Alturas tribal shooting: Was embezzlement, eviction behind family revenge?

The killing of four people – three of them family members of alleged shooter Cherie Lash Rhoades – has shocked a small tribal community. Investigators are looking at mismanagement of tribal funds.

Jeff Barnard/AP
Downtown Cedarville, Calif., home to the Cedarville Rancheria, a small tribal organization. A former leader of the group, Cherie Lash Rhoades, is being held on suspicion of opening fire on a tribal meeting to evict her in Alturas, Calif, 25 miles away, killing four and wounding two.

At this point in a violent tale that has shocked a rural California community, the shooting that killed three family members and a tribal official seems to have been preceded by the threat of eviction from tribal housing, revenge, and the possible embezzlement of funds meant to serve members of a tiny native American community.

The Cedarville Rancheria is a federally recognized tribe of about 35 people living on a 26-acre reservation in northern California’s high desert country. It’s part of the native grouping known as Northern Paiutes in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho.

Like the many other tribal groups in the US, voting members of the Cedarville Rancheria are the ones who approve or disapprove tribal enrollment.

As the Sacramento Bee newspaper reports, “Experts say the shooting in Modoc County is the latest, and most chilling, example of tribal violence over power struggles and disenrollments by California’s federally recognized American Indian tribes, which as sovereign nations have the right to decide who’s in and who’s out…”

In the latest such episode, a meeting at tribal headquarters in Alturas, Calif., was considering whether to evict Cherie Lash Rhoades and her son from the house where they lived on the rancheria.

At some point in the discussion, attended by about 18 people and some children, according to the Associated Press and other press reports, Ms. Rhoades pulled two handguns and began firing, then grabbed a butcher knife when she ran out of bullets.

By the time she was subdued chasing people out of the building, four people had been killed, including her brother (the tribal chairman), a nephew, a niece, and the tribal administrator.

Rhoades, who is charged with four counts of murder, attempted murder, and child endangerment, is being held in an undisclosed location because the husband of one of the victims – tribal administrator Lynn Russo – works at the Modoc County jail.

"This came as a complete shock to everyone in the tribe," Jack Duran, who serves as the tribe's general counsel, told the Los Angeles Times. "All of these folks are related."

Still, some community members were not completely surprised by Rhoades’s alleged behavior that afternoon.

"She bullied her way through life…. She kept pushing and plowing to get her way," lifelong Cedarville resident and market owner Sandra Parriott told the AP. "But I would never think she would start blowing people away in a meeting."

"You did not want to get on her bad side," said Penny Nash, Ms. Parriott's sister. "She has a powerful personality."

Rhoades’s alleged motive in the killings – in particular, why eviction proceedings were underway – remains unclear.

Federal authorities are investigating reports of missing tribal funds, which several sources suggest could have occurred during the time when Rhoades was tribal chairman – a position from which she was ousted by tribal members.

Modoc County, spread over more than 4,000 square miles but with a total population of only about 9,000 in the northeast corner of California, is ranching and timber country. Much of the land is managed by the US Forest Service (USFS) and the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which provide some of the region’s best jobs.

Unlike other tribes in the West, the Cedarville Rancheria does not operate a casino.

But according to the Sacramento Bee, the tribe does get up to $1.1 million a year from the Revenue Sharing Trust Fund financed by tribes that have paid nearly half a billion dollars in casino revenue to the state, according to the California Gambling Control Commission.

The Cedarville Rancheria has received more than $13 million since the Revenue Sharing Trust Fund was started about a decade ago, according to this report.

Tribal members and local law enforcement authorities have told reporters that Rhoades was the target of a federal investigation into at least $50,000 in missing tribal funds.

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