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COARSEGOLD, Calif. (AP) -- When it comes to controlling California's flashy Las Vegas-style casinos, the stakes are enormous for tribes who own the gambling operations that collectively generate billions of dollars a year to sustain Native Americans up and down the state.
With this backdrop, several tribes in the past two years have fallen into nasty, sometimes violent, power struggles pitting factions and families against one another.
The most recent case, involving the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians near Yosemite National Park, climaxed in an armed raid on Oct. 9 by one faction that caused gamblers to flee, leaving their chips on the table.
The National Indian Gaming Commission, which regulates Indian casinos, and a federal judge shut down the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino, citing safety concerns. Charges have been filed against 15 men — two tribal council members, the tribal police chief and a hired security team that included a former sheriff's deputy and onetime Marine, and a former Navy Seal.
The casino remains closed — with estimated losses in the millions each week — because rivals have yet to diffuse what U.S. District Judge J. Lawrence O'Neill of Fresno called an "explosive keg" of emotions.
"It's a classic struggle over money and tribal rights and control for what everybody recognizes is a very lucrative enterprise," said Denise Runge, a gambling industry researcher at Helena College University of Montana.
"All of a sudden, you've got a government with a lot of responsibility and a lot of clout that didn't develop over decades like a lot of our other government institutions," said Phil Hogen, former chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Simmering tensions erupted last month at Chukchansi when a security team led by former tribal leader Tex McDonald stormed the casino. They were armed with firearms and stun guns and detained security officers.
Madera County Sheriff's deputies intervened. Prosecutors filed charges, including kidnapping, false imprisonment and assault against the men. Most have been arrested or have surrendered. McDonald is in jail with bail set at $2.4 million. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Chukchansi's financial losses are unclear because Indian casinos are not required to disclose earnings.