Note: This story was last updated at 1:14 p.m. Aug. 4.
KNOXVILLE—New felony property destruction charges were filed Friday against three anti-nuclear weapons activists who allegedly sneaked into the Y-12 National Security Complex on Saturday, and U.S. Magistrate Judge C. Clifford Shirley agreed to release two of the defendants.
The new charges carry stiffer penalties than the previously filed misdemeanor trespassing charges, including up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine.
The new charges were filed against Greg Boertje-Obed, Megan Rice, and Michael R. Walli, who have been detained at the Blount County Corrections Facility after being arrested at about 4:30 a.m. Saturday in the high-security Protected Area on the west end of Y-12.
After their release Friday, Rice and Walli were expected to stay at a home on Martin Mill Pike in Knoxville until an Aug. 9 court appearance.
The federal government wanted to continue holding all three, and the defendants had the right to a detention hearing Friday, when they could argue for their own release.
Boertje-Obed, who represents himself in the case, waived his right to a detention hearing, and the 57-year-old house painter from Duluth, Minn., remains jailed in Blount County.
The new charges allege the trio willfully and maliciously destroyed or injured, or attempted to destroy or injure, structures or property at Y-12, according to a summary read in court by U.S. Assistant Attorney Melissa Kirby.
The activists, who named their intrusion Transform Now Plowshares, allegedly cut through four fences at Y-12 before dawn Saturday, entered the Protected Area, and spray-painted, splashed human blood, and hung banners on the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, or HEUMF, where bomb-grade uranium is stored.
The case has captured national media attention and raised questions about whether Y-12’s security system worked as intended. Following Saturday’s security breach and an internal review, B&W Y-12, the plant’s management and operating contractor, announced a security stand down, or temporary halting of all nuclear operations.
Shirley’s decision to release Rice and Walli on Friday was issued toward the end of a 3.5-hour hearing in U.S. District Court in Knoxville. He ruled the two could be released despite the arguments of Kirby, who said the defendants had committed a crime of violence, have prior records, and are a danger to the community.
“They obviously do not respect the laws of this country,” Kirby said.
Under the cover of darkness, they entered an area where deadly force is authorized and where the lives of others could have been endangered if guards had opened fire, Kirby said. She said the defendants were within about 100 to 150 yards of Bear Creek Road.
Releasing them could embolden others, Kirby said.
But attorneys for Rice, an 82-year-old nun from New York, and Walli, a 63-year-old Catholic layman from Washington, D.C., argued for their release.
“In spite of the government’s argument, there is, or can be, a set of conditions that will reasonably prevent harm to anyone else and assure the appearance of my client for this trial,” said Francis Lloyd, attorney for Rice.
Walli’s attorney, Chris Irwin, said Walli has showed up and met court-imposed conditions in earlier cases.
“He’s a man of his word,” Irwin said.
Lloyd said the three intruders were unarmed, and supporters have said they were motivated by religion and are non-violent.
Shirley said the decision to release Rice and Walli was difficult, and he made them promise to follow certain conditions. Among those conditions: They must stay off government property, submit to the supervision of a U.S. probation officer, and appear in court when required.
Rice must also surrender her passport.
Shirley weighed a handful of factors before making the decision, including whether the intrusion into Y-12 was a crime of violence and the history and character of Rice and Walli.
“He has a past history of complying with court orders,” Shirley said of Walli.
The judge said the government had not proved by clear and convincing evidence that the defendants posed a danger to the community and had also not shown that there were no conditions that could be imposed to ensure community safety after they were released.
The Aug. 9 court date could be either a preliminary hearing or an arraignment, depending upon whether a grand jury issues an indictment.
At the end of Friday’s hearing, Kirby asked Shirley to repeal his release order, but he refused.
An Oct. 9 trial has been scheduled for Boertje-Obed, Rice, and Walli.
Y-12 was built during World War II to enrich uranium for atomic weapons as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, including for the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.
Today, the 811-acre site, which has about 500 buildings, is the nation’s production facility for many nuclear weapons components.