ALTURAS, Calif. — The afternoon at City Hall was winding to a close on Thursday when a woman splattered with blood began ringing the bell and screaming for help.
She had come around the corner from a tribal meeting where police say a woman shot and killed four people, three of them her relatives. The suspect, Cherie Lash Rhoades, previously had been chairwoman of the small Northern Paiute tribe, but the meeting was being held to evict her and her son from the rancheria.
“It’s not every day that you see someone covered in blood screaming at the window at City Hall,” said Alturas Police Chief Ken Barnes.
The killings left this former cattle town of 2,800 reeling Friday and questioning how a close-knit community where everyone knows most everyone had failed to see any signs of the coming explosion.
The dead included Rhoades’ brother and the current tribal chairman, Rurik Davis, 50; her niece Angel Penn, 19; and nephew Glenn Calonicco, 30. Lynn Russo, 47, the tribal administrator, also was killed.
The small rancheria “pretty much lost their leadership yesterday,” said Alturas Mayor John Dederick, a retired cabinetmaker who lives two blocks from shooting site.
“We’ve seen this happen in other communities, in other small towns,” Dederick said. “I don’t think anyone anticipated something like this here.”
A Bureau of Indian Affairs official said there were about 18 adults at the meeting and some children. The blood-covered woman who escaped was an office worker whom police have declined to identify.
“This came as a complete shock to everyone in the tribe,” said Jack Duran, who serves as the tribe’s general counsel. “All of these folks are related.”
A member of a nearby tribe said Rhoades had been suspected of embezzling money at the rancheria. Spokespersons for the FBI and the U.S. attorney with jurisdiction over the region declined to comment. Duran would say only that Rhoades was being investigated for alleged improprieties.
He confirmed that the tribal council was holding an administrative hearing to evict Rhoades from the tribal land. He said the tribe had only 11 voting members but had been in the valley for centuries, with its lands held in a tribal trust.
Duran said tribal members received a portion of casino proceeds from outside tribes with casinos, but that Cedarville Rancheria did not operate a casino. The rancheria owns a gas station and store on the road into the town of Cedarville, which provides members with additional income. The headquarters, where the shooting took place, is located 20 miles away in Alturas.
“The interesting thing about this tribe is that they got along very well with both communities — Cedarville and Alturas,” he said. “It’s one of the only tribes where you have some sort of harmony. “
Cedarville Rancheria is a small, federally recognized tribe of 35 people, most of whom live on its 26-acre reservation. It is one of a number of tribes that fall under the umbrella of Northern Paiutes, whose territory includes parts of California, Oregon, Nevada and Idaho.
Heather MacDonnell, the Alturas city treasurer and finance director, said she was at her desk at City Hall on Thursday afternoon when the woman burst in and screamed for help.
“She said there was a woman shooting everybody,” MacDonnell said. “She had so much blood on her. Someone was shot right next to her.”
MacDonnell called the woman “the hero of the day.”
MacDonnell and another city employee raced down the hall to alert police. When the officers arrived at the tribal headquarters, Rhoades had run out of bullets and was brandishing a large knife, police said.
“She had fired all the ammunition she had on her own,” MacDonnell said. “She was taken down.”
Barnes, the police chief, said Rhoades made a statement after her arrest and then asked for an attorney. He said he believed all the victims had sustained gunshot wounds.
After the shooting, Rhoades grabbed a butcher knife from a kitchen and started attacking a tribal member, Barnes said. Others in the room pulled her away. Barnes said two semiautomatic handguns were found at the scene.
The tribal headquarters is a small, single-story building with a day-care center. A handful of children, including a 5-day-old infant, were at the center during the shooting.
Barnes said Rhoades was known to police but had never been arrested. She could be “difficult” at times, he said.
Maddy Arredondo, 24, who works for a nearby sister tribe, described Rhoades as a large, burly, outspoken woman known for being “assertive and loud.” She said Rhoades worked at a gas station on the rancheria.
“She seemed normal,” Arredondo said. “I would never have expected her to do something like this.”
Willon reported from Alturas, Dolan from San Francisco, Gold from Los Angeles.