Big Chief Moneybags

Part CEO, part shaman, Seminole leader James Billie has his tribe charging toward economic independence.

He never knew his father. His mother died when he was nine years old, and he spent his childhood in various households, haylofts, and back seats of cars, an orphan. For a while his grandmother raised him. She herself was an ostracized victim, in her case of a scandalous incest. The perpetrator, her father, was killed on orders of tribal elders.

In the spring of 1965, Billie began the first of two tours of duty in Vietnam as a U.S. Army Ranger. A member and then a leader of a long-range reconnaissance patrol, Billie scouted positions behind enemy lines, killed as many combatants as possible, and earned a reputation for bringing his men out of the jungle alive. In 1968, while he was on leave, his unit was wiped out. The dead men were later found kneeling in a circle, their heads buried in the ground.

Billie returned to the Hollywood Seminole reservation with a bad case of war jitters, bought a motorcycle, floundered from job to job, and managed to get himself arrested for stealing an outboard boat motor. "No one in a million years could have predicted what James would become," says Tommy Taylor, a white friend who grew up near the reservation with Billie. "On the other hand, he's always been completely unpredictable. And very determined."

Of the reservation at that time, Taylor recalls, "the Seminoles were so poor they used to circle their cars around this little makeshift rodeo ground they had near Stirling Road and 441, 'cause there wasn't any money for lights at night. People would come over there and bring two or three loaves of bread and some packs of bologna, and that was a big treat."

Billie wrestled alligators at a roadside tourist village, started a company that built native thatched-roof chickees and made his first real money, then began to get involved in tribal politics. In 1979 he was narrowly elected chairman of the tribe. He duplicated his success in four more elections over the years. "Some of 'em vote for me because they're old friends or members of my clan," Billie says, "some of 'em put me in because they thought I was the sorriest choice -- except for all the others."

In 1983 he made himself nationally famous for the first time when he was hauled into federal court for killing and barbecuing a panther on the Big Cypress reservation. (When asked what panther tastes like, Billie retorts: "Sorta like a cross between manatee and bald eagle.") To environmentalists the killing was an outrage. Billie, unrepentant, eventually beat the rap by arguing that the dead cat wasn't provably a pureblood Florida panther and therefore wasn't protected by the Endangered Species Act. More important, he insisted the killing was a form of religious expression, a part of Seminole shamanistic tradition. It was the first in a long series of head-buttings between Billie and forces outside the tribe, encounters that had the effect of further asserting Seminole sovereignty.

The most recent high-profile skirmish took place over the past fifteen months after two St. Petersburg Times newspaper reporters began investigating the tribe and its gaming operations. The reporters were interested in, among other things, the government subsidies that Seminoles continue to receive and the management of the tribe's business empire. Billie and other tribal members gradually became aware of the investigation.

"When I hear that someone's investigating, I say, 'Here I am,'" Billie declares. "It didn't really irk me until they wrote a letter to my personal secretary." That letter arrived on June 30, 1997, at Patricia Diamond's home. It began "Dear Pat" and moved quickly toward a sales pitch for treachery.

"I understand the position this letter puts you in, but I've only the interest of the tribe at heart," wrote Brad Goldstein, the Times's computer-assisted reporting editor. "I'm aware that you may be in possession of certain documents that could help our pursuit of the truth: namely how rank and file tribal members are being hurt by irresponsible leadership.

"You don't need to contact me by telephone. But if copies of those documents were to arrive in an envelope that has no return address on it, the truth will get out, and there will be no trace. If anonymous phone calls were to come to me at 1-800-333-7505 extension 8333 I wouldn't know who was on the other end. Anonymity is crucial. Your name will never come up. Anonymous notes written on a home typewriter would be best."

Closing with a dramatic flourish, Goldstein emphasized to Diamond that "the truth is crucial. No one else is willing to ensure that tribal members get what is owed to them. The FBI isn't. No one but the press. I hope you look into your heart and do the right thing. Innocent people are being hurt. And if something isn't done, then the problem could swallow up everyone."

Then Diamond started receiving calls from Goldstein at home. Mostly she listened. Goldstein chatted with her about her hometown in West Virginia. "That bothered me," she later told a reporter. "I wondered how he found that out." And: "I got the feeling he wanted me to affirm things he was saying, so I didn't even grunt."

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