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Gary Younge
Fraudster who posed as leader of lost Native American tribe faces jail

But in an elaborate scam, Mr Roberts, who lives in upstate New York, created an entire lineage of a fake Native American clan spanning eight generations.

As chief of the Western Mohegans he managed to persuade a federal judge to stop construction on a $5m (£2.7m) park project by claiming the government was building on sacred ground.

In 2001 he persuaded Chicago investors to give him $900,000 to build a casino. Last year he sued the governor of New York for 200 years of backdated rent, saying he and the state legislators were trespassing every time they went to work.

Next week he will be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail, having pleaded guilty to charges of submitting false documents and perjury.

His bizarre tale started when Mr Roberts claimed membership of the Mashantucket Pequot Native Americans in Connecticut in 1996.

The Mashantuckets refused membership so he moved on to the Mohegans in the same state. When the Mohegans also rebuffed him he started a tribe of his own.

He called them the Western Mohegans, claimed they were descendants of those who remained in the Hudson valley in the late 1700s, while others migrated.

He sent a petition to President Bill Clinton, showing how his great-great-grandfather, the Reverend George Smith, had been born to a Native American woman, Cynthia Ticomwas. He then set to the serious work of trying to make money from his faux identity.

Many Native Americans live in areas that are, theoretically, independent nations which can enter into bilateral treaties with the US government. For the most part this makes little difference to the country's poorest minority, since most reservations are on extremely bad land. But many tribes have made a large amount of money from setting up casinos which are not subject to federal or state gaming laws.

Mr Roberts, who will not return phone calls, is the first person to be prosecuted by the department of the interior for trying to deceive the tribal-recognition officials at the bureau of Indian affairs. A recent congressional hearing was told that Mr Roberts's attempts epitomised someone seeking "an instant opportunity to open a casino".

"Growing up, most people didn't want to be Indian," Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the bureau of Indian affairs, told the New York Times. "Now that people think we have something, a lot of people want to be Indian."

But Mr Robert's efforts were crude. He changed the "W" denoting white to "Indian" on his grandfather's death certificate. The only problem was he did it with a ballpoint pen, which was invented after his grandfather died. He also made some rough and ready alterations to the 1845 census which he submitted as proof of his tribe's authenticity.

Where the money-making was concerned he started out small, in a showdown with the state's attorney general over proposing three days of bingo on "Western Mohegan land".

Mr Roberts backed down after the state issued a temporary restraining order. After that he set his sights on bigger targets, stopping work on a state park in Schodack Island, claiming that it would interfere with religious worship, while simultaneously angling to set up a casino.

It did not take the bureau of Indian affairs long to uncover that the former slate dealer, travelling evangelist, actor and country and western singer who called himself the Golden Eagle was just plain Mr Roberts.

"He's a little bit of a laughing stock around here," said Clara Clark, who has lived in Granville all her life. "All the big plans, but nothing came through."

According to federal genealogists, Mr Roberts is the descendant of wealthy - and white - European settlers.

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