By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 21, 2006
SEATTLE, Jan. 20 -- After taking nine years to penetrate what they called a "vast eco-terrorism conspiracy" in Oregon and four other Western states, federal prosecutors announced on Friday the indictment of 11 people in connection with a five-year wave of arson and sabotage claimed by the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front.
The 17 attacks, which occurred from 1996 to 2001, caused no deaths but resulted in an estimated $23 million in damage to lumber companies, a ski resort, meat plants, federal ranger stations and a high-voltage electric tower.
After its members allegedly set fire to the office of the Boise Cascade wood products company in Monmouth, Ore., on Christmas Day in 1999, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) sent out a communique saying, "Early Christmas morning elves left coal in Boise Cascade's stocking."
In Washington, the Justice Department called the indictments a breakthrough in what prosecutors said has been a long and difficult investigation of the animal rights group and the environmental organization, which organize themselves in small, Maoist-style cells and advocate "direct action" against those who abuse animals or Earth.
"Today's indictment proves that we will not tolerate any group that terrorizes the American people, no matter its intentions or objectives," Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said at a news conference.
Joining Gonzales, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said: "Investigating and preventing animal rights and environmental extremism is one of the FBI's highest domestic priorities."
There are 188 open investigations of crimes claimed by the two groups, dating to 1987, according to Carl J. Truscott, director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He said 25 to 30 of those cases are being actively being pursued -- about half of them in the Pacific Northwest, California and Utah.
In Oregon, where a federal grand jury handed up the indictments, U.S. Attorney Karin J. Immergut said that it took a long time for federal, state and local authorities to gain investigative traction in the arson cases because the 11 alleged conspirators, who referred to themselves as the "family," had taken an oath to protect each other. A key break occurred, she said, when informants were found.
"Getting inside information was one of the critical components of being able to crack the case," she said.
Investigators said that most of the 11 people indicted have lived in and around the university town of Eugene, Ore. Eight of them have been arrested -- six in December in locations across the nation and two this week in Eugene. Three are at-large and believed to be outside the country.
Immergut predicted that the indictments "will put a significant dent in the movement."
This week, though, the ELF claimed another arson -- a mansion under construction on an island in Puget Sound was destroyed by a fire. The ELF has claimed responsibility for burning down a number of big houses being built in Washington state in the past two years, and no arrests have been made. In California in recent years, the ELF has also claimed responsibility for arsons in housing developments and attacks on SUV sales lots.
"Our law enforcement has a lousy record of catching these people," said Gary R. Perlstein, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University in Oregon. "Unfortunately, I think the message you can take away from these indictments is that you can get away with these kind of crimes for a long time."
The ALF was created in the mid-1970s in Britain as a radical outgrowth of the animal rights movement. The group became active in the United States in the late 1980s. Its Web site says that one of its primary goals is "to inflict economic damage to those who profit from the misery and exploitation of animals."
The ELF emerged in Britain in the mid-1990s, and its organization and tactics are modeled after those of the ALF. Members of the two organizations often work together, Perlstein said.
"These people have the ability to hide and stay away from law enforcement in a way that traditional criminals are not able to do," Perlstein said. Among those arrested in connection with the 17 attacks are college students from Virginia and Arizona, a firefighter from Oregon, and a woman who works in a group home for the developmentally disabled.
The defendants were listed as Joseph Dibee, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, Sarah Kendall Harvey, Daniel McGowan, Stanislas Meyerhoff, Josephine Overaker, Jonathan Christopher Mark Paul, Rebecca Rubin, Suzanne Nicole "India" Savoie, Darren Todd Thurston and Kevin Tubbs. Dibee, Overaker and Rubin have not been arrested.
An unindicted co-conspirator in the case -- William C. Rodgers, 40, who was arrested in December in Arizona on related arson charges -- killed himself shortly after his arrest.
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.