CHRISTIANSBURG — A protester plucked from a tree-top blockade of the Mountain Valley Pipeline can stay in jail to await trial on a misdemeanor property charge, a Montgomery County judge said Thursday.
The judge said he was denying bond because he could not trust that tree-sitter Claire Marian Fiocco, 23, of Dorset, Vermont, would not try again to block the Mountain Valley Pipeline – or that Fiocco would obey any restrictions he set, because the accusation against the protester is that for four months Fiocco disregarded another court order to leave the pipeline easement along Yellow Finch Lane.
"This is an unusual matter," General District Court Judge Gerald Mabe commented, then said he would deny bond for Fiocco "with a heavy heart."
Fiocco, who used the names "Robin" and "Wren" in online statements, is one of two tree-sitters arrested this week as law enforcement officers ended a protest that had continued for 2½ years in Eastern Montgomery County. Pipeline opponents occupied platforms built high in trees along steep slopes to prevent Mountain Valley crews from cutting timber and preparing the way for the pipeline's West Virginia-to-Pittsylvania County route.
In November, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Robert Turk ordered the tree-sitters to move aside and directed the county sheriff's office to remove them if they did not leave voluntarily. Officers soon cleared a support camp from the woods below the tree-sits.
But the tree-sitters remained. On Tuesday, the sheriff's office, Virginia State Police and Christiansburg Police Department began a two-day operation to fell the trees around the platforms and use a giant crane to bring the protesters down.
Fiocco was charged with interfering with someone else's property rights.
The other tree-sitter arrested this week, Alexander Samuel Parker Lowe, 24, of Worcester, Massachusetts – known as "Acre" – also had a General District Court hearing Thursday to be arraigned on the same property charge as Fiocco and also on a charge of obstructing arrest without force. Attorney Brandon Ratliff of Radford was appointed to defend him.
Both Fiocco and Lowe appeared in court via a video link from jail.
Pipeline protests have brought dozens of cases to the region's courts, with protesters scuffling with pipeline workers and police, chaining themselves to pipeline equipment, and otherwise seeking to slow construction. The group Appalachians Against Pipelines called the Yellow Finch tree-sits the longest-running barrier to the pipeline.
At Fiocco's hearing, attorneys likened Fiocco's charge to trespassing and said in many such cases, there would be little opposition to granting bond.
But Patrick Jensen, the county's chief deputy commonwealth's attorney, argued that Fiocco had no ties to the community and was a flight risk. That was because Fiocco, who prefers the pronouns they and them, indicated on a magistrate's form that they had lived in the area for two years but had no job or regular address.
There was a bit of sparring as Fiocco first said they had lived in Giles County with Jammie Hale, a pipeline opponent who has been in court on protest-related charges, then declined to answer Jensen's requests for more details about other residences.
Told by Mabe that the answers were central to his decision about granting bond, Fiocco eventually said they did not have an address in Montgomery County. "I stayed in a lot of different places. I moved around a lot," Fiocco said.
Jensen noted that on a magistrate's form asking about employment, Fiocco wrote that she gathered her own food and water.
The prosecutor also emphasized Fiocco's history of protest against pipelines.
In 2018, Fiocco and two other people were charged with taking survey stakes from the site of a natural gas pipeline under construction in Ohio.
Shortly after midnight on April 2, a patrol officer with the Erie County Sheriff’s Office noticed a Volvo pulled over on the side of State Route 61, then saw two women running into an open field. Fiocco was found in a drainage ditch, not far from a large pile of wooden stakes that were later determined to have been taken from the construction site of the NEXUS Pipeline, according to a sheriff’s office offense report.
Online records from Erie County Municipal Court show that Fiocco was convicted of unauthorized use of property, given a suspended 30-day jail sentence, ordered to pay $2,035 in restitution and placed on probation for two years.
And though the Montgomery County charge against Fiocco was a misdemeanor, the nature of the case – an arrest for not obeying another court order – argued against bond, Jensen said.
Jensen detailed how two state police officers were raised by a crane to Fiocco's platform and found the protester had used a "sleeping dragon" device to attach themself to the tree.
A sleeping dragon is a length of PVC pipe with handcuffs inside, Jensen said. The protester locks their hands inside the pipe, along with the ends of a cable tied, in this instance, to a tree, Jensen said.
The state police officers went back to the ground, got tools and returned to Fiocco's platform, Jensen said. The officers cut away the tree to free the cable, then lowered Fiocco. The protester was then placed in the custody of sheriff's deputies who cut away the PVC pipe and released Fiocco from the sleeping dragon without inflicting harm, Jensen said.
Jensen said that the lengths the protesters made authorities go to – plus an online statement Fiocco posted that said in part, "the fight continues" – supported his position that Fiocco, if let out of jail, was likely to return to actions against Mountain Valley.
Defense attorney Matthew Roberts of Blacksburg disagreed, saying that if given bond, Fiocco planned to stay with Hale until her case was finished. He asked Fiocco repeatedly if she would agree to stay off Mountain Valley's property and rights-of-way, and each time Fiocco answered they would.
But Mabe said he thought there was a "high likelihood" that Fiocco would not return for court once let out of jail. And the judge returned to the earlier Circuit Court order that Fiocco allegedly disobeyed.
After denying bond, Mabe said Fiocco could appeal the decision to the Circuit Court.
Staff writer Laurence Hammack contributed to this article.