CHRISTIANSBURG — A protester’s unintentional kick to a Virginia state trooper and another’s chaining of himself to a helicopter were among the charges resolved last week in Montgomery County as the courts cleared another set of cases tied to ongoing opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
The region’s courts have seen dozens of such cases in the past two years as protesters try to block the West Virginia-to-Pittsylvania County route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
On Tuesday in Montgomery County General District Court, Maura Elizabeth Finn, 24, of Alexandria, faced charges of assaulting a Virginia state trooper, fleeing from police, and obstructing a right-of-way, all stemming from a July 2019 incident in Montgomery County. A plea agreement amended the obstruction charge to trespassing, and the assault and flight charges were dropped.
After Finn pleaded not guilty to trespassing but agreed there was enough evidence to convict her, Judge Randal Duncan convicted her of the misdemeanor and imposed a $150 fine. The judge then ordered that Finn stay off Mountain Valley Pipeline property for 12 months — and also stay out of Montgomery County for the same time period.
After the hearing, attorney Chris Tuck of Blacksburg, who represented Finn, said the most serious charge against his client, assaulting an officer, came from an accidental act.
“Maura very much believes in non-violent protest,” Tuck said.
When officers told protesters to leave a pipeline access right-of-way, Finn went limp so that officers had to carry her out, Tuck said. When a trooper shifted his grip on Finn’s leg, it brought her foot up to hit the officer, who was not injured, Tuck said.
Finn had not even realized what occurred until being shown an officer’s body-cam video, Tuck added. “She maintains it was not intentional,” he said.
On Thursday in Montgomery County Circuit Court, it was the turn of Galen Sol Shireman-Grabowski, 24, of Tucson, Arizona.
In October 2019, Shireman-Grabowski locked himself to a helicopter used by pipeline crews, according to a prosecution summary of the case. He attached himself to the rotor atop the helicopter and eventually was cut free by police officers. The helicopter’s pitch link was damaged during the incident, the prosecution said.
In a plea agreement worked out with Shireman-Grabowski’s attorney, Dennis Nagel of Christiansburg, three charges were dropped: interfering with operation of an aircraft, obstructing free passage, and wearing a mask in public. Shireman-Grabowski pleaded guilty to felony destruction of property, obstruction of justice, tampering with a vehicle, and entering someone else’s property to cause damage.
Judge Mike Fleenor took the four charges under advisement for a year and ordered Shireman-Grabowski to pay $14,030.41 for repairs to the helicopter, finish 50 hours of community service and generally be of good behavior. If Shireman-Grabowski completes the requirements, the felony destruction of property charge is to be reduced to a misdemeanor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt wrote in an email after the hearing.
The case of another protester, Emma Howell of Elliston, who was 22 when she was arrested in February, was continued until Sept. 14 after a Tuesday hearing in the county’s General District Court. Howell faces three counts of assault and battery of pipeline workers. One resulted from a struggle over a rope leading to a tree stand that protesters have occupied for more than 600 days to block timber-cutting for pipeline construction near Yellow Finch Lane in Montgomery County.
Her attorney, Ryan Hamrick of Christiansburg, said he had only just received pipeline security workers’ body-cam footage and needed time to go through it.
Other protest cases recently in the region’s courts included that of Danika R. Padilla, 23, of Whitesville, W.Va. Padilla had two charges of fleeing from officers dismissed after witnesses did not show up at a July 13 hearing in Montgomery County General District Court.
Two years ago, Padilla, known as “Nutty,” blocked pipeline work by occupying a platform in the trees in the Jefferson National Forest in Giles County. The charges in Montgomery County came from the same July 2019 incident in which Finn was arrested.
And last month in Franklin County General District Court, protester Amory Lei Zhou-Kourvo wrapped up a case that began last August when he locked himself to pipeline construction equipment. Prosecutors said the disruption lasted a little over four hours. Zhou-Kourvo, 21, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, spent nine days in jail after his arrest.
At a June 17 hearing, Zhou-Kourvom was convicted of tampering with a vehicle and fined $100. A trespassing charge was dropped.
A Worchester, Massachusetts, woman, Melissa Dubois, was charged alongside Zhou-Kourvom, also with trespassing and vehicle tampering, but her case has seen multiple continuances and now has a Sept. 9 court date.
Staff writer Neil Harvey contributed to this article.