Update February 8, 2013: The court in Imperial Valley has issued a restraining order requiring Graham to stay away from Park Ewing, the photographer he reportedly attacked.
By Miriam Raftery
Jim Pelley and Parke Ewing contributed to this report.
February 7, 2013 (Ocotillo) –Russell Scott Graham, 48, a representative at Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo Wind Express Facility, has been arrested after allegedly attempting to wrestle a camera away from an East County Magazine photographer and making violent threats, including one documented on video during the attack. (Warning, coarse language.) According to the Imperial Valley Press and photographers documenting the project's daily progress for many months, Graham is the construction manager at Pattern's site.
Freelance photographers Parke Ewing and Jim Pelley have spent months extensively documenting construction activities at the Ocotillo wind project. Many of their videos and photos have been published by East County Magazine, including photographic evidence that raised serious questions on whether the project is producing wind speeds claimed, as ECM previously reported in a story titled Where is the wind?
In addidtion to his award-winning photojournalism, Pelley is an aerospace engineer; Ewing is a master carpenter and a former construction manager at other projects.
The trouble began after Ewing posted a video on his Facebook page showing Graham confronted with questions posed by the photographers while he was giving a tour to visiting Canadians at the wind facility on federal public land on February 2. A photographer asked “How many houses are being powered today—none, right?” as the turbines stood silent, not spinning. “Zero. It’s been that way for the last two months,” the photographer, who resides in Ocotillo, continued, drawing laughter from the tour visitors.
Graham repeatedly attempted to dodge the question, at one point noting that Pelley had complained of noise (on one of the rare occasions when the wind blew since the project went online in December): http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=4290396898228.
He later stated that “on a windy day” the turbines would power only 100 homes. (Note: That remark was edited off the video initially following threats of violence/intimidation to the photographers to protect their safety, however ECM later published the full unedited version, with photographer's permission, after the Sheriff arrested Graham.)
If Graham's statement is accurate, with 110 turbines in the product, the total would power only 11,000 homes – far short of the 140,000 that Pattern claimed prior to the project’s construction.
ECM has repeatedly sought to obtain records to document wind production since the project went online December 5, but the Bureau of Land Management and California Public Utilities Commission have failed to turn over the records; Pattern and SDG&E never responded to similar requests.
According to Pelley, Graham (known as "Russell the Muscle" to some at the site) became enraged after viewing the video. A witness who says he overheard Graham threaten bodily harm to Pelley on February 5 tipped the photographers off.
“He [the witness] called me first and said if we don’t have it [the video] off by 5:00 he[Graham] will be at my front door,” Pelley told ECM. According to Pelley, the witness told Pelley that Graham said if the video was not removed, “he will punch you in the throat, breaking both of your elbows.”
Soon after, Ewing says he was seated in his Jeep on public property taking photographs of an underground trencher when Graham pulled his vehicle alongside and got out. He allegedly screamed at Ewing to get the video off the Internet. In addition, “he reached into my Jeep and tried to steal my camera from my hands.” Ewing turned on the video recorder and captured the threat to kick a hole in his throat on tape. “It was quite a struggle.”
Ewing escaped the attack by revving the engine forward, then calling 911 to report the alleged crimes.
After viewing the video and talking to witnesses, a reporting officer for the Sheriff arrested Graham, 48, who was later released on bail. According to Watch Commander Sergeant Joaquin, the Imperial Valley Sheriff’s Department has recommended to the District Attorney that Graham be charged with criminal threats of violence (section 422 of the California Penal Code) as well as attempted robbery under sections 664 and 211.
A report was not yet available through the Sheriff or the District Attorney. A spokeswoman for the D.A.’s office said they have not yet received the report from the Sheriff.
“Right now this looks like a Pattern stall tactic,” said Linda Ewing, Parke’s wife.
Ewing and Pelley have sought restraining orders to keep Graham away from them. “Pattern has taken no precaution for our safety,” Ewing told ECM tonight.
This is not the first time that violence has reportedly occurred at the project construction site. On May 19 2012, the Imperial Valley Press reported, “A man reported his supervisor choked him at the site of the controversial windmill farm project near here The unidentified man said his supervisor had choked him and requested medical aid on Thursday, according to Sheriff’s logs.” When deputies arrived at the site, however, they could not find the reporting party, who had gone to the Sheriff’s office to speak with a deputy.
Neither Pattern Energy nor the Sheriff would say whether the assault reported last May involved Graham or a different supervisor. Graham, meanwhile, remains employed at Pattern.
The photographers have indicated that Graham reportedly made threats to come back at a later date, whether or not he is still with Pattern. With three pending felony charges recommended, both believe Graham belongs behind bars to assure the safety of themselves and their families.
ECM also received a troubling though unconfirmed claim of an overhead conversation by a Pattern employee who claimed that the company’s attorneys intend to “smash” the photographers and attempt to shut down their documentation of construction operations at the project on public lands.
ECM contacted Pattern to ask that the company take steps to “assure that these photographers’ safety and First Amendment rights will be protected” and denounce violence and threats. ECM further stated, “It is outrageous for Pattern’s representative to attempt to intimidate the press and violate First Amendment freedom of the press. Photographing activities on public lands and asking questions about wind production of turbines built with public tax dollars on public lands is an appropriate role for media.”
Pattern Energy Representative Matt Dallas issued the following statement in response. “Pattern understands that one of the contractors engaged by the Ocotillo wind project was involved in an incident away from the project site earlier this week, and that an investigation is being conducted by the Imperial County Sherriff’s [cq] Department,” he wrote in an e-mail this evening to ECM. “While we do not yet have all the facts surrounding the incident, Pattern does not condone aggressive or harassing behavior or words by anyone Once the Sherriff’s [cq] investigation has been completed Pattern will be in a better position to determine what if any actions are warranted.”
He added that Graham is not an employee, but rather an independent contractor engaged by Ocotillo Express LLC, to oversee the construction process.
Ewing clarifies that the incident was not off site. "I was on their site," he informed ECM after reading Dallas' comments. Specifically,Ewing says he was in the area "where the electrical collection cable site is now being bored under interstate 8 and coming out exactly where I was parked. That area is survey staked right now."
Both ECM photographers indicate that Graham has been in charge since the project's early days.