By Mark Gutglueck
(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 innuendoes 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.
Because of concern that Epps could shed light on the Seay murder, a contract on Epps was taken out. Through a near-miraculous series of events, however, Epps survived and the plot to kill him was discovered by the authorities. Subsequently, two of the tribal members arrested in the December 2006 raid, Stacy Barajas-Nunez and Erik Barajas, were charged with murder-for-hire in the botched attempt on Epps’ life.
Barajas-Nunez and Barajas were convicted in 2008 of the murder-for hire following court proceedings in which much of the information pertaining to the drug distribution activity taking place on the reservation was excluded. Despite those convictions, district attorney Michael A. Ramos, who is no relation to James Ramos, consented to Barajas-Nunez and Barajas being sentenced to probation, instead of state prison terms.
This in itself raised considerable concern about improper influence by the San Manuel Tribe over the district attorney’s office and Mike Ramos in particular. Mike Ramos has received over $70,000 in campaign contributions from the San Manuel Tribe.
Moreover, the tribe in 2008 entered into what many have said is questionable or possibly even illegal arrangement with the county of San Bernardino by which the tribe is subsidizing both the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office. Under this arrangement, which has been ratified by the county board of supervisors, between July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2013, the tribe paid the district attorney $1,048,909 to cover the cost of employing a deputy district attorney and a district attorney investigator during that span “to help mitigate the impacts of tribal gaming on the community.” Currently, the district attorney’s office is receiving funds in the amount of $1,111,403 over a three year period to offset the cost of employing a deputy district attorney and a district attorney investigator. Thus, the tribe paid the district attorney’s office $359,985 in 2013-13, is paying the district attorney’s office $370,364 in 2014-15 and will pay the district attorney’s office $381,054 in the upcoming 2015-16 fiscal year. In addition, the San Manuel Tribe is paying the sheriff’s department a substantial amount of money, at least $1,745,702 per year, for its services.
These payments to the sheriff and district attorney were initiated while James Ramos was serving in the capacity of San Manuel tribal chairman and have continued during his tenure as supervisor. He is no longer serving as tribal chairman.
This arrangement, in which the sheriff’s department and the district attorney have been receiving money from an entity that is entitled to a full range of governmental service and which is not obliged to pay any special fees or taxes for that service, has led to questions about whether law enforcement and justice, or the quality thereof, is for sale. In particular, as is relevant to the issue currently at hand, is whether James Ramos, as the tribal chairman responsible for creating the tribe’s policy of bestowing upon the sheriff and the district attorney this special funding, has created for himself a special status by which he and higher-ranking members of the tribe are immune from investigation and prosecution or are otherwise due and given special treatment not accorded to others.
Ken Barajas, one of the tribe members previously involved in tribal governance who was among those responsible for the founding of the San Manuel Casino and who is also the father of Stacy Barajas-Nunez and Erik Barajas, was in attendance at the November 6, 2007 tribal council meeting chaired by James Ramos. During the meeting a heated discussion relating to the law enforcement raid at the reservation the previous December and the ensuing legal issues including the prosecutions of Stacy Barajas-Nunez and Erik Barajas took place. There ensued accusations and counteraccusations of threats between Mike Ramos on one side and Ken Barajas and Stacy Barajas on the other. Subsequently, James Ramos filed for a restraining order against Ken Barajas and Stacy Barajas. In response, Ken Barajas filed with the San Bernardino Superior Court a sworn declaration in which he noted the “legal problems” his children were having but asserted that James Ramos had engaged in similar behavior that had led to his offspring’s travails.
“James Ramos had a serious drug problem in the past,” Ken Barajas stated. “Additionally, James Ramos was associating with the ‘wrong’ crowd. It was not uncommon for him to carry a firearm and threaten people with it, including relatives. All his family were quite tolerable (sic) of his conduct and gave him multiple opportunities to turn around his life. I was threatened by James in the past. James had pulled a gun on me when he was on drugs but I ignored those threats and lead (sic) him to get help.”
In the declaration, Ken Barajas does note, “James finally turned his life around.”
According to information provided to the Sentinel by four separate sources, however, some three years later, James Ramos appeared to have relapsed. In particular, he was described as having attended the funeral of a tribal elder in an obvious state of drugged intoxication. According to a statement indirectly obtained by the Sentinel from someone present, Ramos was “coked to the gills” and periodically snorting more of the drug while the service was yet ongoing.
In 2011, as word of James Ramos’s contemplated run for Third District supervisor the following year was making the rounds, there were recurrent reports that such an elective effort would prove unviable because his history of substance abuse would manifest as a liability he would be unable to overcome. That clearly did not turn out to be the case and the issue was not raised during the campaign.
Derry this week told the Sentinel that he was “told James had his own personal drug problem during discussions that were ongoing about drug activity and law enforcement efforts at the reservation.” And Derry said, he was given an account “of something from a few years ago, when one of the tribal leaders passed away, he came to the funeral completely ripped on cocaine.”
He had elected not to dwell on those issues during the 2012 election, Derry said, but rather concentrated on issues relating to improving the district. “To the extent I attacked him, it had nothing to do with his personal life but I did explore how he was going to have some huge conflicts with contracts the tribe had with the county if he was elected supervisor,” Derry said.
After his election in 2012 and his assumption of the board seat, Ramos was not hounded by any accusations or insinuations relating to substance abuse. The closest such references were observations made by some that in his public life his level of intensity and focus was somewhat inconsistent, and that he seemed more articulate at certain times than at others.
It was only within the last two months that the issue resurfaced. On January 6, he was chosen board chairman by his colleagues, succeeding supervisor Janice Rutherford. Board chairman in San Bernardino County is a significantly more powerful and authoritative position than supervisor. By the terms of the county’s charter, the board chairman is designated as the county’s executive agent. Whereas in years past being the county’s executive agent was far more significant, in 1948 the county created the position of a staff county administrative officer, relieving the board chairman of being a hands-on overseer of county operations. The county administrative officer post was reframed as the county’s chief executive officer in 2010. The board chairman continues to embody an enhanced level of authority, conducting board meetings and signing contracts and other documents on the board’s behalf. The county charter remains unchanged and a board chairman could utilize his authority to effectuate action in some cases unilaterally, if he were to be so bold as to do so. Elevating James Ramos to board chairman thus intensified the level of scrutiny to which he was subjected.
Last week, Ramos’s field representative for the Morongo Basin, Michael Lipsitz, was arrested at the sheriff’s Glen Helen Rehabilitation Facility, accused by the sheriff’s department of attempting to smuggle drugs into the facility while he was visiting a young man, Joshua Jonathan Rhodes, incarcerated there.
The sheriff’s department issued a press release concerning the arrest, which stated, “Michael Lipsitz is a field representative for Third District Supervisor James Ramos.”
Further down, the press release stated, “Sheriff John McMahon said, ‘When I learned of this disappointing news, I contacted Supervisor James Ramos and notified him of the investigation and arrest of one of his employees. Supervisor Ramos immediately terminated Lipsitz’ employment with the county.’ McMahon further stated, “Supervisor Ramos was shocked by the news, and assured me he has zero tolerance for any type of criminal behavior.’”
The manner in which sheriff McMahon, an elected official, presumed to speak for Ramos, also an elected official, and then preempted Ramos in making the announcement about Lipsitz’s firing immediately raised an alarm. As both supervisor and board chairman, Ramos holds a position of relative authority over McMahon, as the board of supervisors oversees the budget for the entire county and, in fact, controls the sheriff’s department’s purse strings. For many, McMahon usurping Ramos’s role of controlling the information relating to a personnel decision that fell within Ramos’s purview appeared to be a glaring indication that McMahon had leapt into the breach in a matter relating to the subject of drugs because it was simply too risky from a public information standpoint for Ramos to do so himself.
In other words, it appeared that McMahon had relieved Ramos of having to issue a public statement of his own pertaining to the matter, thus avoiding charges of hypocrisy that might be leveled at Ramos by his acquaintances or others if he made a statement condemning Lipsitz for being involved in a matter involving illegal drugs. Ramos has exacerbated this perception by consistently ducking any media inquiries about the Lipsitz matter.
County spokesman David Wert told the Sentinel that he was unfamiliar with any suggestions or accusations that James Ramos has used or is in anyway involved with illegal drugs.
“I have never heard anything to that effect,” Wert said. Nor, Wert said, had he personally detected any behavior on the board chairman’s part that would lead him to draw that conclusion.
Wert said there had been no private discussions among the board of supervisors or within the county chief executive officer’s staff pertaining to drug use on Ramos’s part or the risk the county might run by his appointment as board chairman.
“There was nothing in closed session,” he said of any discussions relating to Ramos’s appointment. “It was all done in public.” He added, “I don’t know what forum a discussion like that would take place in.”
Wert said he disagreed with the widespread interpretation that McMahon’s statement in the press release announcing Ramos’s action in terminating Lipsitiz was an indicator that McMahon had usurped Ramos’s authority or was in some fashion running interference for the board chairman. As the spokesman for the board of supervisors and the county’s chief executive officer, Wert said, “I do press releases where I ask the sheriff to contribute a quote or ask someone to contribute a quote. I didn’t see it as unusual. In my opinion, it was handled very well in the interest of full disclosure. The sheriff doesn’t usually disclose who a suspect is employed by. The news release laid it all out there, which is what I think good government is supposed to be all about.”
Interpreting McMahon speaking for Ramos with regard to the issues in the Lipsitz arrest as an indication that Ramos was hiding his drug use behind the sheriff, Wert said, “sounds like a stretch to me.”
The Sentinel contacted deputy county counsel Julie Surber, who had reviewed the arrangements between the San Manuel Tribe and the county for the subsidization of sheriff’s department’s law enforcement activity at the reservation and the subsidization of the district attorney’s office’s handling of cases originating on the reservation and at the casino as to both their form and legality. Surber was atypically tight lipped about those arrangements, whether the implication of the arrangements had changed after James Ramos became county supervisor and whether she was privy to any discussions where the topic of James Ramos’s alleged drug use had been broached. “I can’t comment on that,” Surber said four times to all questions addressed to her related to those issues.
The Sentinel’s call to Surber prompted a return call from Wert, who emphasized that Surber’s reticence should not be interpreted to imply that the topic of drug use on James Ramos’s part had been explored by county officials.
Surber, Wert said, did “not confirm she has heard anything one way or the other.”
As to the issue of whether James Ramos has a conflict by being a member of the tribe and a resident of the reservation that is serviced by the sheriff’s department is akin, Wert said, to considering whether supervisor Rutherford, who is now a resident of Rancho Cucamonga, has a conflict because Rancho Cucamonga has a contract for law enforcement service with the sheriff’s department. No conflict exists, Wert insisted.
The Sentinel’s efforts to engage James Ramos directly on the issue pertaining to the reports or insinuations about his drug use were unsuccessful. His deputy chief of staff, Molly Wiltshire, said she would convey the request for a statement or interview along to Ramos’s chief of staff Phil Paule, to determine if Paule or the supervisor thought such an exchange to be advisable. Despite further efforts to reach Wiltshire, Paule and Ramos, no statement was forthcoming by press time.
With regard to rumors about Ramos or whispering campaigns in general and the reluctance of Ramos and his staff to address them, Wert said, “I am not sure anyone is actually saying anything. Anyone can start a rumor. Anyone can whisper. When you comment on whispers and rumors you raise them to the level of an issue.”
Neither district attorney Mike Ramos nor his spokesman, Christopher Lee, responded to the Sentinel’s requests for input with regard to whether the prosecution of the Barajas/Barajas Nunez case unearthed any information implicating James Ramos in any drug-related activity.
Curt Hagman, who was elected to the board of supervisors in November and was sworn into office in December, told the Sentinel he had detected nothing about James Ramos’s comportment or manner that would suggest he was using drugs or was impaird in any way.
“I’ve only been on the board for five meetings now, but I haven’t seen anything like that,” Hagman said.
This is not the first go-round the county has had with such rumors regarding its board chairman. In 2006, then board of supervisors chairman Bill Postmus went missing for more than a month. Efforts to locate him were unsuccessful and reports began to drift in to the effect that he was incapacitated or undergoing drug rehabilitation. When news media outlets stepped up their inquiries about his whereabouts, seeking to get access to his official itinerary, county officials, led by then-county administrative officer Mark Uffer, spurned those requests, criticized the inquiries as violations of Postmus’s right to privacy and derided the reports of his drug use as false rumors and ill-informed gossip. The county went to court to successfully oppose having to make public Postmus’s itinerary and calendar. Two-and-one-half years later, in early January 2009, Postmus, who was then the elected county assessor, confirmed that he had fallen prey to the “scourge” of drug addiction, while claiming he had overcome it. Less than two weeks later, he was arrested for drug possession.
Frank Peterson is an attorney representing Leonard Epps in a civil suit against Stacy Barajas Nunez and Erik Barajas with regard to their having contracted the Mexican Mafia to kill him. Epps and Peterson prevailed in that suit and a jury has already awarded Epps, who is still a target for Mexican Mafia executioners and has had to assume a new identity and relocate himself and his family to a secure location, $4.5 million in compensatory damages. In April another civil jury will take up whether Epps is entitled to punitive damages.
Petersen said there are “deep” levels of drug distribution activity emanating from the San Manuel Reservation, involving massive infusions of monetary investments from tribe members sustaining that illicit operation. He said there was information to indicate James Ramos “is, or at least was, pretty heavy into the use of drugs.” But that, Peterson said, is really a minor issue compared to the drug manufacturing and distribution network that involves the reservation and some of the tribe’s members, which is betrayed by the arrangements, approved by the board of supervisors, to have the tribe make payments to the district attorney and the sheriff to have them look the other way.
“They have a lot of money and a lot of power,” Peterson said. “They definitely own the sheriff’s department and all of the police departments in the San Bernardino area. It is pretty well established that if they get caught, nothing is going to happen. They own the district attorney’s office. They own the courts. They own everybody. If you fight it, there’s a pretty good chance you will end up crippled or dead.”
By Mark Gutglueck