Two Elk fires weren’t terrorism, judge says
EUGENE, Ore. ” A federal judge sentenced confessed Earth Liberation Front arsonist Chelsea Dawn Gerlach to nine years in prison Friday, declaring she committed acts of terrorism by setting fires at a police substation and a tree farm and by toppling a high-voltage transmission line.
Gerlach, 30, is the third of 10 members of The Family, a Eugene-based cell of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, to be sentenced. All have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and arson charges connected to a string of 20 fires that did $40 million worth of damage in five states, including the 1998 fire at the Two Elk restaurant and other buildings on top of Vail mountain.
In imposing a sentence one year shorter than the prosecution recommended, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken commended Gerlach for her extraordinary cooperation with authorities, which included convincing her boyfriend and other co-defendants to plead guilty after she had already made her own plea bargain and had nothing to gain.
Aiken agreed with defense attorneys that Gerlach had made great progress in redeeming herself, and might never had committed the arsons if at only 16 she had not met William “Avalon” Rodgers, the charismatic leader of The Family, at an Earth First! encampment in Idaho.
The judge scolded Gerlach’s parents for letting such a young girl go off on her own for two months, and admonished them to stay in close touch with their daughter in prison and after her release.
Without specifically saying Gerlach had been sexually abused by Rodgers, defense attorney Craig Weinerman characterized him as the “Svengali-like guru” of The Family, and noted that some of the group had complained he was sexually abusive, especially of teenagers.
Defense attorney Patrick Ehlers called Rodgers a pedophile and sexual predator, and suggested intense shame led him to commit suicide by placing a plastic bag over his head in an Arizona jail.
The defense offered details of Rodgers’ treatment of Gerlach in a DVD provided to the judge and the prosecution, but at Gerlach’s request it was not played in court.
Gerlach is charged with helping Rodgers set fires at the Vail, a meat company and police substation in Eugene, Ore., a tree farm near Clatskanie, Ore., and a lumber company office in Monmouth, Ore., and to topple a high-voltage transmission line tower outside Bend, Ore.
Aiken found there was evidence the police substation fire, the tree farm fire, and the high-voltage line toppling were meant as retaliation against government actions or to intimidate the government, qualifying as terrorism for sentencing purposes.
However, she found that the Vail arson was not terrorism. She said the communique Gerlach wrote made specific reference to stopping the resort from expanding into endangered lynx habitat but did not mention any government role.
Her voice cracking, Gerlach apologized to the victims of the fires and denounced violence as a means of change.
“It’s very clear to me now that if you want to live in a world of peace and equality, you need to embody those qualities in your own heart and actions,” Gerlach said. “I am so grateful I have been given this opportunity to reconcile my past.”
Weinerman noted that Gerlach had made an emotional plea to her boyfriend, fellow defendant Darren Thurston, to plead guilty and cooperate with investigators; that she recalled passwords that allowed investigators to get encrypted information from seized computers; and that she led authorities to buried caches of firearms on the Siuslaw National Forest. She also persuaded other defendants to plead guilty.
Thurston wiped away tears as Weinerman described an emotionally powerful meeting where Gerlach, surrounded by lawyers and FBI agents in a conference room, called on Thurston not be a martyr for their cause.
“My choice was to be a martyr or have a life,” Weinerman read from a transcript of Gerlach’s comments. “I want to live. I don’t think martyrs are good for the environmental community.
“In 2001 those in our group brought nothing but pain and misery into our lives. It tore us apart. I’ve been living underground for 10 years. It feels like a huge weight is gone to be honest with people. You have to tell them everything. I told them everything.”
Rodgers first recruited Gerlach to try to shoot out the lens of a University of Arizona telescope built in a clearcut, but after that effort failed, recruited her for the Vail arson, lawyers for both sides said.
She was a student at Evergreen State College in Washington and becoming disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of civil disobedience when Rodgers contacted her, persuaded her to drop out, and brought her into his arson campaign, Weinerman said.
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Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.