Protesters from across U.S. arrested at Utah tar sands mine

Published: Tuesday, July 22 2014 4:45 p.m. MDT

Activists from a number of environmental and social justice groups shut down construction Monday, July 29, 2013.

Geoff Liesik, Deseret News

VERNAL — Twenty-one people from 10 states were arrested Monday during a protest that "became physical" at a controversial tar sands mine in northeastern Utah, according to the Uintah County Sheriff's Office.

Those arrested listed addresses in Utah, Arizona, California, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oregon and Wisconsin, Uintah County Undersheriff John Laursen said Tuesday.

They were booked for investigation of offenses that ranged from trespassing on state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration land and stopping mining operations to felony riot and conspiracy to commit escape, the undersheriff said.

The first arrests were made about 10:30 a.m. Monday, more than four hours after 12 protesters climbed an 8-foot-tall, chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and entered land leased to U.S. Oil Sands by SITLA, authorities said. Five of those individuals chained themselves to heavy equipment inside the fenced area, deputies said.

Uintah County Sheriff Jeff Merrell said deputies used a pair of bolt cutters, a wrench, pliers and a pocket knife to remove the chains and arrested the 12 protesters, including one who had secured himself to a gate in the fence.

"It became physical," Merrell acknowledged, noting that about 30 protesters outside the fenced area were told to leave the mine site or face arrest as well. All but one of followed that order, the sheriff said, and was arrested.

When deputies tried to leave the site with those who had been taken into custody, six protesters sat down on Seep Ridge Road to block their way and "started to physically resist the officers," Laursen said.

One deputy pulled his Taser after he was punched in the head, Laursen said. The Taser did not have a projectile cartridge attached, the undersheriff said. It remained unclear Tuesday whether anyone received a "dry stun" when the deputy cycled the weapon while holding it above his head, Laursen said.

The six protesters blocking the road were arrested. Two other protesters were arrested outside the Uintah County Jail after they were identified as suspects in the effort to block Seep Ridge Road, authorities said.

Jessica Lee, spokeswoman for Utah Tar Sands Resistance, said deputies treated protesters so roughly during the arrests that it amounted to police brutality.

"This is a clear example of the Uintah County sheriff escalating things," Lee said, noting that protesters were "grabbed in an aggressive manner" and some were "thrown to the ground."

Lee also criticized the frequent presence of police K-9s at the mine site as people began to gather there over the past week for a peaceful protest. She said at least one K-9 handler let his dog off the leash during Monday's arrests.

"Having a dog off-leash is a blatant threat against protesters," Lee said.

When asked Tuesday if a police K-9 had been deployed against any of the protestors, Sheriff Merrell replied: "Absolutely not."

One protester was taken to Ashley Regional Medical Center in Vernal before being booked into jail. The man was treated for a severely sprained ankle that he suffered when he tripped over sagebrush while running from a sheriff's sergeant, Laursen said. Any other arrestees who may have had medical issues were allowed see a registered nurse at the jail, the undersheriff said.

Laursen identified the arrestees as: Elizabeth Arce, Jesse Jordan Fruhwirth, Laura Gottesdiener, Daniel Joseph Gruppo, Melinda Hatch, Eliana Correa-Hernandez, Camila Allison Ibanez, Anna Dorothy Leopold, Melody Brianna Leppard, Valerie Montana Love, Damien Thomas Luzzo, Maribel Alejandra Mercado, Samuel Ralph Neubauer, Belmont T. Pinger, Victor Enrique Puertas, Eric Michael Recchia, Ashlyn Danielle Ruga, Lorenzo Daniel Serna, Tabitha Skervin, Cynthia Francis Spoon and Lionel P. Trepanier.

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