Ruby Montoya Seeks to Withdraw Guilty Plea, Citing Coercion, Entrapment and Mental Illness

Ruby Montoya Seeks to Withdraw Guilty Plea, Citing Coercion, Entrapment and Mental Illness

By Ryan Fatica, Perilous Chronicle

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously reported that Ruby Montoya alleges that her father had sexually abused her. We have corrected the error and regret the mistake.

On August 26, admitted pipeline-saboteur Ruby Montoya filed a motion in federal court seeking to withdraw her guilty plea, claiming she was coerced into signing it by her previous attorneys, movement “leaders”, her co-defendant, and her abusive father. The motion also claims that government agents may have taught Montoya to use a welder and encouraged her to use it for pipeline sabotage, indicating a possible entrapment defense.

Montoya’s attorneys also filed a sealed supplement to her motion, citing “discussions of mental health and the attorney/client relationship, as well as other reasons” for restricting it from public view. The contents of this supplement are currently unknown to the public.

Activists charged with crimes associated with their political activity generally avoid filing sealed documents to the court out of fear that the secrecy may be taken as a sign that they are offering information to law enforcement about other activists in exchange for a lighter sentence. 

Montoya was previously represented by Lauren Regan, a prominent attorney with the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Oregon who has represented environmental and political activists for more than 15 years. Montoya is also represented by local Des Moines attorney Angela Campbell. Montoya is now represented by Daphne Silverman, an attorney based in Austin.

In July 2017, Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, another anti-pipeline activist, publicly admitted to a campaign of arson and property destruction against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The two were arrested more than two years later in September 2019, indicted on nine federal charges each and placed on house arrest pending court proceedings. 

At the time, Montoya claimed she felt confident in her decisions and ready to face the legal consequences of her actions. “I am not going to choose fear,” Montoya said in a public address in 2017. “I’m looking at centuries in prison — and I feel more free.”

In February of this year, both Montoya and Reznicek entered into a plea agreement in which they each pleaded guilty to one count of damaging an energy facility. In exchange for their admission of guilt, the remaining charges against them were dropped. After signing the agreement, the pair faced a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, in part as the result of a “terrorism enhancement” applied at sentencing.

On June 30, Reznicek was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Despite her previous admission of guilt, Montoya’s recent motion cites a variety of reasons why she claims the plea she signed was “not voluntary.” Although Montoya continues to admit she committed the arson and other property destruction against the pipeline, she now argues that the previous plea failed to consider a variety of mitigating factors that led to her actions.

Foremost among those factors, her attorneys argue, is her mental heath issues, caused by a lifetime of abuse by her father, Phoenix civil rights attorney Stephen Montoya, who was also part of her original legal team. The motion includes affidavits from several family members, as well as Montoya herself, attesting to the abuse she suffered from her father. Montoya’s affidavit also attests to childhood sexual abuse by an unnamed perpetrator. The motion also includes evidence of a restraining order Montoya was granted against her father in 2008.

“Ms. Montoya did not have the requisite mens rea to commit the crimes alleged,” her new attorneys argue in the motion, referring to the presence of mind and knowledge of wrongdoing required to be found guilty of a crime. “The statutes charged require that she act knowingly or maliciously depending upon the statute,” the motion continues. “Ms. Montoya did not act knowingly or maliciously on any occasion.”

Montoya claims that her attorneys failed to adequately defend her interests and coerced her to take the joint plea deal offered to her and Reznicek. Reznicek, she claims, faced a harsher sentence due to her previous years of activism and many arrests. If sentenced alone, she claims, she’d likely face less jail time.  

“Ms. Montoya’s past does not include prior similar acts,” the motion reads, “and therefore her risk at trial is different than Ms. Reznicek and at sentencing with regards to application of the terrorism enhancement, her guideline range and her appropriate sentence within the guideline range are different than Ms. Reznicek.”

The motion also points fingers at other anti-pipeline activists, most notably the Des Moines Catholic Worker community where Reznicek and Montoya lived for a period of time. According to Montoya, activists at the Des Moines Catholic Worker failed to adequately warn her that she was committing serious crimes. 

“Ms. Montoya was then coerced by the activist community within the Catholic Worker Des Moines,” the motion reads. “This activist community offered the opportunity to engage in destruction but did not give Ms. Montoya the information and other tools she needed to evaluate what they requested.”

In Montoya and Reznicek’s previous public statements, the pair claimed that they acted in secret without the knowledge or involvement of other activists. “It’s insulting on some level,” Reznicek said in a 2017 joint interview with Montoya, “but it needs to be cleared up. Ruby and I acted solely alone. Nobody else was involved in any of these actions. I think it’s hard for people to believe ― ‘How could these two women pull this off so easily?’”

The indication in the motion that other activists offered her the “opportunity” and “tools” to engage in crimes suggests that Montoya plans to allege the knowledge or even leadership of others in the crimes she’d previously confessed to.

In an affidavit to the court, Montoya’s counselor, Tucker Brown, who claims to have been himself associated with the Catholic Worker Movement for over 20 years, further seeks to cast blame for Montoya’s actions on other activists.  Brown states that leaders of the Des Moines Catholic Worker have “often lacked moral clarity” and “tended to coerce vulnerable persons into actions for which they were not psychologically prepared.”  According to Brown, activists sought to “lure impressionable and unstable persons into their cause” and deployed “increasingly erratic” tactics.

This attempt to cast blame for Montoya’s actions onto other activists contradicts her numerous previous public statements. In an August 2017 interview, Montoya stated “We anticipated the repercussions of every action that we took. Although I view these repercussions as unjust, we were fully prepared going into it, in that mental mind game of ‘I’m driving myself to jail right now.’ So we’ve been prepared for jail for several months, and we still feel passionate about this — I still can’t let this go because this is still really flipping important — and we both have the mental fortitude to step forward. Well, let’s step forward then.”

The recent motion also appears to pave the way for a future entrapment defense, claiming that “a government agent may have encouraged and taught [the defendants] how to use a welder.” No details about this possible entrapment are offered in the motion, but Montoya’s attorneys did state that evidence of this possible entrapment came to light only after Lauren Regan, Montoya’s previous attorney, had withdrawn from the case. 

Typically, when law enforcement provides the tools or plan for a criminal act, such as in the cases of Eric McDavid, the Cleveland 4 and the so-called “Boogaloo Hamas,” they are arrested when agents believe they have collected enough evidence to win the case, typically shortly after the commission of the crime. The motion filed by Montoya’s attorneys offers no explanation as to why, if they were entrapped, the pair was brought up on federal charges only years after publicly admitting to the acts of sabotage. The pair had previously claimed that they’d taught themselves to weld, stating “We then began to research the tools necessary to pierce through 5/8 inch steel pipe, the material used for this pipeline. In March we began to apply this self-gathered information. We began in Mahaska County, IA, using oxy-acetylene cutting torches to pierce through exposed, empty steel valves, successfully delaying completion of the pipeline for weeks.”

A Dakota Access Pipeline cut with an Oxy-acetylene torch in 2016 by anti-pipeline activists Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek (Photo Source: KCCI News).

The pair used torches to cut four holes in the empty pipeline, but Montoya’s lawyers now claim that federal authorities may have overestimated the economic damage they caused. According to the motion, in order to be found guilty on several of the counts against her, the state must prove that the damage to the pipeline exceeded $100,000. Based on an estimate sought by Montoya’s new attorney from Mike Monteith, CEO of Texas-based Strategic Estimating Systems, each of the four holes cut by Montoya and Reznicek into the carbon steel pipeline would cost approximately $12,000 to repair, for a total of $48,000.

An estimate of the financial cost of the damage to the Dakota Access Pipeline caused by Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek.

The motion also claims that to be found guilty of several of the charges against her, the state must prove that the damaged pipelines were being used for interstate commerce. According to Montoya, none of the pipelines were actually in use at the time of the sabotage.

Montoya’s new attorney, Daphne Silverman, filed a motion to enter into the case in late July and is now leading her defense. Silverman did not hesitate to cast blame on Montoya’s previous attorney, Lauren Regan, claiming that she coerced her client in the name of solidarity with her co defendant and the environmental and anti-pipeline movement. Regan had previously represented Montoya since November 2019. 

In an unusual move, Regan withdrew from Montoya’s case without explanation just five days after Montoya signed her plea agreement on December 30, 2020. Regan, like many socially conscious attorneys, is known within activist circles for refusing to defend those who provide information on fellow activists in exchange for lighter sentences. Although attorneys are bound by attorney-client privilege and therefore unable to speak about the details of the case, Regan’s unexplained withdrawal was taken by some as indication that something had gone wrong in the case.

Reznicek and Montoya had previously been using a “joint defense” strategy, meaning their cases were linked as co defendants and they shared attorneys. The plea they both signed was a “packaged deal,” meaning that if Montoya refused to sign it, the plea offer would be withdrawn from Reznicek as well. 

As evidence of Regan’s conflict of interest, Silverman included as an exhibit to the motion a screenshot of a t-shirt for sale on the CLDC’s website picturing a bear, tethered to the ground, being lifted to freedom by a flock of birds. Written in the sky above the scene is the word “solidarity.”

A photo of a t-shirt for sale on the website of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, used as evidence by Ruby Montoya of the organization’s inability to provide adequate legal counsel.

Ryan Fatica is a member of the Perilous Editorial Collective and a founding member of Perilous Chronicle. He is based in Arizona.

This report is published in partnership between Unicorn Riot and Perilous Chronicle.