PORTERVILLE, Calif. — Gravediggers work the old-fashioned way on the Tule River Indian Reservation, chipping away at the hard pan by hand with pickaxes and shoveling the dirt aside. They say it’s a sign of respect not to use machinery, but never has the crew had to dig so many graves at one time.
On Monday, the brothers who run the reservation cemetery were preparing to dig a grave for Alyssa Celaya, 8, who died Sunday following a rampage the previous day that also took the lives of her grandmother and the grandmother’s two brothers. It will be the first of five they’ll dig this week.
The killings have shaken this peace-preaching tribe because it goes against their teachings that love for family exists above all.
Authorities said the killer was Alyssa’s father, Hector Celaya, 31, who died Sunday after a shootout with sheriff’s deputies. Investigators were still searching for a motive.
Along with killing his daughter, mother and uncles, Celaya wounded his 5-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, whose injuries are life-threatening, authorities said.
“The community is a peaceful one, and the tribe tries to teach children to be nonviolent,” said Tribal Council Secretary Rhoda Hunter. “We teach our children to not even kill insects. The battle between good and evil is there. Bad is always going to be there. I tell my grandkids that. I tell them to work for good.”
The Tule reservation is on 56,000 acres about 20 miles east of Porterville in California’s Central Valley and rises to an elevation of 7,500 feet in the Sierra Nevada. The steep and winding roads make travel slow.
Modular homes and trailers are built onto hillsides that overlook the Tule River canyon, whose thick sycamore trees are awash in yellow and orange. On grassy hillsides herds of paint horses graze alongside the occasional steer.
Murder is unheard of, said Mike Blain, chief of the reservation’s 4-year-old police department that’s housed in a double-wide modular home. He was at a loss to know what prompted the violence.
“We needed to go back and find what brought us to this. Did we miss something? Did the community or family miss something” he said from his office. “Going forward we need to identify what happened, so we can identify it in the future.”
The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department investigates serious crimes on the reservation, and Blain’s four sworn officers deal with crimes committed against the tribe such as poaching and timber theft. He said his officers work on crime prevention in the tight-knit community where members recognize when a stranger is in town and usually call to report it.
The department’s only serious dealing with Hector Celaya was a call in April that came from the mother of his children accusing him of driving while intoxicated with the children in the car. Blain said the accusation was unfounded and part of a “child custody dispute.”
He referred the case to the tribe’s version of Child Protective Services. What happened from there is private.
“It is a tragic event for all involved and will take a lot of healing,” Blain, a retired Porterville Police Department lieutenant, said of the slayings. “We need to look at what brought us to this point and how to prevent it in the future. Our goal is not to arrest people but to get them to resolve their differences.”
Now, however, nerves are raw. A tribal council member reacted angrily when a reporter with The Associated Press showed up Monday to talk with Hunter. He shouted that no media are allowed on tribal lands “by orders of the family.” A tribal police officer politely escorted the reporter off the property.
Police say Celaya opened fire in a travel trailer on the reservation of about 800 people on Saturday night, killing his mother and two uncles. He left behind his seriously wounded 6-year-old son, Andrew. He took with him Alyssa, whose name was tattooed on his right leg, and his other daughter, 5-year-old Linea.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Chris Douglass said it was unclear when Celaya shot his daughters.
Tribal members said the former custodian at the reservation’s Eagle Mountain casino had a troubled past.
Hunter said Celaya’s mother was a friend of hers. The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, which is investigating the case, identified her as 60-year-old Irene Celaya.
“She was always a positive person,” Hunter said. “Every time I saw here she gave me a big hug. She was a positive person no matter what situation she was in.”
Authorities said the bodies of Irene Celaya and her 61-year-old brother, Francisco Moreno, were found in the trailer. The body of their 53-year-old brother, Bernard Franco, was in a shed that was a makeshift bedroom.
Hunter said Irene took care of her brothers and extended family.