Patricia Wonch Hill holds a message for Sen. Deb Fischer as Fischer met with constituents during a listening session in Lincoln in 2017. Wonch Hill has been ticketed for vandalizing Fischer's office.

The Lincoln City Attorney's office Monday dismissed a vandalism charge against a political activist accused of putting Betsy Riot stickers on Rep. Jeff Fortenberry campaign signs.

But Patricia "Trish" Wonch Hill's trial before Lancaster County Court Judge Joseph Dalton on a similar allegation that she taped a note on Sen. Deb Fischer's campaign office door critical of her support of Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court got underway.

In the end, Dalton, rather than a jury, will decide whether Assistant City Attorney Jessica Kerkhofs proved that Wonch Hill was responsible and that the act damaged property.

Prior to trial, Wonch Hill's attorney, Marc Delman of Omaha, challenged the city ordinance Wonch Hill is accused of violating, 9.24.100, as overly broad.

Under the "destruction of property" ordinance, it is "unlawful for any person without proper authority to intentionally or knowingly cut, mark, mar, deface, break, alter the appearance of, damage, tamper with, convert to such person’s own use, injure or destroy any real or personal property, public or private, of any description in the city, or to intentionally or knowingly place thereon any mark, word, label, symbol, or figure."

Vandalism is a city misdemeanor, with a possible penalty of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Delman said the ordinance includes things such as stickers that easily can be removed with a razor blade or a note left about a missed delivery.

The judge overruled the challenge and allowed the case against Wonch Hill to go forward.

However, at the start of Monday's hearing, Kerkhofs, the prosecutor, asked to dismiss the count over a pair of googly eyes taped to a Fortenberry sign.

Kerkhofs didn't specify why, but Delman seemed to suggest it was over Fortenberry's absence, saying the prosecutor had long enough to get her witnesses to court. The way the judge dismissed it, the count could be refiled later.

Fortenberry didn't specifically address the question of showing up to court, but issued a statement, saying, "I think the point is made. This never was about a silly sign. It's about whether a university educator can vandalize our community with impunity."

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The city prosecutor started her case by calling Allison Bedell, who was Fischer's campaign manager at the office in a strip mall near 70th and O streets on Oct. 21 when a staff member found a note (a three-word message written in black Sharpie) taped to the glass front door with clear packing tape, along with two Betsy Riot stickers.

Bedell said she took a photo and called the nonemergency number for Lincoln police. It took a couple of minutes for the officer to remove it, leaving no residue.

Bedell said it wasn't the first time the office had been vandalized. Staff had put up fake cameras as a deterrent. She said sometimes she would stay late to try to prevent vandalism at the office.

On cross examination, Delman asked if she would have called the police if it had been a Make America Great Again sticker. But the judge sustained the prosecutor's objection that the question was irrelevant.

In February, Lincoln police said they ticketed Wonch Hill after finding fingerprints that matched hers on Betsy Riot stickers on two Fortenberry campaign signs and on Fischer's office door.

Delman has said his client didn't have anything to do with it.

Because of scheduling issues, the trial is set to continue Nov. 1.

Later Monday, Wonch Hill called the dismissal vindication.

"The reason the first charge was dismissed is because Fortenberry is inaccessible. He is inaccessible to constituents, and he was inaccessible to the prosecutor," she said in an email.

Wonch Hill said she was confident she would be found not guilty on the second charge, too.

Wonch Hill, a research assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was arrested last year and charged with misdemeanor destruction of property after a protest at the Virginia home of a National Rifle Association lobbyist.

While an Alexandria Circuit Court judge pronounced her guilty, Hill appealed the verdict and later pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, which resulted in $94 in court fees.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.


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