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Two Women Charged For Allegedly Throwing Water Bottles At Police During Protest

Gene J. Puskar
A protest over police violence in East Liberty Monday, June 1, ended with police shooting rubber bullets, bean bags, and tear gas at demonstrators, who officers say, threw rocks and bottles at them first.

Pittsburgh police charged Natalie Lewis, 24, and Abigail Rubio, 24, Thursday for allegedly throwing water bottles at police from a nearby apartment during a protest in East Liberty Monday. Documents say that Rubio, who filmed police and protesters from her balcony and later told reporters about a subsequent encounter with police a day after the protest, was arrested Friday.

Neither of the women could be reached for comment Friday afternoon. But in an interview with WESA prior to her arrest, Rubio said that detectives came to her Centre Avenue apartment the day after the protest, and told her that they had video footage that shows her hurling objects at officers.

“And I said, ‘Well, that is impossible because I was not throwing anything. I was out on my balcony recording with my friend,’” Rubio told WESA. Rubio said the detectives showed her video stills of her on the balcony of her Essex House apartment. “And it was pictures of me and my friend holding our phones, recording.”

A police affidavit filed with the charges quotes Rubio making the same denial. The affidavit does not say the video evidence shows bottles being thrown, or offer other evidence except police eyewitness accounts.  

But police accuse Rubio and Lewis of committing one count each of propulsion of missiles and disorderly conduct, both misdemeanors. The suspects each also face a felony riot charge, and are accused of taunting or striking a police dog. That “police animal” charge is a felony, though it has been marked “invalid” in both Lewis’ and Rubio’s individual court files.

According to the affidavit filed by one of the two Pittsburgh police detectives who investigated the case, Michael Coleman, the investigation began after an undercover agent with the state Attorney General’s office “observed two females on a fourth-floor balcony of the Essex House apartments.”

As police were facing off with roughly 200 people on Centre Avenue, the affidavit says, police saw “the blonde female threw a water bottle directly at the van containing six [state police], while a “dark-haired female” threw a water bottle at an officer with his K-9 partner. The bottles landed closely enough that the officers' “attention was diverted from the crowd in front of them, and they initially had to take cover behind the [state police] van fearing additional projectiles.”

The affidavit asserts that Pittsburgh Police Commander Jason Lando, who ordered the investigation, “was … able to take a photograph and video of the females located on the balcony.”

The affidavit says Coleman and another detective went to Essex House June 2, and were able to identify which balcony the women had been standing on. When they visited the corresponding apartment, the door was opened by Rubio, who Coleman says the detectives were able to “immediately” identify “as the same blonde female in the photographs and video taken by Commander Lando.”

Rubio “initially stated that it wasn’t her and she didn’t know anything about it.” She asked to see evidence to the contrary, police showed her “a photography of her on the balcony and she responded that it wasn’t a picture of her ‘throwing anything.’”

Rubio offered a similar account of that exchange in her interview with WESA. And in fact, nothing in the affidavit suggests that the picture showed her doing anything incriminating. 

The affidavit says that Rubio refused to identify the other woman on the balcony with her, but police were able to identify Lewis after reading a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story in which Rubio identified her as a friend who'd been on the balcony with her. The detective pulled a driver’s license photo for Lewis, and police confirmed it was the woman they saw.

Earlier this week, Rubio told WESA she filed a complaint with the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board over her encounter with detectives and also hired a criminal defense attorney following the detectives’ visit to her apartment. At the time, she said she didn’t think the officers would pursue the matter further, but that they “just … wanted to startle [her] and make [her] not say the things or show the videos that [she] had [of police].”

Rubio said when the detectives eventually left, she felt “really anxious … for a little bit. And then that slowly turned into like anger and drive to really blast this story and show all [the footage] I have. … I’m not going to be intimidated into silence by this."

Separately, Pittsburgh police announced that they will partner with state and federal authorities to investigate protesters who are “intent on causing destruction.” In a statement, the city noted that since Saturday, most local demonstrations over police brutality have been peaceful. But the statement added that the multi-agency task force had “launched investigations into individuals within that small group – people who have attacked journalists, looted business, caused property damage and committed other crimes such as arson.”

The statement said law enforcement will continue to monitor protests, make necessary road closures, and intervene “only when violence occurs and a gathering has been deemed unlawful. At that time, orders to disperse are issued.”

*This story was updated at 4:37 p.m., Friday, June 5, 2020, to include details on the task force charged with investigating and arresting those accused of causing destruction around protests.

Liz Reid and Chris Potter contributed to this report.