MALONE — About 70 Akwesasne Mohawks filled the Franklin County Courtroom Friday for the arraignment of a Hogansburg man accused of taking land from its deeded owner.
And the case could be the catalyst for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe to have its land-claims case heard before the United States Supreme Court.
William Roger Jock (Kanaratiio), 50, was indicted by a grand jury for second-degree grand larceny for allegedly depriving deeded owner, Horst Wuersching, of a 240-acre parcel on Route 11 near the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino.
Jock pleaded not guilty before Judge Robert G. Main Jr. through his attorneys, Brian Barrett of Lake Placid and Lorraine White of Akwesasne, a former chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council.
The grand-larceny charge refers to the theft of land with a value above $50,000.
According to the County Treasurer's Office, the parcel is assessed at $16,800. But there has not been a land revaluation in the Town of Bombay for more than 50 years, leaving the equalization rate there at 3.12 percent.
The true market value of the land at 100 percent equalization is $538,462.
If convicted, the maximum, indeterminate sentence for grand larceny is five to 15 years in state prison.
Jock was released under the supervision of the Probation Department, and an order of protection was issued forbidding him from going back to the disputed land.
The spectators, many of whom were dressed in traditional clothing and elaborate feather headdresses, broke into loud applause when Jock, a member of the traditional Mohawk group known as the Men's Council, was escorted into the courtroom, flanked by three armed officers.
Seven more security personnel were scattered about the room, including Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill.
Jock, who was handcuffed and shackled about the waist, smiled and waved the best he could to people in the gallery, who also included former members of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council.
He answered Main's questions in one-word responses but did not speak otherwise.
The incident allegedly occurred on March 2, 2009, when Jock allegedly took over the 240 acres plus another 800 acres then reportedly cut down a large group of trees.
The parcel now has a dirt path several hundred yards long, and a trailer that houses a small cigarette shop has been placed there, as well as a large Iroquois flag.
According to documents filed with the County Clerk's Office dating back to 1873, there have been seven property owners on the land in question.
But the Mohawks say the Treaty of 1796 between the federal government, New York state and the Mohawks established the boundaries of the St. Regis Mohawk reservation, and the boundaries have never been legally altered since.
They contend that land set aside in the treaty for Mohawks still belongs to the Mohawk people, whether it has been sold or deeded to anyone else since the agreement was ratified.
But at least two other treaties the State Legislature ratified since then have allowed non-Indians to buy up parcels on the designated reservation.
That has led to the long-standing and continuing federal land-claims lawsuit the Mohawks brought against New York state, Franklin and St. Lawrence counties and the municipalities established since then — the towns of Massena, Brasher, Fort Covington and Bombay.
"This could be a blessing in disguise," White said about her client's indictment and arrest.
"This is about our aboriginal teachings; that we are the Mohawk people, the caretakers of our mother, the Earth," she said. "That is the real issue.
"The court and the District Attorney of Franklin County are using the courts to criminalize one individual for theft. But Roger Jock is not the issue.
"Roger puts it best: 'We're not claiming anything; we're reclaiming what is ours,'" White said. "Legal title remains with the aboriginal people of the Mohawk lands. It was never legally transferred from the Mohawk people."
'TIME HAS COME'
White said exploring the legal case would bring "a resurgence of our beliefs, our rights and our laws," adding that the region's local, state and federal elected officials now "have the opportunity to understand" the issues involved in the boundary claim that was brought against the U.S. government in August 2009.
"It is time has come for us to be heard," the attorney said.
Champagne said he agrees with White's assessment that this case could have a broader reach, but his job is to prosecute a crime he says is occurring in front of him.
"This case has political ramifications, and someone has to get the ball rolling," he said. "But being a constitutionally elected official, my belief was that a crime was being committed in my presence. I brought the charges to the grand jury, and things were set in motion."
The DA said others could face arrest.
"When we looked at the evidence and testimony, the question became who was in charge at a particular time or calling the shots, so to speak," Champagne said. "We'll start with Mr. Jock, and we'll see where we go from there."
Malone attorney Brian Stewart, who represents Wuersching locally, said his client was aware of the arraignment but couldn't be there because he is elderly.
He agrees that land claims are the crux of the issue in Jock's arrest, but that occurs "when people don't talk to each other in good faith, and people try to get a resolution of the issue by force, which is, unfortunately, what happened."
TRIBAL COUNCIL SPEAKS
The Tribal Council issued a statement late Friday saying it is using alternate means to settle the land-claim issue and does not agree with occupying deeded land.
"While the Mohawk tribe understands and shares in the frustration of community members in relation to the land claim and the infringement of our collective rights, we cannot and do not condone the actions (allegedly) taken by Roger Jock and others in occupying land that does not belong to him," the release states.
"The Mohawk tribe has, for over 20 years, been involved in litigation to address the illegal taking of our lands by New York state. We have consistently repurchased these lands and exercised jurisdiction over them, as they return to our ownership.
"We do not believe that the tactics (allegedly) used by Mr. Jock and others to seize this property are in the best interests of the community or of our regaining permanent ownership of these lands," the tribal chiefs stated.
Email Denise A. Raymo at: draymoWpressrepublican.com