BATTLE CREEK, MI – Standing inside a Calhoun County courtroom Monday, attorney Denise Heberle was intent on making an impassioned plea for the freedom of Chris Wahmhoff, a Kalamazoo man convicted of a felony earlier this month for a 2013 protest he staged inside a section of an Enbridge Inc. oil pipeline in Marshall.
“This is a man we need, we need free,” Heberle said. “We need him to be free to continue his urgent work.”
Heberle’s statement prompted a response from the bench from Circuit Judge James C. Kingsley who was quick to dispel any mystery surrounding what he planned to do with Wahmhoff, 36, who Kingsley found guilty Dec. 16 of felony resisting police and misdemeanor trespassing.
“He’s going to remain free,” Kingsley said as a gallery packed with Wahmhoff’s supporters began applauding. “I often say to the lawyers, cut to the chase and that’s what I would like to do at this point.”
After the judge made his intentions known, Wahmhoff’s wife walked from the gallery and up to her husband to give him a kiss. Kingsley quickly ordered her back to her seat.
Later in the court hearing Kingsley gave Wahmhoff a suspended two-month jail sentence and ordered him to serve one year of probation. With the suspended sentence, Wahmhoff will not serve any jail time if he successfully completes probation.
“You hold the keys to the jail in your hands,” Kingsley said.
Kingsley, who acknowledged receiving letters of support for Wahmhoff from numerous states, also ordered Wahmhoff to pay more than $400 in court costs, a $100 fine and state fees. A hearing is to be held at a later date to determine what amount of restitution, if any, Wahmhoff will be required to pay in connection with the 2013 protest.
Heberle said Monday that the amount of restitution being requested by city and county officials, but not Enbridge, is between $10,000 and $12,000.
The charges against Wahmhoff stemmed from a protest he staged on June 24, 2013, when he used a skateboard to slide into an Enbridge oil pipeline that was being built near Marshall. He willingly came out of the pipe after a 10-hour protest that drew a heavy police presence.
His case was originally bound over for trial in circuit court in 2013, but Kingsley dismissed the case in January. Kingsley’s decision was reversed in April by the Michigan Court of Appeals.
That ruling was appealed by one of Wahmhoff’s attorneys, John Royal, but the Michigan Supreme Court in October denied the appeal and refused to hear the case.
Wahmhoff left the courtroom Monday smiling and took time to greet and hug many of his supporters that crowded into the courtroom. He said his work will continue with a focus on educating the community about the damage done in 2010 when an Enbridge pipeline in Marshall ruptured and spilled 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.
He said he also plans to speak to residents about what he believes is “corruption” surrounding the potential settlement of a class-action lawsuit that was filed against Enbridge in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids. Additionally, he said he will advocate for the decommissioning Enbridge’s Line 5, which he contends has the potential to do irreparable damage to the Great Lakes if it were to rupture like the line in Marshall.
Line 5, according to Enbridge’s website, runs across northern portions of Wisconsin and Michigan and reaches the Straits of Mackinac.
“I accept my accountability,” Wahmhoff said Monday. “What I do not accept is that there is not equal accountability on the part of Enbridge … Any change has got to come from the community.
“We cannot rely on our leaders.”
Kingsley’s sentence for Wahmhoff brought to close an afternoon that began with a group of 20 to 30 protesters who gathered outside of the Calhoun County Justice Center in support of Wahmhoff. Many of the protesters were in the courtroom Monday as Wahmhoff’s sentence was handed down.
The group held signs and waved to drivers who honked their horns. The protest was organized by the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands, a group to which Wahmhoff belongs.
“(Enbridge has) gotten off scott free,” said Henry Newnan, who traveled from Warren. “Why should he be sentenced? They’ve hurt a lot of people, he didn’t hurt anyone.”
Wahmhoff railed against Enbridge when it came his turn to speak Monday in court. He told the judge of going into the Kalamazoo River himself to see the damage caused by the Enbridge oil spill. Doing so, he said, has led to him being diagnosed with a rare disease that he contended at least eight others living near the river have also been diagnosed with since the spill.
He also said that since his Dec. 16 conviction, Enbridge has been responsible for two other spills in the Midwest.
“A lot of people … have asked for leniency on my part and I won’t come up to this court and ask for leniency because that’s not part of civil disobedience … Civil disobedience is something that comes when you realize the principle of the law no longer matches the letter of the law.”
During his statement, Kingsley reminded Wahmhoff to keep his words on point and address the case at hand on Monday.
Wahmhoff concluded with a quote from Henry David Thoreau, “When we see that the law is in fact unjust, we have an obligation to break it.”
That line from Wahmhoff prompted Kingsley to quote a poet of his own, Robert Frost, from Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” the judge said. “But I have promises to keep; And miles to go before I sleep; And miles to go before I sleep.
“Keep those words in mind,” Kingsley, who is retiring from the bench Wednesday, said to Wahmhoff.
After he left the courtroom Monday, Wahmhoff was greeted by loud applause and cheers from a large group of supporters that waited for him in a hallway on the justice center’s fourth floor.
He reiterated to the group the need for Enbridge’s Line 5 to be decommissioned saying that a spill from the line “will very literally destroy the state of Michigan.”
He also thanked his supporters, telling them that he considers himself “the luckiest person in the entire world. I don’t care what the sentencing says.”