Photograph by Steven Higgs
Two I-69 activists who allegedly shouted at public officials during this protest at an INDOT meeting in Bloomington in August 2007 have been charged with felony charges for "racketeering." The Pike County prosecutor says in court documents that vocal dissent is punishable under RICO statutes designed to punish organized criminals. The arrested activists are not pictured here.
Standing on a table and shouting at public meetings is a felony in Indiana and amounts to “Racketeering” if the offender is a member of an organized citizens group, according to arrest warrants issued April 17 in Pike County for two anti-NAFTA Highway protesters.
In the documents, Pike County Prosecutor Darrin McDonald and a state police officer allege that direct actions by members of the Roadblock EarthFirst! group between June 2007 and August 2008 are felonies under the Indiana Corrupt Business Influence Act, punishable by up to eight years in state prison. The law is Indiana’s version of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a.k.a. RICO.
Two activists -- Hugh F. Farrell and Gina A. “Tiga” Wertz -- were arrested on April 24 and charged with four misdemeanors and felony racketeering for anti-Interstate 69 actions in Petersburg, Oakland City, Evansville and Bloomington. Farrell was released April 28 on bond. Wertz remained in jail as of May 1.
According to the warrants, the state believes that citizens organized to discourage public projects like I-69 are organized criminals.
“On or about the dates stated below the said Hugh F. Farrell, a person associated with Roadblock Earthfirst, an enterprise with the stated and actual objective of discouraging and/or obstructing the lawful construction of Interstate 69 … did knowingly with such objectives participate in activities of Roadblock Earthfirst through a pattern of Racketeering activity including two (2) or more of the following acts,” the warrants say.
According to authorities, those activities include “kicking over chairs, climbing on a table and shouting at members of the public” during an Aug. 21, 2008, protest at an Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) informational meeting at Bloomington High School North. (According to Alternative archives, the meeting in question was held on Aug. 21, 2007.)
In a news release issued April 30, I-69 activists said Farrell and Wertz were “incorrectly singled out” and called the RICO statute a “mob-era law that the government is using in an attempt to criminalize dissent and resistance” to I-69.
"These unreasonable charges and their equally unreasonable bond amounts appear to be law enforcement tactics to silence community opposition to the highway through the fear of escalating harassment," Steve Walters, a Bloomington resident and friend of Wertz and Farrell, said in the release.
Farrell and Wertz’s arrests have been reported on activist Web sites but not by any mainstream media to date. Searches of the Bloomington Herald-Times and Evansville Courier & Press for both last names return no results.
A Web site named FREE HUGH AND TIGA! reported that Wertz was arrested as she appeared at a Gibson County Court hearing for an I-69 action last summer. “A couple hours after Tiga was accosted at the courthouse, Hugh was arrested in northern Indiana by a U.S. marshal driving an unmarked vehicle,” the site continued. “Rather than pulling over the vehicle Hugh was traveling in, the cop trailed the car for some unknown duration waiting for it to stop, then arrested Hugh outside of a gas station.”
The other actions cited in Farrell’s warrant include “office invasions” and “evictions” carried out by activists at I-69 Project Offices in Petersburg and Oakland City on July 9, 2007. The warrants charge him with:
- Misdemeanor Intimidation for “forcibly taking control of the 1-69 Section 2 Project Office in Petersburg, Indiana and thereafter removing office furniture, equipment and the personal checkbook of Ronnie Wilson from the said office, posting a bogus ‘Eviction Notice’”;
- Misdemeanor Intimidation for “forcibly taking control of the 1-69 Section 2 Project Office in Petersburg, Indiana and thereafter removing office furniture, equipment and the personal checkbook of Ronnie Wilson from the said office, posting a bogus "Eviction Notice";
(The above redundancy is not a misprint. The wording is straight from the warrants, as posted on I-69 activist Web sites.)
- Misdemeanor Conversion for knowingly exerting “unauthorized control over the property of the 1-69 section 2 Project office towit: office furniture and equipment”; and
- Misdemeanor Conversion for knowingly exerting “unauthorized control over the property of the 1-69 section 2 Project office manager, Ronnie Wilson to-wit his personal checkbook.”
The racketeering charges stem from Farrell’s alleged conspiratorial participation in the office evictions, the Bloomington confrontation and threatening law enforcement officials who removed a Roadblock EarthFirst! tree-sit platform in the proposed I-69 path. The “conspiracy” allegedly culminated with “an Internet blog on public internet sites stating to such officers and officials 'you will suffer the consequences’ and ‘perhaps we'll go to your homes, children's daycare, churches or wherever else you turn your back,’” the warrants say.
"These unreasonable charges and their equally unreasonable bond amounts appear to be law enforcement tactics to silence community opposition to the highway through the fear of escalating harassment."
- Steve Walters, I-69 activist
In documents arguing for a $20,000 bond against Farrell, Prosecutor McDonald said a state police officer saw him “shouting at a public meeting in Monroe County,” which “demonstrates instability.”
Further, the prosecutor alleged, Farrell “has been observed advocating literature and materials which advocate anarchy, property destruction and violence” and is “known to be a leader of Roadblock Earthfirst, opposed to the construction of Interstate 69, which group 's activities have resulted in excess of one hundred thousand dollars damage to legitimate business and law enforcement.”
Wertz is charged with the same four misdemeanors as Farrell for the same two “evictions” on July 9 at INDOT offices in Petersburg and Oakland City. The warrants likewise cite those two actions, the threatening Internet blog message and the following in her felony “Racketeering” charge, alleging that in at least two of the following actions she:
- Conspired and agreed with other Roadblock EarthFirst!ers on June 23, 2008, to commit Intimidation against law enforcement officers and DNR officials in retaliation for their removing a Roadblock Earthfirst! tree-sit in the planned I-69 path. The “conspiracy” allegedly culminated when 10 protesters, “disguised in masks,” rushed the Bloomington’s DNR office, “forcibly taking control of the said office and terrorizing employees therein, and further destroying property belonging to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources”;
- Conspired and agreed with other Roadblock Earthfirst!ers on June 23, 2008, to commit Intimidation against employees of Bernardin Lochmueller & Associates (BLA), an Evansville engineering firm involved in the construction of Interstate 69. The “conspiracy” allegedly culminated with masked protesters rushing the BLA office, “terrorizing employees therein, beating on the exterior of and smashing a window of the said office”;
- Conspired and agreed with other Roadblock EarthFirst!ers on July 14, 2008, to commit Theft at Gohmann Asphalt & Construction in Gibson County. The “conspiracy” allegedly culminated when six protesters blocked the entrance “by the formation of a sleeping dragon,” costing Gohmann “monetary losses in excess of fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000)”;
- Conspired and agreed with other Roadblock Earthfirst!ers in late May 2008 to commit Theft. The “conspiracy” allegedly culminated when multiple protesters took control of “trees and real estate at the northern end of the beginning 1.77 mile stretch of Interstate 69,” depriving the owners of “use and/or value of the said trees, timber and real estate” and “to inhibit the construction of Interstate 69.”
While arguing for a $10,000 cash bond for Wertz, McDonald alleged she is “a known leader and organizer of Roadblock Earthfirst.”
Steven Higgs can be reached at .
For more information
- Free Hugh and Tiga!