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Blaze News original: Former New Jersey gym owner arrested for staying open during COVID lockdowns wins big in court
Photo shared with Blaze News. Used with permission.

Blaze News original: Former New Jersey gym owner arrested for staying open during COVID lockdowns wins big in court

New Jersey judge dismisses more than 80 municipal charges related to Ian Smith's shutdown defiance.

In the spring of 2020, Ian Smith became a nationally recognized figure because he and his associates defied local and state demands that they keep their business — Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, New Jersey — closed due to COVID concerns. Smith was eventually arrested, and he and co-owner Frank Trumbetti ultimately lost hundreds of thousands of dollars simply for keeping their gym doors open.

Now four years later, Smith has scored a major legal victory: A New Jersey court has dismissed with prejudice all the municipal charges against him. Blaze News spoke with Smith and others connected with him to find out what this ruling means for him personally and the general fight against government overreach going forward.

'Guided by the facts': When running a business becomes a crime

Smith and Trumbetti initially complied with the shutdown first imposed in New Jersey by Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy in March 2020 and temporarily closed Atilis Gym, which had just opened nine months earlier. The official statement from the governor claimed the shutdown of supposedly non-"essential" businesses like health clubs would be in effect "until further notice," but the general consensus throughout the country was that it would last only two weeks.

"From day one, we’ve made a commitment to be guided by the facts," Murphy said at the time. “We know the virus spreads through person-to person contact, and the best way to prevent further exposure is to limit our public interactions to only the most essential purposes."

Smith characterized the entire process as 'a charade' and an 'eff you' initiated only because he wanted to run a business against the governor's wishes.

By May 2020, the shutdown remained firmly in place, but Smith and Trumbetti decided to reopen Atilis anyway, convinced that people needed a place to exercise to stay healthy and that everyone could determine the risk of COVID for themselves. Smith told Blaze News that they also took several precautionary steps to minimize the chance of COVID transmission at the gym: installing a state-of-the-art ventilation system, providing sanitizer bottles, and inviting people who showed up to take their temperature and participate in contact-tracing measures voluntarily.

Those efforts seemed to pay off. Not a single case of COVID has ever been traced back to Atilis Gym. "Nobody ever got ill," Smith claimed.

Despite documented evidence that Atilis was a safe place to be, Smith and Trumbetti were repeatedly hounded by police who were seemingly eager to enforce the governor's onerous shutdown order. The gym owners were then arrested in July 2020, even as Murphy continued to release thousands of state inmates back onto the streets, ostensibly in the name of COVID safety.

Smith claimed he was personally assessed more than 80 municipal citations for crimes such as violating a governor's order, public nuisance, and disturbing the peace.

The Borough of Bellmawr also cited the owners for operating without a license. Smith and Trumbetti were, in fact, operating without a license, but only because the borough had suspended it that August, a step that John McCann, one of Smith's attorneys, called highly "unusual" because New Jersey municipalities don't have any jurisdiction over health club licenses.

"The state of New Jersey is the exclusive authority for issuing health club licenses," McCann said. "And we believe those charges were improperly brought."

Smith said the borough then forced him to participate in "a lower administrative hearing," which he said was "not a legal proceeding" but did "sort of use court rules." Smith characterized the entire process as "a charade" and an "eff you" initiated only because he wanted to continue running a business against the governor's wishes.

Photo shared with Blaze News. Used with permission.

'Literally had nothing else': Atilis Gym supporters fight back

As daunting as the political and legal pressure was for Smith and others at Atilis Gym during that time, they did have an army of dedicated supporters who kept showing up. That summer, the gym averaged about 800 visitors per day, Smith said.

'We took a trip to Philadelphia, and we just drove over. Can we work out?'

Most of the people who went to Atilis during the shutdown were "regulars," he noted. One such regular was Joe Cohen, a former member of the U.S. military who gained weight and struggled mentally when he retired from the service in 2017. Cohen then met Smith who not only became his personal trainer but a friend, too.

Cohen told Blaze News he worked out with Smith at least once a week during the shutdown. Cohen said he also found relief from some of his issues with PTSD by communing with others at Atilis rather than staying locked in his home, alone with his thoughts. "It was keeping me sane," Cohen said, "because without the gym, I literally had nothing else to do besides walk outside."

"I had a bunch of friends [at Atilis]," Cohen added. "I made a lot of friends."

In addition to familiar faces like Cohen, Atilis also experienced a high volume of what Smith called "travel traffic," mostly because the owners' lockdown defiance received national publicity on popular TV programs like Tucker Carlson's now-defunct Fox News show.

"There would be people be, like, 'We took a trip to Philadelphia, and we just drove over. Can we work out?'" Smith recalled to Blaze News. "It'd be a family. It'd be, like, a husband and wife and their three kids."

Photo shared with Blaze News. Used with permission.

'They grabbed Atilis Gym's money': Hefty fines and legal cases

The 80-some municipal citations were just part of the legal trouble for Smith and Trumbetti. They also faced cases in state, federal, and appeals courts, and the process to adjudicate these cases took years. "We were sort of all over the place," Smith told Blaze News.

'It's, like, now we're friends because we know we're of the same ideology.'

It was also expensive. In addition to legal fees and court costs, Atilis Gym was fined $15,497.76 for each day it was open in defiance of the shutdown order. "That was enough at the time to drain our bank accounts," Smith said.

In all, Smith estimates that the government seized more than $200,000 from the business and personal accounts of Smith and Trumbetti. "Including loss of wages and stuff like that, between the two of us, we're probably [out] close to $1.5 million if not way more," he said.

Attorney McCann gave a similar version of events.

"You had the state coming after them ... [at] a Superior Court with a charge of violating the health commissioner's shutdown order," McCann explained to Blaze News. "In the Superior Court of New Jersey, that's where they grabbed Atilis Gym's money."

To date, none of those seized assets have been returned, the men said.

Fortunately, gym members and supporters began donating generously because they respected the owners' courage in defying government lockdown orders. A GoFundMe account even paid for some of the fines assessed in connection with the Superior Court, though that account was temporarily frozen after opponents mass-reported it as a scam.

Smith and Trumbetti also began raising money in other ways. Perhaps most notably, they started selling T-shirts with the message "Bellmawr for Everybody" emblazoned across the front. The shirts were wildly popular. In just the first week, the owners racked up $100,000 in sales, depleting their entire inventory, Smith claimed. People as far away as Canada, Australia, South Africa, and even Qatar ordered shirts to stand in solidarity with the folks at Atilis Gym.

Despite the skyrocketing sales though, the revenue generated by the shirts did little more than keep the business afloat. "The shirts essentially went to keeping the lights on, keeping the rent paid, and [covering] the legal bills," Smith explained.

The T-shirts did, however, offer one other benefit to the owners and the community: They helped people make connections with others of like mind at a time of severe alienation and isolation. People suddenly felt confident approaching a stranger wearing an Atilis shirt, Smith said. "It's, like, now we're friends because we know we're of the same ideology."

Screenshot of photo shared with Blaze News. Used with permission.

'To push back and bring justice': Resolution to municipal charges

Though the money that came in from shirt sales and GoFundMe donations was helpful, it did not make all of Atilis' legal problems go away, and some of the cases against the gym and its owners lingered in the system for years, even as the cases for others associated with Atilis were brought to a conclusion.

Last summer, attorney John McCann helped resolve the cases of eight Atilis gym-goers who were cited for working out at the gym or participating in its events during the shutdown. Most entered plea deals resulting in fines of about $70, Smith's attorney John McCann recalled.

Yet, the municipal charges against Smith and Trumbetti remained. So, McCann began pestering the court and the local prosecutor to bring these charges toward a resolution.

'What the state did here, it makes no sense.'

Earlier this year, McCann filed a motion to dismiss all 80-some municipal charges. Among other things, McCann argued that Bellmawr lacked the authority to impose those charges or to suspend the gym license since the state regulates health clubs.

It seems he was persuasive. On April 24, 2024, nearly four years to the day after Smith and Trumbetti took the bold step to reopen their business despite government orders, Municipal Court Judge Carol Fabietti ruled to dismiss all the shutdown-related municipal charges against them with prejudice, which means the state can never refile those charges again.

In an X post celebrating the development, Smith did not hold back. "This victory opens the battlefield again and gives us options to continue to push back and bring justice to the treasonous actions of Phil Murphy and his lackies (sic)," Smith wrote.

"S*ck my d*** Phil Murphy," he added in closing.

John McCann, though more diplomatic in his language, likewise expressed relief at the decision. "The state held these charges over these guys' heads for four years," McCann told Blaze News. "What the state did here, it makes no sense."

But now, finally, the "fight is in [the] rearview mirror," McCann added.

Neither Gov. Murphy nor the Borough of Bellmawr responded to Blaze News' request for comment.

'Nobody is coming to save you': Hope in the wake of state persecution

Indeed, Judge Fabietti's ruling has given many Atilis affiliates a reason to rejoice.

'It’s amazing how we are four years into understanding the crimes behind COVID fascism, yet not a single person has been punished.'

McCann, who has been practicing law for decades, believes the apparent exoneration of Smith and Trumbetti represents a ray of hope in a sometimes frustrating legal system. "We got a judge who was willing to call the balls and strikes. She didn't put her finger on the scale," he noted to Blaze News.

Blaze Media pundits Steve Deace and Daniel Horowitz are also thrilled that there has been a measure of justice for at least some of those persecuted in connection with the "wicked edicts" of the COVID "scamdemic."

"It is time to let justice roll on like a river," Deace said in a statement. "I hope this is the vanguard of a trend."

Deace added that he would also like to see further legal retribution against the persecutors. "What went on during COVID is among the darkest times in our history, and brought Western Civilization to the brink," his statement continued. "Everything bad happening in America right now either originated with the scamdemic, or was exacerbated by it. Which is also why we need Nuremberg-like tribunals with Nuremberg-like punishments."

Horowitz made a similar call for holding leaders to account for their acts of "COVID fascism."

"While it’s refreshing to finally see people acquitted of the crime of merely living their lives, it’s those who made these wicked edicts who deserve to be prosecuted," Horowitz said. "It’s amazing how we are four years into understanding the crimes behind COVID fascism, yet not a single person has been punished. The time has come for state legislators to permanently enshrine a human right to bodily autonomy and to clarify that states do not have the police power to force vaccinate, mask, or shut down businesses and churches. If liberals can change state constitutions to promote baby murder under the guise of health care freedom, then most certainly we can preserve bodily autonomy and property rights under the banner of health care freedom."

Smith has since sold his share of Atilis Gym and relocated to Florida, where he now works with a telehealth business. A one-time Ron Paul supporter, he also expressed an interest in joining the political fray despite an unsuccessful congressional bid a couple years ago.

"I'm involved just helping out a lot of local campaigns here," Smith explained to Blaze News. "I live outside of Jacksonville. So, we have a very nice community here, and things are good here, but you kind of always have to be on guard and watch the local officials and the state ones. So, that's where I'm a lot more interested right now."

As a dedicated patriot who fought the system and won, Smith also continues to promote the traditional American value of self-reliance and self-determination. In his X post about the judge's ruling, Smith gave some empowering advice for freedom-lovers everywhere, no matter their circumstances: "Nobody is coming to save you, save yourself. Spit on your hands and hoist the black flag. No quarter."

Photo shared with Blaze News. Used with permission.

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Cortney Weil

Cortney Weil

Sr. Editor, News

Cortney Weil is a senior editor for Blaze News.
@cortneyweil →