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Remember the protest that blocked I-5 last year? Seven people are now charged

#noDAPL protesters block Interstate 5 in Bellingham

Protesters blocked Interstate 5 northbound at Lakeway for more than an hour Saturday, Feb. 11, demonstrating over the Tuesday announcement by the U.S. Department of the Army to grant easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Traffic backed up 4 mil
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Protesters blocked Interstate 5 northbound at Lakeway for more than an hour Saturday, Feb. 11, demonstrating over the Tuesday announcement by the U.S. Department of the Army to grant easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Traffic backed up 4 mil

Seven people are facing charges in connection with a February 2017 demonstration that blocked Interstate 5 and allegedly caused a rollover injury crash.

Whatcom County Deputy prosecuting attorney Erik Sigmar charged Michelle Janine Vendiola, 50, Michael Melchor Vendiola, 50, Erasmus Hamilton Baxter, 22, Reese Alan Semanko, 23, Michelle Claire Pomper Fry, 22, Ciaran Destinee Seward, 28, and Karly Alexandra Storms, 24, with one count each of reckless endangerment, obstructing a law enforcement officer and disorderly conduct.

Semanko, Fry, Seward and Storms have arraignments Friday at 9 a.m. in Whatcom County Superior Court. The Vendiolas and Baxter have arraignments Feb. 23 at 9 a.m, according to court records.

Two warrants were filed in the case to search the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition Facebook page. The American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged the first warrant for being too broad and unconstitutional, while Facebook told investigators the second warrant was too specific for it to be able to filter for the requested information, according to court records filed in the case.

As part of the second warrant, a plan was set up to collect all information from the Facebook page, and the information that was relevant to the case was turned over to investigators, while the non-relevant information was turned over to the court to be sealed.

On Nov. 17, the Division 1 Court of Appeals ruled it would deny a discretionary review of the case and would not stop the warrant. The decision became final Jan. 5 and information was turned over from Facebook.

Sigmar said it took more than a year to file charges because of the amount of time it took to get information from Facebook and complete the investigation. He said the state charged the seven because they were the ones the prosecution could identify.

The Case

On Feb. 11, 2017 about 100 demonstrators, calling themselves water protectors, blocked the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 just south of the Lakeway Drive exit for about an hour that afternoon to protest the federal government’s handling of the Dakota Access pipeline.

The charges indicated that Baxter, Semanko, Fry, Seward and Storms slowly drove five vehicles and eventually stopped them, blocking all lanes of traffic and the shoulders.

They then got out, linked arms to block the freeway and used megaphones to lead chants and rile the crowd. The demonstration caused a 4-mile backup, according to court papers.

The backup stretched back to a blind corner where the speed limit changes from 70 to 60 mph. Near milepost 253, a three-car collision occurred – two drivers were injured and taken to the hospital, according to the charges.

The first driver, later identified as Heidi Graham, told investigators she was driving north and came around the blind corner “when out of nowhere, things started slowing down,” according to court documents. The slowdown caused the vehicle behind her, a 1-ton pickup driven by Randy Martins, to hit her vehicle twice, prosecutors wrote in charging documents.

Graham got out of her car to check on Martins who told her “he couldn’t move his legs and had pain in his torso and his arms were tingly,” court records show. Martins was later taken to the hospital.

A third woman, identified as Karen McMains, came around the blind corner and saw the crash between Graham and Martins. McMains attempted to slow down, but collided with the wreck – her vehicle was turned on its side and had extensive damage, according to the charges.

McMains suffered a cervical strain, chest wall contusion and possible thoracic compression fracture as a result of the collision, prosecutors wrote in charging documents.

Damage to Graham’s vehicle was estimated to be between $7,000 and $10,000. Damage to Martins’ vehicle was around $5,000 and McMains’ was totaled, with a loss value of $10,432.87, authorities said.

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt

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