A judge granted bond Tuesday to six people who face domestic terrorism charges following protests at the planned site of Atlanta police’s new training center.
The defendants, who deny all charges, are part of the “Defend The Atlanta Forest” movement opposing the police center, which detractors call “Cop City.” They were arrested Dec. 13 following a standoff and altercation with GBI agents and Atlanta police officers. The defendants are accused of throwing rocks and glass bottles, resisting arrest and possessing pipe bombs and trip wires.
The incident prompted prosecutors to pursue domestic terrorism charges — a rarely used 2017 statute that resulted from the massacre of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C. — that can carry five- to 35-year-prison sentences.
During a virtual bond hearing, prosecutors and defense attorneys argued over the validity of the charges for more than 90 minutes. Joshua Schiffer, an attorney representing two of the defendants, called them “political prisoners,” while DeKalb County District Attorney representative Pete Johnson said the hefty charges are warranted.
“The crime of domestic terrorism is exactly what we have here,” Johnson said. “If you use violence to basically get a policy changed, that is domestic terrorism.”
Argued Schiffer: “These are political prisoners that are protesting, using their First Amendment right to set forth what is clearly a popular opinion that this property should not be developed in the manner that local government has determined it should be.”
Court records show the defendants are Francis Carroll, 22, of Maine; Ariel Ebaugh, 22, of Stockbridge; Serena Hertel, 25, of California; Leonard Vioselle, 20, of Macon; Arieon Robinson, 21, of Wisconsin; and Nicholas Olson, 25, of Nebraska. Each faces a domestic terrorism charge in addition to a litany of other charges including criminal trespass, aggravated assault and felony obstruction. Olson’s attorney said his client now goes by Aria.
Most of the defendants did not have any prior arrests, records show.
DeKalb County Senior Judge Mathew Robins granted the bonds varying from $6,000 to $13,500. The defendants who live out of state must waive their extradition rights, and none of them can contact each other, the activist group on social media or return to the public safety training center site.
Located in southwest DeKalb off Key Road, the site for the $90-million police training facility sparked protests from activists since 2020. Dozens have been arrested, but the domestic terrorism charges are believed to be the most serious to date.
The defendants’ arrest warrant said the Department of Homeland Security designates the protest group as “domestic violent extremists,” which led to the state attorney general’s office getting involved in the case.
“They’ve made it pretty clear at this point that they’re willing to engage in violence and use fire to keep anybody out of the forest,” said John Fowler, deputy attorney general of the state’s prosecution division.
Johnson said law enforcement was trying to clear barricades Dec. 13 when they found one of the defendants, Hertel, inside of a makeshift treehouse. Hertel is accused of calling for backup on social media, leading to some of the other defendants to arrive. Johnson said Hertel also used a knife to cut the support rope for an arborist who was trying to dismantle her treehouse.
Johnson said officers and agents used pepper spray balls to try to get the protesters to leave the trees, and he said they were met with thrown rocks and glass bottles.
“This isn’t just a bunch of kids playing in the woods,” Johnson said. “This is group that has illegally occupied this area and caused vandalism.”
Daniel Kane, an attorney representing Voiselle and Olson, denied that his clients were violent and accused law enforcement of provoking conflict.
“There is no allegation until the GBI showed up of any illegality other than a possible criminal trespass,” he said. “So people had been living in and around or coming into the forest for over a year with no problem. I do believe it’s a manufactured prosecution.”
Schiffer, who represents Robinson and Carroll, claimed prosecutors are exaggerating their claims to justify clearing protesters from the forest so construction on the training center can begin.
“I don’t know whether to begin with rolling my eyes at the libel and slander or play the background music of the old ‘Benny Hill’ show,” he said. “There’s hundreds of people from across the nation that have come to support this civil disobedience, celebrating the First Amendment.”
Johnson said other protesters were present Dec. 13 but were not arrested because they “didn’t incite violence or cause damage to property.” He said multiple defendants were living in the trees for prolonged periods of time, wearing gas masks and camouflage. He also said they possessed weapons, including an AR-15, a pistol and multiple knives, in addition to explosives, such as fireworks, road flares and the materials for Molotov cocktails.
As of Wednesday morning, each defendant remained in the DeKalb County jail, online records show.
A note of disclosure
The James M. Cox Foundation, the charitable arm of Cox Enterprises which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has contributed to the training center fundraising campaign. It is among several Atlanta-based foundations that have contributed.
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