A community battles back: Vail rallies around rebuilding what terrorists destroyed in 1998 fire
What happened to the Vail arsonists?
• William C. Rodgers was arrested in Prescott, Arizona, as part of the federal Operation Backfire investigation. In addition to the Vail Mountain fires, he was charged with one count of arson for a June 1998 fire set by the Earth Liberation Front at the National Wildlife Research Center in Olympia, Washington. He was found dead in his jail cell on Dec. 21, 2005. According to police, Rodgers died by suicide.
• Chelsea D. Gerlach also was arrested in Operation Backfire. On Dec. 15, 2006, she pleaded guilty to $20 million worth of arsons between 1996 and 2001, including the Vail Mountain arson. She had previously pleaded guilty to 18 counts of arson in other attacks. She said she has since realized the firebombings did more harm than good.
• Stanislas Meyerhoff was also arrested in Operation Backfire and pleaded guilty to $40 million worth of arsons between 1996 and 2001, including the Vail arson with Gerlach. Meyerhoff has renounced the Earth Liberation Front, pleaded guilty to 54 counts and was sentenced in May 2007 to 13 years in prison.
• Rebecca Rubin surrendered to FBI agents at the U.S.-Canada border in Blaine, Washington, on Nov. 29, 2012, driven to the meeting by her mother. Eleven months later, she pleaded guilty to arson and conspiracy charges. She refused to turn over the names of other people who were involved in the actions. Rubin was sentenced to five years in prison and 200 hours of community service. She was released from prison in April 2016.
• Kevin Tubbs was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy, arson and destruction of an energy facility. He was released on July 26, 2013. His sentence included an order to pay $10,560,429 in restitution. Tubbs was involved in nine fires. He later apologized, saying he was “disgusted, sickened, saddened and totally ashamed that I played any part in any of the incidents.”
• Jacob Ferguson wore a recording device into meetings of The Family around the United States, gathering information that would be used against his friends in court. He was granted immunity in the eco-terrorism cases but later spent five years in prison for selling heroin.
• Josephine Sunshine Overaker remains at large. The FBI says she may have fled to Europe, possibly Spain, and is offering a reward for information about her. She remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. The FBI describes Overaker as 5-foot-3, 130 pounds with brown hair and eyes. She has several distinctive tattoos, including a large bird across her back. Her aliases included Lisa Rachelle Quintana, Maria Rachelle Quintana, “Osha,” “Jo,” “China,” “Josie” and “Mo.”
Editor’s note: This the second of a two-part series recalling the eco-terrorist attack 20 years ago at the top of Vail Mountain. Read the first part here.
VAIL — It was 4 a.m. Monday, Oct. 19, 1998, when Paul Testwuide phoned Andy Daly, rousting his boss from bed.
“Look out your window at the top of the mountain,” Testwuide told Daly.
Buildings atop Vail Mountain were on fire. Daly, president of the ski company at the time, could see the mountain from his living room window but could hardly believe what he was seeing.
Members of The Family, a group associated with the Earth Liberation Front, had scorched three buildings and damaged four chairlifts. Two Elk restaurant, Ski Patrol Headquarters and an outbuilding were all ablaze, along with Chair 5. Three other lifts were also burned in the arson fires but not as badly.
A few hours later, after firefighters from around the region had kept the fires from spreading to the surrounding mountains, Daly and some others were at the scene standing beside the ashes.
They choked back tears and took a moment … but only one moment. Daly immediately shifted into management mode.
“We need to get these up and running. These are critical skier facilities. They need to be back in service,” Daly said to anyone within earshot.
They quickly evaluated the damage, got the lift companies involved and went to work. They kept the road open so workers could get themselves and supplies up there.
“My job was cheerleader. Everyone went above and beyond anything we asked them,” Daly said.
After that Monday’s arson attack, Daly helped organize a community meeting Saturday evening, Oct. 24, in the massive restaurant in the Lionshead Village gondola building. Hundreds showed up.
The man was candid. He shared what he knew about the arsons, squelching rumors that someone from the ski company had done it or that the ski company itself had started the fires in some twisted attempt to get public sympathy amid protests over its 885-acre Blue Sky Basin expansion. The company didn’t do it, or anything like it.
“We let them know what we knew, that it was the largest act of eco-terrorism in U.S. history up to that time. We promised them we’d get the facilities going,” Daly said.
We generally care about each other, but sometimes it takes real trouble to bring it out in us. The meeting turned into something of a pep rally, as Daly gave the world what might be the wisest headline ever printed: “Don’t let the bastards wear you down.”
The mission was to get everything operational by Christmas, Daly said.
“Any time you have a mission and you have big odds against you, you step back in a quiet moment and ponder it. Then we had to keep pushing,” Daly said.
Flash forward a couple of months to Christmas Eve 1998. Daly parked his skis in the rack outside the newly erected Two Elk tennis bubble, built on the Two Elk foundation left behind after the fire. He walked inside, smiled, shook hands, greeted people and waited in line to pour himself the best cup of coffee he has every had. Mission accomplished.
“For us, it was perfect,” Daly said. “That was one of the most satisfying moments of my career. Looking back, we knew we had to get a message to the skiing public that Vail was not going to be an injured product. People took pride in the community effort.”
Testwuide’s Blue Sky baby
Testwuide started at the bottom of the ski company ladder in 1964, worked his way up to the executive suite and ram-rodded the Blue Sky Basin expansion. It took seven years to get all the approvals they needed.
Testwuide’s Blue Sky Basin baby cost $14 million to open and had been part of Vail Mountain’s master plan since 1962. It added two new bowls, three new high-speed chairlifts and a fourth in the existing Back Bowls. It also made it indisputable that Vail was North America’s largest ski resort.
Local extreme skier Chris Anthony filmed a Warren Miller movie segment in Blue Sky Basin the winter before it opened. People visiting from big cities can immerse themselves in the middle of the woods in about half an hour, Anthony said, and have “an amazing experience.”
Several protesters opposed the expansion. Some held vigils in Vail Village, screened slideshows about it and chained themselves to construction equipment. One woman climbed a tree and refused to come down, a common form of protest at the time for people opposed to cutting trees. It took 12 hours for crews to remove her. Another man climbed into an overturned Audi through a hole cut in it and cemented himself in and had to be cut out.
None, though, were anything like The Family.
The Family took credit — all in the name of preserving endangered lynx habitat, the terrorists claimed at the time.
When the U.S. Forest Service approved Category III/Blue Sky Basin, the agency was clear that the expansion would not adversely impact lynx habitat.
In fact, during all that protesting in Vail, the Colorado Division of Wildlife had released 41 lynx in the San Juan Mountains in the winter of 1998-99. Three of them had made their way to Eagle County, the Vail Trail reported in August 1999.
The Trail also reported that one of the first times the cats popped up on the public’s radar was July 1999, when a lynx was struck and killed while crossing Interstate 70 on Vail Pass — ironically one day before protesters of Vail’s expansion were to appear in federal court.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.