Environmental-arson probe has Eugene activists on edge
By Hal Bernton and
Seattle Times staff reporters
EUGENE, Ore. — Chelsea Gerlach grew up in this university town, embracing the values of an activist community renowned for its passionate — sometimes militant — environmental stands.
Gerlach, 28, graduated with honors from South Eugene High School. She spent a year at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, and eventually embarked on a life that mixed activism with stints as a disc jockey.
Today, Gerlach is in federal custody, held without bail, and considered by federal prosecutors as a prime suspect in a string of arsons that include a 2001 fire at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture and several 1998 fires that caused $12 million worth of damage to a Vail ski resort.
Gerlach is one of six people arrested last week in what federal officials call the biggest crackdown ever on two underground groups of environmental radicals — the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The groups target companies and institutions that they believe pose a threat to the natural world.
The arrests resulted from a nine-year investigation by FBI agents into the tight-knit cells believed to have carried out numerous politically motivated arsons.
And Eugene is at the hub of the investigation.
While the six suspects were arrested in states as far apart as Arizona and New York, during the past decade all of them have spent time in or around Eugene, according to public records.
Grand juries in 2001
Since at least 2001, Eugene-based federal grand juries have been looking at cases of arson and other vandalism.
On Friday, the grand jury issued two more indictments, charging Gerlach in two additional arsons and alleging that Kevin Tubbs of Springfield, Ore., helped set fires that damaged or destroyed 36 vehicles at a Eugene Chevrolet dealer in 2001. The grand jury also has subpoenaed at least a half-dozen activists to testify this winter as it gathers evidence for possible future charges.
Some local activists feel they are under siege. The wide scope of the investigation, coupled with the possibility that arson convictions could bring decades of prison time, has stirred up fear and anger.
"It seems like the government is trying to get as many people as they can," said John Zerzan, an author who is one of the elders of Eugene's anarchist movement. "There's a lot of resentment. Some don't want to talk about this. ... I think we need to tell people what the federal government is up to."
The federal government has long struggled to solve these arson cases, which include fires at research facilities, lumber offices, logging vehicles and other targets. Saboteurs have often claimed responsibility on ELF and ALF Web sites, or by spray-painting ELF initials at the arson sites.
WTO prompted scrutiny
Eugene anarchists, who have often condoned acts of property damage in support of their causes, began drawing new scrutiny in 1999, when they sent unruly groups of protesters dressed in black to the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle. The downtown area suffered some $3 million worth of damage during the protests.
"Immediately after WTO things really started heating up. This place was just jammed with all sorts of task-force people from all sorts of agencies," Zerzan said.
After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the investigation appeared to falter, according to retired Eugene police Capt. Thad Buchanan, who served on a task force investigating eco-sabotage.
"We were pretty close [to making some cases] at that point of time," Buchanan said. "Then 9/11 came along. We lost a lot of our federal resources. Everything changed."
But the investigations recently regained momentum, bolstered by the use of confidential informants.
Help from informants
Two informants who claim to have participated in a May 2000 fire at an Oregon meat plant allege that Gerlach was part of that effort. One said Gerlach, equipped with a hand-held radio, served as a lookout as others placed five-gallon containers of fuel at the site, according to court papers.
An informant may also have led to the arrest in Arizona of Sarah Harvey, also known as Kendall Tankersley, who is accused of participating in a 1998 fire at U.S. Forest Industries in Medford, Ore.
The daughter of two attorneys, Harvey was homeless for a period in Eugene, and between 1997 and 1999 worked at Food Not Bombs, an agency that distributes food to the homeless, said Patricia Siering, a professor at Humboldt State University in California who met her years later.
Federal prosecutors last week briefly mentioned in court that a recorded conversation between Harvey and a co-defendant suggested that Harvey had served as a lookout during the U.S. Forest Industries fire. Her attorney said Harvey maintains her innocence.
Federal officials have also said they have collected evidence from secret recordings involving suspects Daniel McGowan, who was arrested in connection with two 2001 arsons, and William Rodgers, who was charged with a 1998 fire at an Olympia wildlife lab.
Daniel Glick, author of the 2001 book about the Vail fires, "Powder Burn," said arson is so difficult to prove that authorities often get nowhere without confessions or help from insiders.
"From the beginning, law enforcement was telling me their best hope was if someone bragged about it, if people shot off their mouths or if someone finked on someone else," Glick said.
But Glick speculated the FBI also may be fishing, rounding people up en masse and making oblique references to wired informants "hoping that people will believe that everybody else is turning on everybody else so they might as well, too."
Perils of loose talk
Either way, the possibility of informers in their ranks has increased unease among activists. Movement Web sites are peppered with messages about surveillance, pressure to cooperate, and the perils of loose talk among friends.
Arrests are coming at a time when sabotage actions in Eugene appear to be at a low.
Passions seemed to reach a peak in 2001, when Jeffrey Luers, a Eugene activist, was convicted of setting fires that caused $40,000 worth of damage to three vehicles at a local Chevrolet dealer, and of attempting to set fire to a gasoline tank truck at a fuel company.
The weeks before his trial that year were anything but calm. A second arson broke out at the same Chevrolet dealer, this time causing $1 million in damage.
Luers was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison for the first fire, after which anarchist confrontations with police eased and a rash of trash-bin fires eased.
"Things really stopped, as no one wanted to step into his shoes," said Buchanan, the retired police captain. "I think the judge did the right thing, and it proved to be a deterrent."
But Luers' sentence angered even those Eugene activists who don't agree with sabotage as a form of protest.
"Twenty-two years, people don't even get that for murder, for God's sake," said one Eugene store owner who declined to be identified. "He [Luers] considers himself to be a political prisoner, and I agree."
Celebrity and criticism
Luers has gained international celebrity, with numerous newspaper articles written about him and an Australian filmmaker documenting his story. His lengthy imprisonment, Luers has noted, has proved a more powerful rallying cry than his original protest.
That rankles some Eugene residents.
"It breaks my heart to learn that I live in a community where Jeff 'Free' Luers is put on a pedestal and praised as a 'political activist.' What are we teaching our children? That it is OK to commit a heinous act of vandalism as long as you are trying to convey a message?" Scott Wilson wrote in a letter recently published in the Eugene Weekly newspaper.
This month's charges could land a new crop of activists in prison for most of their lives, and are making underground heroes of Gerlach and others. Colleagues are taking notes at court hearings and raising questions on blogs about the tactics of federal agents.
Meanwhile, friends and family hold rallies and vigils and dispute all charges.
"Chelsea is a naturally peaceful person and she would never, ever resort to violence," Gerlach's sister, Shasta Kearns Moore, said in a written statement. Her family is "both disturbed and baffled by the charges brought against her."
Seattle Times reporter Cheryl Phillips and researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or