Celebrated case of Rainbow dumpster-diver has local connection
By Jonathan Hunt
Athens NEWS Writer
A duo of bearded travelers serving time in a town jail out West for taking vegetables from the trash sounds like a scene from the HBO series "Deadwood."
But it actually happened to Giles Charle and his friend David Siller this past summer, rather than during the 1870s. Charle, whose family hails from Athens, is currently staying with his grandmother in Athens.
The 24-year-old Charle and Siller, 27, were in Steamboat Springs, Colo., when their trip went awry June 26. Three months later they are free again, their summer largely wasted, their names attached to a story that has garnered international attention.
Charle and Siller were just 35 miles from the 2006 Rainbow Family of Living Light Gathering they were headed for when the pair decided to dumpster dive at the Sweet Pea Produce store.
"We were actually pretty disappointed with what we found," recalled Charle, describing the cucumbers, apricots, cherries and asparagus they mined as being "pretty moldy."
Evidently, dumpster diving for produce is a mistake in Steamboat Springs, a Colorado ski town northwest of Denver. Routt County Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James pursued a vigorous prosecution of Charle and Siller.
Forced to choose between the devil and the deep sea - either deferred felony burglary convictions or actual convictions for misdemeanor trespassing - Charle and Siller pled to the lesser charge. Seven days into their six-month jail sentences, public pressure sparked by newspaper coverage led St. James to call for an early release two weeks ago.
A flurry of articles in Colorado and national press outlets, and even from overseas, apparently shifted sentiment.
The fallout has focused further attention on the gatherings and how national and local authorities approach the countercultural forest campouts, which have been occurring at national forest sites around the country every year since the early 1970s.
"This is the cutting edge of fascism in America," declared Guysville attorney Donald Wirtshafter, who attended the 2006 Colorado gathering.
Garden-variety persecution of outsiders passing through rural America is hardly a new phenomenon, or course. It's a tradition perhaps best memorialized by Charlie Daniels' 1972 hit "Uneasy Rider."
But Wirtshafter thinks the trend has deepened in the post-9/11 milieu as U.S. Forest Service and local officials target people whom they see as easy prey.
"The prosecutors have all the discretion," he said. "They targeted tickets this year at people they perceived as Rainbow leaders."
Wirtshafter said he has no quarrel with police going after the few bona fide troublemakers who inevitably attend large events. But travelers who camp in national forests spend an average of $60 per day at area businesses, he added, something that authorities ignore at the peril of local economies.
In 2005, the gathering was held near Elkins, W.Va., and campers experienced similar problems, according to Wirtshafter and published reports.
"They started writing tickets to everyone there (at the Colorado affair), saying it was an illegal gathering," said the attorney.
"Kangaroo court" proceedings in Routt County, according to Wirtshafter, "had everything to do with the Forest Service publicity." This overzealousness, he asserted, comes partly from "high-level rejects from the Secret Service and the CIA modeling how they're going to hold courts in the future."
Wirtshafter was admitted to the federal bar in Colorado this past summer, he said, so he could help members of the Rainbow Family mount legal defenses. He did not represent Charle and Siller, who enlisted Steamboat Springs attorney Wayne Westphale.
St. James, the assistant district attorney, maintains that the two men went inside Sweet Pea Produce to take food, and did not just scour the dumpster. But shopkeeper Jonathan Hieb "wants it to be publicly known now that, contrary to (shopkeepers') initial request for vigorous prosecution, they do not now want to have anything to do with this case," wrote St. James in a letter to Westphale dated Sept. 6.
"Initially, the owners came and checked out the scene and believed we had been in the store," said Charle. "We stepped over a rope because we saw the trash area, which was in the backyard. We didn't enter the store at all."
Charle's experience west of Denver was not the first time someone with ties to Athens got treated harshly there.
In 2004, former Ohio University student Kris Zeller was beaten with golf clubs and a fireplace poker by a homeowner in Keystone, Summit County. Greg McMurray, of Wild Irishman Lane, reportedly found Zeller in a child's bedroom and invoked Colorado's "Make My Day" law, which allows residents to use lethal force against intruders. Zeller may have been drunk and apparently wandered confused into McMurray's home.
Charle said he was more or less passing through Colorado this summer. "I was heading out to the West Coast to work on a farm in (British Columbia)," he said. This week, he bought an old diesel Mercedes that he plans to convert to run on vegetable oil and take him out West again.
Harsh legal environment or not, he won't avoid Colorado. "I think that (St. James) and the rest of the community were strongly influenced by rumors about the Rainbow Gathering," said Charle. "Even though it sucked to be stuck there, Colorado's beautiful, the mountains are great, and there are a lot of great communities there."
Charle plans to write letters to citizens in Steamboat Springs and elsewhere who supported them. "Everyone really came through for us big in the end," he said.
Routt County jail guards and other inmates thought their incarceration was ridiculous, according to Charle. "Everyone that we've ever told this story to has been very supportive and sympathetic," he said.
Charle acknowledges that when it comes to tying his and Siller's cases to larger political factors, "just saying it now, it sounds very conspiracy-theoryish." He and Siller, a Philadelphia-area native, are still gathering information, he said.
"It's pretty clear that these rumors are fabricated by local authorities and by the Forest Service," said Charle.
Charle, who grew up in New Hampshire, is the grandson of Edwin and Jean Charle and Arline and the late Cliff McCarthy of Athens, and he expects to be here for a few months.
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