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Journalist arrested during mountain lion trapping operation

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    News Media Update         ARIZONA         Newsgathering    

Journalist arrested during mountain lion trapping operation

  • A magazine writer spent the night in federal prison and was charged with three misdemeanor counts after crossing a federal closure with a known animal rights extremist to research a story.

March 26, 2004 — An Esquire writer arrested Wednesday while reporting on a story involving environmental activist group Earth First was charged in Arizona’s federal district court yesterday afternoon with three misdemeanor counts of trespassing and interfering with a Forest Service operation.

Writer John H. Richardson faces $5,000 in possible fines and six months in prison. He was released on his own recognizance after being held overnight at the Federal Correctional Institute in Tucson.

Richardson, who lives outside of New York City, had been in Tucson since last week, profiling the environmental group and one of its activists, Rod Coronado, an animal rights extremist who had spent four years in federal prison for a 1992 arson at Michigan State University’s mink research facility.

Richardson said he was trying to capture the essence of Coronado’s deep commitment to animal rights when he followed him into Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, which, according to court documents, was closed to the public on March 10 due to possible threat of attack from mountain lions. The state was conducting an organized hunt for the lions, which it intended to trap and transport to another part of the state, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

“How do you cover this kind of thing from a desk?” Richardson asked. “I wanted to get inside their heads. I don’t regret it, but I don’t want to go back to federal prison.”

Mark Warren, executive editor of Esquire, said Thursday afternoon he was alarmed that neither the magazine nor Richardson’s wife had been able to contact Richardson since his arrest 24 hours before.

Warren described Richardson as a “real pro” who was finishing his story by reporting on the conduct and activity of the activists.

Richardson and Coronado are also charged with dismantling a lion trap, but Richardson said he was only present to witness Coronado’s actions.

“I am very comfortable saying that he was not taking part in this activity,” Warren said. “There is a clear distinction between a subject and a journalist.”

According to Richardson and his lawyer, A. Bates Butler, authorities could decide to elevate the charges to felonies. Both men are now being charged together, and further actions by Earth First could encourage authorities to “come down on” Coronado, Butler said.

While Butler wants to see Richardson’s charges severed from Coronado’s, he is skeptical that the court will comply.

“While I’m convinced that they didn’t know they had a reporter in the beginning,” Butler said, “I think they fear [dismissing the charges] would send the wrong message. They don’t want journalists going wherever they please.”

According to its Web site, Earth First is an environmental movement that uses “confrontation, guerrilla theater, direct action and civil disobedience to fight for wild places and life processes.”

(U.S. v. Richardson; Media Counsel: A. Bates Butler III, Law Offices of Fennemore Craig; Tucson, Ariz.) MG

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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