An all-night birthday party fueled by large quantities of vodka and a lingering political feud ended at dawn Saturday with a gunbattle and the deaths of three men.
The three were shot to death after they and two other armed men tried to enter the William Seneca Building on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation that has been occupied since November by their political opponents.
The three dead were identified as Myron Kettle, who was celebrating his 64th birthday, Patrick Thompson, 24, and Sammy Paulos, age unknown.
They stormed the building with assault rifles, according to occupants of the building. Two were killed inside the building, and one was found dead outside.
Supporters of those killed, however, said the men went to the building to protest truck tires being shot out.
Among those inside the building and presumably defending it was Kettle's son, Richard, who supports his father's political enemies.
Young Kettle escaped injury.
Kettle and Thompson were residents of the Cattaraugus Reservation. Paulos lived on the reservation and in Canada.
A marshal inside the building, Daniel Rice, was shot in the arm and the hand. He was treated and released in Erie County Medical Center.
Erie County Sheriff Thomas Higgins said the shooting "apparently was driven by alcohol, but it is also a part of a situation down here that people seem to think should be settled at the end of a rifle barrel.
"Everybody is armed. Every pickup truck going down the road has a rifle in the front seat."
Guns, rifles and ammunition were found in the two vehicles driven to the building by the dead men and their friends, Higgins said.
Charges will be brought against those involved with the shootings, the sheriff said. District Attorney Kevin Dillon said a grand jury will investigate.
Investigators do not know who inside the building shot the three men, Dillon added.
State Police Maj. Pedro Perez said authorities had not determined who shot first. No arrests were made, Perez said.
Families and friends on the Cattaraugus Reservation have been torn apart by a bitter power struggle between the Seneca Party and its members who serve on the Tribal Council and Dennis J. Bowen Jr., who was elected president Nov. 1 on the Coalition '94 party ticket.
Myron Kettle's family was one of those shattered by the political battle.
Kettle vowed allegiance to the Seneca Party and Karen Bucktooth, who was elected Seneca president by the Tribal Council after it impeached Bowen.
Kettle's son and two daughters were loyal to Bowen, arguing that Bowen had been elected by the people and that only the people had the right to oust him from office.
"There is nothing right about all of this," Sherri Kettle said as she stood waiting for her father's body to be removed from the Seneca Building.
"This thing has destroyed families. It certainly has destroyed our family."
The events leading to the deaths began Friday night, when Kettle was celebrating his birthday.
Kettle's daughters said that several people took liquor to their father's party and that an aunt gave him a gun for a present.
"Can you believe someone would do that with all that is going on here?" Lisa Kettle asked.
The birthday party continued into Saturday's early hours. Eventually, several celebrants made their way to the Seneca Building, although accounts of what happened there differ.
Those inside the building said that Kettle and his friends were the instigators.
At about 5:30 a.m., Leslie McComber said he and others heard noises outside.
"Most of the people in the building were sleeping on the floor, when we heard the first gun shots," said McComber, a Seneca Nation marshal. "We heard some shots coming from the back of the building, and I went outside to check."
While he was in back, though, a confrontation was occurring in the front.
Two vehicles with the five men had pulled up to the front of the building, and one marshal went outside to ask them to leave, McComber said he was later told.
"Virgil Seneca went outside when they pulled into the yard to try to quiet them down and get them to go home," he said. "Instead, they just pushed him over and ran through the door Virgil had left open and began shooting.
"There were bullet holes down the entire hallway and even a glass door at the opposite end of the entrance had bullet holes," he said.
Inside the building, the gunbattle intensified. That is about the time McComber re-entered the building.
"Right after I got out back, I heard one shot from the front and the next thing I knew, there was nothing but gunfire," he said. "Then I saw someone run from the building and across the road through the field. I started after him but then thought I better get back to the building and help our people inside."
The leaders of the Seneca Party, however, said they were informed of a different sequence of events.
Robert Kenjockety, a tribal councilor, said he was told that Kettle and his friends went joyriding after the party.
"While they were in the vicinity of the Seneca Building," Kenjockety said he was told, "someone from the building fired at their vehicles and punctured a tire on one of the two cars.
"They went back to Kettle's house, fixed the tire and then came back to the building and were knocking at the door trying to find out why someone fired at their vehicles when there were gunshots from inside the building and the three men were killed."
Larry Ballagh, a Tribal Council member, also said Kettle had been driving around the reservation when Bowen supporters fired shots at his truck.
Kettle and four others returned to the building later to ask "what in the hell are you doing shooting at us?" Ballagh said. "That's when they got shot."
Some residents of the reservation criticized Higgins for the violence, saying he should have had deputies to stop the shootings.
But Higgins responded that random shooting has become commonplace on the reservation since the political battle began in November. Deputies responded to the initial call at 4:30 a.m., he said, "but there didn't seem to be anything to it."
About the same time, Sally Snow, a Bowen supporter and Seneca marshal, received a call at home from the Seneca Building.
"At first, they said someone was shooting at the cars parked in the yard," she was told, "and then, it was that they were shooting at the building and then it was a call to 'get the police right away, four men have been shot.' "
Sheriff's deputies got a similar call at the same time -- 6:07 a.m.
Before word of the deaths had spread through the reservation, troopers barricaded each end of the road in front of both the Seneca Building and the nearby Saylor Building, which has been serving as a command post for the Seneca Party supporters loyal to Ms. Bucktooth.
The barricades kept spectators away and averted any possibility of a clash between supporters of the two factions. The immediate area was blanketed with state trooper and sheriff's department vehicles.
A few Senecas gathered into sides and silently watched police investigators dust a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a pickup truck that Kettle and his friends drove to the building.
They also watched as officers brought guns out of the building, followed by body bags.
Shock and grief were expressed by Bowen and Ms. Bucktooth.
Both also called for talks to end the violence.
Bowen said he hoped that plans for federal mediators to open communication between the two sides will continue.
"I think we both agree that we want to remove guns from our reservations and return all our people to sobriety," he said. "I think we all want to see our people live and not die."
Those plans call for the mediators to hold separate meetings with each side on Monday and Tuesday.
"Our door has always been open to sit down and talk," said Kenjockety, the tribal councilor and spokesman for the Seneca Party. "The first round must be coming to some agreement about which items we are going to talk about."