PORTERVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Gravediggers work the old fashioned way on the Tule River Indian Reservation, chipping away at the hard pan by hand with pickaxes and shoveling the dirt aside. They say it’s a sign of respect not to use machinery, but never has the crew had to dig so many at one time.
On Monday the brothers who run the reservation cemetery were preparing to dig a grave for Alyssa Celaya, 8, who died Sunday in a rampage that also took the life of her grandmother and the grandmother’s two brothers. It will be the first of five they’ll dig this week, they said.
The brutal murders have shaken this peace-preaching tribe because it goes against their teachings that love for family exists above all. Law enforcement authorities said the killer was Alyssa’s father, Hector Celaya, who also died Sunday after a shootout with sheriff’s deputies, but they were trying to figure out why he did it.
Celaya, 31, also had wounded his two other children, one who suffered life-threatening injuries.
“The community is peaceful one, and the tribe tries to teach children to be nonviolent,” said Tribal Council Secretary Rhoda Hunter. “We teach our children to not even kill insects. The battle between good and evil is there. Bad is always going to be there. I tell my grandkids that. I tell them to work for good.”
The Tule reservation is on 56,000 acres about 20 miles east of Porterville in California’s Central Valley and rises to an elevation of 7,500 in the Sierra Nevada. But to travel along the steep and winding roads takes about 40 minutes. Modular homes and trailers are built onto hillsides that overlook the Tule River canyon, whose thick sycamore trees are awash in yellow and orange. On grassy hillsides herds of paint horses graze alongside the occasional steer.
Murder is unheard of, said Mike Blain, chief of the reservation’s 4-year-old police department that’s housed in a double-wide modular home. He was at a loss to know what prompted it.
“We needed to go back and find what brought us to this. Did we miss something? Did the community or family miss something” he said from his office inside a modular building. “Going forward we need to identify what happened, so we can identify it in the future. We have to talk to the family. We’re going to learn what happened before this happened.
The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department investigates serious crimes on the reservation, and Blain’s four sworn officers deal with crimes committed against the tribe such as poaching and timber theft. He said his officers work on crime prevention in the tight-knit community where members recognize when a stranger is in town and usually call to report it.
The department’s only serious dealing with Hector Celaya was a call in April that came in from the mother of his children who accused him of driving while intoxicated with the children in the car, an accusation Blain says was unfounded and part of a “child custody dispute.” He referred the case to the tribe’s version of Child Protective Services. What happened from there is private.
“It is a tragic event for all involved and will take a lot of healing,” Blain, a retired Porterville Police Department lieutenant, said of the slayings. “We need to look at what brought us to this point and how to prevent it in the future. Our goal is not to arrest people but to get them to resolve their differences.”
Right now, however, nerves are raw. A tribal council member reacted angrily when an Associated Press reporter showed up Monday to talk with Hunter. He shouted that no media are allowed on tribal lands “by orders of the family.” A tribal police officer politely escorted the reporter off the property.
Police say Celaya opened fire in a travel trailer on the reservation of about 800 people on Saturday night, killing his mother and two uncles. He left behind his seriously wounded 6-year-old son Andrew. He took with him Alyssa, whose name is tattooed on his right leg, and his other daughter, 5-year-old Linea.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Chris Douglass said it was unclear when Celaya shot his daughters.
Tribal members said the former custodian at the reservation’s Eagle Mountain casino had a troubled past.
“He had a real hard life,” said Rhoda Hunter, the tribal council secretary. “But all of us do, we all have a hard time. But we try not to let it get the best of us.”
Hunter said that Celaya’s mother was a friend of hers. The Tulare County sheriff’s department, which is investigating the case, identified her 60-year-old Irene Celaya.
“She was always a positive person,” Hunter said. “Every time I saw here she gave me a big hug. She was a positive person no matter what situation she was in. She was so positive even when she didn’t have anything.”
Authorities said the bodies of Irene Celaya and her 61-year-old brother Francisco Moreno were found in the trailer. The body of their 53-year-old brother, Bernard Franco, was in a shed that was a makeshift bedroom.
Hunter said Irene took care of her brothers and extended family.
“We’ve had a lot of deaths here, but nothing like this. Not murder. No, not murder,” Hunter said.
The remote reservation with no industry or businesses outside of the Smoke Shack that sells sundries and cigarettes relies on the Eagle Mountain Casino for revenues. Each tribal member receives $500 a month, but Hunter said most of the profit is invested into educational programs for the children.
Deputies found Celaya by tracking his cellphone. A chase ensued, though Celaya never exceeded the speed limit, and he eventually pulled over in the heart of citrus country outside the tiny community of Lindsay. Celaya opened fire, prompting deputies to shoot back, Douglass said.
The church bells of Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church toll slowly when a tribal member dies, and the mournful sound echoes through the canyon where the reservation sits. It’s how the word is spread. They rang out five different times on Sunday.
It means five graves need to be prepared, which tribal members started with an assist from the reservation fire fighters.
“You don’t anticipate those types of things (murders) occurring here,” Blain said. “You hear about them occurring in other places… It’s unfortunate it happened here, because there were children involved who had no control or say over their destiny.”
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