A 71-year-old priest from Massachusetts was sentenced to more than two years in prison on Thursday after federal prosecutors said he vandalized a naval submarine base in Georgia two years ago.
He wasn’t alone.
Stephen Michael Kelly acted in consort to protest nuclear weapons reportedly held at the facility with a group of six other Catholic peace activists known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, according to federal court filings.
“The late-night activities of Stephen Kelly and other defendants cannot be construed as peaceful protests,” U.S. Attorney Bobby L. Christine said in a news release Thursday announcing the sentence. “These defendants destroyed government property at a considerable cost to the taxpayers and caused a significant disruption on an important Naval installation.”
Kelly was sentenced to 33 months in prison and ordered to pay $33,503.51 in restitution, according to the release.
The case dates to 2018, when the Plowshares — a group of Catholic men and women ranging in age from 57 to 80 — broke into the Naval Submarine Base off the southern coast of Georgia in Kings Bay.
The base is home to ballistic missile submarines that provide the U.S. “with its most survivable nuclear strike capability” and is an important deterrent of “a nuclear surprise attack on the United States of America,” according to court filings.
On April 4, 2018, the group of “seven Catholics — defendants in this action — equipped with bolt-cutters, spray paint, and a hammer made of melted-down guns, cut a padlock, opened a gate and stepped onto the property of the Naval Submarine Base,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Benjamin W. Cheesbro wrote in an opinion last year.
He described the group as including “four grandparents, one Jesuit priest, and a descendant of Dorothy Day, a co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement who is currently under consideration by the Catholic Church for canonization as a saint.”
During the night, Kelly and two others — 80-year-old Elizabeth McAlister and 57-year-old Carmen Trotta — used bolt cutters to get through a fence into a “sensitive area” on the base where they unfurled banners and prayed, the judge said.
“The other four defendants poured blood on the ground, hammered on the sides of a monument, hung banners and painted messages protesting nuclear weapons and joined together in prayer,” he wrote.
Some of the spray-painted messages read “Abolish nukes now,” “Blasphemy” and “May love disarm us all.”
The group wasn’t caught until more than an hour after their arrival when they tried to “cut the heavily electrified fence leading to the nuclear storage bunkers,” America Magazine The Jesuit Review reported.
After their arrest, all seven tried to have the charges against them dropped, citing the Religion Freedom Restoration Act, according to the magazine. The act requires the court to use “strict scrutiny when examining laws relating to religious freedom,” according to The First Amendment Encyclopedia.
Kelly wrote they had “symbolically disarmed the building and its surroundings as a prophetic witness in protected exercise of their religious beliefs” in a motion to dismiss the case against him.
But the judge wasn’t buying it, and the case went to trial.
A jury found all seven defendants guilty of destroying property on a naval installation, depredation of government property and trespassing after a four-day trial in October 2019, according to Thursday’s news release.
Prosecutors requested a prison sentence within the federal guidelines of 27 to 33 months for Kelly, pointing to his “long history of arrests during anti-war protests,” lack of remorse and “the need to deter further similar crimes.” They also opposed the group’s request for home confinement in lieu of prison because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“They have so far not provided the government with any relevant facts or authority in support,” prosecutors said in court filings. “Rather, they largely rely on their old age to excuse their criminal behavior.”
Kelly objected to their request in his own filings and asked for a prison sentence of time served. He has been in federal custody for a total of 926 days as of Thursday.
But U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood again disagreed, opting instead to sentence Kelly at the top end of the guidelines.
McAlister was sentenced to time served after spending 17 months and nine days in jail. Patrick M. O’Neill, a 64-year-old North Carolina man, is scheduled to be sentenced Friday, and the remaining defendants will be sentenced next month, prosecutors said.