Five Dakota Access pipeline activists have been indicted on federal charges, accused of setting fire to a bridge in order to stop authorities from reaching a protest camp illegally built on private property.
The indictment unsealed Wednesday stems from one of the protest’s most chaotic confrontations, an all-day Oct. 27 melee that saw agitators set blazes, hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails at police, and try to start a buffalo stampede with riders on horseback.
About 700 protest-related arrests have been made since August, mostly for trespassing and rioting involving activists who posted bail and were promptly released, but the indictment reveals that at least a handful of activists remain in jail pending trial on federal crimes.
The five men, identified by authorities using aerial photography at the scene, are charged with torching blockades on the Backwater Bridge erected by protesters using “stacked logs, fallen trees, tires and other miscellaneous items,” according to an affidavit.
“As law enforcement approached the bridge, individuals at the bridge were notified that law enforcement was approaching,” said the affidavit by Derek J. Hill, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“At this point, several protesters made their way to the County Road 134 Bridge and began to pour gasoline on the barricades,” he said. “Approximately three barricades were constructed on the west side of the bridge. The barricades were set on fire and these fires resulted in law enforcement having to stop their forward movement.”
Three of the five men charged with civil disorder and using fire to commit a federal crime are still at large: Brandon Aaron Miller-Castillo, 22; Brennon J. Nastacio, 36, and Dion Ortiz, 20.
“These defendants currently remain fugitives and their whereabouts are unknown,” U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Christopher C. Myers’ office said in a statement. “Law enforcement is requesting the assistance of the public in locating these individuals.”
Co-defendant Michael Mateo Markus was arraigned Feb. 3 in federal court in Bismarck. Co-defendant James A. White was arrested Wednesday and slated to appear in court Monday.
Mr. Markus, who also goes by the nickname “Rattler,” has pleaded not guilty. He is represented by attorneys from the Water Protector Legal Collective, according to court documents.
The protesters had erected a makeshift camp on property owned by Energy Transfer Partners, which is building the 1,172-mile, four-state oil pipeline.
The company began work Thursday on the final 1,100-foot stretch of the project. “We have started the drill to go beneath Lake Oahe and expect to be completed in a total of 60 days with another 23 days to fill the line to Patoka,” spokeswoman Vicki Granado said. “We look forward to having the pipeline in service in approximately 83 days.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted an easement over the objections of the Standing Rock Sioux, whose reservation is located about a half-mile from the pipeline.
The tribe has filed for a temporary injunction to stop construction, with a court date scheduled for Monday.
“This administration has expressed utter and complete disregard for not only our treaty and water rights, but the environment as a whole,” the tribe said in a statement. “Process exists for a reason. This reversal is pure politics and is arbitrarily shunning safe drinking water for millions of Americans in favor of corporate oil interests.”
The corps granted after a two-year review an easement for the oil pipeline, which will run alongside a natural gas pipeline under Lake Oahe, but then withdrew its approval in December under pressure from the tribe and protesters.
The corps had undertaken an environmental impact statement, which was withdrawn after President Trump issued a memorandum last month for an expedited review on Dakota Access and the Keystone XL pipelines.
At least one other activist remains in federal jail. Red Fawn Fallis, 37, was initially charged with attempted murder for firing three shots as she lay face-down on the ground while deputies tried to restrain her, but the Morton County charge later was dropped.
Instead, she faces federal counts of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, civil disorder, and discharge of a firearm in relation to a felon crime of violence. A trial by jury has been set for March 7 in Bismarck federal court.