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Man charged in alleged sale of tribal status to immigrants

Buyers reportedly were told that membership in the phony group would mean U.S. citizenship.

September 10, 2007|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Responding to a call from Long Beach police in June, federal agents discovered about a dozen immigrants lined up outside a home, waiting to buy memberships to an Indian tribe.

Two Kaweah Indian Nation representatives had promised the immigrants that membership automatically would make them U.S. citizens and shield them from deportation, authorities said.

But there were a couple of problems with the plan: The tribe was fictitious and the alleged promises false.

On Friday, authorities charged Malcolm L. Webber, who calls himself Chief Thunderbird IV, in connection with a scheme he allegedly organized to sell fraudulent tribal documents to illegal immigrants throughout the nation. Webber, 69, of Kansas was arrested the previous day in Wichita.

Authorities said immigrants attempted to use the tribal documents to get driver's licenses, passports or Social Security cards in California, Michigan, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri.

In Wichita alone, more than 300 people claiming to be U.S. citizens submitted Kaweah tribal documents to the Social Security office.

"The real victims in this situation are the lawful . . . Native American tribal organizations who had their status infringed upon fraudulently," said Mark Fox, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Kansas.

No one from the Kaweah Indian Nation could be reached for comment Friday.

The Kaweah Indian Nation, which was formed in California, is not a federally recognized tribe, according to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe had applied for recognition in the 1980s but did not meet the requirements. The bureau determined that Webber was not Indian and that the tribe had "no characteristics of an Indian tribe which has maintained tribal relations from historical times," according to the criminal complaint filed against Webber.

Bureau spokesman Gary Garrison said this was not the first such scam.

"Because there are a lot of misconceptions about American Indians, there are a lot of opportunities for dishonest people to take advantage," Garrison said. "Federally recognized tribal people don't like it, but there is nothing we can do about it."

Garrison added that federally recognized tribes do not sell memberships.

Immigration agents in Kansas discovered the scheme in April, when they encountered an illegal immigrant with a Kaweah tribal identification card and a "certificate of citizenship" indicating he was a member. The immigrant had paid $220 for the documents, according to the indictment.

Agents traced the identification card back to Webber and discovered that the so-called chief had hired people to sell Kaweah memberships in several states, they said. Thousands of illegal immigrants bought memberships, paying from $50 to $1,200 for Kaweah documents, according to the indictment.

Agents seized nearly $13,000 in cash from the Long Beach home and $300,000 from a Kansas bank account bearing the name of the fictitious tribe.

Webber also used churches, including one in Long Beach, to find immigrants willing to purchase the tribal membership, authorities said.

"Some were actually duped into thinking this would confer them legal status," said Kevin Kozak, the immigration agency's deputy special agent in charge in Los Angeles. "Others knew full well that this was fraud."

In addition to the immigrants waiting outside the Long Beach house, dozens more had recently been transported from California to Kansas to obtain tribal documents, Kozak said.

Webber faces charges of possessing false identification documents with the intent to defraud the United States, harboring illegal immigrants and attempting to defraud the government. If convicted, he could face 15 years in federal prison on the first charge, 10 years for the second and five years on the last charge.

The investigation into the Kaweah Indian Nation is ongoing, immigration authorities said.

anna.gorman@latimes.com

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