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Authorities ID four arrested in Westminster Woods protest

A group of masked and hooded demonstrators who were arrested Friday after they barricaded the entrance to an Occidental-area retreat center were protesting an event hosted by a Berkeley nonprofit that stages workshops on rational thinking, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said Monday.

Four people were taken into custody after sheriff’s deputies swarmed the wooded area outside the Westminster Woods camp near Camp Meeker, where a group of “unwanted people” - including one said to have had a gun - refused requests from staff members to leave the property around 3:40 p.m. Friday, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

No weapons were found after the SWAT team conducted a four-hour search of every building on the 200-acre compound.

Three of the protesters, who were wearing black robes, gloves and Guy Fawkes masks, initially did not follow orders, Sonoma County sheriff’s spokeswoman Misti Wood said. The mask was popularized in the 2006 film “V for Vendetta,” where it was used to cloak the identity of an anarchist attempting to spark a revolution, and is a symbol of the online hacker group Anonymous, though it does not appear the protesters were with any specific group, Wood said.

One of the first two deputies that arrived directed Westminster employees to get to safety and confronted the group of masked intruders with his gun drawn, she said.

“Once the (camp workers) were out of the way, that’s when he pulled out his gun and ordered the three people to show him their hands,” Wood said. “They were initially non-compliant even though they were at gunpoint. They initially did not obey any commands. Once that second deputy arrived, they began to comply and go down to the ground.”

They yelled profanities and physically resisted efforts to detain them, the Sheriff’s Office said. A fourth person, also wearing a mask and robes, was detained separately.

One carried pepper spray, another was wearing a body camera and two had walkie-talkies, the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

They were identified as Jack Lasota, 28, of Berkeley; Emma Borhanian, 28, of Albany; Gwen Danielson, 25, a homeless person; and Alexander Leatham, 24, whose hometown was unknown, authorities said. All except Borhanian remained at the Sonoma County Jail on Monday afternoon on bail of $50,000.

Each faced offenses including felony suspicion of child endangerment, false imprisonment, conspiracy, misdemeanor resisting arrest, wearing a mask while committing a crime and trespassing, authorities said.

About 50 people, including 24 children, were evacuated from the property in a BearCat armored vehicle as a SWAT team and sheriff’s deputies swept the area in search of a gunman. A bomb squad was called in to search each vehicle for possible explosives, and the Henry 1 helicopter helped from the air, using infrared cameras to locate people on the ground.

“We were taking the most precautions possible because this can be really dangerous when you’re dealing with people who are hiding their identities,” Wood said.

Danielson, Lasota and Leatham are scheduled to appear in Sonoma County Superior Court Tuesday. Borhanian has a hearing scheduled for Nov. 25.

A fifth person, who approached the first deputy claiming to be a reporter covering their protest, was released. Authorities determined that person committed no crime, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Deputies said the protest targeted the Center for Applied Rationality, a Berkeley nonprofit founded in 2012 that seeks to develop cognitive tools for “truth-seeking, introspection, self-improvement, and navigating intellectual disagreement,” according to its website.

The group was holding its sixth annual alumni reunion at the campground, located on Bohemian Highway north of Camp Meeker. The popular conference center contains hiking trails, a ropes course, swimming pool, dining hall and meeting rooms.

About a dozen adults with the group were attending the retreat when protesters sealed off both entrances to Westminster Woods, blocking the roads with a small bus, a box truck and a Toyota Prius, the Sheriff’s Office said.

“From what I can tell, these actions seem like aggressive but non-violent protest theatre,” one of the organizers wrote in a Facebook post Saturday morning, vowing that the reunion would resume that afternoon. “We will not allow a precedent to be set that nonsense like this will achieve its disruptive aim.”

Flyers left by protesters asserted the center “no longer aspires to teach the true path of rationality, if it ever did.” They also criticized the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a Berkeley nonprofit that researches artificial intelligence systems.

“MIRI is incentivizing people in accordance with class, which results in a small team, discrimination, and spending most of the aligned effort of donors on Bay Area rent,” one?flyer said.

Timothy Telleen-Lawton, executive director of Center for Applied Rationality, said in a statement Monday that two of the suspects “had been asked not to attend our event as a result of prior erratic behavior towards our staff and others. Unfortunately, they instead took actions which disrupted things both for our guests and everyone else present at the camp.”

The nonprofit returned to Westminster Woods when it reopened Saturday, Telleen-Lawton said.

The suspects refused to divulge their names, leading detectives to use fingerprints to identify them, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Westminster Woods executive director Chris Rhodes on Monday declined an interview about the protest.

“I don’t think that benefits the camp at all,” Rhodes said of the interview. “My concern here is the camp.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets. Reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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