Ore. city is fertile "eco" ground

Group suspected in fires, sabotage has ties to Eugene

Denver Post/December 18, 2005
By Steve Lipsher and Joey Bunch

Eugene, Ore. -- The threads that bind a radical environmental cell whose members have set fires and sabotaged property across the West are woven through this college town, according to federal prosecutors.

Eugene, long a counterculture hot spot, has been viewed as the hub for aggressive environmental and political action since protesters from here convened in Seattle in 1999 to lead rampant violence outside the World Trade Organization conference.

"If you want to fight the system, you have to go to the battlefront," explained Eugene native Ian Davis, 20, as he peered through his blond, dreadlocked hair at the University of Oregon library Saturday.

The city's latest link to the shadowy Earth Liberation Front, ELF, was made Friday in U.S. District Court in Flagstaff, Ariz.

William C. Rodgers, 40, a Prescott, Ariz., bookstore owner who once lived in Eugene, was named by FBI Special Agent Doug Linter as one of the culprits in the $12 million arson at Vail in 1998 and several other fires for which ELF claimed responsibility.

Earlier in the week, a federal prosecutor said that Chelsea Gerlach, 28, formerly of Eugene, was involved in the blazes that destroyed Vail Mountain's Two Elk Lodge, ski-patrol headquarters and three ski-lift buildings on the evening before the resort was to begin logging for a controversial terrain expansion.

Rodgers and Gerlach were among six people arrested in four states Dec. 7 in a roundup of so-called eco-terrorists originally centered in Eugene and accused of numerous arsons and other acts of sabotage.

Prosecutors have yet to reveal any evidence linking Rodgers or Gerlach to the Vail fires, and neither has any known ties to Colorado.

So far, Rodgers is charged only with arson in a 1998 fire at the National Wildlife Research Facility in Olympia, Wash.

Character witnesses in court on Friday described Rodgers, the owner of the Catalyst Info-shop, as a pillar of Prescott who has a warm heart and promotes nonviolence.

"It's hard to process this, because it doesn't completely fit with the person we know in Prescott," said supporter Randall Amster, a professor of peace studies at Prescott College.

Rodgers, who is being held in the county jail in Flagstaff until the still undecided time that he is to be transferred to Washington, is regarded as a vital participant in Prescott's activist community for environmental and social justice.

"Bill has been an integral and active part of our community," his partner, Katie Rose Nelson, wrote in a website missive. "Many of you have probably experienced his kind, generous personality and know him as an honest and dependable friend. Bill has guided us, listened to us and taught us to respect all life."

Attorneys and relatives of Rodgers and Gerlach have vehemently denied the allegations.

"We wouldn't have charged them if we didn't think they were good cases," said Karin Immergut, the U.S. attorney for Oregon. "We have evidence that ... prove these cases beyond a reasonable doubt."

Actions in the past 10 days are the culmination of a nine-year investigation by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, headed by the FBI, that looked into a rash of firebombings and attacks on other targets between 1998 and 2001.

Other suspects arrested

Various alleged members of the so-called Eugene cell have been formally charged with tearing down an electrical-transmission tower near Bend, and in connection with arsons in Oregon and Olympia.

After being charged with sabotaging the power line, Gerlach was indicted in Oregon on Friday on charges that she served as a lookout in the firebombing of the Childers Meat Co. in Eugene in 1999, and helped two other people set fires at Jefferson Poplar Farms in Clatskanie, Ore., in 2001.

Also arrested were:

Gerlach's boyfriend, Darren Thurston, 35, a radical Canadian activist convicted in two previous cases and being held by U.S. authorities on charges of entering the country with phony documents.

Stanislaus Gregory Meyerhoff, 28, a student at Piedmont Community College in Charlottesville, Va., in connection with fires in 2001 at an Oregon poplar farm and a lumber company in Glendale, Ore., as well as the sabotage of the electrical line. He attended high school in Eugene with Gerlach.

Daniel Gerard McGowan, 31, of New York City in connection with the 2001 fires at the poplar farm and the Glendale lumber company. McGowan lived in Eugene in 1998 and 1999.

Kevin M. Tubbs, 36, who was indicted on arson charges alleging he helped firebomb Romania Truck Chevrolet in Eugene in 2001, destroying 35 sport utility vehicles and causing $1 million in damages. He also was indicted in the 1998 fire at the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services facility in Olympia.

Sarah Kendall Harvey, 28, an administrative assistant at Northern Arizona University, charged with the 1998 fire at a Medford, Ore., lumber company. She lived in Eugene from 1996 to 2000.

ELF and the affiliated Animal Liberation Front took responsibility for all but one of the six attacks in Washington and Oregon between 1998 and 2001 that are the subject of indictments so far.

Locals tight-lipped

There have been about 1,100 incidents of sabotage by environmental activists in the past three decades, causing about $110 million in damage, according to the FBI.

At the Morning Glory Café near downtown Eugene, the running comment about the arrests was "no comment" on Friday and Saturday.

At the front counter, calendars are for sale to raise money to combat military recruitment in high schools. The cafe's employees bare their bodies on the inside pages, and 19 patrons are nude in the cafe on the cover.

The name Chelsea Gerlach or her alleged nickname, "Country Girl," rang a bell to waiter Jamie Huns, 23. But he is not surprised she found friends in Eugene's environmental movement.

Hippies in Eugene tend to be legitimately poor, unlike poseurs in other liberal burgs, he said.

"When people are totally broke, they have to stick together to get by," he said.

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