Y-12 protesters guilty of two federal charges, jailed overnight

The Fruit of Justice is Peace Slogan on HEUMF at Y-12

Three anti-nuclear weapons activists who sneaked into the Y-12 National Security Complex on July 28 splashed human blood and, quoting Proverbs, sprayed paint on the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility. The protesters also hammered the building, causing it to chip, and strung up crime scene tape. (Submitted photo)

KNOXVILLE—The Catholic nun, house painter, and laborer who broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in July and splashed human blood and spray-painted slogans on a uranium storage building were found guilty on two federal counts Wednesday, one charging them with property depredation of more than $1,000 and the other alleging they willfully injured national defense premises.

The three protesters—Megan Rice, 83; Michael R. Walli, 64; and Greg Boertje-Obed, 57—were taken to the Blount County jail after the verdict was read at the end of a two-day trial in U.S. District Court in Knoxville. Dozens of courtroom supporters sang softly as the three anti-nuclear weapons activists were taken into custody after about 2.5 hours of deliberations by the nine men and three women on the jury panel.

Boertje-Obed, Rice, and Walli have a detention hearing on Thursday morning. Each faces up to 30 years in prison.

During the trial and in media interviews, the protesters acknowledged sneaking into Y-12 before dawn on July 28 and cutting through three fences in a high-security Protected Area before vandalizing the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, where most of the nation’s bomb-grade uranium is stored. But they said their unprecedented intrusion was peaceful, religiously motivated, and nonviolent, a symbolic disarming of Y-12.

Prosecutors, however, argued that the security breach significantly disrupted Y-12 and interfered with the national defense. A secret shipment of materials that had been scheduled to arrive at the 811-acre plant on July 28 had to be delayed, and nuclear operations shut down for about two weeks, prosecutors and government witnesses said. The breach damaged Y-12’s credibility, and it cost $8,532 to repair fences and pressure wash and paint damaged walls and barricades, the prosecution and its witnesses said.

“The defendants intended to cause an interruption with Y-12 operations,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Theodore said during closing arguments Wednesday afternoon. “When you interfere with Y-12, you are interfering with the national defense of the United States.”

Y-12 Plowshares Protesters

Pictured above are the three anti-nuclear weapons protesters who broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex on July 28. From left, they are Michael Walli, Megan Rice, and Greg Boertje-Obed.

But defense attorney Bill Quigley of New Orleans, co-counsel for Walli, compared the protesters to a thermometer that has registered a fever-level temperature. The protesters had helped illuminate the need to make crucial security system repairs, including to a critical camera that hadn’t been working, he argued.

“Our country is not threatened by these people who can get senior discounts and walk onto this place,” Quigley said.

The defendants testified that they did not intend to disrupt Y-12 operations.

“Our intent was to bring healing and forgiveness and love,” Rice said. “I want to transform nuclear weapons by dismantling and recycling.”

“We did not intend to injure or destroy the national defense,” Boertje-Obed said.

Theodore said other demonstration locations would have been available to the protesters, including the New Hope Center at Y-12 and A.K. Bissell Park in Oak Ridge.

Wednesday’s verdict came roughly nine months after the security breach, which led to staff changes, federal investigations, congressional hearings, a temporary shutdown in nuclear operations, the firing of a security guard, and the termination of a contract with former security company WSI Oak Ridge. The intrusion at Y-12, the “Fort Knox of Uranium,” surprised many and embarrassed government and contractor officials.

Earlier charges of misdemeanor trespassing and felony property destruction against the three protesters had been dropped or dismissed.

Y-12 Protesters Convicted Press Conference

Paul Magno, a supporter of the three anti-nuclear weapons activists who broke into Y-12 in July and vandalized a uranium storage building, talks to reporters after the trio was convicted Wednesday.

It’s only the fourth time nuclear weapons protesters have been charged with federal offenses at Y-12, and the first time defendants have faced felony charges, said Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, which organizes regular vigils and demonstrations at the plant.

It is possible that the defendants could still be acquitted on the most serious charge, the national defense charge. That charge by itself carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years. After the government rested its case Tuesday, the defense moved to acquit the protesters on that charge, saying the government didn’t have sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction. Specifically, the government hadn’t shown that Boertje-Obed, Rice, and Walli intended to interfere, injure, or obstruct the national defense, an intent that is required to convict them on that charge, Quigley said.

U.S. District Court Judge Amul Thapar hasn’t ruled on the motion to acquit yet.

Note: This story was last updated at 2 a.m. May 9.

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  • Susie Williams Taylor

    They “need” the maximum.sentence.possible!!

    • Sam Hopwood

      Really Susie?? The ones who were criminally negligent in allowing this incredible breach of security to occur were the real culprits here. Few will ever really feel comfortable about Y-12’s security again…… Just my view.

      • Les

        Considering all the stings the government uses to convince us that they’re fighting terrorism, they really should be devoting more effort to testing the capabilities of its security contractors. What a complete joke. Three peaceniks get past $500 million worth of security cameras and alarms. They would have a tougher time getting out of a Walmart or a Target with a pair of jeans..

  • Wes

    The security in and around the ORNL complex needs to be taken as serious as the security at the White House. IF you are caught breaching the perimeter of the complex, you should expect not to return home … ever. Further more, the Lab itself should NOT be publishing pictures of the complex…. OUR National Security should be taken more serious than it is, not to mention, this facility is in OUR backyard. Do we really want to allow people to break (walk) in?

  • Ray

    The protester’s intent is one thing. Their actions, as described by the guards on the scene, and in media accounts, posed no threat to National Security. If anything, ironically, they have unintentionally improved the facility’s security systems and practices. They made a statement and performed an act of Civil Disobedience. As thoughtful and committed individuals they were probably aware there would be legal consequences to face.

    The government’s reaction is another thing. Inflating charges on multiple occasions–these protesters are not terrorists by any stretch of the imagination– indicates that the goal is to stifle protest and scare people off from criticizing policies and practices the government supports. Any regular reader of the Oak Ridger or the Knoxville News-Sentinel knows that convicted murderers and rapists, rarely if ever get sentences like the ones proposed for these defendants.

    I hope that any sentence they receive will not be out of proportion to the offenses they committed.

  • Kaden Carter

    Pressure washing is a unique technique which cleans walls and vehicles without doing much effort. It is cost-effective and many people trust on pressure wash for cleaning.

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