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The FBI takes down the Earth Liberation Front.
by James Thayer
02/02/2006 12:00:00 AM
IT WAS TO HAVE BEEN the perfect crime. A recon of the target had already been accomplished, and a staging area selected, where a hole had been dug to later bury the evidence. All was ready: timer, dark clothing, two-way radios and police scanner, masks and gloves, a drill, and the acid. Night was thick in the little town of Redmond, hard by the Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon. The four actors moved off toward their target. Three of them had nicknames: J.P., Dog, and Seattle.
White five-gallon plastic buckets were their trademark. Inside the bucket was diesel fuel and ground up soap, used to thicken the fuel and slow the burning. The one known as J.P. carried the bucket and timer.
Their target was a meat packing plant owned by Cavel West, Inc. The plant slaughtered wild horses rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management, and sent the meat to Europe. At the plant, the man known as Seattle drilled a hole in an exterior wall. The fuel was poured through the hole into the building. The timing device was activated.
J.P., Seattle, Dog, and the fourth arsonist hurried back to their staging area, dropped their clothes and shoes into the hole, poured acid over the clothes, filled the hole with dirt, then scattered like poultry.
The fire--which occurred on July 21, 1997--caused a million dollars in damage. The meat packing plant has never reopened.
Earlier this month, after a nine-year FBI investigation, federal prosecutors handed down a 65-count indictment against 11 people--including J.P., Seattle, and Dog--involving 16 acts of sabotage and arson. Arrests were made across the country.
The indictments and arrests may have broken the back of the Earth Liberation Front--which the FBI has concluded is our most serious domestic terrorism threat. They estimate that the group's members have caused $100 million in damages since the mid-1990s.
The indictments reveal the extreme enviro movement's hapless clumsiness, its paint-thin philosophy, and its dangerousness.
THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT originated in Great Britain, where in the early 1990s several Earth First! activists decided their organization--with its lobbying and organizing and pamphleteering--was too passive. Direct action--their term for setting fires and tree spiking, which is also called monkey-wrenching--was needed. Judi Bari, an Earth First! leader, wrote, "It's time to leave the night work to the elves in the woods." A 1993 ELF communiqué declared solidarity with the Animal Liberation Front--known for freeing minks--and now acts jointly with the ALF.
Earth Liberation Fronters call themselves elves. On October 28, 1996 the elves set fire to the U.S. Forest Service ranger station in Marion County, Oregon, their first act of arson in the United States.
The Earth Liberation Front's philosophy is a mix of Marx, Unibomber, and Beavis and Butthead. An ELF communiqué (why can't these people call them messages?) states, "ELF works to speed up the collapse of industry, to scare the rich, and to undermine the foundations of the state." A New York Times article quotes an ELF activist saying that "It takes all the tools in the toolbox to dismantle the master's machine." Jeffrey Luers, who calls himself Free, and who is serving a 22-year sentence for torching SUVs at a Eugene, Oregon Chevrolet dealership, and who bears an odd resemblance to Gilligan, lists in a letter to followers those things he fights for: animal rights, gender equality, anti fascism, and eco-defense. Luers remembers his thoughts as he set fire to the Chevies, "Wow, I'm really doing this."
Also, they don't like freeways. The headquarters of the Republican party in Monroe County, Indiana was set on fire because it supported the extension of an interstate highway. One sympathizer sums up ELF philosophy: "Knock down all the concrete." This nihilism begins early in some elves. Luer's partner in the SUV arson, Craig Marshall, said, "Back in the fifth grade, I was already questioning the Pledge of Allegiance." Marshall earlier copped a plea, and was sentenced to five years.
PERHAPS the ELF spokesman could make sense of all this. During hearings in 2002, members of Congress, trying to understand the ELF philosophy, questioned former ELF spokesman Craig Rosebraugh, who replied with more than 50 refusals to answer based on the Fifth Amendment. (He even refused to answer whether or not he was an American citizen.) But when he wasn't taking the Fifth, he did manage to promote the Zapatista cause in Mexico, accuse the United States of trying to assassinate Egypt's President Nasser, and imply America was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. Rosebraugh denies he is an elf himself, saying, "I receive anonymous communications from the ELF and act as a conduit . . . to let people know these are not just random acts."
THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT is as maladroit as it is earnest. It took the elves a while to figure out the timers. One placed on the roof of an Oregon Ranger station just sat there, a dud. The incendiary devices they use are typically Rube Goldberg contraptions, using matches, sponges, model rocket parts, kitchen timers, buckets, and bottles. (They are called cat's cradles.)
Firebombs were found on the roof the Nike outlet in Albertville, Minnesota. They didn't go off, but ELF claimed credit anyway, saying the attack had something to do with child labor. Or perhaps it might've been globalization. It depends on how one reads the communiqué. Last year, bombs believed to be planted by the ELF failed to detonate at two government buildings in Auburn, California and at a nearby house under construction. Sometimes the elves can't be bothered with the complications of a firebomb: in 2001 they settled for smashing windows and a neon sign at an Old Navy store in Huntington, New York. Occasionally, even that dime-store vandalism is too much effort. In September 2002 elves ripped up oil-exploration survey markers near Moab, Utah. And once in a while they stoop to simple graffiti: Red paint was sprayed on the Mexican Consulate in Boston to protest the treatment of peasants in Mexico.
The elves take great pride in not targeting people. But a spreading fire acts indiscriminately and authorities believe only luck has prevented human casualties.
The fires, however, have caused abundant damage. ELF arson at a Vail mountaintop restaurant in October 1998 resulted in a $12 million loss. An arson fire at the USFS Oakridge Ranger Station in Lane County, Oregon caused $5.3 million in damage. An ELF fire at the University of Washington's Horticultural Center in Seattle resulted in $2 million in damage. The list of million dollar fires is long: the Department of Agriculture National Wildlife Facility in Olympia, Washington, the Childers Meat Company in Lane County, Oregon, the Boise Cascade office in Polk County, Oregon, the Superior Lumber Company in Glendale, Oregon, the Jefferson Poplar Farms in Columbia County, Oregon. No damage estimate can be found for the Bonneville Power Administration high tension power line near Bend, Oregon that the elves toppled in December 1999. James F. Jarboe, chief of the FBI's Domestic Terrorism Section, testified before a House committee that the elves have committed more than 600 criminal acts in the United States since 1996.
What is the Earth Liberation Front? Its website defines it as an "international underground movement consisting of autonomous groups of people who carry out direct action according to E.L.F. guidelines." The site says there is no structure and no membership.
The ELF might hesitate to claim kinship with the Ku Klux Klan, but Stefan H. Leader and Peter Probst note that this principal of "leaderless resistance" was developed by the KKK and Aryan Nations activist Louis Beam. The ELF site advises that it would be useless to try to join the ELF, as you would never find them, and it could threaten other elves. "There is no centralized authority or chain-of-command," Leader and Probst write, saying the structure makes infiltration difficult. Bruce Barcott in the New York Times writes that in a video sold in Portland's counterculture bookshops (Igniting the Revolution: An Introduction to the Earth Liberation Front) Craig Rosebraugh tells viewers to start their own cells. "There's no realist chance of becoming active in an already existing cell. Take initiative. Form your own cell."
But the loose structure doesn't prevent that ancient bane of criminal organizations: ratting out. The Department of Justice's indictment lists one criminal act after another, and as the indictment identifies the alleged perps of each arson by name and nickname, it then adds in count after count "and other persons known to the Grand Jury." These other persons are the informants, and while the indictment doesn't name them, a defense motion filed in the U.S. district court in Eugene says one of the snitches is Stanislas "Country Boy" Meyerhoff, a 28-year-old who attends Piedmont Community College in Charlottesville, Virginia. Oregon's Ashland Daily Tidings reports that Lauren Regan, an attorney with the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, has said the government's case is based largely on the testimony of one Jake Ferguson, who has admitted his role in the actions and has agreed to cooperate with the FBI. The San Diego Union Tribune reports there may be an additional two informants.
Who are the alleged elves? Here's a sample. Jonathan Paul--known as J.P.--was arrested at an inn in Greensprings, Oregon while he was eating a tofu burger on a homemade bun, reports the Jackson County Mail Tribune. J.P. is a volunteer firefighter near Ashland, Oregon, with a trust fund and other assets worth $1.7 million. J.P.'s wife describes him as "non-violent, peaceful, and compassionate."
Kevin Tubbs, who is called Dog, is described at the Support Kevin Tubbs website as "a uniquely gentle, loving person who is uncommonly generous to friends and strangers alike. He is not a violent person." The site has Dog's wish list of books he would like sent to him at the Sheridan Federal Corrections Center in Sheridan, Oregon. Prison Etiquette: The Convict's Compendium of Useful Information, by Philip Metres, has been removed from the list as Dog has already received it, thank you.
Defendant Suzanne Savoie of Applegate Valley, Oregon, known as India, is accused of being the lookout in the 2001 firebombing of the Superior Lumber Co.'s offices. She is described by an Ashland resident Jan Wright, mother of Savoie's partner, as "absolutely non-violent." That's the common denominator for the defendants, their devotion to non-violence. Except, of course, for the firebomb thing.
Of the 11 alleged elves indicted on January 20, eight are in custody and three remain in hiding. The evidence against the ELF 11 consists of 35 CDs of recorded conversations, 40,000 pages of other evidence, fake IDs, a book titled Advanced Anarchist Arsenal, and, of course, white plastic buckets.
An unindicted conspirator, William C. Rodgers, a.k.a. Avalon, has already martyred himself, suffocating in a commissary plastic bag in his Arizona jail cell. If convicted of multiple counts, the other elves face decades in prison. They'll be out of sight, but perhaps they will enter our lore, as did Robin Hood. It has already begun. Folk musician David Rovics has written a song about Jeffrey Luers, the fellow who set fire to the Chevies and is doing 22 hard ones. The song is titled Free, after Luers' nickname. Some of the lyrics:
I saw the highways, I saw the mall
I saw the eagle, heard the clarion call
Voices of reason were talking to me
So I burned down a couple of SUV's
James Thayer is a frequent contributor to THE DAILY STANDARD. His twelfth novel, The Gold Swan, has been published by Simon & Schuster.