Unrecognized tribe accused in immigration scam claims sovereignty

By Roxana Hegeman
Wichita, Kansas (AP) 9-07

The leader of an unrecognized American Indian tribe told authorities they had no right to be “on sovereign land” when they came to arrest him on charges stemming from the sale of tribal memberships to illegal immigrants, according to court documents.

The Kaweah Indian Nation had at least one armed tribal police officer at one of its Wichita offices, the court documents say, and authorities who raided the group’s offices seized four loaded firearms and boxes of ammunition.

Prosecutors also contend in court filings that the presence of weapons and the officer was consistent with Malcolm L. Webber’s long-standing pattern of asserting civil authority over his organization with shows of force that began in the 1980s in Oatman, Ariz., and continues until today.

According to the court filing, Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, at one time threatened the Mohave County Sheriff’s Department in Arizona, stating, “It will make Wounded Knee look like a Sunday School picnic.”

But defense attorney Kurt Kerns portrayed his 69-year-old client as a “mild-mannered pastor” who was the victim of renegade underlings who sold tribal memberships to immigrants for hundreds of dollars and pocketed the money.

“Malcolm is another victim of this fraud. He is not a perpetrator,” Kerns told the judge.

Kerns said Webber told immigrants they would have the benefits of tribal membership only after the tribe was federally recognized and said others may have misunderstood him.

Kerns told the judge Webber fired one person after finding out he was selling the memberships at an inflated price. Kerns also argued that Webber’s actions actually were helpful because illegal immigrants were registering with him.

The arguments came as the government sought Monday to keep Webber incarcerated until his trial on charges of attempting to defraud the federal government, harboring illegal immigrants and possession of false identification documents with intent to defraud the United States.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson told the court that Webber would intimidate witnesses and obstruct justice if freed. Anderson cited the arrest of Eduviges del Carmen Zamora, the tribe’s so-called deputy secretary of state. After she was questioned, Anderson said, the woman was fearful of going into a room with other tribal members and made the motion of having her throat slit.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald Bostwick kept Webber in jail for now and continued his detention hearing until Friday so Kerns could address what the judge said were his concerns that Webber may use his network of tribal offices in Texas and Mexico to flee.

The judge also expressed concerns about the safety of court officials, given the statements Webber allegedly made about sovereignty, and about how the court could prevent Webber from having prohibited contacts with other tribal members.

“It is very difficult for me to buy the picture the defendant paints of himself as a victim,” Bostwick said.

In an unusually passionate court filing, prosecutors pointed to Webber’s prior felony conviction for lewd and lascivious behavior: “The defendant’s prior conviction, while 20 years old, also reflects poorly on his character, and further raises questions about whether any promises he may make to the Court are worth the carbon dioxide the defendant exhales to utter them.”

Prosecutors contend Webber and his agents, in an elaborate nationwide scheme spanning several states, sold tribal memberships in the Kaweah Indian Nation to immigrants under the guise that the memberships would make them U.S. citizens.

Neither Webber nor tribe spokesman Manuel Urbina have discussed the case since the charges were filed Sept. 7. However, in an interview the week before the raid, Urbina denied that the tribe told illegal immigrants that membership would protect them from being deported.

Anderson told the court that such public statements were intended to let others know what they should say when questioned by authorities.

The federal government does not recognize the Kaweah Indian Nation as an American Indian tribe. The tribal memberships did not make the buyers U.S. citizens, which would allow them to get driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and other documents.

“The government’s overwhelming evidence indicates that the defendant is preying on the most vulnerable and desperate in American society, taking not only their money but raising in some the false hope that his medicine water will somehow confer upon them United States citizenship,” prosecutors said in court papers.

The hearing offered the first public glimpse into the government’s case, and the extent to which the Kaweah allegedly portrayed itself as a sovereign nation with purported ambassadors to Mexico, Canada and other countries. The Kaweah Indian Nation purported to have at least 10 tribes in Kansas, with others located across the nation. It also had its own police officers.