‘Snitch’ led to suspects in Vail fires
DENVER – The demise of an Oregon group suspected in the 1998 Vail arsons and other crimes of eco-sabotage began last year with the cooperation of one key informant.Dubbed “cooperating witness” by federal investigators, the alleged Earth Liberation Front insider knew names and dates, and was willing to wear a wire to record conversations with other members.That led to six arrests earlier this month, with two suspects saying last week they were ready to cooperate and a third apparently committing suicide in an Arizona jail.The cell’s collapse may be a boon to prosecutors in Oregon, Washington state and Colorado.The case also illustrates how federal prosecutors frequently work a cold case – one that’s old, slim on physical evidence and involves a tight-lipped group of people living on the edges of society.According to those familiar with such investigations, prosecutors typically cultivate an informant who will surreptitiously record conversations with co-conspirators and then charge who they can.”The federal government makes a living off tapes and snitches,” said David Lane, a Denver lawyer who practices in federal court. “It’s absolutely standard operating procedure.”Federal prosecutors also look for defendants, facing potentially long federal prison terms, to begin flipping, or offering cooperation in exchange for leniency. That opens the door for additional charges.Such moves could boost the Vail investigation.Kirk Engdall, a federal prosecutor from Oregon, said: “We gathered information from our confidential witness regarding Vail.”A source close to the Colorado investigation said that information and the cooperation of two cell members almost certainly would move the case forward.The district attorney for Eagle County, where the Vail arsons occurred, expressed a measure of satisfaction in seeing a break in the case.”It’s pretty obvious that they’ve been working on this ever since it happened,” said Mark Hurlbert.Hurlbert said he can file state charges against suspects in the case, although that is unlikely unless the federal case is thrown out on a technicality.The fires, set Oct. 19, 1998, to protest the expansion at the upscale ski resort, leveled the Two Elk Lodge and restaurant on top of Vail Mountain. The fires also razed a ski patrol headquarters and several lift buildings. The loss was tallied at $12 million.ELF claimed responsibility for the fires in an untraceable e-mail communique. For five years, it stood as the group’s most destructive act of protest – one that a cadre of investigators focused their resources in solving.Documents filed in the Oregon and Washington state cases offer hints as to how ELF members were able to avoid prosecution for so long.They used fake identification to register cars. Authorities who raided the apartment of Chelsea Gerlach, an Oregon woman who is a suspect in the Vail fires but has not been charged, found numerous fake IDs.Authorities said William Rodgers, charged in a firebombing in Washington state, used three different names. Rodgers apparently killed himself late Wednesday or early Thursday while being held in an Arizona jail, using a plastic bag to suffocate himself.The group members, court records say, also used code or nicknames, handles such as “Avalon,” “Rabid” and “Country Girl.”And they talked in their own lingo. Timing devices for starting fires were called “shot glasses” or “can openers.” A van was a “betty.”They shared methods of how to start fires with timers using materials readily available at hardware stores.Police scanners and walkie-talkies were employed to avoid detection, according to court documents.The counterculture personas of the alleged ELF cell members may have stuck out in other cities, but Eugene, Ore., is steeped in activists and causes.The city had become a haven for former Californians looking for a more affordable lifestyle, according to Eugene resident and anarchist-author John Zerzan.”Why Eugene?” Zerzan asked. “Why Berkeley in the 1960s? These things just sort of happen.”In 2004, John E. Lewis, the FBI’s deputy assistant director of counterterrorism described to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee the difficulties involved in prosecuting members of ELF and a related group, the Animal Liberation Front, or ALF.”The animal rights extremist and eco-terrorism movements are unlike traditional criminal enterprises that are often structured and organized,” according to a transcript.”They exhibit remarkable levels of security awareness when engaged in criminal activity, and are typically very knowledgeable of law enforcement techniques and the limitations imposed on law enforcement,” Lewis said.Defense lawyers representing ELF members have telegraphed at least one prong of their strategy, which is to attack the credibility of the “serial arsonists” upon which the government is relying to build its case.And because the lead federal prosecutor in the case said the same informants have information about the Vail fires, the same strategy may play out in Colorado if the Vail arson investigation results in charges.Court documents show an effort by federal agents to steel their case against such attacks.A search affidavit written by an FBI agent in the case carefully described how investigators had their informant record numerous conversations with alleged ELF members.And they used the document to explain how they corroborated information from the witness. When the informant said that an ELF member left a van at a Washington repair shop during an arson mission, agents confirmed that the vehicle indeed had been abandoned there.Defense lawyers already have begun to question the credibility of the evidence in the case.In pleadings filed last week in federal court in Eugene, the lawyer for Chelsea Gerlach said the case rested on “tainted witnesses” who bring considerable baggage to the case.One witness the government is relying on is Jacob Ferguson, according to Gerlach’s lawyer, Craig Weinerman. Ferguson, Weinerman contends, is a “cooperating witness” who took part in the arsons but has not been charged.Another witness is Stanislaus Meyerhoff, a high school classmate of Gerlach’s who has been charged but not for every crime he admitted to participating in, according to court pleadings.”Mr. Ferguson admits setting the fires, and somehow he gets a pass,” Weinerman said in court last week. “We should consider the source.”
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