Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Turmoil within Los Coyotes Tribe Comes to Light Following Eagle Fire; Concerns that Somehow Detroit-Based Barwest was Involved


ast month's fire on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation near Warner Springs exposed tensions between the tribe, the company that is operating a military training center on the reservation, and the developer who is working to build an offsite casino on behalf of the tribe.

Those conflicts apparently had been simmering for months and centered on differences among tribal members about the best way to make money.

The fire apparently exacerbated those differences when two tribal members were arrested and charged with arson.

The tensions over the tribe's proposed casino and its business partners were revealed in an email exchange following the fire about how to respond to the arrests. 

The fire began at a guard shack belonging to the Eagle Rock Training Center, operated by a private firm on land leased from the tribe and used for military training and film productions.

A former training center employee, Jeremy Ortiz, 23, and another man, Jesse Durbin, 23, both tribal members, are accused of setting the fire on July 21, about 10:30 p.m.

Authorities have not said what may have motivated the two men to set the fire, which burned 22 square miles and took more than a week to extinguish.

Officials estimate that the firefighting efforts cost $15 million.

A Los Coyotes tribal member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Ortiz had been pressured by some family members to quit his job as a security guard at the training center.

"He was getting a lot of flak for it," the tribal member said regarding Ortiz' employment at the training center. "He was being called a traitor."

Ortiz didn't want to quit the job but did so under pressure, the tribal member said.

"'I couldn't take it anymore,'" the tribal member said Ortiz told him after resigning.

According to authorities, Ortiz admitted that he poured gasoline at the guard shack and he said Durbin lit it on fire.

Ortiz reportedly told investigators that he had decided to burn down the shack when he and Durbin were passing by, according to an affidavit.

Less than a mile away from the shack, authorities found a Ford Expedition stuck and blocking the road, according to the affidavit.

The hood was still warm and inside the cab was a red plastic fuel container, a Bic lighter and cans of Keystone beer.

'Time to get real'
In a statement issued by Eagle Rock, the company said Ortiz had previously resigned his position and was eligible for rehire.

However, he had been in trouble with the company before and was on tribal court probation for an incident on Dec. 14, 2010.

The exact details of the incident were not available but he apparently challenged someone at the training center to a fight.

In a tribal court hearing on Feb. 16, Brian Bonfiglio, an official with Eagle Rock, asked the judge for leniency. Based on that testimony, the judge agreed to suspend a $1,700 fine if Ortiz agreed to stay out of trouble for one year.

By some accounts, Ortiz was a troubled young man who was looking to turn his life around. In his own Facebook page, Ortiz hinted at a difficult past.

"Thinking of going back to school and finding a career I enjoy," Ortiz wrote. "On my own now, so time to get real about the moves I make in this life."

The tribal member said he was surprised when he learned that Ortiz had been arrested. He said he did not know what may have caused Ortiz to set the blaze.

"I wish I knew," he said. "I told him if he had any problems to please come see me."

Casino dreams
A neighbor who lives near the reservation said she has heard tribal members lament that their tribe has not benefited from Indian gaming.

The Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeňo Indians contend they are one of the poorest tribes in San Diego County.

It was featured on ads promoting the passage of Proposition 1A in 2000, which legalized Las Vegas-style gambling on tribal lands. While other tribes in the region have prospered with large gambling operations, Los Coyotes has struggled to bring its casino dreams to fruition.

For nearly a decade, the tribe has pushed to build a casino in Barstow, halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Los Coyotes and its partner, Detroit-based LCB BarWest, LLC, hope to attract some of the gamblers headed to Las Vegas on Interstate 15.

Blogger's Note: LCB Barwest L.L.C. was formed in 2005 by agents of Detroit casino syndicators Michael J. Malik, Sr. and Marian Ilitch.  There are a total of 9 "Barwest" entities registered at the Michigan Department of Corporations presumed to be affiliated with Malik/Ilitch.  A tenth, Barwest, Inc. does not appear to be a Malik/Ilitch affiliate.  John Kotlar, vice president of Tax Affairs at Ilitch Holdings, is the resident agent of eight of those nine affiliates.  Attorney William Serwer, a Malik agent, is resident agent of the other one.

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