Cashed Out

Texas' only casino hit by corruption charges

On a busy Saturday night, nearly 2,000 players can be found working the glittering banks of slots and crowding the poker tables at the Kickapoo Indian tribe's huge new casino, the only legal house of gambling in Texas. Next month, the tribe will host the Tejano Music Awards ceremonies at the dome attached to the casino. Stars including Jimmy Gonzalez Y Mazz and Shelly Lares are expected to be joined by thousands of Tejano fans.

But the man whose grand ambition and political muscle built the gaming complex won't be around to share the fun. Instead, former tribal manager Isidro Garza Jr. will be working on his defense to a massive federal indictment.

Garza, 54, a non-Indian, was ousted along with members of the Kickapoo tribal council and chairman in a peaceful tribal uprising in October 2002. The overthrow came after unhappy Kickapoo accused their leaders of being dictatorial and corrupt. Garza is one of seven people, all once close to the tribe, now accused in a 25-count indictment of offenses ranging from stealing hundreds of thousands from the tribe to violating the civil rights of individual Kickapoo.

Isidro Garza Jr. faces a federal indictment for his management of the Kickapoo casino.
San Antonio Express-News
Isidro Garza Jr. faces a federal indictment for his management of the Kickapoo casino.

The indictment also claims Garza illegally used casino money to make large political contributions to a range of office-seekers, including a state judge in Eagle Pass who is now feeling the heat.

"These defendants were trusted by the tribe to manage their money and use it for the good of the Kickapoos. Sadly, they betrayed that trust," said U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in announcing the indictment.

If convicted on all counts and sentenced to the max, Garza, a former Eagle Pass city manager, technically faces more than a century behind bars. But his troubles just begin there.

Also indicted were his wife, Martha, his eldest son, Isidro Javier Garza, and another son, Timoteo, whose improbable tenure as state representative ended in January and was marked by his father's involvement. Among the counts the Garza family members face are tax evasion, embezzlement and conspiracy. Completing the lineup of defendants are former tribal lawyer Joe Ruiz of Eagle Pass, former casino manager Lee Martin and former tribal chairman Raul Garza Sr., the only Kickapoo charged. (He is not related to the other Garzas.) All seven have pleaded not guilty. A trial is likely to come this summer.

Beyond offering statements affirming his faith in God, Isidro Garza has declined to comment. His attorney, famed defense lawyer Richard "Racehorse" Haynes of Houston, has hinted at a possible defense. "Isidro was responsible to the chairman and the tribal council. The Kickapoo are a sovereign nation. If it was OK with the chairman and the council, where's the crime?" Haynes asked.

Only lawyer Ruiz, who is charged with conspiracy, theft and money laundering, has spoken out aggressively. "Joe Ruiz will match and compare his record of service and dedication to the Kickapoo people against the federal government's record for fairness, compassion and service to indigenous people any day, anywhere," he said.

The indictments, returned in December and January in San Antonio, were the fruit of a two-year multi-agency federal investigation of financial activities at the small reservation outside Eagle Pass.

The 500-member tribe also has a 17,000-acre reservation about 130 miles inside Mexico. Called "El Nacimiento," or the birthplace, the Mexican remote site became the Kickapoo's base after they fled Texas ahead of incoming Anglos in the middle of the 19th century. For a century the Kickapoo all but disappeared, but when a fierce drought hit Mexico in the 1950s, they began returning to the United States as migrant farm workers, living part of the year in abject poverty beneath the international bridge in Eagle Pass.

Not until 1983 did the Kickapoo receive federal tribal recognition in the United States. Three years later, using donated funds, they acquired a bleak, 125-acre reservation on the Rio Grande, just south of Eagle Pass.

In 1996, the tribe opened the Lucky Eagle Casino and members finally began to break the migrant cycle, but the casino also set off a long period of internal conflict from which Isidro and Raul Garza emerged unchallenged.

That ended abruptly in October 2002, when Maverick County deputy sheriffs forcibly removed Isidro from the casino offices after the tribe staged a peaceful "vote of conscience" and toppled their leaders.

The new casino, which opened last fall several years behind schedule, has more than 1,000 game machines and is expected to gross in excess of $30 million annually. The Kickapoo are also pursuing a license upgrade to Class Three gambling, which would include everything available in Las Vegas.

And much of the credit for the casino goes to Isidro, whose original grandiose development plan included hotels, a golf course and a jet landing strip for high rollers.

As tribal manager, Isidro Garza earned 10 percent of the casino net, which came to roughly $500,000 a year. According to federal prosecutors, he also helped himself to quite a bit more and didn't declare it as income. The indictment lists roughly $1 million in funds allegedly misappropriated by the various defendants.

Before his fall from power, Isidro cut a wide swath in a corner of South Texas, earning a reputation as a hardball political player and a big spender known for his signature $100 tips and handouts. In a free-spending 2002 campaign paid for by casino money and paternal loans, Isidro's youthful second son, Timoteo, was elected to the House despite a shy personality, paper-thin résumé and no experience in public office.

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