Note: We at SEED offer this account in the same spirit as all of our other stories about activists’ encounters with biased officials and institutions in Calvert County, Maryland, including the police, the courts, the jail, and politicians. We want to illustrate how Dominion has used money, both paid and promised, to gain undue influence and fostered the suppression of dissent within the county. We would also like to see the law enforcement officers who have harassed, endangered, and assaulted activists held accountable. As we spread these stories, though, we also wish to acknowledge the fact that many groups of people in this country are targeted for excessive surveillance and harsh policing simply for existing, let alone speaking up. These groups include people of color, trans* people, indigenous people, and people living on the streets. In addition, environmental activists are being murdered at unprecedented rates worldwide, especially those from indigenous groups fighting for survival. What is happening in Calvert County is part of a linked series of oppressive systems, but it is far from its worst manifestation. SEED and its friends and allies have access to platforms and resources that are denied most caught up in this web. We know that recognizing this is not, in and of itself, a sufficient response, but it is a crucial first step in magnifying the voices and supporting the struggles of marginalized and exploited people.
Just after 8 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, May 31, 2015, two cars on Lighthouse Road were stopped and their occupants, who were going to a walk on Cove Point Beach, were harassed by the Calvert County Sheriffs Office Special Operations Team. Donny Williams, a member of SEED and organizer with We Are Cove Point, who lives in Lusby, Maryland, was in one of the cars. That car had missed a turn, and pulled over so one of the occupants could call for directions. Dfc. Christopher Sloane of the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office followed the car in his patrol car, put on his lights on, and told the people in the car they were being detained because they didn’t “belong” in Cove Point (both cars had Pennsylvania plates). He did this while wearing a badge around his neck that identified him as a Dominion contractor. The occupants of the car told him they were guests of a resident of Cove Point Beach, but he pulled the driver of the first car out and ran the IDs of all the occupants of both cars. Meanwhile, more police kept arriving. Very soon, there were about 10 police present with several of their vehicles blocking the road. Lou Blancato, Dominion Cove Point’s head of corporate security, showed up on the scene to converse with the gathered police.
After finding nothing incriminating as a result of questioning the first driver and running the IDs, Dfc. Sloane paused, and then said he “smelled something funny” and would have to call the K-9 unit. There was nothing to smell; it was apparent he was using this assertion to further detain and search the vehicles. Meanwhile, Sgt. Bortchevsky, also with the CCSO Special Operations Team, walked to the second vehicle and announced he smelled “pot.” The two occupants of that vehicle remarked that Sgt. Bortchevsky’s eyes were red and bloodshot and they actually began to smell marijuana when he walked up to their window. They told Sgt. Bortchevsky that he smelled like pot, and he walked away. Matt Weaver, the driver of the second vehicle, later remarked that, while most of the sheriff’s deputies were cordial, Sgt. Bortchevsky’s aggressive attitude appeared to make the other officers nervous and substantially increased the tension in the situation.
Soon, everybody was pulled out of both cars and searched, though they announced they did not consent to being searched. Dfc. Sloane remarked that it didn’t matter if they didn’t consent, because it wasn’t a search; it was a “scan.” His “scan” involved patting them down and going through belongings in their pockets.
When the K-9 unit arrived, an officer and a dog went around the first car, and the driver heard the K-9 officer tell Dfc. Sloane that car was clean. They then went around the second car, which was also clean. However, Dfc. Sloane informed the people present that the dog had a “hit” on the first car, and he now had to search it to see what the dog may have smelled — even though the K-9 officer had said the car was clean and had no “hit.”
During Sloane’s search of the car, he found a pill bottle with some prescription medicine in it. Kate Rorke, the bottle’s owner, immediately claimed it as hers. When asked, she said she didn’t have her prescriptions on her. She lives in Baltimore and had come to Calvert County for the weekend; in fact, she had been acting as a medic for the march from Solomons to Lusby the day before. Kate had packed the medicine she’d need for the weekend, and wasn’t in the habit of taking her prescriptions with her everywhere that she took a few pills. Sloane and Sgt. David Canning, who identified himself as the officer in charge, said that Kate was going to be arrested for possessing prescription pills without a prescription on her person. Kate suggested they could look up her prescription, and the deputies said a database to do that doesn’t exist. She offered to get her boyfriend, who was home where her prescriptions were located, to take a picture of the forms and send them to her on her phone. After previously saying that people should carry around pictures of their prescriptions on their phones, Sloane and Canning now said they wouldn’t accept that because the picture “could be doctored.” Kate said her prescription was from Rite Aid, and she could call up her pharmacist, who would confirm that she indeed had a prescription for these pills. Sloane and Canning said they couldn’t do that, because they wouldn’t know they were really talking to the Rite Aid pharmacist, as opposed to one of Kate’s friends or any other random person. Kate said the cops could get the number from Rite Aid on their own and call the pharmacist themselves, then pass the phone to her to give the pharmacist authority to share her prescription record with the police. Sloane and Canning didn’t want to do that.
As this exchange took place, two Cove Point Beach residents showed up to claim the occupants of the cars as their guests. They said they absolutely belonged in the area, since they were there to see them. The police said they didn’t care about that any more. They were now in the midst of an “investigation” of “suspicious vehicles.”
After more than an hour, the deputies said the two occupants of the second car were free to go. When the occupants tried to talk with the others who were not yet released about where they should go (the reason they had pulled over in the first place), Dfc. Sloane started yelling to them to leave immediately or get arrested, and to get out of Cove Point. Those two left the scene and went to a Cove Point Beach resident’s house. Soon after, the police arrested Kate and ordered everyone else to leave. They went to the same Cove Point Beach resident’s house, where they called a lawyer and began making plans to get Kate out of jail as quickly as possible.
Kate was charged with two counts of possession of schedule drugs (schedule 2 and 4) without a permit. She was seen around 2 p.m. by the commissioner, who released Kate without bail, saying she was being held without probable cause. Kate still has to return to Prince Frederick in September for a court date. She is now facing a total of eight years in prison for not having her prescriptions on her.
This episode continues a pattern of behavior in which the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office treats people as suspicious merely for opposing Dominion’s export terminal project. Calvert County is not a colony of Dominion, but it feels increasingly like it is. These cars were originally pulled over because they had out-of-state plates and were driving on Lighthouse Road around a time that police knew anti-Dominion people were gathering in the area (on the private property of a Cove Point Beach resident). Dfc. Sloane did not hesitate to tell the occupants of the cars, loudly and repeatedly, that they didn’t belong there and weren’t welcome there. (Dominion Resources is based in Richmond, Virginia. IHI/Kiewit, the joint venture that serves as the engineering, procurement, and construction contractor for the Dominion Cove Point LNG export terminal project, is also not based in Maryland. IHI E&C, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tokyo-based company IHI Corporation, is headquartered in Houston, Texas. Kiewit is based in Omaha, Nebraska.) Yet, later in the day, many people with out-of-state plates were on Lighthouse Road for an event at Cove Point lighthouse, without being stopped or harassed by the police. It’s clear that the difference was the people’s perceived feelings about Dominion. The Calvert County Sheriff’s Office is a public entity, not a private force for Dominion, yet it seems to work as both.