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Tribal power struggle in Central Valley strands casino customers

Tribal power struggle in Central Valley strands casino customers
A gambler puts money into the slot machine at the Morongo Casino in Cabazon in 2008. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

More than a dozen people armed with guns and wearing bulletproof vests walked into a Central Valley casino Thursday night, triggering a mass evacuation of customers and employees who were left stranded for hours.

It was the latest escalation of a tribal dispute that festered further after a disputed election earlier this year.

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The group claims to represent the legitimate leadership of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians tribe in Madera County. In 2012, a confrontation caused a response by about 100 sheriff's deputies and left two people hospitalized, one with a stab wound.
In the most recent incident, up to 20 people entered the hotel side of the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in the town of Coarsegold about 6 p.m. and occupied offices between the hotel and the casino sections, Madera County sheriff’s officials said.

"It was literally shut down within minutes and there was virtually nothing anybody could do about it," said Madera County sheriff's spokesoman Erica Stuart.

After entering the casino the group pulled a fire alarm and shut off power to the property, Stuart said. Casino managers told employees to evacuate, leaving hundreds of casino visitors who had used the valet services and hotel guests without the means to retrieve their cars or belongings.

An attorney representing casino management told The Times on Friday that guests were later able to reclaim their property under sheriff's deputy escort and that casino operators maintained control of the property.

This is the first time that a large number of non-tribe members have been caught in the middle of the leadership dispute, Stuart said. The Sheriff's Department has limited power because the casino is on tribal land, she added.

"This has never happened in the casino, ever. This had always happened across the way, where the tribal headquarters are," Stuart said.

The casino is about 200 miles south of San Francisco in the Sierra foothills near Yosemite National Park.

The group that entered the casino Thursday claims it is trying to recover documents to hand over to the National Indian Gaming Commission, which had asked to review them. The agency said this week that it will close the casino Oct. 27 if two years worth of financial paperwork isn't handed over for review.

The casino's current operators said they were working with the commission to resolve the issue. The casino is the tribe's biggest source of revenue.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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