Since June 2011, Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians has been trying to evict Eagle Rock Training Center (ERTC), a combat training facility founded by ex-Blackwater Vice President Brian Bonfiglio. The tribe alleged that a 25-year lease agreement with ERTC signed in 2010 by then-tribal spokesperson Francine Kupsch, which also included a waiver of the tribe’s sovereign immunity, was void because it had not been reviewed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs; nor had it been ratified by the tribe’s General Council.
When the tribe attempted to evict ERTC last year, the company refused. Facing physical expulsion from the land by tribal police, ERTC took the tribe to federal court. In its filing, ERTC alleged that members of the tribe had sabotaged its property and committed arson that led to the 14,000-square mile Eagle fire in July.
Bonfiglio left the company amid the legal scuffle, although other members of the company continued to pursue military contracts and deals with film and television production companies.
“It was a weird game of chicken,” Los Coyotes attorney Mark Radoff says. “No matter what they did, we were going to exclude them" from the land.
Los Coyotes took its case to Intertribal Court of Southern California, which heard arguments in December. Tribal Chief Judge Anthony Brandenburg issued his ruling on Feb. 1, siding with the tribe and rendering the lease invalid.
In his decision, Brandenburg noted that the contract did not include the official tribal stamp; nor could ERTC provide evidence that the General Council had voted on the lease. ERTC’s attorneys argued that it believed Kupsch could make decisions on behalf of the tribe, a position at which the judge scoffed, particularly when it came to waiving sovereign immunity.
“Allowing a single person to do so is unheard of in Indian Country and is contrary to the sacred principle,” the judge wrote.
The judge did not award damages to either party since the tribe had, in fact, received some compensation from ERTC’s activities. However, the judge made it clear he believes ERTC exploited the tribe’s naivete:
“The bargaining positions of the parties completely favored ERTC. Los Coyotes economically is a poor tribe. Couple with their remote location, high rate of unemployment and lack of economic standing in the Tribal world they are clearly in need. As presented at Tribal meetings and by way of testimony at trial ERTC’s promises to the tribe were almost [too] good to be true, at times grandiose. There is no doubt in the court’s mind that during negotiations ERTC had the upper hand. Promises of Hollywood productions, exposure on the Discovery Channel, million dollar greenhouses, military exercises, a new tribal hall, a children’s park, automobiles and more were made. It is understandable why lacking the same bargaining position, legal and business acumen Ms. Francine Kupsch did what she did. However her good intentions do not compensate for her actions."
Radoff says that there are between 40 and 80 shipping containers still on the Los Coyotes land. ERTC was supposed to pull its equipment from the reservation by the end of March, but Los Coyotes agreed to an extension to June on condition that ERTC drop its federal case. Both parties have formally agreed to the timeline.
ERTC’s representatives have not responded to emails.
“It’s a never-ending nightmare,” Radoff says. “Every detail you could think of becomes a problem. If they say "Monday," they come on "Tuesday." Or they don’t stop at the gate. It should be easier for adults to get through this.”