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Judge Voids Suit, Ends Squabble Between Tribal Factions

September 23, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected on Monday a lawsuit filed by a faction of a landless San Gabriel Valley tribe that wants to build a casino against the wishes of another faction that has no interest in gambling.

After a year of legal squabbling, Judge Soussan Bruguera determined that the court lacked jurisdiction over the case. The ruling brought applause from a dozen members of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe who had been driven nearly into bankruptcy by the lawsuit.

"My nightmare is finally over," said defendant Lorraine Madrid, 52. "We've seen nothing but hardship and depression since this case began. It's affected our family, even our holidays."

"It was a painful lawsuit," said tribal Vice Chairman Anthony Morales Jr., 32, "brought by a gaming lawyer who recruited a few disgruntled Indians as part of an effort to get a casino."

"The first words out of that lawyer's mouth were threats," he added. "He said we were going to have our wages garnished, our property seized, and our bank accounts drained. Finally, we're off the hook."

Plaintiffs' attorneys Jonathan Stein and Rae Lamothe of Santa Monica declined to be interviewed.

The group backing the casino wanted membership in a corporation created to preserve and protect the 400-member tribe's culture. The tribe has control of historical documents and other resources that could help it gain federal recognition, a requirement for taking land into trust. Plaintiffs were suing the corporation and the tribe.

The plaintiffs' goals included building the first Indian casino in Los Angeles County.

A well-located casino, Stein said in court documents, could gross $200 million a year from slot machines, and a net of $70 million. The 37 defendants, he argued, were scheming to keep casino proceeds for themselves by limiting membership in the corporation.

However, defendants in the case insisted that the corporation is not a membership entity.

Confusion over the motivation for the lawsuit moved Judge Bruguera to repeatedly ask: "What is it plaintiffs want? I can't figure it out."

Morales' lawyer, Jack Schwartz, said Stein offered to drop the suit if defendants would turn over documents, compiled with help from UCLA scholars, proving the tribe's ancestral ties to the region.

Now, Schwartz said, his group was free to "get recognized by the federal government, then reestablish our land base. After that, we are going to become an extremely powerful political force in Los Angeles County."

Tribal Chairman Anthony Morales Sr., a defendant in the case, said he had no intention of pushing for a casino.

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