Judge: Central California casino to remain closed until rival tribal factions settle dispute

A casino at the center of a tribe's internal power struggle will remain closed until rival factions that operate it can settle their differences that recently erupted into an armed confrontation, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill said that tensions remain high at the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, prompting him to keep the doors closed, while admonishing tribal leaders for lacking leadership at the expense of hundreds of employees now without paychecks.

On Oct. 10, the attorney general and the National Indian Gaming Commission shut down the casino in Coarsegold, about 50 miles northeast of Fresno, after an armed faction stormed it, sending hundreds of gamblers running with chips still on the tables.

"The explosive keg that was present emotionally the day before the incident is present now," O'Neill said in court before issuing his written ruling.

The judge's order sides with the state attorney general, who sought the preliminary injunction out of a fear that the public and casino employees would be in danger if the doors were opened again.

Nobody was seriously injured in the confrontation, and the faction said it sought to obtain financial records to complete overdue audits. The casino had employed 1,100 people, most of them now laid off, and profits funded monthly checks to tribal members.

This marks the first time in California that officials have closed a tribe's casino, Deputy State Attorney General William Torngren said. Madera County Sheriff John Anderson has recommended criminal charges to prosecutors against at least 11 people stemming from the confrontation.

Three of the tribe's factions recently met for settlement talks, but they reported to the judge that they made little progress. O'Neill said that tribe's sovereignty limits his powers as a federal judge to wade into the tribal government's internal affairs. Meanwhile, people's livelihoods are at stake, he said.

"I feel deeply the frustration that these people who want to go back to work feel," the judge said. "They want an answer. They want a resolution."