PORTERVILLE, Calif. — The church bell that rings out to announce the deaths of tribal members on the Tule River Indian Reservation tolled repeatedly after a man went on a shooting rampage that left a daughter, his mother and her two brothers dead. The suspect also died in a shootout with police.
Authorities cornered Hector Celaya, 31, on a country road in the middle of citrus orchards 30 miles away from the reservation and about six hours after the Saturday night shootings, that also left two of his other children wounded.
In the car with him were two daughters: 8-year-old Alyssa who had life-threatening injuries and 5-year-old Linea who was seriously hurt. Sheriff’s spokeswoman Chris Douglass said it was unclear when Celaya shot his daughters.
Celaya was wounded by deputies after he opened fire on them, and died hours later at a hospital, she said.
By Sunday night, authorities confirmed that Alyssa had also died. Police said Celaya had a tattoo of her name on his right leg.
Authorities have not disclosed what motivated Celaya to kill his relatives, who lived in a travel trailer on a family compound on the reservation of about 800 people. But tribal members said the former custodian at the reservation’s casino had a troubled past.
“He had a real hard life,” said Rhoda Hunter, the tribal council secretary. “But all of us do, we all have a hard time. But we try not to let it get the best of us.”
Hunter said that Celaya’s mother was a friend of hers. The Tulare County sheriff’s department, which is investigating the case, identified her 60-year-old Irene Celaya.
The killings stunned the tightknit tribal community.
“We’ve had a lot of deaths here, but nothing like this. Not murder. No, not murder,” Hunter said.
The remote reservation relies on the Eagle Mountain Casino for revenues. Each tribal member receives $500 a month, but Hunter said most of the profit is invested into educational programs for the children.
The compound where the shooting took place is on a dirt road in a scenic canyon lined with oaks and sycamore trees. Herds of horses graze the hillsides, and modular houses sit on hilltops.
The 911 call came to the Tule River Indian Reservation fire department at about 7:45 p.m. Saturday, said Shelby Charley Jr., an engineer and supervisor. He said his crew, which most often attends to people who fall ill at the casino, was shocked by the carnage.
“This is a once in a lifetime kind of deal,” Charley said. “It’s one of those calls you could go your whole career and not walk into. This is one of those calls that will stick with you for the rest of your life.”
Charley said his crew immediately discovered a woman and man dead of gunshot wounds, then quickly discovered a young boy with critical wounds. Thick fog grounded helicopters in Fresno and Bakersfield, so rescue workers had to drive the gravely injured boy 40 minutes to the nearest hospital in Visalia.
Minutes later, sheriff’s deputies found a third body in an outbuilding that had been set up as a makeshift bedroom. 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 the shed.
The wounded boy was identified as Celaya’s 6-year-old son, Andrew.
Deputies found Celaya by tracking his cellphone. A chase ensued, though Celaya never exceeded the speed limit and sometimes slowed to 15 mph, police said.
He eventually pulled over in a rural area deep in the heart of citrus country outside the tiny community of Lindsay, about 30 miles from the reservation. Celaya opened fire, prompting deputies to return fire, Douglass said.
She did not say how many shots were fired, but said Celaya fired his gun “multiple times.”