A week after FBI agents ransacked her bedroom in August 2017, Ruby Montoya sat before a videographer. Just steps away from the rooms where FBI agents had hauled dozens of bags and boxes from the Des Moines Catholic Worker House where Montoya lived, the 27-year-old addressed his questions with a preternatural calm.

“You really put your life on the line. How do you feel about the whole ordeal?” he asked.  

“I don’t have kids,” she explained. “I don’t have any obligations like that, and I saw a necessity to act in a different way that I believe is more effective.” 

That “way” entailed a series of arsons that Montoya and her friend and Catholic Worker housemate, Jessica Reznicek, committed along the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline a few months earlier. Beginning on election night 2016 and continuing intermittently through early May 2017, the women ignited oil-soaked rags to try to destroy heavy machinery. They also lit acetylene torches to burn holes in the 1,172-mile-long pipeline, which at the time was under construction but nearing completion. 

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Though the women were never apprehended by law enforcement while taking these actions, they failed to stop completion of the pipeline. So, that July, Montoya and Reznicek called a press conference and took credit for the arsons, even though they knew doing so would expose them to felony prosecution. “If we have any regrets,  it is that we did not act enough,” the women said in their joint statement, which was intended to steer attention toward the threat the pipeline posed to drinking water sources along its route from North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. (This pipeline has leaked at least five times since it began carrying oil in May 2017.)

“We anticipated the repercussions of every action that we took,” Montoya told another interviewer that same summer. “We were fully prepared going into it, in that mental mind game of, ‘I’m driving myself to jail right now.’”

Despite expressing their willingness to surrender themselves to authorities in the weeks following their credit claim and the FBI raid that followed, law enforcement officials did not bring charges for more than two years. By early September 2019, the women were a thousand miles apart. Reznicek lived with nuns and attended daily mass at the St. Scholastica monastery in Duluth, Minnesota. Montoya taught grades 3 and 4 at the Running River Waldorf School in Sedona, Arizona.

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A photo of two women in front of a camera crew reading off of a notecard
Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, right, stand in front of the Iowa Utilities Board in July 2017 and read statements taking credit for acts of sabotage against the Dakota Access pipeline. Courtesy of Des Moines Catholic Worker Archives

By that month’s end, however, a grand jury had indicted both women on nine identical federal felonies. Each faced a maximum 110 years in jail — one of the most aggressive prosecutions of environmental activists in U.S. history. After accepting a plea deal, Reznicek was sentenced to eight years in prison last year. Half of those years are the result of a controversial  terrorism enhancement that the government applied to her sentence.

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This week, more than five years after admitting to her crimes, Montoya was sentenced to six years in federal prison. Her sentenced was lengthened by a terrorism enhancement similar to Reznicek’s. After Montoya was sentenced, she was immediately handcuffed by U.S. Marshals and escorted out of the federal courtroom in Des Moines, Iowa.*

Both women initially committed to participating in a joint defense agreement engineered by Lauren Reagan, a lawyer with the Civil Liberties Defense Center, an Oregon-based nonprofit that has represented high-profile eco-activists, including members of the Earth Liberation Front. In early 2021, Reznicek and Montoya accepted identical deals to plead guilty to one charge only: conspiring to damage an energy facility. In exchange, the federal government agreed to drop its additional eight charges.

In the days before and after Reznicek’s June 2021 sentencing, however, Montoya endeavored to exit the joint defense agreement and change her plea to not guilty. For over a year, Montoya has tried to proceed with a trial. The decision appears to be, in part, motivated by the terrorism enhancement applied to Reznicek’s sentence. The women repeatedly described their actions as peaceful and nonviolent; nobody was harmed as a result of their actions, in part because they targeted sites at night, when they were empty.

The enhancement charge surprised Bill Quigley, a retired law professor at Loyola University who served as part of Reznicek’s defense. “I never ever believed that Jessica’s actions constituted terrorism, and I never believed that any judge would think that her actions did,” he told the Real News Network.

In June, Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger denied Montoya’s motion to retract her guilty plea. Nevertheless, the documents produced to support her motion have complicated the public narrative around the women’s actions. Had Montoya’s retraction been accepted, according to at least five affidavits entered into the court record over this past year by Montoya’s new lawyer, Daphne Silverman, the court would likely have heard arguments about the role unaddressed childhood trauma played in exacerbating Montoya’s climate anxiety. Additional documents filed by Silverman claimed that this abuse also made Montoya susceptible to the coercive tactics of government agents or private security officers hired by the pipeline company — operatives who the documents suggest pushed the women to resort to arson, going as far as to teach them how to operate welding torches.

Though Montoya had previously stated under oath that she did not suffer from any mental health condition and that she had been provided with satisfactory legal advice and counsel, Montoya’s legal team successfully argued for a postponement of her sentencing the month after Reznicek was sentenced, in part by arguing that the full extent of Montoya’s traumatic history had not previously been disclosed to her legal team.

Montoya’s sentencing was postponed for two months. However, five days before she was to be sentenced, Montoya abruptly dropped her legal team and secured representation from Silveman, a Texas-based lawyer who had represented other Dakota Access Pipeline protestors. 

Prior to this representation, Montoya consistently appeared as someone who knowingly sacrificed her freedom, and who deliberately chose to take illegal actions in the hope of preventing water contamination by stopping oil from flowing through the pipeline.

From late August 2021 onward, however, Silverman filed documents that underscored her client’s vulnerability. “Ms. Motoya is exceptionally bright. She presents with calm composure,” Silverman wrote in her 19-page motion to withdraw Montoya’s guilty plea in August of last year. But, Silverman warned, “bright and a facade of composure doesn’t overcome trauma.”

Silverman used a series of letters supplied by Montoya’s family and friends to argue that, owing to severe and complex childhood abuse and neglect, Montoya was unduly influenced by the Des Moines Catholic Workers. In other words, Montoya did not participate in the actions with the same frame of mind as Reznicek, a long-time activist, and therefore deserved a different judicial process. 

Montoya’s new defense highlighted her lack of a criminal record, in contrast to Reznicek’s long list of protest-related arrests. Gabriel Montoya, Ruby’s older half-brother, pointed out that his half-sister had “never showed any real interest in politics or civil rights as a teenager or college student, which would seem off for a purported radical.”

“What turned a relatively apolitical former kindergarten teacher into a dedicated environmental activist?” he asked in his affidavit.

 “The natural trauma response to protect,” Silverman argued, “made it impossible to choose her own interests over those of her co-defendant, Ms. Reznicek.”

These letters — written and supplied by Montoya, her two stepmothers, a former employer, and her housemate-turned-counselor — say that Montoya was sexually assualted by a nonfamily member as a toddler and severely neglected and physically harmed throughout her childhood in Phoenix, Arizona. They claim that this foundational trauma made her vulnerable to manipulation as an adult, and that she unwittingly adopted the nihilistic mindset of those who had wronged her as a child when she turned to arson as an adult.

In a September letter to the judge, Montoya speculated that the court viewed her as a “haughty ruffian … spinning out, lost, terrified, and alone in the world after angering a multi-billion dollar corporation in their own flagrant and consistent disregard for the law.” Montoya argued that her actions against the pipeline were an inevitable reenactment of her unrealized and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My previous lawyers would not hear me” she told the judge, “when I would attempt to articulate that I was ‘not the same’ as [Reznicek], that I ‘did not know or understand’ what I was doing at the time.”

A close-up of Ruby Montoya (a woman with long brown hair) looking somber while sitting inside a vehicle
Montoya sits in a police car after being arrested at the Iowa Utilities Board in 2017. Courtesy of Des Moines Catholic Worker Archives

Another reason Montoya withdrew her guilty plea was that, according to Silverman, her previous legal team overlooked legitimate defense strategies. Foremost among them were allegations that government agents or private pipeline security operatives who were pretending to be activists exploited Montoya’s growing exasperation and sadness as the multiple protests she participated in failed to jeopardize completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

The infiltration of the Indigenous-led Dakota Access Pipeline protests by undercover private security agents and FBI informants has been well-documented by The Intercept and other news outlets, though no reports have claimed that Reznicek or Montoya themselves personally encountered undercover infiltrators. However, in a motion to compel the discovery of additional evidence, which was granted by the court, Silverman asserts that someone “incited Reznicek and Montoya to use fire and trained them on the welding torch, a person we believe is a government operative.”

According to the motion, a private intelligence officer “embedded in the places where [Montoya and Reznicek] stayed such as camps and in the Catholic Worker House, as well as the Standing Rock Camp … and that this officer or officers [were] clearly participant(s) in conversations that led to/resulted in the charged conduct, that is, specifically including but not limited to evidence of Ruby Montoya’s intent and the coercion imposed on Montoya.”

In a sworn statement she provided in support of these assertions, Montoya claims that “at least three people” manipulated her in this manner, “unlawfully pressuring me to engage in these illegal acts.” The first approached her in the fall of 2016, showing her pictures of pipeline valve sites that were sabotaged and claiming that sabotage of construction sites was a regular occurrence.

Montoya met the second alleged operative late that November in the kitchen of a protest camp in North Dakota. After this individual argued that traditional protest actions weren’t working, Montoya says they told her, “Sabotage always works.” They suggested using thermite to damage the project’s steel pipes. As a blizzard blew in later that day, according to Montoya’s affidavit, that person handed Montoya a recipe for thermite. The person later offered Montoya a ride to Iowa, during which she says she noticed that they paid for accommodations with a government-issued credit card.

After Montoya reunited with Reznicek in Iowa, the women discussed these ideas. They ultimately drove to the individual’s apartment in Colorado, where Montoya says she observed “army training manuals on how to destroy infrastructure.” The individual and their roommate subsequently demonstrated how to use thermite and an oxy-acetylene welder, telling the women,“that’s what will burn through steel.”

This narrative contradicts or at least complicates the explanation Montoya and Reznicek gave in the summer of 2017, when they claimed they acted alone in response to a spiritual calling, inspired by activist traditions of engaging in symbolic property destruction. Montoya and Silverman, her lawyer, declined Grist’s requests for interviews.

Despite this barrage of filings by Montoya’s defense, there was ultimately no official courtroom discussion about Montoya’s life circumstances, nor that she had coercive legal representation. Furthermore, claims that her actions were influenced by government or private security agents will not be argued. In June, Judge Ebinger ruled that Montoya “failed to show a fair and just reason to allow her to withdraw her guilty plea.”

Perhaps the one thing that has remained consistent throughout Montoya’s legal odyssey is her claim that her actions have been grounded in concern for the well-being of children. Describing in July 2017 why she left her job to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, she publicly claimed that she and Reznicek “acted for our children” because “the world that they are inheriting is unfit.” In a subsequent interview she said, close to tears, “I was a preschool teacher and I love kids. We’re not leaving them anything.”

Montoya’s 2021 letter to Judge Ebinger expresses the same concern: “I am of the millennial generation, the most educated, most underpaid, and most in-debt generation that this country has produced.” During Montoya’s three decades of life, she wrote, “‘Armageddon’ has always been on the newsreels … from global warming to climate change to climate chaos to soon climate catastrophe. We have finally hit a ‘code red’ but these alarm bells had been incessantly ringing all my life. Many of my generational peers have refused to have children, and it is not because we are selfish but prudent given the state of our world.”

If Montoya now regrets her means — claiming that the traumatic violence of her childhood led her to engage in destructive acts as an adult — Montoya’s ends remain the same: “Now, as an adult, I wished to act in a way that was protecting all children, from the violence perpetuated on our very existence — we all need clean, drinkable water to grow into healthy, well-adjusted members of society.”

*Update: This article has been updated to include the results of Ruby Montoya’s sentencing, which occurred on September 22, 2022.