Front page story, The Denver Post, Thursday, September 7, 2006
Veggie thieves' penalty tossed
6-month jail term pared to a week
The DA reconsiders after an outcry for the Rainbow Family followers who made off with overripe produce.
By Steve Lipsher
Denver Post Staff Writer
One week into a six-month jail sentence for stealing overripe produce, two visitors to July's Rainbow Family gathering unexpectedly were freed Wednesday afternoon after a maelstrom of protest.
Facing criticism for what many considered an inappropriately harsh plea deal for a minor crime, Routt County District Attorney Bonnie Roesink agreed to release Giles Charlé, 24, of Somersworth, N.H., and David Siller, 27, of Wayne, Pa.
In effect, their sentence, which had become an international cause célèbre, was reduced to one week behind bars under the terms of the agreement between prosecutors and defense attorney Wayne Westphale.
When the story first was reported in the Steamboat Pilot and spotlighted by the Drudge Report over the weekend, the newspaper's website was crashed by 32,000 online visitor "hits" - nearly six times the normal load.
In the following days, hundreds of Rainbow sympathizers signed an online petition that compared Charlé and Siller to the food-stealing protagonist in Victor Hugo's novel "Les Misérables" and requested their freedom.
Denver activist Richard [Myers], who is responsible for the Web protest, indicated that the story received attention in Israel, Canada, Turkey, Sweden, Australia, Great Britain and Portugal. He had suggested a boycott of the ski-resort town.
"Perseverance and media and political pressure have combined to cause the district attorney's office to rethink its position," Westphale said.
The dramatic U-turn came just a day after Roesink and assistant district attorney Kerry St. James defended the strict plea deal before Routt County commissioners, even as the store owners argued that they did not want to see Charlé and Siller in jail.
"These are not poor, starving people that didn't have anything to eat, that took some garbage and took it away," Roesink said on Tuesday. "... We think jail time is a good consequence to prevent people from committing crimes in this community."
She could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
Charlé and Siller were arrested June 26 after an eyewitness saw them jumping the fence around Sweet Pea Produce, an open-air market. The pair admitted taking cucumbers, asparagus, apricots and cherries that were slated for a local pig farm, and they pleaded guilty to trespassing rather than felony burglary.
Summoned to the store by police that night, the shaken owners, Jonathon Hieb and Katherine Zambrana, reflexively said they wanted to press criminal charges "to the fullest extent of the law."
" You have to understand, the atmosphere was very paranoid at the time. All of the business owners were definitely on guard" because of the anticipated influx of 20,000 neo-hippies for the counterculture Rainbow gathering, Hieb said.
"When we got there, we were extremely upset and very worried about what had happened, and ... we truly thought we had been burglarized."
The next day, however, he discovered that the pair never gained access to the retail portion of the store.
"I immediately came to the conclusion that all these guys did was trespass, which is a crime, and they should have been punished - but not a felony or jail time," Hieb said.
Hieb said he contacted St. James and implored him not to pursue the charges but says he was told by the prosecutor: "I'm going to send a message to the community."
St. James said he relied on police reports and Zambrana's original statements in making his plea offer, and he chastised Hieb for not appearing in court if he felt so strongly about dropping the case.
"It does now, however, appear that based upon incomplete and incorrect information, a portion of the community has committed to a view of this case and its outcome. My office will not be able to change this misperception," St. James wrote in his letter to Westphale agreeing to release Charlé and Siller.
"It's just been completely blown out of proportion," Hieb said. "I thought for sure the professionals would handle this in a professional way, and by that, I mean fair and just."
Staff writer Steve Lipsher can be reached at 970-513-9495 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard comments: technically, i didn't suggest a boycott. I stated that it was too soon to support the boycott that many others were discussing, and the citizens of Steamboat Springs deserved some time to resolve this issue.
I suppose in some sense, by bringing up the subject of boycott in a very public way, i was suggesting its consideration.
I should also note that the protesting was well underway by the time i joined, and created Colorado Freedom. This can likely be ascertained from comment date fields at the Steamboat Pilot.
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