Jeff Barnard

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December 13, 2005
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'Prime suspect' named in Two Elk fire

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) " A 28-year-old woman was called a 'prime suspect' in the arson attack that destroyed the Two Elk restaurant and damaged nearby chairlifts on Vail Mountain in 1998.

The Earth Liberation Front " an underground group that advocates economic sabotage to stop what they say is environmental destruction " claimed responsibility for the firebombing, saying it did so "on behalf of lynx" threatened by Vail Resorts' expansion into Blue Sky Basin.

"Even though the arson was seven years ago, we're very encouraged that the authorities continue to show interest in this case," Vail Resorts chief executive Adam Aron said Tuesday night.

Damage from the 1998 attack on Vail Mountain is estimated to have been about $12 million.

The suspect, Chelsea D. Gerlach of Portland, was one of six people arrested in five states last week on indictments alleging they took part in a string of arson attacks and other crimes between 1998 and 2001 in Oregon and Washington, for which the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front took responsibility.

A seventh person remains at large, perhaps in Germany, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdahl said Tuesday.

Gerlach is also a prime suspect in five other cases, said Engdahl, who made the allegation against her during a bail hearing in U.S. District Court.

Mainstream environmental groups also lobbied hard against the Blue Sky Basin expansion. Rocky Smith, of one such group, Colorado Wild, said Tuesday night the Blue Sky Basin expansion was a frustrating loss.

"But it certainly doesn't justify destruction," he said. "In fact, it generated sympathy for Vail that they didn't deserve."

Smith said he hopes Gerlach and the others get a fair trial.

"As far as ecoterror in general, it's not productive, and morally you can't justify it," Smith said. "If you think your cause is so great you can do damage, you've already lost the battle.

Journalist Allen Best, who covered the fire, said even mainstream environmental groups fell under suspicion.

"Right after it there was a general blanket " you oppose the ski area expansion so you are a suspect," Best said. "A lot of people got hurt during this. There were very good people in the environmental community that didn't want to get involved in this."

Gerlach, 28, has been indicted on charges she helped two others topple a Bonneville Power Administration high-tension line 25 miles east of Bend, Ore. on the night of Dec. 30, 1999.

Prosecutors also have filed a criminal complaint against her in the May 9, 1999, firebombing of the Childers Meat Co. in Eugene, Ore. Engdahl said he will present evidence to a grand jury Wednesday seeking indictments against Gerlach in the meatpacking fire and a 2001 firebombing at a tree farm in Clatskanie, also in Oregon.

Former Eagle County Sheriff A.J. Johnson said his investigators worked with local and Portland, Ore.-based taskforces at the time, exchanging names and information.

"It's a major step in closing it. If this person is involved it may lead to other people involved," Johnson said. "Obviously I hope they've got a good case."

Judge Thomas Coffin ordered Gerlach held without bail, pending the outcome of Wednesday's grand jury session.

In arguing that she be held without bail, Engdahl said Gerlach had a boyfriend who was an illegal alien from Canada, and is a prime suspect in five other cases.

Those cases are the Oct. 11, 1998, attempted arson at Bureau of Land Management wild horse corrals in Rock Springs, Wyo.; the Oct. 19, 1998, arson attack in Vail; the Dec. 25, 1999, arson of a Boise Cascade office in Monmouth, Ore.; the May 21 firebombing of the Jefferson Poplar Farm in Clatskanie, for which two others have been arrested; and the May 21, 2001, firebombing of a University of Washington horticultural research center in Seattle.

Federal public defender Craig Weinerman argued for Gerlach's release, saying the evidence against her was meager, and so far amounted only to statements from two informants involved in the meatpacking plant arson.

Colorado Wild's Smith, harkening to the old Beatles song "Revolution," said his thoughts on ecoterror have always echoed the lyrics: "But when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out."

"The attack on Vail Mountain backfired," he said. "It was just dumb."

Vail Daily reporters Alex Miller, J.K. Perry and Matt Zalaznick contributed to this report.

Vail, Colorado


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The VailDaily Updated Dec 14, 2005 02:08PM Published Dec 13, 2005 07:14PM Copyright 2005 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.