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Two in pipeline dispute found guilty by Calhoun County jury

Protesters trespassed on Dakota Access easement

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter Mahmud Fitil, left, and Emma Schmit listen as their defense attorney speaks, along with Cindy Coppola at right. Coppola was also arrested on the same day for trespassing on her land to stop the pipeline in another location, but pled no contest and received a fine without having to go to trial.

ROCKWELL CITY — Two people were found guilty of trespassing over their protest of the installation of a crude oil pipeline in a jury trial Thursday.

The trial for Emma Schmit, 23, of Rockwell City, and Tosun Mahmud Fitil, 36, of Omaha, began last week in Calhoun County. After one day of hearing from witnesses the jury recessed until Thursday at 1:40 p.m. when closing arguments were heard.

Schmit and Fitil were arrested while protesting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on Oct. 29, 2016, on property where the pipeline was being constructed in Calhoun County.

The five women and one man of the jury took a long time, deliberating for more than two and a half hours before delivering their guilty verdict.

The property is east of Rockwell City near the corner of Calhoun County roads N65 and D35. It is owned by Shirley Gerjets, who opposed the pipeline company’s presence. Dakota Access was granted an easement by the Iowa Utilities Board to work through land of unwilling landowners.

Heather Pearson, of Logan, also was arrested in that same protest after protesters stepped onto the easement, and was found guilty on July 6.

Like Pearson, Fitil and Schmit argued that they had permission to be on the land from Gerjets, claiming that the eminent domain process used to give Dakota Access the right to the land was a “wrongful taking.” They also said they were protesting because of climate change.

Ricki Osborn Stubbs, assistant Calhoun County attorney, said the two planned on being arrested that day. She asked the jury not to help them spread their message regarding climate change.

“Did they have this planned? Yes,” Osborn Stubbs said. “Going to trial? I’m sure that’s what they knew when they were going to get arrested. They’d be here — media — trying to get their issue out. Trying to get you to help them. I’m asking you not to do that.”

Defense attorney Channing Dutton argued the state hadn’t proven where the easement actually began.

Osborn Stubbs, however, said the protesters could easily tell where the bean field stubble ended and the muddy work zone began. And she said climate change, even if important, is not justification for criminal trespass.

“Under the defendants’ philosophy, they could go on your driveway when you’re trying to pull out driving your car,” Osborn Stubbs said. “Environment is important, but climate change is not a justification to trespass. A farmer using pesticide on his farmland doesn’t give them the right to come on his farmland to stop it, to help our climate. It doesn’t give them the right to come into my house when I’m hairspraying my hair.

“For goodness sakes, they used a car and drove all the way up to the easement, and they’re contributing to climate change, and they say these emissions lead to climate change. I’m not saying they don’t, I’m just saying it’s not justification.”

After the trial, Schmit had her own idea of what may be possible now.

“We literally used taxpayer dollars to defend a billion-dollar corporation that the stole the land from the people of Calhoun County. It’s sick that it ever went this far,” Schmit said. “What happens next? … I live on the corner of First and High. That’s a really busy intersection. Any corporation could come and take my land now. This is a slippery slope.”

Fitil said part of the reason he opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, was to stand with the Native American groups along the route.

“I am Crimean Tatar person, an indigenous person,” Fitil said. “Much of my activity regarding DAPL was in solidarity with the indigenous people of the United States. The native tribes, the first nations. Beyond that, also climate change, in light of the impact this will have on our ecosystem.

“I find myself disturbed by the collusion between the private interests of the corporation and law enforcement here in this county and state.”

Dutton said he would file post-trial motions asking the judge to dismiss “based on insufficiency of the evidence.”

Sentencing will not take place until after these motions are filed.

Pearson was fined $65, as was Kriss Wells, who trespassed on a different parcel of land on the same day and was found guilty on Sept. 28. That works out to about $213 after surcharges and court costs.

Cindy Coppola, who viewed the trial, also had to pay a $65 fine that she said worked out to about $275. She was arrested for stepping in front of construction equipment as it tried to cross the easement that ran through her own land. Coppola later took an Alford plea, in which the defendant doesn’t admit any guilt but a guilty plea is entered.

Coppola was one of numerous landowners who took the IUB to court to challenge the use of eminent domain in taking their land.

Landowners attempted to get a stay from the courts, so that work couldn’t begin on their land until after the matter was decided, but were unsuccessful.

“We had gone to court, and we lost the stay, and I was just furious. It should be decided in court before they dig up your land,” Coppola said. “They were starting to dig, and we hadn’t had our day in court. After the stay is when I became involved in the protesting, trying to stop them any way possible. We weren’t given any relief from the courts.”

Crews worked in heavy rains, Coppola said, and weren’t required to clean up any metal they may have left until after work was done. Coppola said she found pieces of metal buried deep in the soil.

“It was bad enough to me that they were doing the pipe, but worse that they worked in heavy rain,” she said. “That land, right now water just sits on it. It doesn’t drain like it used to. So there’s ponds where they did their work. We have pictures where we took a yard stick, and you can see their tire tracks are sunk in 21 inches.

“The thing that makes me the most disappointed was the disrespect they showed for the land.”

The landowners claimed in court that Dakota Access had no right to use eminent domain. Their suit was decided against them in Polk County District Court in February.

That case was appealed, and is now going before the Iowa Supreme Court, Coppola said. It will be heard some time next year.

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