Terrorist label sought for arsonists | VailDaily.com

Terrorist label sought for arsonists

Jeff Barnard
Vail, CO Colorado

EUGENE, Ore. ” Chelsea Gerlach was 16 when she attended an Earth First! gathering in Idaho, where she met an instructor in monkey wrenching ” sabotage in the name of protecting the environment ” who called himself Avalon.

According to federal prosecutors, she developed a crush on William C. Rodgers, and joined his cell of the Earth Liberation Front in Eugene known as The Family, which later became responsible for 20 arsons around the West that did $40 million in damage, including the 1998 fire that destroyed Vail’s Two Elk restaurant and other facilities.

Rodgers committed suicide in jail in 2005 after a taskforce broke open the group by persuading one of its members to turn informant. Gerlach and nine others face sentencing in coming weeks for their parts in the fires, which include forest ranger stations, meat packing plants, wild horse corrals, lumber mill offices, research facilities and an SUV dealer.

First prosecutors want a federal judge to declare them terrorists ” something defense attorneys argue has never happened in 1,200 arsons nationwide claimed by Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front and is more about politics than time behind bars.

Judge Ann Aiken will hear arguments today in U.S. District Court in Eugene on a motion by the government to add a so-called terrorism enhancement to sentencing guidelines for the six men and four women who have already pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and arson. Those charges carry prosecution sentencing recommendations ranging from three to 16 years.

Practically speaking, a ruling they are terrorists is not likely to boost the time they spend behind bars. Prosecution recommendations, which balance the seriousness of the crimes against how much defendants cooperate with investigators, already include it. But it could send them to tougher prisons.

The case, known as Operation Backfire, is the biggest prosecution ever of environmental extremists, and has turned on its head the prevailing idea arsonists have generally acted alone, said Brent Smith, director of the Terrorism Research Center at the University of Arkansas.

“We thought these people operated for the last 15 years under this kind of uncoordinated violence approach, just like the extreme right was doing ” leaderless resistance,” Smith said. “The idea that there was a big conspiracy involving a large group was foreign to most federal authorities’ thinking about the extremist fringes of the environmental movement. That’s why this case is so very different.”

Prosecution filings argue that though the defendants were never convicted of terrorism, they qualify for the label because at least one of the fires each of them set was intended to change or retaliate against government policy.

Burning down the Oakridge Ranger Station on the Willamette National Forest in the 1996, for example, was retaliation for the U.S. Forest Service plan to cut down trees burned by the Warner Creek fire, which activists wanted left standing.

The government adds that while members of the cell had “retired” in 2001 out of fear of getting caught, their sympathies had not changed: Gerlach bought firearms at a Las Vegas gun show in 2003 that she cached and Daniel McGowan mailed out copies of a manual Rodgers wrote on building detonators to underground distributors.

Defense filings counter that none of the fires killed or injured anyone, and the terrorism enhancement is really a way for the Bush administration to claim a victory in its war on terror.

“The Government has Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ political agenda to advance with this case, and nothing else to lose if the Court declines to impose the enhancement,” wrote attorney Terri Wood, who represents Stanislas G. Meyerhoff, a high school classmate of Gerlach who faces the stiffest sentence recommendation of 15 years and eight months for his involvement in seven fires and toppling a high-tension power line.

“Branding defendants with the Terrorism Enhancement will officially label them ‘Terrorist’ from the (Bureau of Prisons) perspective, likely resulting in high security designations that will drastically increase the risk of physical and sexual assault against cooperating defendants like Mr. Meyerhoff,” Wood added.

The group disbanded in 2001. Rodgers ran a bookshop in Prescott, Ariz. Gerlach became a DJ in Portland. Meyerhoff enrolled in college in Virginia. McGowan worked for a women’s advocacy law firm in New York City.

After years of frustration, investigators found one of The Family willing to wear a wire. Jake Ferguson, who had a pentagram tattoo on his head and studied diesel mechanics at Lane Community College, searched out other Family members. The recordings broke open the case. He remains an unindicted coconspirator.

After his arrest, McGowan told investigators he threw cream pies at the president of the Sierra Club, uprooted genetically modified corn and helped plan the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle before joining the Family in 2000. He took part in secret meetings and helped set fires at a lumber mill office and a tree farm.

His confession came as a surprise to his sister, Lisa McGowan.

“He told me exactly what he did,” she said in a phone interview from New York City. “We can’t compare people who murder hundreds of people to someone who destroys an empty building. It’s not the same thing.

“I don’t approve of what he did,” she added. “But being put away for dozens of years is ridiculous when people … who are real terrorists are planting bombs.”

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