Image: Malcolm Webber
Larry Smith  /  AP
Malcolm Webber, center, leaves the Federal Courthouse along with his attorney Kurt Kerns, right, and Paralegal Christna Patton in Wichita, Kan., on Tuesday.  Jurors have begun deliberating the immigration fraud case of Webber, the self-proclaimed grand chief of the Kaweah Indian Nation.
updated 8/13/2008 7:17:59 PM ET 2008-08-13T23:17:59

The leader of a group that claims to be an American Indian tribe was convicted Wednesday of defrauding immigrants by falsely telling them tribal membership would make them U.S. citizens.

Malcolm Webber was found guilty on six federal charges arising from the unrecognized tribe's efforts to sell memberships. The jury acquitted him on a conspiracy count.

U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown will decide how much money Webber must forfeit. Prosecutors estimate the fraud at about $1.2 million. Sentencing was set for Nov. 3.

Prosecutors argued that Webber, 70, marketed memberships in the Kaweah Indian Nation by telling immigrants the tribal identification documents could be used to get Social Security cards, U.S. passports, health care benefits and driver's licenses.

Webber's attorney, Kurt Kerns, argued that his client had no criminal intent and only sought to help undocumented immigrants become legal residents.

The defense called no witnesses during the trial.

Webber, who remains free on bond, 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.

He showed no emotion as the verdicts were read. Kerns declined to comment afterward.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson told jurors the Kaweah Indian Nation is Webber's invention.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled in 1984 that the Kaweah group had no historical link to American Indian tribes and that Webber — who calls himself Grand Chief Thunderbird IV — is not an Indian.

Even if it were a legitimate tribe, immigrants cannot obtain legal immigration status by joining a tribe.

U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren said it was important to prosecute cases to protect immigrants.

"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."

Federal prosecutors charged the tribe and 11 people last year. Charges have been dismissed against the tribe and two defendants, one remains a fugitive and seven others have pleaded guilty to reduced charges.

Robert Visnaw, a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testified that agents seized Kaweah 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 testified he had compared 1,000 of those memberships with ICE databases, and it appeared only 4 percent to 5 percent were lawful residents or citizens.

Roger Nunemaker, a longtime friend of Webber who watched part of the trial, said the government's case did not convince him that Webber had done anything illegal. But he now doubts that Webber was a real Indian chief and wonders about the $30,000 a day the tribe raked in, according to trial testimony.

"Where did the money go?" he said. "It just left me with more unanswered questions."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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