3 dead in shootout among N.Y. Indians

March 26, 1995|By New York Times News Service

Three men were killed and a fourth was wounded early yesterday in a shootout on a tense Seneca Indian reservation in western New York where rival factions for the tribal leadership have clashed repeatedly in recent weeks, Seneca officials and Erie County authorities said.

"We're on the verge of a civil war," Rose Patterson, an aide to Seneca President Dennis Bowen, said after a night of gunfire and death on the Cattaraugus Reservation, 30 miles southwest of Buffalo and a few miles from the eastern shore of Lake Erie.

"I think we're in a state of civil war now," said Karen Bucktooth, who has challenged Mr. Bowen for the presidency of the 6,500-member Seneca Nation, a legally sovereign and relatively prosperous tribe with no casino interests but millions in investments and more than 50,000 acres on three reservations in Erie and Cattaraugus counties.

What began last November as a bitter political fight over Mr. Bowen's election as president, and constitutional issues over an attempt to impeach him by supporters of Ms. Bucktooth on the tribal council, has turned increasingly ugly in recent weeks. Federal and state court battles and a dispute over the tribe's $17 million bank account have paralleled fistfights and random gunfire that left one person shot and two people beaten last month.

The feuding factions gave conflicting versions of yesterday's violence, but Erie County Sheriff Thomas Higgins said that the fatal shootings occurred about 6 a.m. at the William Seneca Building, a tribal government office that has been occupied by Mr. Bowen's supporters since January.

In a valley where the sounds of gunfire at night have echoed on the hills often in recent weeks, scores of shots -- from rifles, shotguns and assault weapons -- were fired in and around the tribal building, witnesses told Erie County deputies who found two victims dead just inside the main entrance and another body on the ground outside.

The slain men, all described as supporters of Ms. Bucktooth, were identified by tribal officials as Myron Kettle, 62, and Sam Powliss and Charles Thompson, both about 30. Two of the men had been shot in the back and one in the head. A fourth man, Daniel Rice, a supporter of Mr. Bowen, was shot in the leg and hand and was in stable condition at the Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo.

Mr. Bowen, in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Salamanca, N.Y., said that 12 carloads of Bucktooth supporters had attended a birthday party for Mr. Kettle Friday night at which five gallons of vodka were drunk. He said Mr. Kettle was given a rifle for his birthday, and that he and some friends attacked the Seneca Building from cars at 4:20 a.m. and 5 a.m. At 6 a.m., Mr. Bowen said, five men tried to storm the Seneca Building; some got inside and began spraying halls and rooms with shotgun and rifle fire. Mr. Rice was shot, he said, and "our people returned defensive fire." But he did not concede his rivals' accusations that the slain men were shot by his supporters.

"Two of them were shot in the back," he said. "They were possibly so drunk that the last guy may have shot his own people."

But in another interview from her office at the Cattaraugus Reservation, Ms. Bucktooth, quoting eyewitnesses, gave a sharply different account. She said supporters of Mr. Bowen had fired shots at Mr. Kettle's home about 2:30 a.m. and had also shot out a tire on Mr. Powliss' car. A number of her supporters heard the gunfire and went to find out what had happened.

Some of the men then went to the Seneca Building and heard four shots, apparently from inside. They approached the front door, apparently seeking the assailants, and were shot from behind, Ms. Bucktooth said. She said the shots came from a third floor window of the Old Medical Clinic, which is near the Seneca Building.

While it was unclear who fired the fatal shots, Ms. Bucktooth insisted that only supporters of Mr. Bowen had been occupying the Seneca Building and the Old Medical Clinic. "The only building I have is the Saylor Building -- that's the old administration building," she said.

Both Mr. Bowen and Ms. Bucktooth, who are 46 years old and grew up together, called the shootings tragic and appealed for a return to nonviolence. Each told of having asked Erie County authorities to disarm what each characterized as a dangerous rival faction, but said no action was taken, apparently because of the tribe's status as a nation with its own constitution, elected officials and marshals. Mr. Bowen, leader of the Coalition Party, said he had been elected with the support of more than 80 percent of the voters; Ms. Bucktooth, leader of the Seneca Party, said that he had exceeded his authority and violated the Seneca Constitution by trying to dismiss tribal council members and defying the council's vote of impeachment.

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