August 20, 2004

Woman pleads not guilty in trespassing case

By MICHAEL FISHER / The Press-Enterprise

Connie Connelly, who faces eviction from her home of 30 years in the Mojave National Preserve, appeared in a Barstow courtroom Friday where she pleaded not guilty to a charge of trespassing on federal land.

Part-time federal magistrate Stephen Miller scheduled a hearing in the case for October, after which a trial date could be set, Connelly said. If convicted, the 44-year-old woman could face up to six months in jail and a fine.

"Even though I've lived there all my life, I'm a trespasser," said Connelly, whose family moved to the rustic six-room home in 1966. The house, a converted general store, sits on five brushy acres near the northeastern edge of the preserve, about 23 miles from Primm, Nev.

Connelly, who cannot afford an attorney, was assigned a deputy federal public defender during Friday's hearing, held in a courtroom at a Barstow-area Marine Corps base.

Officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment Friday.

A spokesman for the prosecutor's office said earlier this week that Connelly is living on the property illegally. Parks officials and prosecutors contend that Connelly's parents leased the land, now within the 1.6 million-acre preserve, but the lease expired when her mother died last year. Connelly's name is not on the lease.

Connelly and her supporters argue that her father, Don, bought the former Aztec Mining Company store in 1966, which he reopened as the Ivanpah General Store.

In 1976, the family moved about 100 miles to Newberry Springs when Connelly's mother became ill, but they returned about eight years later.

Although parks officials say Connelly does not own the property, they have offered to swap her home and its surrounding five acres for more than seven acres of desert land in Cadiz, about 75 miles south, she said.

But Connelly does not want to move from her home, which she shares with 11 dogs, a cat and a horse. She questions the quality of the well at the Cadiz site and says summers are milder at her current home, which sits at a higher elevation than the land being offered to her.