Casino Card Played in Burial-Site Fight 
Boosters of a San Juan school say Juaneņos oppose an expansion plan 
so a casino can be built. One faction calls the move a 'fear tactic.'

by Dave McKibben Times Staff Writer
LA Times
11 October 2004

"Even the media is perpetuating this lie." — Sara Hayes, SENAA West

The question has been lurking for years: Do Juaneņo Indians want to build a casino on land leased by a Roman Catholic high school in San Juan Capistrano?

They would have to negotiate difficult bureaucratic hoops to develop a casino—assuming they want to get into the gambling business.

But the casino possibility is being raised by boosters of Junipero Serra High School to call into question Juaneņo Indians' opposition to the school's expansion plans.

Members of the tribe are fighting the $75-million plans to build athletic fields and a performing arts complex on their ancestors' graves. The 29-acre site, the Indians say, is better suited for a cultural center.

Juaneņos and other critics of the school's development have mounted a pair of referendum petition drives to reverse the city's approval of the school project.

In response, Serra supporters are wrapping up a campaign to get referendum backers to change their minds by completing signature-withdrawal cards. As part of that campaign, JSerra boosters sent voters two mailers, one headlined "Schools Not Casinos."

The Juaneņos have long been dogged by suggestions that they want to build a casino in south Orange County.

Juaneņo member Rebecca Robles, president of a group that launched the referendum against Serra, said she is surprised that school boosters played the casino card. Since the Juaneņo Band of Mission Indians are not a federally recognized tribe and don't have a reservation, Robles said they couldn't build a casino even if they wanted to.

But Cheryl Schmit, director of a Sacramento-based gambling watchdog group, said the Juaneņos may be better poised now than ever to build a casino.

The Juaneņos, she said, are one of several tribes that could benefit from a proposal in Congress requiring the Department of the Interior to review within a year a number of the most long-standing petitions for recognition. The Juaneņos first petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition in 1982; a splinter group led by Sonia Johnston applied in 1996.

"It's not far-fetched at all to imagine one of these full-service, Las Vegas-style casinos in that urban area," said Schmit, of the Stand Up for California group.

Damien Shilo, chairman of the tribal faction that first petitioned for federal recognition, said the referendum drive suffered after Serra raised the casino issue.

"We would hope the voters are smarter than that, but people are scared of casinos," said Shilo. "It's an out-and-out lie and it's shameful, but it's the biggest fear tactic they can use to get people not to sign."

Shilo conceded Friday, however, that the Juaneņos might one day pursue a casino in Orange or Riverside counties.

"We believe in economic development, so we don't want to give up our rights to a casino," he said. "But we understand the reality of it. It's a long shot. And it has to be in a community that's accepting of it and will help us."

San Juan Capistrano Mayor Joe Soto, who voted to approve the athletic fields in late August, said he isn't sure what to make of the casino issue.

"I think both sides are playing each other and kind of expanding on some truths and telling some little white lies," said Soto, who wouldn't elaborate.

Serra boosters deny they used scare tactics to keep people from signing the Juaneņos' petitions.

"There is no disrespect intended toward the Juaneņos," said Marc Spizziri, co-founder of the Roman Catholic school. "We're trying to expose all the facts. It's our belief that there is another agenda, to get federal recognition, to acquire property, then build a casino."

Ironically, the Juaneņos broke ranks in 1997 over casino discussions. The tribe, which was already split in two, split into three groups shortly after then-tribal chairman David Belardes began negotiating an agreement with Nevada investors to build a casino. Shilo said his group pulled out of casino negotiations after learning the burial grounds might be the site for a gambling hall.

Belardes, who has since been retained by Serra to monitor construction of the athletic and arts complex, said the sacred land was never considered for a casino site. He said he broke off negotiations with Nevada officials because he didn't believe the deal benefited the tribe.

But Belardes believes Shilo's group is still attempting to build a casino in San Juan Capistrano because it has connections to two people in the Indian gaming industry, Stephen B. Otto and Michael Lombardi.

Lombardi, chairman of the Augustine Casino in the Coachella Valley, said he advises Shilo on non-gaming issues. Otto advises several tribes on gaming and non-gaming issues.

"I do not believe the Juaneņos will ever be in gaming," Lombardi said. "There will be massive opposition from the local community and other tribes in Southern California."

Shilo has offered the City Council a binding memorandum to ensure that no casino would ever come to San Juan Capistrano. But Schmit said the document would not hold up if the Juaneņos are granted federal recognition.

"Once they are federally recognized," Schmit said, "they have more power than the city or the county and only a little less than the state."

Once a tribe is federally recognized and acquires land, it can petition the Department of the Interior to place the land in trust. If the petition is approved for gaming purposes by the secretary of Interior, a compact would have to be negotiated with the governor.

The road toward building an Indian casino has been successfully navigated recently by tribes much smaller than the Juaneņos, which has a little about 3,000 members.

The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians had no land until Rep. George Miller, a Democrat who represents San Pablo, pushed legislation in 2000 decreeing that a card room and parking lot in San Pablo, far from Lytton's original home in Sonoma County, become reservation land.

This year, the tribe struck a deal with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would have allowed the first Las Vegas-style casino in a major urban area, near Oakland. Legislative leaders later scrapped the deal, but lawmakers may address the issue when they reconvene.


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.