Flair for Reinventing Himself Goes a Step Too Far
June 3, 2004
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
the annals of flimflam, surely a special place has been reserved
for Ronald A. Roberts, also known as Sachem Golden Eagle of
the Western Mohegans.
Golden Eagle is not flying high right now. Holed up in a dilapidated
Catskill resort he bought with other investors, Mr. Roberts,
56, has pleaded guilty to federal charges of submitting false
documents and perjury, and is waiting be sentenced on June
17. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
for several years, prosecutors say, Mr. Roberts pursued the
most audacious of schemes: He tried to convince the state
and federal governments that he was the descendant of a Mohegan
chief and the leader of a lost tribe of American Indians around
his hometown of Granville, N.Y.
A. Roberts in regalia.
federal government says it is just not so, though Mr. Roberts, through
his lawyer, continues to claim Indian roots. Being an Indian chief
is the latest persona for a man who, over the years, has been an
actor, a slate dealer, a country and western singer, a traveling
evangelist and a small-town music impresario, acquaintances said.
Roberts's desire to be known as an Indian appeared to spring from
purely financial motives, prosecutors and law enforcement officials
said. Recognition from the federal government as a tribe would have
entitled him and his associates to run a casino in the Catskills,
but he never got that far.
Roberts even went so far as to submit to Washington a false genealogy,
a doctored copy of an 1845 state census of Indians and a forgery
of his grandfather's death certificate, all of which, he insisted,
proved he was a descendant of prominent Indians on both sides. Federal
genealogists who looked into his claims determined that he was actually
a descendant of prominent European settlers. "We
had delved into both sides, and actually Mr. Roberts is eligible
to be a Son of the American Revolution," said R. Lee Fleming,
the director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment in the Bureau
of Indian Affairs. "Based on the evidence we have reviewed,
we do not see any connection to any Native American Indians."
E. Devaney, the inspector general for the Department of the Interior,
has sought to make a national example of Mr. Roberts, who is the
first person to be prosecuted by his office for trying to hoodwink
the tribal-recognition officials at Bureau of Indian Affairs. He
told Congress during a hearing earlier this month that Mr. Roberts's
fraudulent petition was a perfect illustration of someone seeking
"an instant opportunity to open a casino."
Congress passed a law in 1988 allowing legitimate Indian nations
to operate casinos, about 180 unrecognized tribes and loose-knit
groups of people with Indian ancestry have petitioned the federal
government to be recognized as American Indian nations, officials
said. The potential financial gain for these groups is sky high.
Before he pleaded guilty halfway through a trial in Albany earlier
this year, Mr. Roberts had persuaded a group of Chicago investors
to sink $3.5 million into the defunct Tamarack Lodge in Ellenville,
N.Y., under an agreement to build a casino, according to Robert
P. Storch, the assistant United States attorney who prosecuted the
case. (One of the investors was set to testify against Mr. Roberts
at his trial, but the judge ruled that the prosecution had already
proven Mr. Roberts' financial motive.) It was not the first time
Mr. Roberts had tried to elbow his way into an Indian tribe to benefit
from gaming. In May 1996, he applied to become a member of the Mashantucket
Pequot Tribe, which owns Foxwoods in Connecticut, but officials
there rebuffed him, according to testimony at his trial. He got
a similar reception from the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, which
owns the Mohegan Sun hotel and casino.
in 1997, Mr. Roberts started his own tribe, forming a nonprofit
corporation and dubbing it the Western Mohegan Tribe and Nation.
He promptly tried to open a bingo hall in Granville, a small town
near the Vermont border, arguing that he was immune to state laws
against gaming. A state judge shut him down after the state attorney
general filed a lawsuit. State officials say he tried again in 2002,
this time buying equipment to outfit a bingo parlor at the Tamarack
Lodge, which he and his partners by then owned. Today it sports
a sign saying "Home of the Mohegans" and a ragged banner
with an insignia of a black eagle over the door. Again he backed
down after the state threatened to sue.
year, Mr. Roberts made his most brazen move. He sued New York State,
seeking millions in rent over the last 200 years on 900,000 acres
of public land throughout the Hudson Valley, including land around
the Capitol. In another suit, in 1999 he had tried to stop the development
of a state park on Schodack Island in the Hudson River near Albany,
asserting that it was the ancestral burial grounds of his people.
Judges eventually threw out both suits.
Roberts declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.
He appeared briefly May 26 at the Tamarack Lodge, a sprawling resort,
which is being renovated. But he refused to answer questions from
a reporter. Another man, who refused to identify himself, asked
the reporter and a photographer to leave the property. A lawyer
for Mr. Roberts, Edward Z. Menkin, said his client had pleaded guilty
only to filing false documents and to an unrelated charge of using
a false Social Security number to file for bankruptcy in 1995. Mr.
Menkin said those guilty pleas did not mean that Mr. Roberts had
renounced his claim to being an Indian, nor that the tribe was a
fake. He has not even admitted he forged the documents, Mr. Menkin
many people in Granville, Mr. Roberts ran a small slate business,
but he seemed to always be trying a new sideline. He had dabbled
in acting as a young man and later tried his luck as a country and
western singer. He also was a singing gospel preacher, traveling
in a bus to spread God's word for the Gospel Lighthouse church in
Hudson Falls, N.Y. In the late 1980's, he bought the defunct Granville
Theater and tried to turn it into a nightclub featuring country
and western acts. That also failed, just as his attempt years later
to establish a bingo hall under the auspices of the Western Mohegan
Tribe and Nation came to naught. "He's a little bit of a laughingstock
around here," said Clara Clark, a lifelong resident of the
town who works as an office manager at a local newspaper. "All
the big plans, but nothing came through."
Roberts finally declared bankruptcy in a Vermont court in 1989,
prosecutors said. Still, he continued to obtain loans and credit
cards using his son's Social Security number, according to testimony
at his trial. His financial woes worsened. In 1995, he filed for
bankruptcy in federal court in an attempt to stop a bank from foreclosing
on a piece of property he owned, and he used a false Social Security
number close to his son's number. It was that act that triggered
an investigation by the F.B.I. in Albany. Later, when the Interior
Department opened its inquiry, the two investigations were merged.
In September 1996, Mr. Roberts formed The Cultural Alliance of the
Western Mohegan Tribe and Nation of New York, the nonprofit corporation
he used to try to open the bingo hall. Friends said he became the
leader of several local families, all of whom said they could trace
their ancestry to Indians.
group relied largely on the work of a local electrician and amateur
genealogist, Thomas J. Fennell, who was a close friend of Mr. Roberts,
and a Canadian lawyer, Bruce Clark, who had represented a number
of American Indian groups. Mr. Fennell later testified for the prosecution
in the Roberts case. Mr. Clark was last reported to be living abroad.
A year later, Mr. Roberts sent a petition to President Clinton seeking
the group's recognition as a tribe. He included a genealogy showing
his great-great-grandfather, the Rev. George Smith, was the son
of William Valentine Smith and an Indian woman named Cynthia Ticomwas.
The reality was that Reverend Smith had been born to white parents,
federal officials said.
Roberts also sent in an altered death certificate for his grandfather,
Arthur E. Smith, on which the cursive "W" for white on
the form had been changed to "Indian." But prosecutors
pointed out that it was not much of a forgery, since the clumsy
alteration was made with a ballpoint pen, invented after the grandfather's
death,. Mr. Roberts's misrepresentations did not stop there, law
enforcement officials said. He also gave the federal government
a doctored version of the 1845 census of Indians in New York, in
which someone had conveniently inserted his great-grandfather's
name into a list of Indian household heads. Someone had also substituted
the words "New York Mohegans" for "Stockbridge, or
Mohegans" in the census's summary of New York tribes, and added
the words "Mohegan tribe New York" at another place.
of this fooled the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which told
him in a letter in September 1998 that his claims simply were not
believable, since the bureau's genealogists had a copy of the real
1845 census and managed to obtain his grandfather's death certificate.They
also found dozens of other mistakes in his genealogy and raised
questions about the authenticity of a list of tribal members he
had claimed his aunt wrote in 1928.
Mr. Roberts was undeterred by the small matter of a lack of recognition
from Washington. In July 2001, his tribe, with the help of the Chicago
investors, bought the Tamarack Lodge for $900,000 from Ulster County,
which had foreclosed on the faded 250-acre resort the previous year.
Telling county officials that he wanted to set up a hydroponic farm
on the property, he reached an agreement with the County Legislature
to cap his property taxes once he got federal recognition for the
tribe. There are no signs of a hydroponic farm on the property.
said Mr. Roberts sincerely believes he is an American Indian because
his mother, Frances E. Smith, had always maintained she had Indian
heritage. "There is no doubt he has Indian heritage,"
said Thomas Stoddard, a friend who also maintains he has Indian
ancestors. "I am positive of it." But having Indians in
one's family tree is not enough to satisfy the federal government
A group seeking federal recognition must meet seven strict tests,
among them proof that most of the members have lived as a community
for centuries and that there are tribal leaders who exert authority
over them. The tribe also has to prove it has a governing document
and a current list of members. At present 230 groups are seeking
Indians have expressed chagrin that such recognition would be attractive
to Americans from European stock. "Growing up, most people
didn't want to be Indian," said Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman
for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a member of the Cherokee tribe
in Oklahoma. "Now that people think that we have something,
a lot of people want to be Indian."