No contact: JADE blogger takes plea
Elisha Strom, the woman whose month in jail for blogging caught the attention of the nation's top civil rights organization, pleaded guilty Thursday in Albemarle General District Court to two counts of obstruction of justice.
"Yay," exclaimed the fuchsia-haired Strom after the hearing at which she received a six-month suspended sentence in Albemarle, and a 60-day suspended sentence for the Charlottesville charge.
Strom had downplayed her I HeArTE JADE blog and her surveillance of the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force officer as a "hobby," but her publication of the name, address, and photographs of an officer's home–- although obtained from public records–- brought her a felony charge of intention to harass or intimidate under an obscure Virginia law that the ACLU says is unconstitutional.
That charge was followed by an obstruction of justice charge September 2 from Charlottesville, which alleges she interfered with a July 9 undercover drug buy at Belmont Park.
In the plea agreement, the Class 6 felony charge in Albemarle was reduced to misdemeanor obstruction of justice.
As part of the plea and suspended sentence, she's ordered to stay far–- at least 300 yards–- from JADE premises and its officers' homes and ordered not to contact the officers, including Virginia State Police Special Agent Jason Trent, who investigated the case.
"It had gotten to the point she was following family members," says Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman. "It's unnerving. People who do important jobs [for the government] need to be free from fear."
"These guys are such cupcakes," retorts Strom.
Strom says a risk assessment conducted on her after the charges were filed discounted any notion that she would harm the officers.
"They said I was a threat," says Strom. "They knew all along I wasn't dangerous."
She also disputes the notion that she interfered with the Belmont Park bust that ended in a low-speed chase.
"In a drug context, that's a very sensitive operation," says Chapman. "Someone could get hurt or killed. She's there driving around. The appearance of the same vehicle could spook the target."
"There is no way I obstructed that," says Strom. "I was parked–- the pictures show I was in one spot."
Strom says she decided to accept the plea when she began feeling like she was fighting for a free speech issue that people really don't care about.
"The court of public opinion had already convicted me," she maintains. "They never think it's going to happen to them."
Strom says she didn't initially see the case as a free speech issue until plea negotiations began and the prosecution wanted her to take down her blog.
"They wanted no future blogs and no discussion of the task force on the Internet," says Strom, who balked at the conditions.
Under the revised plea, Strom agrees to take down the address and photo of the JADE officer's house–- which she says she got off the Albemarle County website–- and post no new photos of JADE men from October 15 on. She expects to have her computer back in a week, and plans to finish the blog.
"It ends with, 'Uh-oh. They're here.'" remembers Strom, who's been computer-less since her July 16 arrest.
And after that for the woman who's married to, but estranged from Kevin Strom, once a leading figure in the white separatist movement whom she helped convict on one count of child porn possession?
"I'll have to find a new hobby," says Strom.