Prosecutor: Persistence finally led to break in ecoterror case
December 27, 2005
EUGENE, Ore. – From 1998 to early 2001, federal investigators seemed powerless to stop the fires that were set with gasoline-filled five-gallon plastic buckets and followed with calling cards from the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front.Two lumber mill offices in southern Oregon. Plant and wildlife research labs in Seattle and Olympia, Wash. A University of Washington horticulture facility. Corrals for wild horses in Oregon, Wyoming and California. A ski resort in the Colorado Rockies. A tree farm outside Portland. Three dozen sport utility vehicles in Eugene. Trucks at a gravel pit and a logging company in Oregon.Investigators were tightlipped about what they found, but apparently had little to work with but the wire handles and melted remains of the white plastic buckets – the kind used for everything from pie filling to paint – and a few intact buckets filled with gasoline that failed to ignite.Then, after Muslim terrorists struck New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, the fires set by extremists in the Northwest stopped. Other attacks continued elsewhere around the country, but the Northwest – the scene of intense battles over logging in national forests since 1983 – was no longer targeted.In 2002, investigators got a break when one of the people involved in firebombing a logging company and a gravel pit in 2001 told his girlfriend, and she told her dad, a state fire marshal. Three people were convicted, and the alleged leader, Michael “Tre Arrow” Scarpitti, is being held in Victoria, British Columbia, on a shoplifting charge, fighting extradition.It would be three more years before authorities moved, arresting six people on Dec. 7 in Oregon, Arizona, Virginia and New York on charges from six fires and a toppled electric transmission tower in Oregon and Washington. One of them – Prescott, Ariz., bookstore owner William C. Rodgers – committed suicide in jail, and another, Virginia college student Stanislas Meyerhoff, has agreed to testify for the prosecution, according to court papers.Agents relied on tenacious pursuit over years to break the case.”We focused on a couple of cases,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdall. “We developed persons of interest and went from there.”In the course of court hearings, Engdall has noted the help of at least three informants who took part in firebombings themselves.As information has dribbled out from court hearings, affidavits, and relatives of the accused, a picture has emerged of a small band of rag-tag activists from Eugene, home to many of the demonstrators involved in the 1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle.According to an FBI affidavit, on one trip to Washington to torch a lab looking for ways to keep deer from eating tree seedlings, one of the three was arrested shoplifting some of the gear to start the fires. To make things worse, their old van broke down, forcing them to hitchhike home.Though a spokesman for ELF had described the group as immune to infiltration, federal agents found an informant in late 2004, who showed them how one of the fires was set, and wore a hidden microphone while talking to old pals about past exploits.When they were arrested earlier this month, the six had taken up new lives.Chelsea Gerlach, 28, nicknamed “Country Girl,” was a DJ in Portland, living with convicted Canadian animal rights activist Darren Thurston. Meyerhoff, 28, who went to high school with Gerlach, was attending Piedmont Community College in Charlottesville, Va.A third, Kevin Tubbs, 36, nicknamed “Dog,” was living in Springfield, Ore. Daniel McGowan, 31, was working for a women’s advocacy law firm in Brooklyn, N.Y.Rodgers, 40, lived in the back of his Catalyst Infoshop. He committed suicide in jail in Flagstaff, Ariz., shortly before he was to be transported to Seattle to face charges he and Tubbs torched a federal research lab. Prosecutors characterized him as the mastermind of the Vail ski resort arson, though he was not charged.Sarah Kendall Harvey, 28, was an administrative assistant and graduate student at Northern Arizona University and had applied to medical school. She had taken part in logging protests in Oregon, once cooking pancakes for the loggers.