Anti-nuclear activists guilty of breaking into Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor

The Rev. Bill Bichsel, 82, a Tacoma Jesuit priest was convicted Monday with four others for breaking into a base to protest nuclear weapons stored there.
The Rev. Bill Bichsel, 82, a Tacoma Jesuit priest was convicted Monday with four others for breaking into a base to protest nuclear weapons stored there. The Olympian

Tacoma - A federal jury in Tacoma on Monday convicted five anti-war activists - including a Jesuit priest - for breaking into Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor to protest the nuclear weapons stored there, the U.S. Attorney's Office reported.

The jury found guilty on all counts the Rev. Bill Bichsel, 82, of Tacoma; the Rev. Stephen Kelly, 60, a Jesuit priest from Oakland, Calif.; Sister Anne Montgomery, 84, of Redwood City, Calif.; Susan Crane, 67, a retired public school teacher from Baltimore; and Lynne Greenwald, 60, a social worker from Bremerton.

They were convicted of conspiracy, trespassing and destruction of government property. They’re scheduled to be sentenced March 28; they face up to 10 years in prison.

The defendants admitted they broke into the base Nov. 2, 2009, using bolt cutters to cut through three chain-link fences to enter an area where nuclear warheads are stored.

“There was no malicious intent,” Bichsel said after Wednesday’s verdict. He has protested at the naval base in the past and served about 16 months in prison for other demonstrations.

“We weren’t there to maliciously destroy a fence, we were there to make it known that these weapons exist.”

But prosecutors said the protesters went too far when they made their way into a secure area, endangering themselves and military guards.

“When those who seek to exercise their right to protest violate the rights of others, they must be held accountable under the law,” said Arlen Storm, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the protesters.

Bichsel says the protesters were behind the perimeter fenceline for about 41/2 hours before they cut through the final two fences and military personnel responded to an alarm.

The armed guards ordered the banner-carrying activists to the ground and placed bags over their heads so they couldn’t view any more of the secure area.

The protesters wanted to focus their defense last week on their motivation for breaking into the base, but they were barred from submitting arguments that called the weapons illegal under international law. They also were prohibited by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle from arguing that they were compelled to break in out of necessity to save lives.

“We should’ve been able to talk about our intent,” Crane said afterwards. “We should’ve been able to say we did this because these weapons are illegal, because these weapons could destroy all of Earth. This isn’t just a trespassing trial. It’s about where are we as far as nuclear weapons?”

Several peace activists testified during the four-day trial, including Stephen Leeper, chairman of the Peace Culture Foundation in Hiroshima.

A retired Navy captain also testified about the destructive power of a nuclear warhead. He told the jury he was troubled during his career knowing that a nuclear weapon would inevitably kill innocent civilians, according to people who attended the trial.

Crane said it was unclear whether that testimony made sense to jurors given the limits on their defense.

“Maybe some of the jury got a little bit of inkling about it, but there was nothing legal they could hang those feelings on,” she said.

Crane said the defendants have not yet discussed whether to appeal.

Bichsel was dismayed by the verdict, but he said he was encouraged by people who showed support during the trial.

“In no way at all does it dampen our work or our determination to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646