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Legal Battles Drag On

news2More than a year after the 75 River St. occupation, four defendants remain embroiled in ongoing case 

More than a year and a half since a group occupied the former Wells Fargo building on River Street in an act of protest, felony charges linger on for four of the original defendants and a trial may be imminent.

Gabriella Ripley-Phipps, Brent Adams, Cameron Laurendeau and Franklin Alcantara were scheduled to begin trial May 13 in connection with the late 2011 protest. That trial now has been pushed back to September due to scheduling conflicts. The four face a felony charge of vandalism and a misdemeanor for trespassing.

Ripley-Phipps served as a liaison between the group and the police. Transcripts from the preliminary hearing noted that Adams, Laurendeau and Alcantara were seen in the building at least twice. An indeterminate amount of people were present in the building during the three-day occupation, with dozens spotted in surveillance footage and in media coverage.

Complicating the case for the prosecution has been a lack of direct evidence proving that any of the 11 people originally charged in the case actually committed vandalism or trespassing. Nor has the prosecution introduced evidence establishing who committed the vandalism and when it occurred.

Defense attorneys have argued that no such evidence exists against the remaining defendants, and prosecutors have relied heavily upon a theory of aiding and abetting. A large problem with that theory, says Laurendeau’s attorney, Alexis Briggs, is that it leaves someone liable for the most misbehaving protesters.

As such, the prosecution’s case has had a chilling effect on first amendment-protected speech, says Briggs, of San Francisco-based Pier 5 Law Offices.

No one disputes vandalism did occur. Walls were covered were graffiti and several walls were damaged by puncture holes, according to the prosecution. Wells Fargo is seeking approximately $20,000 in restitution for damages and cleaning fees resulting from the takeover, according to court filings.

What began as a march against foreclosures led to entry being made into the long-vacant building by a group declaring themselves to be acting “anonymously and autonomously” in solidarity with Occupy Santa Cruz. The group remained inside amid numerous negotiations with Santa Cruz police before finally leaving without incident nearly 72 hours later.

The case seemed to take a positive step for the defense earlier this year when Santa Cruz County Judge Paul Burdick dismissed a felony charge of conspiracy against the defendants, ruling there was no evidence of direct collusion or agreement. He also rejected one of two misdemeanor trespass charges and dismissed all charges against Becky Johnson, Desiree Foster and Robert Norse. Previously charges were dismissed against Edward Rector, Grant Wilson, Alex Darocy and Bradley Stuart Allen.

In holding Ripley-Phipps, Adams, Alcantara and Laurendeau on the felony vandalism charge, Burdick said he was using the theory that it was a “direct and natural consequence” of the trespassing.

Of particular note was Burdick’s decision to take the rare step of fining the District Attorney’s Office $500 for what he said were Assistant District Attorney Rebekah Young’s continued delays in turning over evidence to the defense. 

Burdick’s holding order was challenged last month by defense attorneys for Laurendeau, Ripley-Phipps and Adams, who motioned the court to dismiss the remaining charges against their clients. No such motion to dismiss was filed by Alcantara’s attorney.

In the 995 motions Judge Timothy Volkmann rejected, attorney Bryan Hackett wrote on behalf of Ripley-Phipps that the government’s case  “fails to establish essential elements of the crimes charged under any one of its three theories.” Those elements include needing evidence that Ripley-Phipps or the other defendants knew a perpetrator intended to commit a crime.

Briggs also takes issue with the fact that far more has been spent on the litigation and defense of this case than the monetary value of the damages, which is estimated to be about $22,000. An exact figure of how much money the litigation has cost wasn’t immediately available. As the case drags on, it’s also had serious consequences for those charged.

“For Cameron, and for all of the defendants, it’s sort of put their lives in a holding pattern,” Briggs says. “Decisions regarding school and employment on are on hold.”

Laurendeau was midway through an academic program and now has a pending felony conviction, she says. Burdick previously dismissed the charges against he and Alcantara, but the District Attorney’s Office later re-filed on them.

As of late April, court records show no evidence that sanctions levied against Santa Cruz County District Attorney Bob Lee’s office were ever paid. Lee’s office filed a motion asking for the fine to be stayed, but it was unclear whether the fine was levied against the District Attorney’s Office or specifically against Young, who is no longer with the office.

Alex Calvo, executive officer of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court, says he believes the prosecution is still working to appeal the fine.

The case has been handed over to prosecutor Greg Peinado, who says he received the assignment only recently and couldn’t comment further.

“I’m still reviewing all of the files,” he says, adding that the evidence includes hours of video footage he must view.

Lee was out of town and unable to be reached for comment by press time. 


Photo: Bradley Allen / Indybay.org

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