elderberry and oak of the Sierra foothills. Stars in a black night sky seem as close as the candles that have been lighted in vigil during this tribe’s darkest moment.

For nearly two weeks, Yokut tribal members have been coming to the Church on the Hill, lighting candles. The gatherings began spontaneously Dec. 8, the night Hector Celaya, 31, killed his mother and two uncles, critically wounded Andrew, his 6-year-old son, and sped off in a Jeep with his two daughters, Alyssa, 8, and Linea, 5.

“We held hands tight and we just prayed and prayed for those little girls,” said tribal member Shawn Gonzales, who works at the reservation’s health center.


PHOTOS: Mourning at the Tule River Indian Reservation

Tulare County sheriff’s deputies chased Celaya at low speeds, but he kept driving. At 2 a.m. in a citrus grove in Lindsay, Calif. — about 30 miles from the reservation — the Jeep stopped. Officers heard shots. They fired at Celaya.

He was struck multiple times, but the coroner concluded that the gunshot to his head was self-inflicted. Linea survived a gunshot to the head. She is in fair condition at a local hospital. Alyssa’s autopsy showed that her father shot her at the reservation and she bled to death as he drove.

She was buried last week in a grave that the men dug by hand and the women covered with flowers, in accordance with Tule River tribe tradition.

Since 1933, the bells of the reservation’s oldest church have rung out whenever a community member died. The day after the attack, the bells tolled all day.

At one of the many vigils that have followed, 7-year-old Dakota Heggie, the associate minister’s son, rode his new green bicycle around the circle of candles. A sheepdog everyone calls Little Norman (because he belongs to Norman, who lives across the street) bounded after Dakota, and they wrestled on the grass.


Mike Carrillo, the tribe’s community support officer and a Vietnam War veteran, watched the dog and boy play.

“It always continues,” he said. “Life continues.”

Carrillo, 66, confessed he’s not one for religion. His source of strength since the shootings has been Nettie, Celaya’s grandmother.

“Her grandson killed her children and shot his own children. The grief in her eyes as she took it in was unbelievable. But her manner of standing. She held herself. She would not crumble.”

In front of the candles, two teens beat out a rhythm with clap sticks. An older woman, with a voice that seemed to travel to the farthest hill, sang an ancient song of grief in the Yokut language.

Roxanne Carrillo, the minister and Mike’s cousin, opened the doors to the church, where services freely mix elements of Catholicism, evangelical Christianity and native traditions. The lights blazed, there was hot coffee and country songs spilled out the doors. As they entered, people swayed to “That’s What I Love about Sunday.”

Carrillo, who believes there is a God who can create good even out of evil, preached that it was time to let go of squabbles and draw together.


“We don’t understand and we don’t know why, so what we need to do is lean on each other. We have two children to pray for and a family that needs our strength.”

A woman in the front row began to sob. A woman in the row behind stood and wrapped her arms around her. People from the third row wrapped their arms around them.

Carrillo stopped preaching and joined the huddle. She cried the longest.

“I ask you, Father God, for a way to give comfort.... We’ve come across the enemy who steals our happiness,” she prayed.

Dakota stomped out of the church, arms crossed on his chest, tears on his face. He plopped on the grass, an arm thrown over Little Norman.

After the service, the ones whose faith put them in church pews joined the circle outside. People took turns stepping into the center to speak. They told of dream visits they’d had from ancestors and exhorted one another to strength.

Those in the circle answered the appeals by saying “Ho!”

“I will speak from where I stand,” said a deep voice in the shadows, a man forming part of the ring.


“As a tribal council member, I have my job to do. We have to forgive the one who did wrong,” said Kevin Bonds. “When a man is sick, he doesn’t know what he is doing. To have peace in your head, in your heart, you have to forgive the one who did wrong.”

There was tense silence. Bonds crossed his body with burning sage, its smoke curling beneath his dark cowboy hat.

Earlier, Mike Carrillo said, he’d wished Celaya had lived “so he would have to face each and every day what he did.” But now Carrillo softly said: “Ho.”

Toxicology reports on Celaya, who had been involved in a custody dispute with his estranged wife, a tribal member, have not been released. Those in the circle, however, said that the once seemingly devoted father — the man who had Alyssa’s name tattooed on his leg — had a harrowing meth addiction.

Court records show a history of DUIs and drug charges for Celaya, who grew up off the reservation and was not an enrolled member. In 2008, he served time for assault and battery. Many here blame drugs for the deadly rampage.

“We’re a sovereign nation,” said a woman in the circle. “Our background is as a surviving people. This is the perfect time for us to make a stand and say ‘No more!’ You use, it’s rehab or off the res.”


There is only one 15-mile road in and out of the reservation. Each day, tour buses from Bakersfield, 80 miles away, climb the winding route to the Eagle Mountain Casino. The out-of-the way gambling location doesn’t bring the tribe the same money that Indian casinos near cities generate. But it’s enough for the Tule River Yokuts to offer every student who graduates high school a college education.

The tribe has built a child-care center, a health center and a gym. Each of the tribe’s 800 members receives at least a $550 monthly stipend.

PHOTOS: Mourning at the Tule River Indian Reservation

An elder said that traditionally the Yokut were known as “the happy people.” Until the killings, this had been a time of optimism for the tribe.

Sometimes in spring, when there are blankets of purple and white flowers, casino visitors will venture out to snap photos in nearby fields. But most of the reservation’s 55,000 acres are seldom seen by outsiders.

After the church lights went out, Mike Carrillo drove up to a spot overlooking the San Joaquin Valley. He said he often goes there on cigarette breaks.


It’s a good spot to dwarf worries. But not this pain, he said; it’s too deep.