Grocery bags full of cash, a missing jet and the armed fight for a Native American casino


In this photo taken Monday, vehicles marked “Tribal Police” and uniformed personnel post themselves at the parking lot entrances of the RollingHills Casino in an attempt to shut down its operations in Corning, Calif. The Northern California Native American casino is at the center of a tense tribal dispute. (AP Photo/Red Bluff Daily News, Chip Thompson)

The Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians is a tiny Northern California tribe that’s struggling to deal with a massive amount of drama over its fractured membership and the future of its $100 million-a-year casino.

The intra-tribal dispute “has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster – a missing private jet and gold bars, a cyberattack that shut down some gambling machines, a former FBI agent and tribal treasurer who are accused of embezzling millions of dollars, blood relatives trying to kick each other out of the tribe and alleged death threats and guns for hire armed with semi-automatic weapons on both sides,” according to The Sacramento Bee, which has reported extensively on the story.

With the drama coming to a head, a federal judge has temporarily barred the two factions of the 240-some-member nation from squaring off with firearms and hired guns (AR-15-wielding guards) outside the casino and on other tribal lands, The Bee reported.

The ruling, issued last week by U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, is just the latest development in a months-long saga that has roiled the tribe.

Rolling Hills Casino is the source of its fortune and the heart of its members’ futures. Just about every man, woman and child receives a direct financial benefit from its profits: adults receive a $54,000 annual payment and children are given trust funds and scholarships, The Bee reported.

The fight over who controls all of that money has pitted tribal member against tribal member and families against families.

In April, Tribal Chairman Andy Freeman ousted 76 members of the Henthorne/Pata family, accusing Tribal Council members who belonged to that family of not having an authentic genealogical link to the tribe, and of misappropriating millions of dollars, the Corning Observer reported.

Among those swept up in the scandal: Tribal Treasurer Leslie Lohse and former FBI agent John Crosby, who was the tribe’s economic development officer.

The Paskenta Gaming Commission also suspended the gaming license of a commission member, Jon Pata, after a tribe investigation found that Pata family members had allegedly misappropriated more than $2 million. On one occasion, the commission charged, tribal administrator Ines Crosby, Pata’s sister, cashed a check for almost $200,000 at the casino and walked out with grocery bags full of cash.

The dispute is still raging.

Freeman has accused Crosby of using tribal money to finance his house, swimming pool baseball court and other renovations, according to The Sacramento Bee – and of using the tribe’s private jet to make $10 million in unauthorized trips.

The plane, a Cesna Citation Encore, is allegedly missing, along with $209,000 worth of gold, which Crosby is alleged to have purchased without authorization.

But Crosby claims everything is on the up and up and that he knows exactly where both the gold and the jet are, according to The Bee:

Crosby said money he used for his house and cars came from the line of credit, and that he intended to repay it unless the tribe voted to forgive the debt. “I did buy the gold for the tribe,” he said. Both the gold and the jet are being kept in a safe place after Andrew Freeman’s faction broke into the tribal offices at 2 a.m. one morning and “hauled everything out,” Crosby said.

Tribe Chairman Freeman has retained a small army of AR-15-carrying security guards to protect the casino. They’ve squared off with a uniformed and armed group of self-described “tribal police” who are loyal to the other side.

Action News Now filed this report from the scene earlier this month:

Acting on the request of California’s Deputy Attorney General, William P. Torngren, the federal judge’s ruling last week was an effort to stop the dispute from becoming a bloody tragedy like the one that befell another California tribe earlier this year, The Bee reported:

In February, the former chairwoman of the 35-member Cedarville Rancheria in rural Modoc County, Cherie Lash Rhoades, allegedly pulled a gun at a tribal meeting to discuss her suspension and eviction on embezzlement charges. She allegedly killed her brother, tribal chairman Rurik “Two Bears” Davis, along with her niece, nephew and another tribal member, police said. Rhoades, who pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder, is being held without bail pending trial.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to The Bee, “issued an ‘administrative cease and desist order’ saying the new tribal leadership violated federal law by taking control of the casino.” The BIA “will continue to recognize the old Tribal Council.”

Attorneys for Lohse, Crosby and other ousted Tribal Council members are seeking to shut down the casino until the dispute is resolved.

One interesting side note, via The Bee: In a letter to the Sacramento FBI office, Tribal Chairman Freeman alleged that Lohse and Crosby’s unauthorized use of the private jet included “trips to watch Leslie Lohse’s son Kyle, now a pitcher with the Milwaukee Brewers, play baseball.”

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip

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