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Six of 21 protesters have been charged with felony-level rioting after protesting Utah's first commercial fuel-producing tar sands mine, with more defendants to face trespassing charges.
All 21 protesters are expected to enter plea agreements as early as Thursday, said Uintah County Attorney Mark Thomas. Soon after the arrests, the protesters' defense attorneys began negotiations about who would be charged with what, and how to resolve those cases.
Neither Thomas nor an attorney representing some of the defendants would say to what charge the defendants might plead guilty or whether any of them would spend time in jail or prison.
Jesse J. Fruhwirth, Camila A. Ibanez, Damien T. Luzzo, Laura M. Gottesdiener, Daniel J. Gruppo and Victor E. Puertas were all charged Friday in 8th District Court with rioting, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
They were also charged with interference with an arresting officer, which is a class-A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
Fourteen other protesters have also been charged with misdemeanors; their offenses are mostly related to trespassing. One other was charged with failure to stop at the command of law enforcement, which is a third-degree felony.
Eighty protesters associated with Utah Tar Sands Resistance on July 21 physically blocked access to the equipment being stored off Pope Well Ridge Road in Uintah County, near where U.S. Oil Sands was beginning work on the mine at PR Springs. Several protesters entered a fenced enclosure and locked themselves to equipment, protester spokeswoman Jessica Lee said at the time.
Deputies arrested 13 of them and loaded them into white county vans, according to activists' social media posts.
But when one of the vans approached protesters who had retreated to the main road, those protesters sat down in the roadway and locked their arms, blocking the vans, according to the charges.
"They started chanting that they wanted us to let their people go," a Uintah County sheriff's deputy wrote in a jail document.
The officers warned the protesters several times and asked them to disperse, but the group "advanced on our location," according to the charges. That's when deputies arrested Fruhwirth, Ibanez, Luzzo, Gottesdiener, Gruppo and Puertas, during which all of them became violent and resisted the officers, the charges add.
Among them, Fruhwirth has made headlines before. The local blogger and activist has protested police brutality, other environmental issues, and was active with the local Occupy movement. The Huffington Post even profiled him in October 2013.
One deputy sustained a wrist injury during Puertas' arrest, according to the charges.
A protester also twisted his ankle while fleeing from the officers, Thomas said.
Activists said at the time that police canine units were also on the scene, including one dog that was unleashed, chasing protesters.
According to Lee, the action was staged in response to a June 12 letter sent to Calgary-based U.S. Oil Sands by the Environmental Protection Agency. That letter indicates that U.S. Oil Sands' project, which targets state-owned minerals, includes land within the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.
Activists had been camped nearby on public land in the Book Cliffs since May, hoping to bring attention to what they say is destructive strip mining that could spread around the Uinta Basin should U.S. Oil Sands succeed.
The six protesters' first court appearances are scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday before Judge Edwin Peterson.
At least some of the 21 are expected to enter plea agreements then, said Greg Skordas, an attorney representing some of the defendants.
"Because there were 21 of them, we've had to look at each person individually and try to take into account their conduct and their history, and try to fashion a plea [for] each defendant," Skordas said.
The protesters charged with felony-level rioting
Jesse J. Fruhwirth, 34
Laura M. Gottesdiener, 27
Victor Enrique Puertas, 38
Daniel Joseph Gruppo, 27
Camilla Allison Ibanez, 19
Damien Thomas Luzzo, 25