Farmer sentenced for tractor standoff

/ Source: The Associated Press

The tobacco farmer dubbed “Tractor Man” was sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison by a judge who told him he terrified people when he claimed to have explosives and brought traffic in the nation’s capital to a standstill.

“The city regarded you as a one-man weapon of mass destruction,” said U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, before ordering Dwight Ware Watson to serve two concurrent 72 month terms in federal prison. The judge also gave Watson 15 months credit for time spent in custody since his arrest.

Watson, 51, of Whitakers, N.C., was handed the prison time for his conviction on charges of making a false threat to detonate explosives, and destruction of federal property.

On March 17, 2003, Watson had a legal permit to pass out literature describing the plight of the nation’s tobacco farmers. But as he approached the Washington Monument, he veered into a shallow pond at Constitution Gardens, just west of the monument, and began a 47 hour standoff with police.

Judge says residents terrified
He claimed to have “organophosphate bombs” in a metal box mounted on a trailer he towed onto the National Mall. Police negotiators interpreted that as a threat against people and nearby monuments. They closed streets and restricted traffic in the area over four consecutive rush hours — backing up traffic downtown and into northern Virginia.

“You did terrify the people of this city,” said Jackson, characterizing Watson’s actions as “an illegitimate attempt to justify a legitimate grievance.”

The incident began on the same day that the Department of Homeland Security elevated the terror threat level to orange — three days before the start of the U.S. led war in Iraq.

“The monuments, in particular, were at risk and vulnerable to attack,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay I. Bratt, who prosecuted the case. The attack on the Pentagon and the anthrax letters which killed two postal workers in 2001, and the sniper attacks the following year, have left residents of the national capital region extremely sensitive to such threats, Bratt said.

According to court records, the standoff cost federal and local authorities $2 million, primarily in police overtime. Thousands of commuters were inconvenienced, and access to several major government buildings was restricted for three days.

An apology
My actions were totally uncalled for, totally unacceptable and totally wrong,” said Watson, who apologized repeatedly during his sentencing. The down-and-out tobacco farmer blamed his problems on changes in state and federal tobacco policy, and the $200 billion multistate tobacco settlement, both of which have left many tobacco farmers financially destitute.

“In Dwight’s mind, the tobacco companies and the farmers are being held hostage,” said George Watson Jr., 58, of Meban, N.C., who visited his brother four times during a recent 45 day mental evaluation at a federal corrections hospital in Butner, N.C.

For more than a century, Watson’s family grew tobacco on as much as 1,500 acres of North Carolina farmland. At the time of his arrest, Watson was farming just a few dozen acres and was threatened with foreclosure.