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Designs on Sargent Ranch?

Amah Mutsun Tribal Chairman Valentin Lopez, right, and Amah Mutsun member Nick Carabajal pray in the four directions for balance during the Mass of Reconciliation at Mission San Juan Bautista in 2012.

More than a decade after Irenne Zwierlein – a Native American tribal member who previously inked plans with a major developer to build on roughly 6,000 acres of pristine property just south of Gilroy known as Sargent Ranch – forged documents in an attempt to prove herself the rightful leader of the local Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Ohlone/Costanoan Indians, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs made a move last week that left her rivals “absolutely blindsided.”

In a letter sent May 31 to all tribe members, the BIA announced it has chosen to work with Zwierlein, whose legitimacy as a tribal leader is widely disputed among a majority of the 500-member Mutsun tribe that traces its roots back to this area 3,000 years ago.

Zwierlein, in 2004, signed a development agreement with the majority owner of Sargent Ranch. Though that agreement never referenced a luxury gaming resort, many speculated that would be the outcome once the deal was locked in.

After 22 years of inching its way up the list of dozens of tribes across the country trying to attain the tax perks, land trust and federal benefits that come with recognition, the Mutsun are now second in line to receive the sought-after status.

But in this recent turn of events, the BIA – just six years after it launched an internal investigation of Zwierlein and confirmed she forged and mailed documents in what her rivals called an attempt to cling to power – kicked tribal Chairman Valentin Lopez out of the picture and chose to work with Zwierlein only.

For the last 10 years, Lopez has been the spokesman and public face of the Mutsun for a number of community outreach efforts and several major landmark events. This includes the recent mass of reconciliation at Mission San Juan Bautista with the Catholic Diocese of Monterey; forging a tribal land trust in partnership with the Sempervirens Fund; and receiving a formal proclamation from the City of San Juan Bautista recognizing the current-day tribe as “the historic and continuous Amah-Mutsun Ohlone Tribe that existed before Spanish contact.”

“It’s totally bizarre that they would give recognition to a woman who admitted to fraud,” said Lopez, visibly bewildered and upset during a visit to the Dispatch last week.

Lopez said Zwierlein was once the chairwoman of the Amuh Mutsun, but she resigned in 2001 and dropped involvement in local tribal activities and ceremonies – and instead began secretly corresponding with the BIA to prove herself as the tribe’s true chairwoman. 

The BIA ignored this newspaper’s 15 phone calls over the past week. Messages and voicemails left with several secretaries went unanswered, and the BIA’s media contact did not respond to multiple emails.

Calls to Congressman Mike Honda’s office were also not returned.

Zwierlein, who lives in Woodside, would only respond through a public relations agent, Michelle Zimmer, who provided a written statement to the Dispatch.

“Irenne Zwierlein is the rightful and only chairperson for the California Native American Tribe Amah-Mutsun Band of Ohlone/Costanoan Indians,” the statement said. “Mr. Lopez is not now nor has he ever been a member of the Native American Tribe, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Mission San Juan Bautista … as a Tribe we celebrate these Final Determinations by the United States Department of the Interior, Office of Federal Acknowledgment.”

On June 2, just two days after the BIA announced it would be working with Zwierlein, someone with an email address of “Evil Troll” sent a scanned copy of the BIA’s letter to a long list of recipients including editors at the Monterey Herald, and TV stations KSBW and KQED.

“Please read this attachment it is an important document and make correction for your past misrepresentation of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Mission San Juan Bautista. Perhaps it will in the future make you realize people should check there facts before slandering and misrepresenting others that they obviously know nothing about and truly are not willing to learn about,” (sic) the letter reads.

The Dispatch sent an email to “Evil Troll” asking to speak with Zwierlein. A few hours later, Zimmer responded with statements from Zwierlein.

Lopez said he talked to Lee Fleming, director of federal acknowledgment of the BIA’s office, who told him the BIA went with Zwierlein instead of Lopez’ group because some of the 1,007 pages of Lopez’ documentation was “outdated.”

Fleming allegedly said that Lopez’ membership list and allegiance statement needed to be updated as of 2012.

“So our allegiance statement is outdated, and that’s the reason he gave me for choosing Irenne?” questioned Lopez. “It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Lopez is concerned as to what Zwierlein submitted that persuaded the BIA to work with her, given her proven history of forging documents.

“If she’s holding meetings, or involved with the tribe at all, I sure don’t see her around or hear about it,” Lopez said.

The first two forgeries arrived at the BIA in summer 2000, just a few months after Zwierlein resigned as tribal chairwoman amid criticisms of her handling of $130,000 in federal grant money.

The forged letters suggested the original tribal council members – not Zwierlein – had resigned from the group.

A forensic study found the signatures on the first two forgeries were photocopied and pasted from other tribal correspondence. Three more of Zwierlein’s forgeries from 2002 included a letter to the BIA, a letter to the California Native American Heritage Commission and a letter to a tribal member threatening legal action.

After Zwierlein left the Mutsun (she admitted to the Dispatch in 2004 that she did in fact resign), the BIA continued to treat her as the rightful leader, and freed Zwierlein to create a new tribal council and a constitution that anoints her chairwoman for life.

“I was in the room when she resigned,” said Paul Mondragon, Mutsun council member. “And then she put my name on three fraudulent letters she sent to the government. I’m really upset about this and not sure how we will go about it. But we will do something about it if we can.”

The Mutsun and Sargent Ranch

Then there’s the clouded future for Sargent Ranch, the 6,000 acres of rolling hills and open space south of Gilroy in which the Amuh Mutsun once lived. For decades now, the tribe has been seeking permission through the BIA to have access to the land in order to hold formal ceremonies and prayers on the property.

Zwierlein’s plans for the land – if bestowed to her by the government following federal recognition – appear to be far more glitzy.

Three years ago, she was in talks with the La Jolla developer Wayne Pierce who once owned 85 percent of Sargent Ranch.

Under an economic development plan Zwierlein submitted to the BIA, Pierce – eager to cut a deal with the tribe in order to sidestep county and state zoning laws – would have provided the Amah Mutsun with $21 million for a cultural center. Five hundred acres would be reserved for tribal members’ homes and businesses, as well as open space and the cultural center. The remaining 3,000 acres would be leased back to Pierce.

The economic development plan obtained by the Dispatch never mentioned a “luxury gaming resort” and Zwierlein repeatedly denied being involved with any casino plans, despite a website in 2010 revealing Pierce’s blueprints for a “luxury gaming resort.”

Pierce has since gone bankrupt and foreclosed out of his share of Sargent Ranch, according to Howard Justus, accountant for Debt Acquisition Company of America. Justus, whose company has acquired 45 percent of the debt on the property, said that with Pierce gone, casino plans are dead on arrival.

“The new ownership group will decide how they will proceed, but I have not heard anybody discussing any plans anything remotely close to what Wayne Pierce had in mind,” he said.

Lopez says his group has no intentions of developing the majority of the land, if they were to obtain it.

“Our focus is our history, language, culture. We’ve been approached by developers in the past, and we’ve always said no,” he said.

Principally associated with Mission San Juan Bautista and the surrounding areas of Hollister and Gilroy, the Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band occupied the San Juan Valley “long before the Spanish arrived in the late 1700s,” as noted on the tribe’s website. The indigenous peoples were subjected to a subservient existence beneath the Spanish Catholic regime when European colonization of the Pacific coast began in the 1770s.

“This is just another example of government taking action without any thought, any though of consequences. It’s a huge injustice to our tribe,” Lopez said.

Ed Ketchum, Mutsun tribal council member since 1992 said it’s tough for him to understand why the BIA went with Zwierlein without providing the tribe a substantial reason.

“It’s troublesome, and it’s disheartening. But it’s not the end of the world. I know who I am, and we know who we are as a tribe. We are a people who have been a community for the last eon of time,” Ketchum said.