Chelsea Gerlach's hair is long in her 1993 South Eugene High School sophomore yearbook photo, and she's got a wholesome smile. But in the back pages, in a picture that must have been taken months later, Gerlach's dark hair is cropped short and she is scowling. Her black T-shirt declares in white lettering: RESIST.
Stanislas Meyerhoff is standing next to her in the second photo. A blazer obscures the slogan on his T-shirt.
Gerlach is quoted in a short article about the school's environmental groups: "Our generation was born to save the earth," she says. "If we wait until we're out of school it might be too late."
The city of Eugene, Oregon, has a homely, rugged charm. National media types portray an underground seething with anarchists, an image owed partly to Eugene-based radicals having claimed credit for mayhem at the 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle. But in reality, Eugene—being geographically remote and anchored by the University of Oregon—is merely an ideal place to be an idealist.
But South Eugene High, just a half-mile from the UO campus, apparently wasn't a fertile breeding ground for ecopolitical activism. In the yearbook of Gerlach's senior year, she provides the solitary eulogy for the short-lived Student Coalition for Action and Peace Education (SCAPE): "I was eventually the only one in the club, and I couldn't find anyone else who was interested."
Not that she was a loner. Gerlach and Meyerhoff maintained a shared interest in environmental issues long after high school. The pair is accused of playing roles in at least six cases of arson—including the one that claimed the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture.
On January 20, FBI Director Robert Mueller held a press conference to announce the indictment of 11 "ecoterrorists." He said that Gerlach, Meyerhoff, and the others charged represent "extremist movements whose criminal acts threaten the American economy and American lives."
Are Gerlach and Meyerhoff terrorists? Usually, that term defines radicals who randomly kill innocent people as a way to make their point. No lives were lost and no injuries occurred in any of the 17 crimes named in the "ecoterrorism" indictment, nor did their cumulative effect create a ripple in the national economy. And while the two groups with which the accused are allegedly aligned—Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF)—have a history of violence, they have no history of harming people.
Still, "terrorism" is the label being used by the FBI and federal prosecutors, and they intend to seek the maximum penalty: life imprisonment. In his press conference, Mueller said he hopes the penalties will have a "dramatic impact on persons who contemplate these crimes."
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No one is sworn into membership to the ELF or ALF, but there is an initiation: One becomes a member by executing a "direct action" according to the principles outlined on the ALF website (www.animalliberationfront.com). A direct action is infliction of damage on anything that exploits nature for profit or science.
It's assumed that the action will be illegal—the writings imply that to qualify for membership one must risk freedom for the sake of nature. But the rules also admonish members to take "all necessary precautions against hurting any animal, human, and nonhuman," reminding them that for all the thousands of actions over 30 years, there have been no human casualties.
The writings stress that "you should always work with people who you know well and have for a long period of time." The guide recommends that one's ELF/ALF "cell" consist of only two to five people. Bigger groups make easier targets for law enforcement.
Members go to great lengths to disguise their identities. In the case of the Northwest-based cell, Eugene Police Detective Greg Harvey testified that members gave one another code names. (Gerlach was allegedly "Country Girl" and Meyerhoff "Country Boy.") According to Harvey, the cell wrote a codebook, then distributed it to members. Messages appeared on a website accessible only to cell members. Members were given specially designed encryption software to decode the messages—and could only do that with the codebook.
Though ELF forbids physical violence toward humans, Detective Harvey testified that within this particular group, it was understood that ELF's nonviolence policy would not protect a member who betrayed the cell's secrets.
Such spy-novel security measures might seem excessive or paranoid—except that in this case federal agents really were prying into the cell's activities.
To the extent that the recent arrests represents the cell's failure, it would seem that the breakdown can be blamed on its members' violating two ELF rules: They let their cell get too big, and the cell had members who couldn't be trusted.
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The criminal indictments and affidavits by FBI agents contain references to recordings made by an informant who participated in a number of ELF actions, then turned against his cohorts. Gerlach's attorney, Craig Weinerman, says the informant's name is Jacob Ferguson.
"I'm not sure Ferguson was ever arrested," Weinerman told me. "I believe he started cooperating with the government last year. That included wearing wires and getting people to make admissions on tape that these crimes took place. Based on that, they indicted some people, including my client."
Thus far, prosecutors have not confirmed Ferguson's role. Nor have they disclosed any incentives offered to their star witness.
Ferguson isn't the only member of the cell now cooperating with prosecutors. After the roundup of six arson suspects on December 7, federal agents secured the testimony of one who allegedly belonged to the cell: Stanislas Meyerhoff, Gerlach's high-school friend.
At the time of his arrest, Meyerhoff had been studying at Piedmont Community College in Virginia. At a court appearance Meyerhoff said, "I pray that the court is merciful with those who have renounced these crimes and have moved on to be students and professionals." (Last week, another indicted man, Kevin Tubbs, agreed to testify for the prosecution.)
These betrayals elicited a furious reaction from the environmental-activist community, which meets online at the Portland Independent Media Center (portland.indymedia.org). Someone anonymously posted photographs of Meyerhoff and Ferguson, with a warning that Ferguson "...is still out and about and probably still wired. He has several tattoos including one of a pentagram on his head."
A poster who identified herself as "Jacob Fergusons (sic) heartbroken sister" left a message on the site, pleading with the community not to seek vengeance: "No matter how fucked up his decisions have been, he has a family that love him and know him as a father, a brother, a son."
Gerlach's family is just as shocked. "We have never heard her called 'Country Girl' and neither do we know where that nickname would come from," said Shasta Kearns Moore, Gerlach's sister, in a prepared statement. "Though she is an environmental activist, she has always believed in peaceful means and I can't imagine any reason she would be involved in this."
Gerlach had recently been working as a DJ in Portland, spinning house music under the stage name "Jade."
One friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he'd known her through the music scene. "She was really fun—wasn't didactic. She didn't wear her politics on her sleeve. She always seemed happy-go-lucky."
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Thus far, the government's filings in the case are short on specifics. The evidence agents bought to the grand jury relied almost entirely on the testimony and recordings of an unnamed informant—presumably Jacob Ferguson.
The indictment reaches back to October 28, 1996, when alleged ELF member Josephine Sunshine Overaker and the informant allegedly torched a vehicle belonging to the U.S. Forest Service's Detroit Ranger Station in Marion County, Oregon. They also attempted to burn down the station itself. Once they determined the building was empty, they placed a homemade bomb on the roof, but it failed to ignite. Two days later, they allegedly repeated the deed at the Oakridge Ranger Station in the Willamette National Forest. This time the empty building burned. No one was hurt.
The informant told agents that in July 1997 he helped another Oregon-based activist, Jonathon Paul, mix soap and petroleum products into an explosive cocktail. Assisted by two others, they allegedly arrived at the meatpacking plant, Cavel West, Inc., dressed in black masks, clothes, and gloves. A hole was drilled into the building, and the fuel was poured through it, then ignited. Again, they took measures to make sure the building was unoccupied before they set it ablaze. No one was hurt.
Two coordinated arsons in Olympia went less smoothly. One ELF cell allegedly planned to firebomb a building belonging to National Wildlife Research because they believed that the laboratory was conducting experiments on animals. The second cell allegedly targeted the Animal Damage Control Facility, which killed animals who were doing damage to trees.
But on the way to Olympia, the first cell stopped in Tacoma at a HomeBase hardware store, where a female member of the cell tried to shoplift sponges and a Mag-Lite. She was caught and arrested. With the help of another alleged ELF member, a man who allegedly provided the lighter sticks used to light the buckets of fuel, the arson went ahead. But their getaway was marred when their van broke down.
Chelsea Gerlach's earliest appearance in the indictment is October 1998, when she was 21 years old. With four others (including the informant), Gerlach allegedly assisted in setting seven mountaintop fires that devoured a near-complete ski-lodge construction in Vail, Colorado—targeted because it encroached on a lynx habitat. The fire caused damage amounting to $12 million, but, again, no one was hurt.
The cell favored five-gallon buckets filled with fuel, according to the indictment. On Mother's Day 1999, one such bucket was allegedly placed near the front door of a porch at the Childers Meat Company outside of Eugene. Another bucket was placed under the gas main. The informant told investigators that Gerlach was stationed at the nearest road, with a hand-held radio, as a lookout. A second informant—presumably Meyerhoff—also reported Gerlach had a role in that arson.
The most recent offense in the indictment took place on October 15, 2001 (five weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center), when a group of eight, including the informant, set fire to a corral in Litchfield, California, in order to free horses.
The indictment claims that though the cell had been dormant for more than four years, plans were being made to reassemble. That evidence, however, is weak.
For instance, on November 25, 2005, the informant allegedly recorded Bill Rodgers, one of the activists arrested in the sweep, say, "I'll be really energized and ready to set up... activities... in ways that haven't been seen before."
As Rodgers's former attorney, David Barrow, told me, "that could have been a wedding he was talking about."
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Generally, if the accused are in fact members of ELF, they only talk after they have been convicted—and then they talk plenty.
On December 16, Christopher McIntosh, an ELF member from the East Coast, pleaded guilty to firebombing a McDonald's near the Space Needle in 2003. McIntosh was 20 at the time of the arson. At his sentencing hearing, he ticked off a list of grievances against McDonald's—its treatment of animals, the food's lack of nutritional value, the company's symbolic place in American corporate culture—before concluding: "For these reasons, I cannot say truthfully that I am sorry... nor will I ask forgiveness."
A federal judge sentenced McIntosh to eight years in prison, not life. I wrote him shortly after he was committed to the Seattle Federal Detention Center, and he was happy to elaborate on his motives. "Watching truck after truck coming down [the highway] full of logs causes me great terror, because my future child may not get to fully enjoy its natural inheritance."
McIntosh calls the U.S. government "the largest terrorist organization in existence," and finds it ironic that it dares to use that language against his movement. "Is property destruction done in the very legitimate cause of preservation of the natural and animal world terrorism?" McIntosh asks. "No, our cause is just."
In 2001, 17-year-old ELF member John Wade and two friends embarked on a vandalism spree in their hometown of Richmond, Virginia. They used axes on SUVs, defaced the windows of fast-food restaurants, and sabotaged home-construction sites.
Wade, who was sentenced to three years in January 2004, answered the letter I mailed to him at the federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia. He explained how for him and other members of the movement, the way to effect radical change was by radical means: "Rather than... holding private property above all else, we take our respect for life to its logical conclusion: 'terrorism.'"
But soon thereafter, he rejects the term: "The terrorist label is meant to instill fear in the public when it is really our goal, in part, to improve everyone's quality of life at the expense of the profit of those in power, who are doing harm to the environment."
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It's easy to object to ELF's methods. It's much harder to question their argument—the planet is in serious trouble.
Last year was the warmest in a whole century, and by next century scientists project that the polar ice caps will have completely melted. Fossil fuels are running out. Forests are vanishing here and abroad, and as they do, species that are critical to the delicate balance of ecosystems are disappearing. As China and India storm into their own industrial ages, world pollution levels are skyrocketing. Meanwhile, the United States has abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the rest of the world free to do the same.
As a global leader, the United States has set an example of irresponsibility, starting with the Industrial Age. But early 20th-century capitalists could have plausibly claimed ignorance over the impact of their pollution and exploitation of the land and its animals. Postmodern capitalists have no excuse. We know better. Every day brings increasingly dire warnings from scientists about global warming, rising seas, and ecological calamities. But these apocalyptic visions haven't disturbed the notion—espoused by the Bush administration—that exploiting the environment is Americans' God-given right.
In May 2001, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked at a press conference whether the president believed that it might be time for Americans to change their habits so as to conserve environmental resources. "That's a big 'No,'" Fleischer replied. "The president believes that it's an American way of life, and it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one."
Millions of Americans apparently agree. They voted Bush back into office despite his having allowed big business to dictate its terms to environmental agencies. Granta Nakayama, a lawyer at a firm that represented some of the world's biggest chemical and petroleum corporations, was appointed to head the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement division. Mark Rey, a longtime lobbyist for logging firms who wanted to cut trees in national parks, was appointed to preside over the U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resource Center. Last month the Bush administration pushed aside federal protection in Alaska to allow for oil drilling in Alaska's Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. And the ironically named "Clear Skies" initiative weakened existing restrictions on emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury, and nitrogen oxides from U.S. power plants.
Environmentally conscious people outraged by this state of affairs are steered to the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, or similar groups—but these groups have been around for decades.
Many of those who identify with ELF were, at first, involved with the mainstream environmental movement.
Prior to his own imprisonment, John Wade had belonged to the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, while volunteering to campaign for a host of progressive candidates. But change wasn't happening fast enough. "My frustration with conventional activism played a big part in my decision to take direct action," he said. "Direct action is a nighttime activity and lobbying is a daytime activity."
Raising public consciousness about environmental destruction is noble, even heroic—especially when it's done in defiance of a government that, if not corrupt, refuses to face the problems on its own. Members of ELF took extreme action, knowing that, if caught, they would be prosecuted—but for arson, not terrorism.
The Bush administration has had difficulty tracking the world's most famous terrorist, Osama bin Laden. Despite the federal government's assault on civil liberties and due process, no major terrorist plots have been uncovered in the United States—until now, it seems. But all of the 17 crimes outlined in the indictment against the ELF members are more than four years old; only one occurred after 9/11. This raises questions about the government's rhetorical invocation of the War on Terror.
Typically one has to commit murder or theft on a grand scale to earn a life sentence; to earn the label "terrorist" one has to commit politcally-motivated mass murder. None of the 11 indicted as "ecoterrorists" are charged with those crimes; yet prosecutors are aiming for life sentences for several of the defendants. But if the accused are guilty, they're guilty of arson, which usually brings a sentence of five years, and of using extreme methods to advance an otherwise honorable cause. That, and really, really bad political timing.
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Supporters packed U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken's Eugene courtroom last Wednesday for the bond hearing of Daniel McGowan. He is alleged to have joined the Northwest-based cell for its last few actions—the January 2001 arson at Superior Lumber Company in Douglas County, Oregon, as well as the arsons at the Jefferson Poplar Farms and the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture, both on May 21, 2001.
McGowan nodded to the crowd and managed a wry smile as the bailiff unlocked the handcuffs. Of all people, McGowan should understand the arc of an environmental extremist.
The most revered "warriors" in the movement all followed similar paths: start young and allow your direct actions to become more ambitious with age. Do everything possible to evade capture, but stay active. Your arrest and, perhaps, imprisonment, mark the last, greatest test: to preserve your integrity even as you lose your freedom. Be a source of inspiration to ELF members who are free.
McGowan himself rallied support for one such figure: Jeff "Free" Luers. In June 2000 Luers torched three SUVs on display in a Eugene car lot. The judge, incensed by the political motives Luers claimed as his defense, leveled a stunning sentence: 22 years, 8 months in prison.
The judge wanted to make an example of Luers. Instead he made a hero of him. Instantly, Luers became a symbol of sacrifice, and his treatment confirmed to his compatriots their worst suspicions about the inequities of American justice. A website (www.freefreenow.org) tells Luers's story and publishes the writings he sends from jail.
Luers's latest jailhouse writings attempt to rally support for McGowan and the others charged with committing arson in the Northwest. A December letter calls on activists to raise money for legal help and to write letters of support. "Hell, people, we are pros at this by now," wrote Luers. "We've had our practice runs. This one is for real. This one makes or breaks us as a movement. It defines who we are as a people."
Luers identifies Meyerhoff and Ferguson as turncoats and tells his readers: "These men are cowards and scum of the lowest order. They should be treated accordingly."
While ELF members who don't snitch—ELF members who, like Luers, do their time—become heroes, it has to be said that prison represents a special hell for radical enviromentalists. ELF members are nearly all vegan, meaning they have no taste for prison-issue bologna sandwiches, and it is difficult to commune with nature from a prison yard.
McGowan dreaded jail, judging by excerpts from the informant's recordings read during his bond hearing. It caused him to move from Eugene to New York City—"They only care about Arab terrorists there," he said, according to Detective Harvey. He allegedly admitted to having panic attacks about the prospect of imprisonment. Ultimately, McGowan was released on $1.6 million bond, secured by his family's assets.
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It appeared to be a dreadful omen for Chelsea Gerlach and the rest of the accused when Bill Rodgers was found dead in his Flagstaff, Arizona, jail cell on December 22. He suffocated himself with a plastic bag.
But like Luers, Rodgers has secured a place for himself in the pantheon of environmentalists who paid a heavy price for their devotion to nature.
A memorial website quoted from a letter apparently found in the cell where Rodgers died: "I chose to fight on the side of bears, mountain lions, skunks, bats, saguaros, cliff rose, and all things wild," Rodgers wrote. "I am just the most-recent casualty in that war. But tonight I have made a jailbreak—I am returning home, to the Earth, to the place of my origins."
All 11 defendants will be tried at once, and it will be at least October before it goes before a jury. In the meantime, ecoterrorism is likely to remain a hot issue, as every week seems to bring news of new arrests by federal agents. Somehow, it seems less likely this will deter environmental extremism, so much as provoke it. In this way, it mirrors the war against terrorists in Iraq.
On January 17, a 9,600-square-foot home built on Camano Island went up in flames. A spray-painted message found amid the charred remains claimed the deed on behalf of the ELF. No one was hurt, but it was an expensive environmental lesson for at least one man.
Mark Verbarendse, the man who owns the home that was burned down, runs an excavation and utility contracting company in Stanwood. He said he didn't have strong feelings about the environment before his house burned. Now, he's had to think about it. "I certainly don't share their sentiments," he says, speaking of ELF. "I think things go too far in (protecting) the environment, and yet other times they don't go far enough."