Suspect in Vail ecoterrorism fire surrenders
November 29, 2012
Suspect in 1998 Vail fires surrenders
Authorities say Rebecca Rubin helped set fires on Vail Mountain
By Jeff Barnard
PORTLAND, Ore. – One of the three remaining fugitives in a string of high-profile fires across the West – including on Vail Mountain in 1998 – that focused national attention on a group of environmental radicals surrendered to authorities Thursday after spending years in hiding in Canada.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Portland, Ore., said Rebecca Jeanette Rubin, 39, a Canadian citizen, turned herself in to the FBI at the Canadian border in Blaine, Wash.
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Rubin was arrested after spending a decade as an international fugitive from the largest ecoterrorism investigation in U.S. history, the U.S. attorney’s office said. The former wildlife researcher was part of a cell of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front known as The Family, based in Eugene, Ore.
Rubin was sought on conspiracy and arson indictments dating to 2006 alleging she helped set fires on Vail Mountain and at federal wild horse corrals in Eastern Oregon and Northern California, and that she tried to set fire to a lumber mill office in Medford, Ore.
Defense attorney Richard Roberman said Rubin wanted to get the case behind her, and was dropped off at the border by her mother. She tried to surrender earlier, but tentative deals fell through with three different U.S. attorney districts.
Rubin wore a white cardigan for her appearance in federal court in Seattle. She breathed deeply as a prosecutor read the indictment and smiled briefly as the judge greeted her.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer in Portland, Ore., said Rubin would be kept in custody and transported to Eugene, Ore., for trial.
Rubin is not specifically charged with terrorism, but the indictment alleges she and the other members of The Family tried to influence businesses and the government and tried to retaliate against the government. Prosecutors won terrorism enhancements at sentencing for some of the others in the case.
Vail mayor Andy Daly, who was president of Vail Resorts at the time of the fires, said it’s impressive that the FBI has been so diligent in pursuing the case for many years.
The fires on Vail Mountain caused $12 million of damage, destroying or damaging Two Elk Lodge, Patrol Headquarters and several chairlifts.
Daly still vividly recalled the day, Oct. 19, 1998.
“If you can imagine, on Oct. 19, having Chair 5 incapacitated, along with Chair 4, the top of (chair) 14, and, of course, Two Elk totally gone – it was just devastating to the community.”
But, Daly said, the fires improved the relationship between the resort and the town.
“It gave us a chance to work together, and we really came together.”
In the aftermath of the fires, Daly said both Vail Resorts and people in town “put on a positive face.
“We were going to move forward, and this wasn’t going to impact us,” he said.
In the wake of the fires, Two Elk was quickly rebuilt. Vail Resorts opened a bigger, better facility on the mountain during the 1999-2000 season.
“We had some incredible people working together on that,” he said. “Jack Hunn, Brian McCartney and Paul Testwuide all did an incredible job.”
Ten people pleaded guilty in 2007 to conspiracy and arson in the case, and were sentenced to prison. Two others remain at large.
At the time, the FBI characterized the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front as the top domestic terrorism threats in the nation.
Authorities have said the Earth Liberation Front cell was responsible for 20 arsons around the West from 1996 to 2001 that did $40 million in damage.
Other targets besides Vail included a plant research facility at the University of Washington and several businesses and other structures in Oregon – a horse slaughterhouse, U.S. Forest Service ranger stations, a power transmission tower, a tree farm and an SUV dealership.
The group disbanded in 2001, but a federal taskforce known as Operation Backfire turned an informant and broke open the cell in 2005.
By then, the group’s leader, William C. Rodgers, was running a bookstore in Prescott, Ariz. After his arrest, Rodgers committed suicide in jail. Authorities described him as a Svengali-like guru and sexual predator who liked to call himself Avalon, after an island from the legend of King Arthur.
The informant was Jacob Ferguson, a local environmental activist who once had a pentagram tattooed on his forehead and studied diesel mechanics at a community college. Prosecutors said he agreed to take a recorder into Family meetings around the country to break through their code of silence. Originally sentenced to probation, Ferguson was sent to prison after authorities found him selling heroin.
In a 2009 paper on environmental terrorism, sociologists Brent L. Smith of University of Arkansas and Kelly R. Damphousse of University of Oklahoma wrote that The Family members were mostly from middle-class backgrounds, though a few, like Ferguson, had a criminal history. The group developed from the environmental activist and anarchist community of Eugene, Ore.
Two still at large
In the Vail arson, the group issued a communique saying the buildings were burned as retribution for the Forest Service allowing the resort to expand into critical habitat for the Canada lynx, a threatened species. The attack focused national attention on the idea of ecoterrorism.
However, by the time they were sentenced, members of The Family expressed regret and frustration that after all their hardships, they had accomplished practically nothing.
A horse slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore., was never rebuilt, but the ski resort and ranger stations were reconstructed, timber companies stayed in business, and wild horses were still rounded up and removed from federal lands.
The two remaining fugitives are Joseph Mahmoud Dibee and Josephine Sunshine Overaker, Ferguson’s former girlfriend. Dibee is believed to be in Syria, where he has family, and Overaker is believed to be in Europe, Peifer said.
Animal rights activist Peter Young spent eight years as a fugitive before officers stumbled upon him in 2005 at a Santa Cruz, Calif., Starbucks. He eventually served two years in prison for freeing thousands of mink from Midwest fur farms in the name of the Animal Liberation Front in 1997.
“There are two rules to being a good fugitive,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday. “If you have an ID under a different name and don’t call your parents, you can live free for a very long time.”
Young added there is a benefit to staying on the run for a long time, as Rubin did: “The lawyers all told me at different times as I was preparing to turn myself in, but never did – they said, ‘You stay away for a long time, the feds usually get to the point they’re not so zealous about your case anymore.”‘
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott N. Miller contributed to this report.