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Arrest in 1981 tribal murders revives old mystery

INDIO, Calif. - INDIO, Calif. (AP) — In the days before Fred Alvarez was shot execution-style with two friends on his verandah, the strapping Cabazon tribal leader feared he was a marked man: His motorcycle had been tampered with, his mailbox shot up and his house ransacked.

He visited the local newspaper several times to say that he'd uncovered something big enough to get him killed. He arranged to talk with a lawyer to divulge what he knew, but never made the meeting.

On that day, tribal member Joe Benitez swung by Alvarez's stucco house tucked among tamarisk trees in the wind-swept sand dunes of rural Rancho Mirage, about 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles. There, he found the bloated bodies of Alvarez and his friends Patricia Castro and Ralph Boger, all fatally shot.

Dried puddles of blood stained the sand near mattresses they had dragged outside to escape the sweltering desert heat. The three had been sitting in a semicircle. Police estimated they had been dead two days.

But why was Alvarez killed? That's what police and loved ones wanted to know in the summer of 1981, when the killings happened.

Now, 28 years later, the arrest of a murder suspect has revived the question, which lengthy investigations and a grand jury probe failed to answer.

Some believe the former college football lineman with tattoos, long black hair and a Fu Manchu mustache discovered money-skimming by outsiders helping the tiny Cabazon Band of Mission Indians manage its fledgling casino.

Others believe something hinted at by documents over years: Alvarez had stumbled onto plans for a top-secret weapons deal.

"When a guy comes in off the streets and says, 'Somebody's going to kill me,' you think he's out of his mind. But he was right," said Jim Lycett, an editor at the now-defunct Indio Daily News who met with Alvarez before his death. "Obviously, it's because he knew something that was going to get somebody in a whole lot of trouble."

Authorities are saying little about their suspect, Jimmy Hughes, a 52-year-old former tribal security official-turned-preacher.

Hughes was arrested in September in Miami as he sat on a Honduras-bound plane. He faces three counts of murder and a count of conspiracy for allegedly killing Alvarez to prevent him from exposing illegal reservation activities.

Hughes, who is fighting extradition, declined interview requests.

"More than anything we really wanted it to be over and to have peace," said Linda Alvarez, Alvarez's sister. "All these years, everything I've been saying, maybe now they'll believe me."

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The Cabazons are a small tribe, just 25 members at the time of the murders. A tribal history commissioned in 1995 recalls the band as eager to drum up business — at first, talking about agricultural projects but eventually opening a smoke shop and later a casino.

The history also recalls Alvarez's killing. It describes him as a renegade involved in criminal activity and denies the tribe had any involvement in his murder — which a state policeman told Lycett bore the signs of an "obvious professional hit."

Almost before the bodies were in the ground, rumors began to fly, backed up by Alvarez's premonitions.

Some said the tribal leader was determined to expose a scheme by outsiders to cheat the tiny tribe out of gambling profits.

But some relatives of the victims wondered whether Alvarez might have also discovered a secret partnership between the Cabazon tribe and private security firm Wackenhut Corp.

Witnesses and court documents alternately describe the deal as everything from providing security services to building a munitions arsenal to selling weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras, a U.S.-backed rebel group. The tribal history also details various attempts to start weapons production.

Current officials at Wackenhut Services Inc. declined comment, and tribal officials did not respond to interview requests.

Rachel Begley, whose father Ralph Boger died with Alvarez, has spent years researching the case. Begley recorded Hughes on a hidden camera at a 2008 religious conference as he said that Alvarez died in a "mafia hit" that was "a lot bigger than the murder of this guy or that guy."

Begley, who believes Alvarez was onto some kind of Wackenhut deal, has worked closely with the main sheriff's detective assigned to the case.

Court documents and interviews suggest outsiders were aggressively pushing the Cabazons beyond gaming.

Primary among them was John Philip Nichols, a business consultant hired by the tribe to help it open its casino. Nichols, who died in 2001, is now listed as a co-conspirator in the triple murder.

One of Nichols' sons married into the tribe and soon non-Indians were everywhere talking big money, said Linda Alvarez.

"There was just all kinds of (non-Indian) people wandering in and out, coming into meetings and we had no idea who they were," she said. "We felt fearful. I got the heck out of there."

Riverside County sheriff's Detective John Powers, the lead homicide investigator, said he has no proof Alvarez was aware of a deal with Wackenhut. But he said Alvarez wanted to oust Nichols from the reservation over concerns about money-skimming at the casino — which could have thwarted Nichols' plans for business deals on the reservation, including with Wackenhut.

"What Fred was doing was trying to get rid of the Nichols family out of Cabazon," Powers said. "That is what got him killed because there was literally millions of dollars at stake."

Authorities probing Alvarez's death recently took a large cardboard box of Wackenhut-related documents and tape recordings from Peter Zokosky, the former president of a nearby munitions manufacturing plant.

"With all the documents and memos I have seen go back and forth, it looks like they wanted to do these things," Powers said. "It just never happened."

Zokosky, who had government security clearance and whose wife was Indio's mayor, said Wackenhut had asked him to write a proposal to build an arsenal and manufacture tank ammunition on tribal land. But the classified project went nowhere.

"It was submitted. I didn't hear anything more about it, and Wackenhut withdrew," said Zokosky, now 83. "I think they were dissatisfied with the structure of the Indian organization."

The Florida-based company did sign a joint venture with the tribe to win government security contracts — but the partnership fizzled when it failed to get bids, said former Wackenhut spokesman Patrick Cannan. He said to his knowledge the deal did not involve weapons.

Yet two men said in separate legal filings the Cabazon-Wackenhut partnership was forged to sell weapons to the Contras. The idea was to develop night vision goggles, machine guns and biological and chemical weapons to support foreign entities, including the Contras, according to an affidavit filed in an unrelated case by a man named Michael Riconosciuto, who said he worked on the deal. He is now in federal prison on drug charges.

People claiming CIA ties wanted the venture to develop machine guns at a "top secret" tribal facility for distribution to Nicaragua, said a second man, weapons manufacturer Robert Booth Nichols (no relation to John Philip Nichols). In civil court filings, he said he pulled out because Wackenhut didn't provide State Department approval.

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Before he died, Alvarez told the Indio Daily News five times that John Philip Nichols and other outsiders were cheating the tribal members.

"He said, 'I'm living in a hovel while all these guys are getting rich off the casino,'" recalled Paul Zalis, a reporter who worked on the story.

Alvarez felt he was paying a price for questioning the tribe's direction. He told his family and Zalis that his house had been ransacked, his mailbox shot and his motorcycle tampered with. The day after he first spoke to the newspaper, he was voted out of tribal office.

"He said, 'I just know too much, and they're going to kill me,'" editor Lycett recalled. "He said it twice."

Alvarez also contacted attorney Stephen Rios and arranged a meeting, saying he had evidence to support his claims. Rios recalls waiting for hours in his office and growing impatient — until Benitez called and told him, "Fred's dead."

After the murders, Zalis said he began trying to piece together Alvarez's allegations, but was never able to find proof for a "rat's nest of references." The paper ultimately decided not to publish Zalis' investigative story.

Authorities probed the murders but no arrests were made.

Three years later, the story of the killings resurfaced when Jimmy Hughes approached law enforcement and claimed he had been asked in the presence of Nichols, the tribal administrator, to deliver $25,000 to a hitman to kill Alvarez.

That claim prompted reexamination of the murders, including probes by the Riverside County grand jury and the state attorney general.

In 1985, Nichols was charged in a separate murder-for-hire plot that was foiled by police informants, for which he served 1½ years.

Authorities were unable to connect that plot to Alvarez's death and the case went cold for two decades, Powers said. This time, investigators are confident — and hint there could be more arrests.

"If it was the story Jimmy gave back in 1985, we wouldn't be charging him with murder," Powers said. "It is much more than what he said."

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Taxin reported from Orange County, Calif. Associated Press Writer Jennifer Kay contributed to this report from Miami.

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