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Mailed Threats

Mystery: Six people--all tied to development projects on lands containing Indian remains--have been sent packages containing large bullets. Some targets say they're nervous.

March 30, 1997|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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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