Hero Will Fight His Arrest, Seek Trial The City Lauded Damon Umholtz In 1999. Now He's Battling Charges Of Illegal Protest Activity.

Posted: September 17, 2000

Just last year Damon Umholtz was a hero. In July 1999, he stopped the rape of a young woman from North Carolina shortly after midnight near 22d and Cherry Streets. For his efforts, the city awarded him a citation in December.

But on Aug. 1, as the Republican National Convention was unfolding in Philadelphia, the city didn't treat Umholtz like a hero. Umholtz, office manager at Oak Heart Wood Floors in West Philadelphia, was running out to grab some lunch when he discovered that police had surrounded his workplace: 4100 Haverford Ave., the so-called puppet warehouse that police had identified as a site for planning illegal protests.

Soon he was under arrest, though he maintains he had nothing to do with the protest activity, and though his old friend lawyer Kenneth Young and Councilman Angel Ortiz vouched for him. Young and Ortiz had gone to the warehouse with other lawyers and city officials as word spread that police had surrounded it.

Police charged Umholtz - and all 75 people inside - with various misdemeanors involving illegal protest activity and took him to jail, where he stayed for two days. He was released on his own recognizance. His lawyer said that Umholtz tried to give his name but that police decided he was a John Doe. Some protesters had refused to give their names to police or the courts.

Yesterday, the city began to process the court cases of the arrested protesters by offering 104 people accelerated rehabilitative disposition - the equivalent of six months' probation with a $300 fine and ending in a clean record. Umholtz, 31, refused to accept the offer and chose to go to trial on Oct. 23.

"There's no way he's accepting [accelerated rehabilitation]. He deserves an apology from the city," Young said.

On the day of the raid at the warehouse, Young said, "We spoke to the officer in charge and told them the situation," that he had nothing to do with the protests.

Ortiz said, "I was with the people who were speaking to the police on [Umholtz's] behalf. They knew the [heroic] incident. I was there when they told the cops those things. They were not going to listen; they were going to arrest everybody in the warehouse," Ortiz said.

Young said the police promised not to arrest Umholtz, but did anyway.

"I was repulsed by what happened that day," Young said.

During convention week, Mayor Street vowed that the protesters would not receive any breaks when it came to prosecution.

But accelerated rehabilitation is "non-reporting probation," Cathie Abookire of the District Attorney's Office said. "At the end of the six months, they would pay a fine - $300 - restitution to the city for the costs of handling this. The record is expunged at the end of six months," she said.

Jennifer Kates, 20, of Buckingham, also refused accelerated rehabilitation. "I'm not guilty of anything. I'm not going to accept a compromise except a full acquittal," she said. Her trial is set for Oct. 23.

"With Jennifer's case, they're going to have to establish that she did something wrong," her lawyer, Andrew Erba said.

The 96 people who opted to continue their cases until Sept. 30 were given that option because the District Attorney's Office did not decide until Friday afternoon to offer accelerated rehabilitation, Assistant District Attorney Charles Ehrlich said. The offer extends to those scheduled for status hearings on Sept. 23 and 30, but must be accepted or declined on those days, he said.

Among the others who were in court for status hearings were John Sellers, originally held on $1 million bail, and Terrence McGuckin, whose original bail was $500,000. Bail for both was later reduced and both men are charged with misdemeanors. Their cases were continued until Sept. 30, although neither was offered accelerated rehabilitation.

"Just because you have misdemeanors doesn't qualify you for [accelerated rehabilitation]," said David Desiderio, the assistant district attorney prosecuting Sellers, McGuckin and Kate Sorensen. Sorensen will have a pretrial hearing on felony charges Thursday.

Also in court yesterday were nine people arrested during a protest on July 31 against the School of the Americas, which is near Fort Benning, Ga. All were offered accelerated rehabilitation.

Bryn Hammarstrom, 53, a nurse at Parkview Hospital, said he accepted accelerated rehabilitation because he couldn't afford to miss any more work. "I'm the only one who accepted, but it's because of my work situation."

Linda K. Harris' e-mail address is lharris@phillynews.com

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