Two Elk: Running the ridge, setting fires
VAIL ” Almost nine years after John Gulick led efforts to extinguish eight giant arson fires on Vail Mountain, he is putting the so-called “eco-attack” behind him.
There have been two guilty pleas in the case of the 1998 fires, and court documents have laid out a timeline of the crime that has long been subject to speculation and theories.
“This does bring some closure to it,” said Gulick, who is now Vail’s fire chief. “You had kind of an unusual, uneasy feeling about why this happened and who could do this to you.”
The 1998 fires burned down Two Elk Restaurant and several other buildings on Vail Mountain and caused $24 million in damage.
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The Vail Fire Department’s job was to extinguish the fires, but Gulick and his colleagues had hypotheses about how the mysterious crime happened, he said.
They looked for footprints, and had one theory that the perpetrators escaped through the Back Bowls and up to Vail Pass, he said.
Now, in the federal case against Chelsea D. Gerlach, who pleaded guilty to charges related to the fires, federal prosecutors are offering a chronology of how the fires were set.
In the early morning of Oct. 19, 1998, William C. Rodgers ran along the ridge of Vail Mountain, lighting gas cans at Two Elk Lodge, Ski Patrol Headquarters and Chair 5, according to a memo filed by U.S. prosecutors Friday.
Gerlach, of Portland, Ore., is scheduled to be sentenced on May 25. Prosecutors have suggested a 10-year jail sentence.
Rodgers, of Prescott, Ariz., was found dead in his jail cell Dec. 21, 2005.
Gerlach, Rodgers and others were allegedly part of a group called “The Family” that was associated with the Earth Liberation Front, an eco-sabotage group.
The following chronology comes from the government’s sentencing memo:
– Gerlach, Rodgers, Stanislas Meyerhoff and Rebecca Rubin built timers for the firebombing and brought gasoline and diesel fuel to Vail Mountain in Gerlach’s truck.
– They put the fuel containers in white plastic trash bags to hide them in the snow.
– Gerlach, Rodgers, Meyerhoff and Rubin then met Jacob Ferguson, Josephine Overaker and Kevin Tubbs, who were supposed to help them with the arson. They talked about “difficulties involved in the arson” and decided to postpone the arson.
– Meyerhoff, Rubin, Ferguson, Tubbs and Overaker returned to Oregon.
– Driving Rodgers’ truck, Gerlach dropped off Rodgers at Vail Mountain near where the fuel was hidden. Rodgers spent several days on the mountain, hiking up the fuel. Gerlach stayed about an hour away, parked on a logging road, for two days.
– Rodgers and Gerlach met again, and they went to a store “some distance away from Vail,” where Rodgers bought barbecue lighter sticks, sponges and hand-held flares.
– Gerlach dropped Rodgers off at Vail Mountain after night fell on Oct. 18. Rodgers place gas cans next to a building on Vail Mountain. He ran along the ridge to each gas can, lighting them. He told Gerlach that he looked back and saw the fire start.
– He opened the door to one building, and saw two hunters sleeping there. He closed the door and didn’t set fire to that building.
– Rodgers ran down a trail, then a bike path that led to a park. Gerlach met him there at 7 or 8 a.m. Rodgers hurt his ankle on the way down.
– Gerlach and Rodgers drove to Denver, where they sent an e-mail from a public library in which ELF claimed responsibility for the arsons “on behalf of the lynx.”
The e-mail cited Vail’s “Category III” expansion onto Battle Mountain, which later became known as Blue Sky Basin.
The dramatic arsons happened in the midst of turmoil in the community over the controversial expansion, and that seemed to bring the conspiracy theories out of the woodwork, said Kim Andree, spokeswoman for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.
Over the years, the theories ranged from mundane to the outrageous. Even after the case went cold, tipsters would still call to offer their two cents, Andree said.
“We went from aliens to as simple as going down Lime Creek into Red Cliff,” Andree said.
Some posited that it was an inside job done by Vail Resorts to garner sympathy for its expansion plans. Others presciently theorized that young environmentalists had done it to protest the expansion’s effects on wildlife.
Investigators found a set of footprints that went down the front of the mountain, Andree said, which would mirror Rodgers’ escape route as described by prosecutors.
Vail Mayor Rod Slifer said he always worried that a local was involved, and was relieved to find it was a group from outside the community.
“I thought they knew what they were doing so well it’s almost as if they had local knowledge,” he said.
The arson brought together the community, which urged Vail Associates to rebuild the lodge, Slifer said.
The lodge was rebuilt, larger than the original. The Blue Sky Basin expansion continued as planned, opened in 2000 and has been a wildly popular part of Vail Mountain.
Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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