Wichita For decades, the self-proclaimed grand chief of a group that claims to be an American Indian tribe was just an annoyance and a pest - until he got the notion in 2004 of selling tribal memberships to immigrants, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.
Malcolm Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV of the Kaweah Indian Nation, falsely claimed tribal membership would confer U.S. citizenship on immigrants, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson said in opening statements at Webber's trial.
"That is when he crossed the line," Anderson said.
But defense attorney Kurt Kerns said in his opening statement that the government is "flat out wrong." Evidence will show that Webber, 70, was truly interested in helping people and was used by others who wanted to line their own pockets, he said.
"He trusted and he relied on people who used him," Kerns said.
The government contends that, by using Hispanic pastors to reach congregations across the nation, Webber and his group sold tribal memberships to more than 13,000 people for prices ranging from $50 to more than $1,000 each.
Webber encouraged illegal immigrants to use the Kaweah Indian Nation documents to apply for Social Security cards and passports, Anderson said.
"It is a nightmare for the U.S. government," he said.
Webber, of Bel Aire, is charged with two counts each of harboring illegal immigrants, possession of false documents with intent to defraud the United States and conspiracy with intent to defraud the United States, plus one count of mail fraud and a count seeking criminal forfeiture.
The case turns partly on whether the Kaweah Indian Nation is an American Indian tribe. The Bureau of Indian Affairs concluded in 1984 that the Kaweah Indian Nation Inc. did not exist before 1980 when it was formed under the leadership of Webber, a non-Indian.
Anderson told the jury that Webber dreamed of being an Indian chief, an ordained pastor and a bishop. When those dreams did not come true, Anderson said, Webber decided to proclaim himself a chief, ordained pastor and ordained bishop and to claim he has a doctorate.
Since 1974, Webber has gone from town to town with his so-called tribe "until he annoyed enough people and he would be run off," he said.
The government also argues that neither Webber nor his tribe is Indian.
"It is not an Indian tribe," Anderson said. "It is made up. It is nothing."
But Kerns said the defense will establish Webber's Indian heritage. He argued that lack of federal recognition of the Kaweah Indian Nation as a tribe does not mean that it is not a real Indian tribe.
There are 245 unrecognized Indian tribes in the United States, some of which choose not to seek federal or state recognition, Kerns said.
Many Hispanic immigrants have Aztec or Inca ancestry, Kerns said.
"Chief Webber honestly believed he found a legal way to help these people," his lawyer said.
Kerns also blamed the government for letting some illegal immigrants get Social Security cards in order to trap people.
"The nightmare the government mentioned is a nightmare created by the government in a sting," Kerns told the jury.
The first witness Tuesday was Robert Lee Fleming, director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment in the Department of Interior, Indian Affairs. He testified about the 1984 denial of recognition to Webber's group.
Fleming said his review of the documents in the application indicate Webber has no Indian ancestry. The agency determined the group did not exist prior to the mid-1970s.
Federal regulations also prohibit Kaweah Indian Nation from going through the recognition process again since it has already been denied, Fleming testified.