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Akwesasne man pleads guilty to criminal mischief at GM site: ‘I have no regrets’

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CANTON — Larry V. Thompson pleaded guilty Tuesday to breaking New York state law, but he insisted a higher calling led him to enter a former General Motors Powertrain site in Massena 16 months ago and dig up the soil.

“I did what I did for right,” the Akwesasne man said of the Aug. 11, 2011 incident in which he drove an excavator onto a 12-acre landfill at the former GM property and began churning up what he believed was contaminated earth as a protest against a decades-old decision to cap the site rather than clean up the toxins beneath.

“I have no regrets,” Mr. Thompson told St. Lawrence County Court Judge Jerome J. Richards before admitting to one count of fourth-degree criminal mischief in response to a plea deal hammered out in chambers shortly before a trial was set to begin Tuesday morning.

Under the deal, the prosecution agreed to recommend a one-year conditional discharge, in which Mr. Thompson, 58, would face no jail time if he complies with a five-year order of protection barring him from the site, which is owned by the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust. RACER was created in March 2011 by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to clean up former GM properties prior to redevelopment. It arose from an agreement between the federal government, the 14 states where the former GM properties are located and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

RACER had been seeking $70,000 in damages caused when Mr. Thompson, who lives on adjacent land, drove through a fence and onto the site. St. Lawrence County Assistant District Attorney James Monroe said RACER was willing to forego restitution in exchange for a deal “to keep him off the property.”

Mr. Thompson was allowed to remain free on his own recognizance following Tuesday’s plea, subject to the condition that he not trespass at the site.

While Judge Richards underscored the possibility that he could still impose jail time when Thompson returns for sentencing on March 25, the Mohawk man is facing far less severe consequences than looked possible eight months ago, when a grand jury on Feb. 2 indicted him on charges of second-degree criminal mischief, resisting arrest and second-degree reckless endangerment.

When arraigned in February, Thompson initially refused to enter a plea or recognize the court as having jurisdiction in the case, repeatedly refusing to answer questions about whether he understood the charges against him.

In an April decision, Judge Richards dismissed charges of resisting arrest and reckless endangerment, writing that prosecutors failed to prove Thompson ever resisted arrest, but that he instead surrendered to officers. Dismissing the reckless endangerment charge, Judge Richards wrote that prosecutors could not prove the soil Thompson dropped near law enforcement officers was contaminated and could have been plain topsoil. The judge did uphold the second-degree criminal mischief charge, however, writing that whatever Mr. Thompson may have believed about possible contamination, his actions were not reasonable.

Prior to entering his plea Tuesday, Thompson spoke for more than five minutes — first in the Kanien’kéha, or Mohawk language, and then in English — about how he never intended to hurt anyone, only that fears of migrating contamination and its ongoing impact on the health of area residents had motivated his actions.

“When they made that agreement, it didn’t bind me,” he said of the controversial 20-year-old cleanup deal that culminated in capping the toxic site.

“I am still sovereign.”

An exasperated Judge Richards warned Thompson that he should enter a plea or forfeit the deal and prepare to head to trial after all.

“It was my understanding that I would be able to speak,” Thompson replied.

“In March, I’m going to limit you to 20 minutes,” the judge said. “You can tell me whatever you want in that 20 minutes.”

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