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Friday, November 30, 2012 - Page updated at 11:00 p.m.

Fugitive in string of eco-terrorism fires surrenders

By Jeff Barnard
The Associated Press

One of the three remaining fugitives in a string of high-profile fires across the West that focused national attention on a group of environmental radicals surrendered to authorities Thursday after spending years in hiding in Canada.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Portland said Rebecca Jeanette Rubin, 39, a Canadian citizen, turned herself in to the FBI at the Canadian border in Blaine.

Rubin was part of a cell of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front known as The Family, based in Eugene, Ore., authorities said.

Among other actions, the cell was responsible for the arson at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture in 2001.

The former wildlife researcher was arrested after spending a decade as an international fugitive from the largest ecoterrorism investigation in U.S. history, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

Rubin was sought on conspiracy and arson indictments dating to 2006 alleging she helped set fires at the Vail ski resort in Colorado and at federal wild-horse corrals in Eastern Oregon and Northern California, and tried to set fire to a lumber-mill office in Medford, Ore.

Rubin is not specifically charged with terrorism, but the indictment alleges she and the other members of The Family tried to influence businesses and the government and tried to retaliate against the government. Prosecutors won terrorism enhancements at sentencing for some of the others in the case.

Ten others pleaded guilty in 2007 to conspiracy and arson and were sentenced to prison. Two others remain at large.

At the time, the FBI characterized the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front as the top domestic-terrorism threats in the nation.

Authorities have said the Earth Liberation Front cell was responsible for 20 arsons around the West from 1996 to 2001 that did $40 million in damage. The highest-profile case was the 1998 fire that destroyed a restaurant and other facilities at the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado.

Besides the Center for Urban Horticulture, other targets included several businesses and structures in Oregon — a horse slaughterhouse, U.S. Forest Service ranger stations, a power transmission tower, a tree farm and an SUV dealership.

The group disbanded in 2001, but a federal task force known as Operation Backfire turned an informant and broke open the cell in 2005.

By then, the group's leader, William C. Rodgers, was running a bookstore in Prescott, Ariz. After his arrest, Rodgers committed suicide in jail.

Authorities described him as a Svengali-like guru and sexual predator who liked to call himself Avalon, after an island from the legend of King Arthur.

The informant was Jacob Ferguson, a local environmental activist. Prosecutors said he agreed to take a recorder into Family meetings around the country to break through their code of silence.

Originally sentenced to probation, Ferguson was sent to prison after authorities found him selling heroin.

In a 2009 paper on environmental terrorism, sociologists Brent L. Smith of the University of Arkansas and Kelly R. Damphousse of the University of Oklahoma wrote that The Family members were mostly from middle-class backgrounds, though a few, like Ferguson, had criminal histories. The group developed from the environmental-activist and anarchist community of Eugene.

Though as many as 20 people were part of The Family, no more than eight took part in any one attack.

The indictment against Rubin said the group was bent on retaliating against the government, businesses and others, and tried to change the conduct of government and commerce using violence, intimidation and mass destruction.

In the Vail arson, the group issued a communiqué saying the buildings were burned as retribution for the Forest Service allowing the resort to expand into critical habitat for the Canada lynx, a threatened species. The attack focused national attention on the idea of ecoterrorism.

However, by the time they were sentenced, members of The Family expressed regret and frustration that after all their hardships, they had accomplished practically nothing.

Though a horse slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore., was never rebuilt, the Vail resort buildings and Oregon ranger stations were reconstructed, timber companies stayed in business, genetic-engineering research went on, and wild horses were still rounded up and removed from federal lands.

Rubin appeared Thursday in federal court in Seattle and will be sent to Eugene for trial.

The two remaining fugitives are Joseph Mahmoud Dibee and Josephine Sunshine Overaker, Ferguson's former girlfriend. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer said Dibee is believed to be in Syria, where he has family, and Overaker is believed to be in Europe.

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