BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A former U.S. Marine and Baltimore police officer who raised nearly $1.2 million to bring hundreds of military veterans to a Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp in North Dakota more than four years ago is suing for alleged civil rights violations.
Michael Wood Jr.’s lawsuit targets the city of Bismarck, its police department, the Hertz vehicle rental company and Bismarck franchisee Overland West Inc.
The saga began in December 2016 when a Suburban that Wood had rented in Bismarck became snowbound in a blizzard that hit the protest camp. It culminated with Wood and his wife being detained at the U.S. border in California when returning from a Mexican vacation in August 2019.
Wood, 41, of Glendale, Arizona, alleges that in between, rental company officials falsely accused him of stealing the Suburban, in retaliation for his social media criticism of the company or his support of the pipeline protest that drew thousands of people to southern North Dakota over a six-month span of 2016-17.
He claims Bismarck police issued a warrant for his arrest on a felony theft charge without properly trying to find and notify him, for the same retaliatory reason, and that the “malicious” warrant made it impossible for him to find work in the law enforcement and security fields, The Bismarck Tribune reported.
The warrant also led to Wood and his wife, Jessica, being detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials upon returning from a Mexican vacation in early August 2019, resulting in Michael Wood being handcuffed for hours and his wife suffering a panic and anxiety attack, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in North Dakota. They eventually were released because the warrant indicated only “regional extradition,” the suit states.
The couple seek unspecified money damages, citing “severe emotional distress and mental anguish” along with economic damages due to “past and future lost time and wages.”
“There was never any probable cause to support the issuance of criminal process against (Wood), which is made clear by the fact that on March 20, 2020, the charge against (Wood) was dismissed voluntarily by the Burleigh County State Attorney’s Office,” the lawsuit states.
City Attorney Jannelle Combs declined comment, saying she had not yet been served with the lawsuit.
Hertz in a statement to the Tribune said the company also had just become aware of the lawsuit.
“However, based even on a cursory review of it, there appears to be a serious misrepresentation of the facts. Overland West Inc., and Hertz will vigorously defend against these allegations,” the company said.
What happened to the Suburban after it became snowbound is anything but clear, and could influence the outcome of the lawsuit.
Wood was charged on Jan. 26, 2017, with a felony theft count that carried a maximum punishment of five years in prison. An accompanying affidavit by Bismarck police officer Brad Jerome said “Hertz policy requires the renter to physically return the vehicle to the rental site,” and that “the vehicle has not been returned.” He estimated the value at $43,000.
Wood states in the lawsuit that he was told at one point by a rental company official that a vehicle could be reported stolen if it isn’t returned in 30 days. But Wood maintains that Hertz franchisee Overland West charged his card about $4,700 for the rental fee and an insurance fee to cover any vehicle damages, and that when he left the state on Dec. 8, he had made arrangements to extend the rental and insurance “until such time as Overland could recover the vehicle.” He does acknowledge that he returned the wrong set of keys for the Suburban, calling it a mistake.
Hertz said the Suburban was found abandoned in Bismarck, not where Wood had indicated it was, and that it was extensively damaged.
Jerome in his affidavit said “numerous attempts” were made to contact Wood, but that his cellphone had been disconnected and his debit card declined. Hertz said that because Wood hadn’t returned the vehicle, Overland West continued to charge his card until it was declined, and that the company alerted authorities as a last resort because it could not reach him.
Wood maintains he wasn’t that hard to find -- that he “was a public figure with active social media accounts, and such accounts allow for easy communication.”
Court documents show that Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorney Justin Schwarz on March 19, 2020, moved to dismiss the theft charge, which a judge did the next day.
Schwarz told the Tribune that he had received information that Hertz had been reimbursed for the value of the vehicle. He said he didn’t recall where the reimbursement came from but that it did not come from Wood. The prosecutor also said the Suburban apparently was at some point auctioned off, and that there were questions about who had used the vehicle, and what county it was in.
A police incident report filed in January 2017 also indicates there were questions about who had the vehicle after Wood left the state. It says Overland West’s owner had reported seeing the Suburban being driven at one point by someone else.
“I factored all of this in to my assessment of whether there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a theft having occurred that could be proved at trial,” Schwarz said.
Wood claims that authorities didn’t even bother to tell him that the charge was dismissed -- that he found out only after contacting a defense attorney in North Dakota about returning to the state to fight the charge.
The Woods maintain in the lawsuit they filed themselves that their constitutional rights including free speech and due process were violated in retaliation for their support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which fears pollution from the pipeline and has fought it in and outside of court. The Woods seek a jury trial.
Court documents do not list lawyers for any of the defendants.
The “Veterans Standing for Standing Rock” effort that Woods helped organize was itself controversial. The North Dakota Veterans Coordinating Council -- composed of the American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Vietnam Veterans of America -- at the time publicly said it did not support the action and remained neutral on the pipeline dispute.
Many people later questioned what happened to the money raised from 26,000 donors for the effort. Wood has said the money was not misused but spent on supplies, hotel rooms and transportation. He told the High Country News in April 2018 that auditing the donations would have cost too much and would not have been a good use of the money.
But Wood also acknowledges in the lawsuit that he wasn’t prepared to handle the windfall, saying “the fundraiser took off unexpectedly,” and that “suddenly, what had been intended as a small effort became a great logistical challenge.”
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