PORTERVILLE — Grave-diggers 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.”