RANSON – Ranson Police Chief William Roper says his office is investigating multiple threats made against Rockwool, the Danish stonewool insulation manufacturer completing site preparation at the former Jefferson Orchards.
Though he said he could not go into detail about active investigations, Roper said Tuesday that the threats involve both written communications and face-to-face contact.
“In this day and age with social media, some people believe they can print, write or send whatever they’d like, and they truly cannot,” he said. “In Ranson, threats made face to face or over social media won’t be tolerated.”
Roper said the cases could “absolutely” result in criminal charges.
The furor over the Rockwool plant – a project announced last November – has set off a firestorm among many in the county and beyond who say they do not want a heavy manufacturer in Jefferson.
“I truly understand people not wanting Rockwool to come here, but there are ways to voice concern in a civil manner,” Roper said. “If you have a disagreement, talk about it. Do not make a threat of violence.”
Even if the police probes ultimately conclude with a decision not to prosecute, he said the department must use its resources to determine what unfolded.
In one case, a Facebook post suggested bombing the plant once it’s up and running in 2020 and then blaming “terrorists” and then a woman’s comments to an employee at the Rockwool open house in August that were interpreted as threatening.
“It’s the person who posted the threat, the people who participated in the discussion, the people who saw it – our resources get tied up in tracking down all of that,” Roper said. “But we will investigate each and every one reported to us. Just because you’re sitting behind a computer does not mean you don’t have to follow the law.”
After Jefferson County Development Authority board chairman Eric Lewis and 11 JCDA board members resigned Friday, some spoke about name-calling, baseless allegations of corruption and other unpleasantness they’d endured since the controversy erupted in July.
One of those who resigned, Harry Wilkins, who had been the JCDA secretary, said he’s seen similar controversies in the county over the year.
“I have lived through Jefferson County residents being violently opposed to the development in Huntfield, only to see their fears unrealized and many opponents of that project now residing there,” he said. “I have seen extreme opposition to table games at the casino out of fears of rampant prostitution and social evils that would follow, yet somehow none of those fears materialized.
“Now we have opposition to Rockwool. The same unfounded fears are causing uncivil responses in this instance. Emotional responses are prevailing over civility and common sense. Progress stops when ignorance prevails.”
Wilkins said his work with the JCDA in 2002, when he was
serving as executive vice president and chief financial officer at American Public University Systems.
“Over the last two decades, the JCDA – led by Eric [Lewis], the board and great staff members – has worked tirelessly and successfully in creating a vibrant, diverse and healthy economy in this county. The JCDA is one of the main reasons Jefferson County doesn’t look like the other 54 counties in the state.
One would think such success would be rewarded with gratitude about the past and trust in the future. Sadly, it has not.”
Wilkins said he’s gotten anonymous hate mail left in his mailbox. “I have been subject to public ridicule, mostly from people who have no history of accomplishment in the county yet believe they have the proper ‘vision of Jefferson County.”
Patsy Noland, who is serving her second six-year term on the Jefferson County Commission, said she’s never seen the kind of personal attacks lobbed at her, the JCDA members and others who are not part of the anti-Rockwool movement.
“I’ve lived in the county all my life and it’s sad to see the direction we’ve taken,” she said. “It’s so divisive. I’ve been called a horrible person, someone unfit for public office, despicable, so much else.
“It’s difficult to hear that, but I know I’ve done my research and what I’ve seen is that Rockwool is not going to be threat to life here at all.”
Noland said she regularly hears from citizens who do not want to be known as “Rockwool advocates” who privately tell her they’re glad she’s not fighting the factory.
“They say they know Rockwool is not going to be bad for the county, that they’re sad and upset to see this hysteria, that we need these jobs in the county. They don’t want to publicly say any of that because they see how those who are opposed to the anti-Rockwool crowd are treated and they don’t want that. They hate to see the way people are being treated.”
Last week’s election results show that there is plenty of support for Rockwool, said Noland, a Democrat.
Though Ralph Lorenzetti, John Doyle and others who oppose the project did win, there was no “anti-Rockwool wave,” Noland said.
She pointed to the Jefferson County Commission race where Robert Barrat, who made Rockwool opposition the centerpiece of his campaign, lost to Jane Tabb, the Republican who had visited the Rockwool plant in Mississippi and initially praised it before later raising questions about the project after citizens began protesting.
Peter Onoszko, the Republican who lost in the race for the other open seat on the JCC, supports the Rockwool project, but had other issues that may have made him a vulnerable candidate.
He was appointed to the JCC in 2016 and had never won an election. Other voters rejected Onoszko for his support for the Confederate plaque on the Jefferson County Courthouse. Photos of him sleeping at JCC meetings also circulated on Facebook in the weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
Sammi Brown, a Rockwool opponent, beat incumbent House of Delegates member and Rockwool supporter Jill Upson but Upson’s ties to a Republican group that created a controversial radio ad prompted the state NAACP to call for her resignation.
Noland also pointed to the House race in the 66th district. “Paul Espinosa didn’t oppose Rockwool and it’s in the district he represents,” she said, “and he won.”
Noland said she hopes the threats and hateful language will stop soon.
“We have to find a way to get back to civil discourse,” she said.