Rolling Stone Looks at Eco-Arsonists

The Washington Post/August 2, 2006
By Peter Carlson

His daddy was doing time for armed robbery, and Jacob Ferguson grew up on the streets of New York, sleeping on sidewalks, squatting in abandoned buildings, stealing cars, selling heroin and ripping off suburban kids who came into the big city to score dope.

At 19, Ferguson hit the road, hopping trains to New Orleans, Minneapolis, the West Coast. In 1996 he jumped off a train in Eugene, Ore., and bummed a meal at a place called Food Not Bombs, where he fell in with a crowd of self-styled anarchists and radical environmentalists. Soon he was leading an eco-arson group that torched forest ranger stations, car dealerships and corporate offices around the Pacific Northwest.

Ferguson is the main character in Vanessa Grigoriadis's excellent article "The Rise and Fall of the Eco-Radical Underground" in the Aug. 10 issue of Rolling Stone. It's a fascinating update of the old American story of idealists who turn violent, set in a subculture of anarchist coffeehouses, heavy-metal bands, radical vegans, neo-pagans and women who are herbalists by day and arsonists by night.

Ferguson joined a group of environmentalists who were camped in an old-growth forest in Warner Creek, Ore., in a successful attempt to prevent logging of ancient trees. There, Ferguson found an outlet for his antisocial inclinations.

"I'm a homeless, stupid dirtbag and suddenly I get to go hiking and do something to stop the loggers," he told Grigoriadis. "Man, it was so empowering."

The middle-class enviros at Warner Creek found Ferguson fascinating. He was an authentic criminal with a pentagram tattooed on his skull to advertise his alienation. Anarchist women were eager to sleep with the handsome rebel and he was happy to oblige.

In the fall of 1996, Ferguson and a girlfriend named Sunshine--"an herbalist with a huge tattoo of a bird spanning her back"--torched a couple of forest ranger stations in Oregon, signing their handiwork in spray paint: "Earth Liberation Front." The arsonists viewed the forest rangers as tools of the logging industry.

Soon, Ferguson recruited Bill Rodgers to the ELF eco-arson squad. A sensitive middle-class college dropout, Rodgers believed that humans were no more important than any other animals and thus had no right to own pets, or even houseplants. He called himself "Avalon" after the book "The Mists of Avalon," which Grigoriadis describes as "a novel about matriarchal pagans fighting the oppressive forces of phallocentric Christianity."

Ferguson and Avalon raided a horse corral in Burns, Ore., where the Bureau of Land Management rounded up wild horses and sold them to folks who butchered them and shipped the meat to Europe. The ELF radicals set 500 horses and burros free, then torched the facility and left a communique: "Genocide against the horse nation will not go unchallenged!"

Over the next few years, Ferguson, Avalon and a couple dozen friends burned a lumber company office in Oregon, a multimillion-dollar ski resort in Vail, Colo., and a Chevy dealership near Eugene, where they set fire to 36 SUVs, symbols of a gas-guzzling society.

"At night," Avalon wrote, "we are no longer prey to our masters, but predators."

Meanwhile, Ferguson was playing in a heavy-metal band with an unprintable name and shooting up heroin. That angered Avalon, who made his living growing pot but still felt compelled to write an essay for Earth First! Journal announcing that "drugs and alcohol are used to subjugate the masses and pacify discontent."

Things started unraveling when Ferguson angered one of his girlfriends and she paid a visit to the cops.

In the spring of 2003, the FBI picked up Ferguson and told him he'd better start ratting on his friends before they started ratting on him. He did--but first he made sure that he'd collect the $50,000 reward offered for information on the arsons.

Soon, Ferguson was visiting Avalon and his other comrades, chatting about their adventures while wearing a hidden recording device. Busted, Avalon committed suicide in his cell. Six other radicals pleaded guilty; five are awaiting trial.

These days, Ferguson lives outside Eugene with his 8-year-old son, studying diesel mechanics at a community college and waiting for some old comrade to kill him.

"I think that's part of the feds' tactic, leaving me out of jail so I get killed," he told Grigoriadis. "The feds are into punishment, dude."

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