The self-proclaimed leader of a group that claims to be an
American Indian tribe was found guilty Wednesday of defrauding immigrants
by falsely telling them tribal membership would make them U.S. citizens.
“Chief” Malcolm Webber, 70, was found guilty Wednesday of six charges arising from the unrecognized tribe’s efforts to sell tribal memberships.
After seven hours
of deliberations, a jury in U.S. District Court in Wichita found Webber not
guilty on one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States by
submitting false passport applications.
Webber was convicted on two counts of harboring illegal immigrants, two
counts of possession of false documents with intent to defraud the United
States, one count of conspiracy with intent to defraud the United States
and one count of mail fraud.
After the verdict’s were read, U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown told jurors
the attorneys had agreed to have the court, rather than jurors, decide on
the forfeiture of the proceeds from the criminal acts. Prosecutors estimate
the fraud at about $1.2 million.
Sentencing was set for Nov. 3
Webber remained free on bond.
Webber showed no emotion as the verdicts were read.
“No comment will be made because we have to file an appeal,” defense attorney Kurt Kerns
said after the proceedings.
Immigration laws must be enforced.
Outside the courthouse, U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren told reporters that one
of the things important about the case was the enforcement of U.S.
“This has always been a country that welcomes immigrants, and most of us
are descendants of immigrants or immigrants ourselves,” Melgren said. “But
we have a procedure and a process by which that is done and it is in the
government’s interest to enforce that process.”
Melgren also said it was important to prosecute cases to protect
“These people were defrauded of money on a faulty promise that it would
improve their immigration status,” he said. “They were also victims and I
think part of the justice in this case was protecting people.”
Immigrants were told tribal documents could help them get other official US IDs
Prosecutors argued that Webber, of Bel Aire, marketed the memberships in
the Kaweah Indian Nation by telling immigrants in Kansas, Nebraska and
elsewhere in country the tribal identification documents could be used to
get Social Security cards, U.S. passports, health care benefits and
Kerns argued at trial that his client had no criminal intent and only
sought to help undocumented immigrants become legal residents. He blamed
others for overcharging people for tribal memberships.
The defense called no witnesses during the trial and Webber did not take
the witness stand in his own defense.
Kawea Indian Nation is an unrecognized indian tribe
During the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson told jurors the
Kaweah Indian Nation, which is not a federally recognized tribe, is
Webber’s invention. But even if it were a legitimate tribe, immigrants
cannot obtain legal immigration status by joining a tribe.
Anderson told reporters after the verdict that reports of the sale of
tribal memberships for fraudulent immigration purposes first surfaced in
2003, but it was not until 2006 that its scope became known. The
memberships were sold across the United States.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled in 1984 that the Kaweah group had no
historical link to American Indian tribes.
The bureau also ruled that
Webber, who calls himself Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, is not an Indian.
Last year, federal prosecutors charged the tribe and 11 people in a
17-count indictment. Charges have been dismissed against the tribe and two
defendants, one remains a fugitive and seven others have pleaded guilty to
Robert Visnaw, a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement,
testified that agents seized tribal enrollment rolls with the names of
13,142 people, plus an additional 2,000 to 3,000 applications that had not
yet been processed.
Visnaw, the lead investigator, told jurors that he has not gone through the
entire membership roll. But of the 1,000 tribal memberships that he
compared with ICE databases, it appeared only 4 percent to 5 percent were
lawful residents or citizens.