LOS ANGELES – California authorities believe an unsolved 1981 triple murder at the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians was a hit job orchestrated by a tribal casino director, financial adviser and others to cover up illegal activity, and state officials are seeking to have the main suspect extradited to California.
James "Jimmy" Hughes, the founder of a Miami-based Christian ministry, was arrested Saturday at Miami International Airport on a fugitive warrant and was being held in Miami, where he is fighting extradition to California.
Hughes, 52, faces three counts of murder in the execution-style shootings of Cabazon tribal official Alfred Alvarez and his friends Patricia Castro and Ralph Boger and one count of conspiracy to commit a crime, according to a felony complaint for extradition filed Thursday.
It wasn't immediately clear if Hughes had retained an attorney. His ministry spokeswoman and his wife did not reply to e-mails sent late Thursday.
The complaint alleges that Hughes conspired with non-Indian tribal financial consultant John Philip Nichols, Nichols' son John Paul Nichols, and others in the days immediately before the murders to "prevent Fred Alvarez from exposing illegal activities of John Philip Nichols, occurring at the Cabazon Indian Reservation."
The reservation is located near Indio, in a rural area of Riverside County about 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles. A message left at the tribal administration offices was not immediately returned.
The elder Nichols died in 2001 after pleading no contest to two counts of murder solicitation and serving 18 months in prison in another murder-for-hire plot. At the time, investigators said they couldn't tie him to the unsolved 1981 slayings.
The arrest warrant for Hughes was issued in August by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department after a joint investigation with the state attorney general's office, said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the state attorney general. The state is taking the lead in prosecuting the case because Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco is a distant cousin of Hughes.
Westrup declined to say what prompted authorities to issue the warrant 28 years after the crime.
State officials are seeking to have Hughes extradited to California by a special governor's warrant, a process that could take a month or more, Westrup said. Westrup said the investigation is ongoing and added that an affidavit in support of Hughes' arrest warrant was sealed by a judge in August.
The bizarre killings were dubbed the "octopus murders" by detectives because of the complexity and mystery surrounding them. For years, numerous local and state investigations turned up no suspects, despite rampant rumors, pressure from the victims' families, and the apparent suicide in 1991 of a freelance reporter who was probing the matter.
Alvarez was vice chairman of the Cabazon Tribal Council and security chief of the tribe's poker casino. Hughes was security director of the tribe's casino and bingo operations for four years, until 1984. The elder Nichols was an outside financial guru hired by the 24-member tribe in 1978 and was considered a pioneer in Indian gaming.
In a 1985 article about the elder Nichols' arrest in the murder-for-hire plot, the Los Angeles Times reported that Alvarez told the Indio Daily News shortly before his murder that he feared for his life. The article also said Alvarez's sister said her brother believed the non-Indians running the casino were skimming gambling profits.
Alvarez's sister, Linda Alvarez, told the AP on Thursday that her brother was afraid for his life because his mailbox had been shot out and his motorcycle had many unexplained breakdowns and missing parts.
"You wouldn't think he'd be afraid of anybody because he (was) a big guy, but he was concerned," she said.
In 1984, Hughes, then 27, told authorities he had been a payoff man in the Alvarez case. He said in the summer of 1981, he had been instructed in the presence of the elder Nichols to take $25,000 to the mountain community of Idyllwild and give it to a man as a partial payment for the Alvarez killings, according to the 1985 Times article.
Hughes left California after renewed investigations turned up nothing.
He resurfaced in 1995, when he founded the Jimmy Hughes Ministries, which provides services in Central America to battered women, drug addicts and others, according to its Web site.
Calls to listings for the younger Nichols in New York City and at an Indio golf course on Cabazon property rang unanswered.