Man With Flair for Reinventing Himself Goes a Step Too Far

June 3, 2004

In 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.

The 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.

But 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.

Ronald A. Roberts in regalia.

The 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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."

Earl 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."

Since 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.

So 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.

Last 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.

Mr. 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 said.

Like 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."

Mr. 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.

The 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.

Mr. 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.

None 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.

Yet 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.

Friends 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 federal recognition.

Some 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."