Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Rochester burial site official defies police order, faces charges

ROCHESTER — Michelle Smith says she was just doing her job when she refused a police officer's order to move her vehicle from a construction site on Wednesday afternoon and was arrested.

She claimed that construction crews in the Washington Street area had parked their bulldozers and were digging in a cemetery that is protected by the city and she wouldn't budge from the property.

Smith, the vice president of The Society for the Preservation of Rochester Burial Grounds, is facing misdemeanor charges of reckless operation, disorderly conduct and criminal trespass.

On Thursday, Police Chief David Dubois said it appears the arrest stems from how Smith conducted herself and not what she was trying to accomplish.

"They appear to be a result of behavior," Dubois said. "The officer forwarded the charges to the prosecutor and it will now be processed through the courts."

The piece of land Smith was protecting is a burial ground at the corner of Washington Street and Woodlawn Road. In December, the city confirmed the land was a burial ground after archaeologists from Independent Archaeological Consulting, LLC of Portsmouth discovered graves there.

Since then, the city has told construction crews working on the six-acre site owned by The Flatley Company of Massachusetts to not work in that area. However, Smith claims she saw construction crews working in the area on Wednesday afternoon. The cemetery site is across the street from a retail development project.

Smith says her husband was driving by the property at 3:30 p.m. and saw bulldozers parked on it and working in the area. He returned to their Janet Street home and told Smith. She called city officials and drove to the site.

She said she rolled down her window and spoke with a police officer working traffic control.

"I told him 'there's a cemetery there, you need to tell them to stop digging'," Smith said.

The officer said he didn't know of a cemetery, according to Smith. She pointed to the area and told the officer she was going to drive over there.

Smith 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 the flag.

"I figured that was the only way to stop a bulldozer from coming back down towards the cemetery because they're not going to hit a car," Smith said.

The officer told Smith to move several times but she refused. He then gave her the ultimatum 'leave or be arrested,' according to Smith.

"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, and Smith said she asked officers not to arrest her until officials from the city arrived. But 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.

On her way home, Smith said crews from Public Works were staking the area and putting up an orange snow fence around it.

"If there wasn't a cemetery there, then why was public works staking it off," she said.

The owner of the construction company, Severino Trucking, is out of town and was unable to be reached.

City Engineer Tom Willis said on Thursday afternoon 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."

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.

Smith is scheduled to appear at Rochester District Court on May 21. She plans to represent herself.

"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."

© 2007 Geo. J. Foster Company

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