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21 Utah Tar Sands Blockaders Face Charges, Including Felonies

Above: No arrests were made during this July 2013 protest near the U.S. Oil Sands mine in Uintah County. A similar protest at the mine site in July 2014, however, resulted in 21 arrests. On Jan. 2, 2015, Uintah County prosecutors filed felony and misdemeanor charges against those who were arrested. 

Uintah County prosecutors file charges against 21 tar sands protesters

Uintah County prosecutors have filed felony and misdemeanor charges against 21 people who were arrested during a July protest at the site of a controversial tar sands mine.

Videos Below of Three of the Utah Tar Sands Resistance Actions

VERNAL — Uintah County prosecutors have filed felony and misdemeanor charges against 21 people from 10 states who were arrested during a summer protest at the site of a controversial tar sands mine.

Utah Tar Sands blockade with equipment July 29, 2013
Utah Tar Sands blockade with equipment July 29, 2013

Prosecutors charged Jesse Jordan Fruhwirth, Laura M. Gottesdiener, Daniel Joseph Gruppo, Camila Allison Ibanez, Damien Thomas Luzzo and Victor Enrique Puertas on Friday with rioting, a third-degree felony, and interfering with an arresting officer, a class A misdemeanor. Lionel Patrick Trepanier was charged with failure to stop at the command of law enforcement, a third-degree felony, and criminal trespass, class A misdemeanor.

Prosecutors also charged Elizabeth Arce, Iliana Correa-Hernandez, Anna Dorothy Leopold, Melody B. Leppard, Valerie Montana Love, Maribel Alejandra Mercado, Samuel Ralph Neubauer, Belmont Towbin Pinger, Eric Michael Recchia, Ashlyn D. Ruga, Lorenzo Daniel Serna, Tabitha Skervin and Cynthia Francis Spoon with criminal trespass, a class A misdemeanor.

Correa-Hernandez, Leopold, Love, Mercado, Pinger and Ruga were also charged with interfering with an arresting officer, a class A misdemeanor, and Melinda Hatch was charged with rioting, a class A misdemeanor.

The charges stem from a July 21 protest at the U.S. Oil Sands mine site, which sits on land leased to the Canadian energy firm by the state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

During the protest, 12 environmental activists climbed an 8-foot-tall, chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and entered the mine site, according to court records. Five of the activists chained themselves to heavy equipment inside the fenced area, deputies said.

Utah Tar Sands blockade July 2014
Utah Tar Sands blockade July 2014

About 30 protesters outside the fenced area were told to leave the mine site or face arrest, according to court records. Only one of the 30 failed to follow that order and was arrested.

Fruhwirth, Gottesdiener, Gruppo, Ibanez, Luzzo and Puertas sat down on Seep Ridge Road to block the way when a van filled with the arrestees tried to leave the site, the charges state. They physically resisted attempts by deputies to move them, and one deputy suffered a wrist injury while arresting Puertas, according to court records.

In July, Utah Tar Sands Resistance spokeswoman Jessica Lee said deputies treated the 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 at the time, noting that protesters were “grabbed in an aggressive manner” and some were “thrown to the ground.”

Utah Tar Sands blockading equipment July 19, 2014
Utah Tar Sands blockading equipment July 19, 2014


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 deputy, according to the sheriff’s office.

Officials with U.S. Oil Sands have said that 200 exploratory wells at the mine site show that 190 million barrels of oil can be successfully recovered. The company holds leases to nearly 6,000 acres of school trust lands in northeastern Utah.

Crews are currently doing site preparation work at the mine. U.S. Oil Sands expects to begin mining operations by the end of 2015.

Those charged in connection with July’s protest listed addresses in Utah, Arizona, California, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oregon and Wisconsin when they were booked into the Uintah County Jail. They are all scheduled to make their first court appearances Thursday.

Email:, Twitter: GeoffLiesik

For more on the Utah Tar Sands Resistance or to donate click here.



VERNAL–Plea agreements reached between the Uintah County Attorney’s office and 25 tar sands opponents arrested in July and September, some charged with felonies, will be revealed in 8th District Court Thursday at 9 AM.

Can’t make it to Vernal? A representative of the defendants will be available for interviews and on-camera comments
at 2:30 pm Thursday, January 8 in front of the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City immediately following the hearing

Construction of the US Oil Sands tar sands strip mine in the Book Cliffs of Utah was halted for one week in July due to protesters’ efforts to stop the project. They say all levels of government and corporate investors have failed to stop the misguided project and so everyday people have had to step in.

“This tar sands mine isn’t safe for drinking water, it’s a huge contribution to climate catastrophe, it’s destroying vital animal habitat, it’s destroying Mother Earth seized from indigenous people, and will make the region’s air even more toxic for everyone,” said Raphael Cordray of Utah Tar Sands Resistance. “It’s not even safe for investors who are exposed to so much litigation risk attached to all those dangerous factors that violate the public trust.”

State and county government have strongly supported the development of tar sands and oil shale strip mines, in part by funding and building a 70-mile highway–named Seep Ridge Road–without which the tar sands project would be financially unfeasible. Court challenges were unsuccessful.

Protesters say the heavy-handed charges have drawn more attention to the campaign and attracted even more eager supporters. “The urgency to stop this project continues despite the repression from the state and police,” Cordray said. “This project is life-threatening and violent. As more people learn about, more people are inspired to do what they can to stop it. This project is so awful that resistance is inevitable.”

In the largest protest action, on July 21, about 80 protesters in pre-dawn hours swarmed a fenced equipment yard. Several locked their bodies to construction equipment and blocked entrance to the yard and hung a banner reading “U are Tresspassing on Ute Land.” After about 11 people were extracted and arrested there, a second segment of people sat in the roadway temporarily blocking police vehicles from leaving. In all, 21 people were arrested that day, seven of whom were charged with felonies including rioting.

On Septmeber 23, disguised in chipmunk masks, a group of just five people were able to shut down work at the sprawling 200-acre construction site.

In all during 2014, police arrested 26 people for various actions that disrupted the tar sands mine’s activity. Many disruptive actions occurred in which police were able to arrest no one. Thursday’s hearing will conclude the last of the court cases attached to 2014 actions against the tar sands mine construction.


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