ST. REGIS MOHAWK INDIAN RESERVATION, N.Y. -- Wind whipped up whitecaps on the St. Lawrence River as Stacey Boots cut the engine pushing his aluminum boat to shore.
With his black hair tied in a ponytail, Boots talked of the days when his people bought pigs and ferried them across the river to Canada to sell for a higher price.
This stretch of river that bisects the St. Regis Mohawk Indian reservation in New York state has long been a conduit for contraband. During Prohibition, liquor headed to the United States. In recent years, cigarettes and liquor headed to Canada.
Boots, who said he is not involved in smuggling, still defends the practice. "We keep telling people this is our land and we can do as we see fit," he said after stepping out of his boat and standing next to a shelter built from willow branches and blue tarps.
Smuggling and legitimate trading have a long tradition on this reservation, which straddles the border of the United States and Canada. But the federal government says the smuggling has gotten out of hand.
On June 20, a federal grand jury indicted 21 people, who authorities claim were running a half-billion-dollar smuggling ring that funneled massive amounts of bootleg cigarettes and liquor through the Mohawk reservation to Canada, where the products were sold on the black market.
Authorities say the scheme involved top business and political leaders in the Mohawk reservation and filtered profits throughout the reservation. The indictments accuse former Chief L. David Jacobs and former casino owner Anthony L. Laughing of racketeering.
The indictments also allege that other business and cultural leaders stashed the liquor and tobacco in warehouses throughout the reserve, which the Mohawks call Akwesasne.
Federal authorities are seeking to seize $687 million in cash proceeds and two armored cars. They also have identified boats, trucks, snowmobiles and an 18-karat gold Rolex watch that might be seized from the alleged ringleaders. But many Indians view the indictment as an attack on their sovereignty and livelihood, and they consider many of those people indicted to be benefactors and friends.
"These are our brothers and uncles," Boots said. "They are arresting them, taking them away."
One of those indicted is Fabian Hart, owner of a luxury fitness center on the reservation who bought computers for local elementary schools. One Indian leader compared Hart to Bill Gates, who has donated $200 million to provide new computers for public libraries.
When news of the indictment broke, one federal official said, "This is bigger than Al Capone." That comparison rankled Alma Ransom, a Mohawk Tribal Council chief. "It's an insult," she said. "We don't break any legs. We don't kill anyone."
The indictments come as federal and state officials are wrestling with proposals regarding taxes on Indian reservation sales.
"They see you driving nice cars and they want to tax us," Boots said. When he crosses the nearby bridge to Canada and customs officials ask him what he has to declare, Boots tells them: "I declare my sovereignty. Why are you here?"
U.S. authorities see the sovereignty claims as a diversion meant to hide an extensive criminal enterprise. "All businessmen and women in this country are obliged to follow the law, and I know of no exemption for entrepreneurs - native or non-native," said U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Maroney, who sat beside a U.S. flag in his Syracuse office, as he thumbed through the 54-page indictment last week.
The U.S. Supreme Court has deemed Indian nations dependent domestic nations - not totally sovereign entities, Maroney said. "They're as subject to federal law as the people in Massena," he said of the neighboring community.
Maroney is on a committee that advises U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno on border issues, and the panel sees a need to focus on the country's northern border, he said.
"It was something that deserved and demanded attention," Maroney said. "Federal and state agencies have known for a very long time that there was smuggling on the northern border, and not all of it involved Akwesasnes."
One of the key figures in the alleged scheme is John W. Fountain, a 21-year New York State Police veteran who retired in 1983. He is accused of using his armored car service to pick up Canadian currency at warehouses operated by other alleged conspirators.
Pub Date: 7/10/97