3 Plead Guilty to Arsons Linked to Eco-Terrorism

The Oregonian, Portland/July 22, 2006
By Mark Larabee

Eugene -- Days before they helped torch a mountaintop lodge at the Vail Ski Resort about 100 miles west of Denver, Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff and Chelsea Dawn Gerlach checked into a Utah motel room and built the timers that would set off the firebombs.

That October 1998, the two were driving from Oregon in Gerlach's truck at the invitation of William C. Rodgers, a luminary in the eyes of eco-saboteurs who associated with the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front.

Rodgers also was an influential force in Gerlach's life; the two met when she was 16 and he was 28.

Rodgers wanted the Vail fires to send a message to the government and to ski resort operators that plans for expansion would push too far into the wilderness habitat of the lynx.

The account of the Vail destruction came during federal court hearings Friday, when Gerlach, Meyerhoff and Suzanne Savoie pleaded guilty to conspiracy and a string of arsons. Savoie didn't participate in the Vail fires.

After entering her plea, Gerlach, 29, of Portland, apologized to anyone who had been hurt by her actions, saying it was not her intention to invoke fear.

"These acts were motivated by a deep sense of despair and anger at the deteriorating state of the global environment and the escalating inequities within society," she said. "But I realized years ago that this was not an effective or appropriate way to effect positive change. I now know that it is better to act from love than from anger, better to create than destroy and better to plant gardens than to burn down buildings."

Federal prosecutors detailed the Vail case, telling how the group drove jugs of gasoline and diesel fuel part of the way up an 11,250-foot mountain and stashed the canisters for later use.

Meyerhoff quit the effort after that because he thought it couldn't be done, the prosecutors said. But on Oct. 18, 1998, Gerlach drove Rodgers as far as she could on the snowy roads and left him to walk the rest of the way and set the fires alone.

She then waited until the next day, when Rodgers walked out of the wilderness. The fires damaged or destroyed eight buildings at two sites that were 1.4 miles apart on the mountain ridge.

In a communique sent on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front on Oct. 21, Rodgers and Gerlach wrote: "For your safety and convenience, we strongly advise skiers to choose other destinations until Vail cancels its inexcusable plans for expansion."

Rodgers, a 40-year-old bookstore owner who lived in Arizona when he was arrested last year, committed suicide in a Flagstaff jail on the eve of facing arson charges in Seattle.

Gerlach, Meyerhoff and Savoie are among six defendants who pleaded guilty in Eugene this week before U.S District Judge Ann Aiken. The pleas are a major turning point in the ongoing prosecution of a Eugene-based band of saboteurs whose wave of firebombings across Oregon and the West beginning in the mid-1990s heightened security at government land offices and at lumber, meat and animal fur businesses.

Kevin Tubbs, Kendall Tankersley and Darren Todd Thurston made similar pleas Thursday. Four others are in custody or released on bail to face a trial set for Oct. 31. Three others who are indicted remain on the run.

Gerlach's attorney, Craig Weinerman, said that by the time of the 2001 fire at the Jefferson Poplar Farm in Clatskanie, Gerlach had become disillusioned with the front's actions.

"By then she started to see that what they were doing was not only wrong, but counterproductive and not accomplishing anything," he said. "They'd burn a building down, and it would be built better and bigger."

The cell disbanded in 2001 and Gerlach went on with her life until her arrest in December in Portland. At the time, she was living with Thurston, a Canadian citizen, who is considered a godfather figure among environmental radicals.

According to a Web site supporting her, Gerlach was working as a disc jockey. She was born in the small logging community of Sweet Home and graduated from International High School in south Eugene. An activist from an early age, her first arrest came at 16 during an EarthFirst! campaign in a roadless area of Idaho.

"She has been involved in many different aspects of the environmental movement," the site says, interning with the Oregon Natural Resources Council, canvassing for the Sierra Club and leading the Environmental Resource Center at Evergreen State College in Olympia.

Gerlach pleaded guilty to 18 counts of conspiracy, arson and attempted arson relating to the toppling of a Bonneville Power Administration electrical transmission tower in December 1999 and to fires at the Childers Meat Co. in Eugene in May 1999; the Boise Cascade offices in Monmouth in December 1999; and a Eugene police substation in September 2000.

She also agreed to plead guilty later this year to eight other arson counts relating to the Vail fires and faces a recommended sentence of 10 years in prison.

Meyerhoff, 29, pleaded guilty to 54 counts of conspiracy and arson. He faces a recommended sentence of 15 years and eight months in prison.

He also admitted to toppling the power lines and to helping set fires at Childers Meat Co., Boise Cascade, the Eugene Police Department, Jefferson Poplar, and Superior Lumber Co. in Glendale in January 2001, and to setting blazes that destroyed 35 trucks and SUVs at Joe Romania Chevrolet Truck Center in Eugene in March 2001. He also has agreed to plead guilty to his involvement in the Vail case.

Savoie, 28, considered a minor player in the group, faces five years and three months in jail for helping set fires at Jefferson Poplar and Superior Lumber.

The pleas are the result of deals made separately with each defendant. Prosecutors have agreed to recommend significantly reduced sentences and to grant the defendants immunity for other crimes they might have helped plan or commit in other states in exchange for their testimony and help in unraveling what happened.

The Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front have claimed responsibility or have been implicated in causing more than $100 million in damages dating back to 1996, targeting government and private enterprises they accused of harming the planet for profit. The FBI labeled the network the country's leading domestic terrorist threat.

The case was filed last December after a nationwide dragnet. The arrests followed nearly 10 years of investigation by the FBI, ATF, Eugene police and other federal and state law enforcement and land management agencies.

Sentencing for all six defendants has been set for Dec. 14.

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