US community mourns shooting deaths

2012-12-10 14:00
Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church at the Tule River Indian Reservation in California. (Tracie Cone, AP)

Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church at the Tule River Indian Reservation in California. (Tracie Cone, AP)

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Porterville - The church bell that rings out to announce the deaths of tribal members on the Tule River Indian Reservation tolled repeatedly on Sunday after a man went on a shooting rampage that left a daughter, his mother and her two brothers dead. The suspect also died in a shootout with police.

Authorities cornered Hector Celaya, aged 31, on a country road in the middle of citrus orchards 48km away from the reservation and about six hours after the shootings on Saturday night, that also left two of his other children wounded.

In the car with him were two daughters, 8-year-old Alyssa and 5-year-old Linea. One had life-threatening injuries; the other did not.

Authorities said Celaya was fatally wounded by deputies after he opened fire on them.

By Sunday night, authorities confirmed that Alyssa died of her injuries. Police said Celaya had a tattoo of her name on his right leg.

Authorities have not disclosed what motivated Celaya to kill his relatives, who lived in a travel trailer on a family compound on the reservation of about 800 people. But tribal members said the former custodian at the reservation's casino had a troubled past.

Community stunned

"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.

The killings stunned the tightknit tribal community.

"We've had a lot of deaths here, but nothing like this. Not murder. No, not murder," Hunter said.

The remote reservation 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 programmes for the children.

The compound where the shooting took place is on a dirt road in a scenic canyon lined with oaks and sycamore trees. Herds of horses graze the hillsides, and modular houses sit on hilltops.

Helicopters grounded

The 911 call came to the Tule River Indian Reservation fire department at about 19:45 on Saturday, said Shelby Charley Jnr, an engineer and supervisor. He said his crew, which most often attends to people who fall ill at the casino, was shocked by the carnage.

"This is a once in a lifetime kind of deal," Charley said. "It's one of those calls you could go your whole career and not walk into. This is one of those calls that will stick with you for the rest of your life."

Charley said his crew immediately discovered a woman and man dead of gunshot wounds, then quickly discovered a young boy with critical wounds. Thick fog grounded helicopters in Fresno and Bakersfield, so rescue workers had to drive the gravely injured boy 40 minutes to the nearest hospital in Visalia.

Minutes later, sheriff's deputies found a third body in an outbuilding that had been set up as a makeshift bedroom. 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 the shed.

The wounded boy was identified as Celaya's 6-year-old son, Andrew.

Deputies found Celaya by tracking his cellphone. A chase ensued, though Celaya never exceeded the speed limit and sometimes slowed to 24km, police said.

Known to law enforcement

He eventually pulled over in a rural area deep in the heart of citrus country outside the tiny community of Lindsay, about 48km from the reservation. Celaya opened fire, prompting deputies to return fire, sheriff's spokesperson Chris Douglass said.

She did not say how many shots were fired, but said Celaya fired his gun "multiple times". Celaya was shot during the exchange of gunfire, Douglass said. He died hours later at a hospital.

It was unclear when Celaya shot his daughters, Douglass said.

Police said Celaya was "known to law enforcement" and "known to use drugs", though Douglass could not provide details.

On the steps of Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church, Hunter said she has never known such tragedy. The church bell echoed through the reservation on Sunday as news of each death made its way to tribal authorities.

"This is so horrible. We will be doing a lot of praying," Hunter said.


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