By Mark Gutglueck
Posted on February 14, 2015
(February 13) – A series of events has moved allegations of drug use by San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors Chairman James Ramos front and center, together with suggestions that county officials have ignored or covered up indications of that activity because of his extensive personal wealth which has been used to support other elected county officials’ own political efforts.
Ramos is the former tribal chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which owns the San Manuel Casino in Highland. The money generated at the casino has left Ramos – and other tribe members – well fixed. He and members of his family and tribe have invested a considerable portion of their money in Ramos’s political career as well as in supporting a host of other San Bernardino County politicians, including Ramos’s board colleagues, along with the county sheriff and district attorney. This appears to have advanced him politically and bought him a degree of immunity from prosecution.
Ramos’s tribe and family members have spoken openly, at least in certain contexts, about his drug use. Buried in court files at San Bernardino Superior Court is documentation referencing the supervisor’s former drug addiction. Moreover, a celebrated murder for hire case against two of Ramos’s family/tribal members and a subsequent civil action filed by the target of that attempted murder has brought into focus the connection between the San Manuel Tribe and the drug manufacturing, distribution, and sales activity of the so-called Mexican Mafia. This activity, key elements of which were being staged from the San Manuel Reservation, was flourishing at the time Ramos was serving as tribal chairman.
Whispers and innuendos relating to James Ramos’s drug use have been afoot in San Bernardino County for years. That issue remained below the public radar because those most directly concerned, the members of the San Manuel Tribe, were content for the most part to deal with internal issues on their own, and within the tribe’s authority structure, Ramos himself held a high level of control.
The matter took a considerable lurch toward public exposure when Ramos in 2012 vied for Third District county supervisor. Well-funded with his own money and that of the tribe, Ramos put on a spirited campaign, augmented by support from other established county officials, including district attorney Mike Ramos, who stopped short of endorsing James Ramos but did make phone calls on his behalf to secure the endorsements of others. Through the generous application of campaign donations to other politicians, James Ramos was able to obtain their endorsements in return. Riding the political juggernaut he and the San Manuel Tribe had created with their program of generous campaign donations, James Ramos was able to fortify himself with the endorsements of Second District County Supervisor Janice Rutherford, Highland city councilmen Sam Racadio and John Timmer, Redlands city councilmen Paul Foster, Bob Gardner and Jon Harrison, then-Colton Mayor Sarah Zamora and Colton councilmembers Deidre Bennett, Frank Gonzales, Susan Oliva, David Toro and Vincent Yzaguirre, then-Yucaipa Mayor Dick Riddell and Yucaipa city councilmembers Greg Bogh, Denise Hoyt and Tom Masner, Yucca Valley Town Councilman Merl Abel, and Big Bear councilmembers Liz Harris and Dave Caretton. After a three-way race in the June 2012 primary in which no single candidate captured a majority of the vote, James Ramos cruised to an easy victory in November 2012, defeating incumbent Third District Supervisor Neil Derry in the run-off.
Largely ignored in the 2012 election season were underlying problems at the San Manuel Reservation, including those related to illicit drug activity involving the Mexican Mafia, a whirlwind of events in which James Ramos was himself caught up in.
The 832-acre San Manuel Reservation had traditionally been one of the most impoverished districts in San Bernardino County, where modern plumbing and utilities were once considered luxuries. James Ramos grew up in a trailer on the reservation in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains above Highland, where all but two of the streets were dirt roads. Crime, consisting of petty theft and assaults as well as low level drug offenses, was rampant.
A change in the tribe’s fortunes came in 1986 with the advent of a bingo hall, which generated some degree of revenue for the tribe. Sometime later, a card room was added to the bingo hall. That was successful and in the early 2000s, the tribe’s leadership, which at that point included James Ramos, pooled their members’ resources and obtained permits to convert the bingo hall and card room into a casino. That endeavor proved incredibly lucrative, and in relatively short order mansions began to sprout up on the reservation grounds, replete with luxury vehicles in their driveways.
An exact fix on the wealth generated for tribal members is hard to come by. One report was that the lowliest members of the tribe net $300,000 per year. Others more involved in tribal governance and casino operations are said to make more, as much as $1.5 million per year. James Ramos, who was the tribal chairman, is generally thought to be the wealthiest member of the tribe. One report, perhaps apocryphal, was that he was earning roughly $18,000 per day, or $4.77 million per year.
Accompanying the tribe’s newfound economic success was an intensification of some of the problems that had long dogged the reservation and its inhabitants. In some cases, tribe members used the influx of capital to bankroll an even more intensive version of the illicit drug activity they had heretofore been caught up in. This included participation in the enterprises run by international drug cartels. Whereas previously, those tribe members so involved had not merited serious attention from law enforcement, within months of the opening of the casino, members of the tribe and their associates had fallen under the scrutiny of a law enforcement task force focusing on a ring trafficking in massive quantities of methamphetamine.
On December 12, 2006, federal Drug Enforcement Agency officers, in cooperation with Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and detectives and deputies from the Riverside County and San Bernardino County sheriff’s departments and officers from the San Bernardino, Ontario, Rialto, Colton and Redlands police departments, together with state parole officers fanned out among various Inland Empire locations to conduct raids and serve 64 search warrants and effectuate 119 arrests. Most prominent in the locations targeted was the San Manuel Reservation. Authorities said that two of those arrested that day, Salvador Orozco Hernandez and Alfred Orozco Hernandez, both identified as Mexican Mafia members, were known to have carried out their drug distribution operations from the reservation. Also arrested on December 12 were two tribe members, Stacy Cheyenne Barajas-Nunez and Erik Barajas, who are James Ramos’s cousins.
Then-San Bernardino Mayor Patrick Morris, who was both a former prosecutor with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office and a San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge, stated at the time, “Clearly, we have penetrated deep into the infrastructure of the mafia.”
That raid would have significant repercussions, both on and off the reservation. Individuals affiliated with the drug distribution network, some of whom were Mexican Mafia members, others of whom were not Mafia members per se, but were involved in the drug trade at the street level or who were perhaps uninvolved but by unfortunate coincidence or circumstance had knowledge of drug distribution activity or had witnessed it, were perceived by the drug cartel’s higher ranking members as having possibly been informants. Some of those people ended up dead.
One person who would fall between the drug cartel’s crosshairs was Leonard Epps, who was at one time a bartender and manager of the Brass Key, a bar located in Highland not too distant from the San Manuel Reservation. Members of the Mexican Mafia, including San Manuel tribal members, used the Brass key as a rendezvous point, often exchanging drugs or money either in the establishment itself or in its parking lot. Because of what he had witnessed while tending bar in the Brass Key, including seeing meetings between cartel members and functionaries, including at least one who was killed in a gangland hit, Epps was deemed by the cartel as a risk.
Of particular concern to the cartel was Epps’ contact with James Seay, who frequented the bar. Seay was shot and wounded in front of The Brass Key on May 17, 2004. Tribal member Robert Vincent Martinez III was charged in the case, but the charges were later dismissed. Seay, however, pursued a civil case against Martinez on May 9, 2005. Martinez hired a lawyer, Trent Copeland, to contest the suit, but eventually settled the matter for slightly over $500,000. Just days after receiving that settlement, Seay was fatally shot in front of his mother’s house in San Bernardino. The killing remains unsolved.
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