On October 23, Robert Salgado, Chairman of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians in Riverside County, California, was indicted on 36 counts, including bribery, conspiracy, and filing false tax returns. His crime? Pocketing a quarter of a million dollars in kickbacks from contractors who sought to do business with the tribe. If convicted, Salgado could be sentenced up to 363 years in prison.
In the insular world of Indian gaming, Salgado is something of a throwback. A former football player, Salgado is a rough-looking and even tougher-talking customer who enjoys throwing his considerable weight around. He wears flashy suits, slicked-back hair and weighs in excess of three hundred pounds. His penchant for wearing tinted eyeglasses indoors makes him look more like a comic book gangster than a tribal politician. It’s easy to imagine Salgado presiding over his tribe the way an outspoken sheriff might run a small rural town in a hardboiled crime novel.
Even by today’s standards of commonplace corruption and governors gone wild, it’s a stunning fall from grace; but I can’t say I’m surprised. After I was hired at Thunderclap Casino (not its real name), I had to wait for the Gaming Commission to perform a background check before they would issue me a gaming license. (Indian casinos, if nothing else, are repositories of money and they are selective about who they let through the doors.) This is not the place to speculate why it took me so long to get my license, but I spent weeks reading everything I could find on the Internet about Indian casinos. A casino with the funny-sounding name of “Soboba” kept popping up in my searches and even though it’s a long ways from Thunderclap, I set up a Google alert for the tribe. Soboba has experienced more than its fair share of trouble over the years and Salgado has been at the heart of it.
Salgado will probably say the F.B.I. was out to get him and he’ll be right. But if he had a target on his back, it’s because he put it there. For the last two years, Salgado has been engaged in a feud with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department that is every bit as strange and violent as anything you might find in the pages of a history of the Old West.
On May 13 of 2008, sheriff’s deputies responded to a “shot’s fired” call at a guard shack on the Soboba reservation in San Jacinto less than a mile from the casino. When they arrived, they came under fire from two individuals—a man and a woman—in a scene reminiscent of a Wild West shootout, only with high-powered rifles. After the SWAT team was called in, a second exchange erupted, resulting in the deaths of the shooters, Joseph Arres and Tamara Hurtada, both of whom were Soboba tribal members and cousins of Chairman Salgado.
This was not an isolated incident. The week before, on May 8, Riverside deputies entered a remote area of the Soboba reservation and traded gunfire with three armed tribal members, one of whom, Eli Morillo, was killed while brandishing a AR-15 assault rifle. This marked the third time in six months that Riverside deputies had been involved in incidents where shots were fired on the reservation. Tribal member Gordon Arres, was also killed by a Riverside sheriff’s deputy in December 2007. The fact that Morillo’s brother, Peter, was killed in a shootout back in 2002, suggests long-standing animosity between the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which Salgado likened to the 7th Calvary. Sheriff’s deputies are wont to characterize the incidents in military terms like attacks and ambushes. On more than one occasion, Salgado has declared that his reservation is “in a near state of war” with Riverside Sheriffs.
These scenarios feel uncomfortably one-sided in their outcomes and do not put Riverside County law enforcement in a favorable light. In fact, several tribal members have filed wrongful death suits, citing the deputies’ use of excessive force. But the shootouts were not the only crimes committed on the reservation in recent memory:
• Last month, a Soboba tribal member was convicted of shooting a taxi cab driver in the parking lot of a Motel 6 in Hemet, CA, and, incredibly, dumping his body on the reservation.
• In September, the getaway driver in a $1.5 million heist by a pair of surveillance technicians at Soboba Casino in 2005 was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The driver was caught after he stashed half a million dollars at his mother’s house. His co-defendant was arrested the next day at a motel near LAX after spending part of the take on drugs and prostitutes. The pair modeled the heist after the movie “Ocean’s 11”
• While responding to a 911 call on the reservation last August, deputies found a murdered man in the home of a Soboba tribal member.
• Earlier that month, a Soboba woman who was out on parole after serving 17 years for murdering a former boyfriend, was sentenced to five more years for being in possession of drugs and guns during a traffic stop.
Is there a culture of crime on the Soboba Reservation that warrants the actions of the Riverside County Sheriffs Department? Is the aggressive nature of the “peace officers” pushing tribal members toward violent behavior? Are Soboba Indians the victims of racist police policies? If poverty-stricken reservations are pockets of systemized deprivation, how is that a wealthy tribe like Soboba is having issues with drugs and guns?
It would take a team of lawyers, sociologists, and historians to fully explore these questions. But the issue at the heart of all of them is tribal sovereignty. Without sovereignty there can be no casinos, so tribal governments, and their legal representatives, fight tooth and nail to protect this status and ensure that it isn’t weakened or infringed upon.
Reservations are strange entities with all kinds of legal loopholes and odd inversions of logic. Even though they are recognized by the federal government as a sovereign nation, county police cannot be barred from patrolling public roads (even though Salgado tried to do just this). Many Indians will tell you the only time they every see police is when they are arresting an Indian. Add to this discussion the remoteness of these reservations and you have a situation where those who live on them feel not so much above the law as apart from it, in much the same way that people who live on military bases feel disconnected from yet superior to the communities they are an intrinsic part of.
If you sat down with Salgado to talk about these incidents, he’d probably tell you the violence is sectarian, that the deputies are just the latest to wear the black hats in four hundred years of oppression against native peoples. Like KRS One proclaims in “The Sound of the Police,” “there can never be justice on stolen land.”
That’s what’s so disappointing about the nature of Salgado’s crimes, because it comes down to greed, pure and simple. Salgado lived large and used kickbacks to foot the bill. Records indicate he used some of the bribe money to pay off personal expenses and his wife’s credit card bills. It’s hardly meth labs and gun running, but it paints a picture of Salgado as a cheap crook. He is a wealthy man who abused his power acquire more wealth. Where there are commodities, there is corruption. It’s the same story around the world. This is sad because despite the proliferation of casinos, most Native Americans live in poverty on rural, and sometimes ultra-rural, reservations and the majority of those whose incomes are subsidized by gaming live ethical, responsible lives.
Still, it’s hard to imagine scenarios like these unfolding at the casino where I work. Like most casinos, Thunderclap maintains a security department that patrols both the reservation and the casino. It’s almost impossible to drive onto the reservation, park your car, and walk to one of the casino entrances without encountering a security detail in one form or another, and if you do, there’s a security officer who greets you at the door. It’s a safe, secure environment for both employees and guests. It’s also, it should be noted, a very small reservation with fewer than 500 enrolled members sharing a few hundred acres. As a result, the reservation functions like a small town i.e. it polices itself. It’s hard to get away with cheating, to say nothing of murder, when everybody knows your business.