George Russell & Wesley Altom: Environmentalist, Cop File Lawsuits Over Incident

Strangeness is brewing in Hunstville and surrounding Walker County. And the main players seem to be the city council, a former city police officer, prosecutors at the DA's office, and a zealot environmentalist who once made eyes at the Governor's Mansion.

Conspiracies and lawsuits are afoot. They involved retaliatory firings, false, trumped-up prosecutions, and civil rights violations.

And it all started over a few little trees.

Shortly after Hurricane Ike, according to a lawsuit recently filed in Houston federal court, a tree-trimming crew went into a neighborhood allegedly to help restore power to the electric lines. This happened to be right in front of the home of George Russell, a well-know environmental activist and tree-preservationist.

Russell is the founder of the Universal Ethican Church, which participates with a larger group that believes forest conservation is a religious issue.

Russell claims that he began complaining to the crew that they were cutting the trees the wrong way, needlessly destroying their shape and beauty. Nonetheless, the crew called the cops, saying Russell was interfering. Officers arrived and warned Russell. The same scene played out once again later that day, leaving Russell with a total of two police warnings.

The next day, according to Russell's lawsuit, the same tree-trimming crew went back out again, to an area of town where Russell has an office. This time, Russell grabbed a camera and began taking pictures of the crew members allegedly butchering limbs, so he could publish and protest what was happening to the trees. But once again, the Huntsville cops showed up, allegedly led by former officer Wesley Altom.

(A little housekeeping: Russell is suing Altom, among others, for alleged civil rights violations. Altom is suing several city council members for supposedly firing him unjustly.)

Russell claims that after snapping photos of the tree-trimmers, the officers there made a joke about letting Russell take their picture. So Russell tried. But when he raised his camera, Russell claims, several cops grabbed him, cuffed him, and tossed him in the back of a police car. Both Altom and Russell say that the arrest was made at the direction of prosecutors at the Walker County DA's office.

Russell was initially charged with a misdemeanor, he claims, but months later, was indicted by a grand jury on six felony charges of disturbing electric workers with picketing or intimidation. He accuses the prosecutors of intentionally trying to railroad him.

The DAs "did not call any witnesses to testify before the grand jury other than a police officer who had admittedly not witnessed any of the events ....," states Russell's lawsuit. He claims that one of the prosecutors and the police were conspiring to get him, and that the prosecutors "acted outside the scope of normal" duty and "participated in the decision to arrest and charge Russell."

Several months later, however, the DA dropped the charges against Russell, supposedly in exchange for an apology.

Russell's lawsuit comes right on the heels of Altom's case against Huntsville city council members, one of whom happens to be Russell's attorney. Altom claims that "the arrest of George Russell would start the end of Wesley Altom's twenty-one year career with the City of Huntsville."

Altom says that city council members started questioning Russell's arrest in late 2009. The police chief subsequently conducted an investigation, Altom claims, and found no wrongdoing by the officers involved in the arrest. Two months later, Altom took a polygraph while answering questions about Russell's arrest. He says he passed.

But that didn't keep the wolves at bay, Altom claims, stating that, "Unsatisfied by the results of the polygraph" or by the chief's findings, the city council pressured the chief to resign and then asked Altom to resign or be fired for "lack of trust."

Altom was soon fired, and is now suing for unfair retaliation.

Altom's story and Russell's differ. Altom says he was innocent, and unfairly fired over the unfounded suspicion that he was guilty of something connected to Russell's arrest. Russell appears to be claiming that it was more than a suspicion, and that Alton let the DA run over the investigation, wrongfully trying to put him behind bars for a felonies Russell did not commit.

Either which way, there should be some interesting city council meetings and court hearings in Huntsville coming down the pike.

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