Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Arrest of Rochester cemetery preservationist leads to more charges and Legal defense fund has been set up

Michelle Smith, Vice President of The Society for the Preservation of Rochester Burial Grounds, 45, of Rochester, New Hampshire, a self proclaimed preservationist, is facing charges of criminal trespass and disorderly conduct for refusing a police officer's order to move her vehicle from a burial site near a construction project had two new charges added during Smith's court appearance for trial at Rochester District Court on July 31. She now also faces a reckless conduct charge and a violation for disobeying a police officer. She entered a plea of not guilty to all charges. The cemetery site, at the corner of Washington Street and Woodlawn Road, is in the area of a retail development project owned by the Flatley Company of Massachusetts.

"Those are the charges we intended to bring forward all along," said Lt. Joseph Fricano, police prosecutor.

Smith was scheduled for trial on July 31 but her attorneys, Samdperil & Welsh of Exeter, asked for and were granted a continuance.

A new trial date has been set for October 10. Smith, was arrested on the afternoon of April 25 when Smith saw construction crews in the Washington Street area had parked their heavy equipment on and were digging in a cemetery that is protected by the city. Her arraignment of her original charges was in May.

The cemetery site, at the corner of Washington Street and Woodlawn Road, is in the area of a retail development project owned by the Flatley Company of Massachusetts.

In an effort to prevent further digging Smith drove to the site, rolled down her window and spoke with a police officer working traffic control. Smith said she told the officer that crews were digging at the burial site. The officer claimed no knowledge of a cemetery being located at that site.

When the officer refused to stop construction she pointed to the area of the cemetery and told the officer she was going to drive over there. She then parked her SUV just before a small blue flag that marks the beginning of the cemetery. She said there were nine such flags marking the area along with a wooden stake. She stood above one of the flags. "I figured that was the only way to stop the heavy equipment from coming back down towards the cemetery because they're not going to hit a car," Smith said.

"I told him if you tell them to stop driving on the cemetery and stop digging it, I will move," she said. "He said no, so I said 'then I'm not moving." Shortly after four police cruisers arrived, Smith said she asked officers not to arrest her until officials from the city arrived. The officers refused and Smith was taken to the Police Station and booked. She was released on $1,000 personal recognizance bail and had to pay a $30 bail fee. Within a half hour from her arrest and on her way home, an orange snow fence was put up around the site by the Rochester Public Work Crew and several days after that, the Attorney General got involved and had a metal fence put around not only the grave site but also the 25 foot boundary that is required by law and that fence still remains there. Smith says, "If there wasn't a cemetery there, then why was Public Works staking it off, and why is a fence still there?."

City Engineer Tom Willis said he was aware of complaints about construction crews being near the site and spoke with the project manager. "They're essentially going to stay away," Willis said. "They know about the location and are going to work around it."

The burial ground contains the remains of 19 members of the French-Hussey family. Independent Archaeological Consulting, LLC of Portsmouth discovered graves there in December 2006 and several newspaper articles were printed about the archaeological dig and its findings.

Richard Longo, the president of The Society for the Preservation of Rochester Burial Grounds, wants the charges against Smith dropped. "They arrested her for doing what she was supposed to be doing, protecting the graves," Longo said. Longo said the society plans on placing a plaque on the site with the names of the 19 members of the French-Hussey family buried there.

"My goal is to protect that area and its history," she said. "The people buried there belong to somebody, they should be given the respect they deserve."

"I was hoping for the charges to be dropped but I guess that isn't going to happen. In the meantime I have to pay for the expense of this and so does the city, This is going to get very expensive for both sides. This is money that could be better spent elsewhere." Smith said.

Smith doesn't want to comment about her case but did reference a fund being established at Northeast Credit Union by her friend Cyndy Lambert, to help pay for legal expenses. She said that any money that isn't used on her legal expenses would go toward cemeteries in the city because there are as many as 200 needing extensive repair.

Cyndy Lambert was contacted and said that anyone interested in donating may do so by sending a check in any amount to Northeast Credit Union, Michelle Smith's Legal Defense Fund, 200 Charles Steet, Rochester, NH 03867,

**Most of this information was taken from the articles written by Aaron Sanborn, Democrat Staff Writer and were published in the Foster's Daily Democrat of Dover, New Hampshire over the last four months and condensed into one article.*****

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