#noDAPL protesters block Interstate 5 in Bellingham
Three of the four remaining defendants accused of blocking Interstate 5 and allegedly causing a rollover injury crash in February 2017 pleaded not guilty Friday in Whatcom County Superior Court.
Michelle Janine Vendiola, 50, Michael Melchor Vendiola, 50 and Erasmus Hamilton Baxter, 22, were charged with one count each of reckless endangerment, obstructing a law enforcement officer, both gross misdemeanors and disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.
Like the three others who pleaded not guilty a week earlier – Reese Alan Semanko, 23, Michelle Claire Pomper Fry, 22 and Ciaran Destinee Seward, 28 – the Vendiolas and Baxter will not go through a jail booking process.
All trials have tentatively been scheduled for April 30.
The arraignment for Karly Alexandra Storms, 24, was moved to April 20 because she is out of the country, according to her attorney.
The seven were charged Jan. 30, just shy of a year from the incident. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Erik Sigmar said it took awhile to file charges because of the amount of time it took to get information from Facebook and complete the investigation.
Prosecutors had filed warrants to search the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition Facebook page to identify the demonstrators, with one warrant successfully challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union for being too broad and unconstitutional. Eventually the 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.
About a year ago, on Feb. 11, around 100 demonstrators blocked the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 just south of the Lakeway Drive exit for about an hour 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. The demonstration caused a 4-mile backup which stretched to a blind corner where the speed limit changes from 70 to 60 mph, according to court records.
A three-car collision occurred and two drivers were injured and taken to the hospital. Damage was caused to all three vehicles, totaling one, according to charging documents. One of the drivers was cited for following too close.
The protest put a strain on the Washington State Patrol, the agency that handles the state’s freeways, because only a few troopers were in Whatcom County at the time, according to Trooper Heather Axtman. Troopers came from Skagit and Snohomish and officers from other agencies, such as the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and Bellingham Police, were called to assist.