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Prosecutors portray close-knit arson team
Seattle Times staff reporter
PORTLAND — Federal prosecutors say members of a group that called itself "the Family" swore each other to secrecy as they conducted a seven-year campaign of arson and vandalism, including the May 2001 fire at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture.
On Friday, the Justice Department released a 65-count indictment against 11 people, charging them with 17 arsons and sabotage attacks that prosecutors say were committed on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF).
The indictment offers the most detailed look at the tactics and acts prosecutors say were employed by a largely Oregon-based cell. They say its members once sprayed "ELF" and "ALF" at crime scenes, and seemed so confident of their freedom that they touted their successes via Internet press releases.
"You thought we wouldn't find you, and we did," said Dan Nielsen, the FBI's assistant special agent in charge of Oregon.
The indictment says none of the attacks were the acts of lone individuals. Instead, it says, there was a close-knit group whose members consulted with each other, joined in stake-out missions and arsons, and crafted news releases to tout their crimes.
The indictment supersedes earlier indictments released in December that named seven of the individuals (one man committed suicide last month in jail). It expands the list of crimes, and adds five new names to the list of conspirators.
One of the newly named individuals is 38-year-old Joseph Dibee, who went by the alias of "Seattle," the indictment says. Dibee lived in the Puget Sound area for much of the past decade, according to public records. He and two other people named in the indictment are believed to be outside the United States, and are being sought by federal authorities. Dibee allegedly participated in at least four arsons, including the June 21, 1998, fire at the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Wildlife Facility in Olympia, which resulted in $1.2 million in damage.
The 65-count indictmentreturned by a federal grand jury in Eugene, Ore., alleges members of "the Family" were responsible for the following attacks:
• Oct. 28, 1996: arson and vandalism at the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Detroit Ranger Station in Marion County, Ore. Minor damage.
• July 21, 1997: arson at the Cavel West meat-packing company in Redmond, Ore. Damage: more than $1 million.
• Nov. 30, 1997: arson at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Facility in Harney County, Ore. Damage: $474,000.
• June 21, 1998: arson at the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Wildlife Facility in Olympia. Damage: about $1.2 million.
• Oct. 11, 1998: attempted arson and vandalism at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Holding Facility in Rock Springs, Wyo. Minor damage.
• Oct. 19, 1998: arson at the Vail Ski Facility in Vail, Colo. Damage: $12 million.
• Oct. 30, 1998: arson at the USFS Oakridge Ranger Station in Lane County, Ore. Damage: $5.3 million
• Dec. 27, 1998: arson at the U.S. Forest Industries in Jackson County, Ore. Damage: $500,000.
• May 9, 1999: arson at the Childers Meat Company in Lane County, Ore.. Damage: estimated at $1.2 million.
• Dec. 25, 1999: arson at the Boise Cascade office in Polk County, Ore.. Damage: about $1 million.
• Dec. 30, 1999: toppling of a Bonneville Power Administration high-tension power-line tower near Bend, Ore.
• Sept. 6, 2000: firebombs thrown at the Eugene Police Department West University Public Safety Station. Minor damage.
• Jan. 2, 2001: arson at the Superior Lumber Company in Douglas County, Ore. Damage: $1 million.
• March 30, 2001: arson at Joe Romania Chevrolet Truck Center in Eugene. Damage: $1 million.
• May 21, 2001: arson at the Jefferson Poplar Farms in Columbia County, Ore. Damage: more than $1 million.
• May 21, 2001: arson at the University of Washington Horticultural Center in Seattle. Damage: between $1.5 million and $2 million.
• Oct. 15, 2001: arson at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Facility in Litchfield, Calif. Damage: about $85,000.
The indictments result from a nine-year investigation by federal, state and local law-enforcement officials.
It was hailed Friday by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut, the chief federal prosecutor in Oregon, as a major blow against domestic terrorism. Some of those named in the 11-page indictment could face life in prison if convicted, while others could face decades of confinement.
The FBI has said groups such as ELF and ALF represent the nation's top domestic terror threat, though the groups reject that label and say they are careful not to harm people.
Immergut said a pledge by the defendants to never reveal each other's identities to law-enforcement officials made the investigation more difficult. But investigators persuaded some alleged participants to act as informants, providing details of the crimes.
In addition to the UW, the targets of the attacks included U.S. Forest Service buildings, a Bureau of Land Management horse corral, a meat company, a lumber company, and a Vail, Colo., ski resort.
Incendiary devices made from 5-gallon plastic buckets, milk jugs, petroleum products and homemade timers were used in the series of attacks from 1996 through 2001 in Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, California and Colorado, according to the indictment.
The arsons and vandalism caused more than $20 million in property damage and were intended to influence the conduct of government and private business, the indictment says.
The UW horticulture center was a research center and resource to gardeners all over the region. An ELF press release said it was targeted due to efforts to develop fast-growing poplar trees. After the May 21, 2001, fire, the building was rebuilt at a cost of more than $7 million in public funds.
The indictment says the UW arson was part of a double attack that included a $1 million arson at an Oregon poplar farm at about the same time.
In the UW fire, 28-year-old Stanislas Meyerhoff and William C. Rodgers, a 40-year-old Arizona bookstore owner, allegedly met in a strategy session. They decided on a double arson in Washington and Oregon, according to the indictment.
Sometime before the arson, it says, Meyerhoff, Rodgers and Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, 28, of Portland made at least one reconnaissance visit to the UW campus. Meyerhoff, Rodgers and "other persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury" set the fire, according to the indictment filed Friday.
After the fires, the indictment says, Meyerhoff and Rodgers wrote an online document titled "Setting Fire with Electrical Timers, an Earth Liberation Front Guide." In posting the document, according to the indictment, the two men hoped to popularize the design of their home-built incendiary device so it would no longer be unique to their crimes and thus hinder detection.
Federal officials say there have been no recent ELF-linked arsons in Oregon but note that suspicious fires have continued in Washington, California and elsewhere.
Rodgers, who also was identified by federal prosecutors as the mastermind of the 1998 arson at Vail, Colo., but was not charged in connection with that crime, committed suicide last month in an Arizona jail.
From the indictment, Rodgers appeared to be a key figure in the cell, allegedly involved in many of the most high-profile crimes.
Others named in Friday's indictment were Sarah Kendall Harvey, 28; Daniel McGowan, 31; Josephine Overaker, 31; Kevin Tubbs, 36; Suzanne Savoie, 28; Jonathan Mark Christopher Paul, 39; Rebecca Rubin, 32, and Darren Thurston, 34.
The list of names linked to the cell may grow in the months ahead, prosecutors said. Federal investigators in Seattle continue to investigate leads on other individuals who may have been involved in the UW fire, according to Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle.
Assistant Chief Ray Wittmier of the UW Police Department said Friday he was pleased that the government had filed charges in the arson.
"We're not directly involved with a lot of the investigation," Wittmier said, "but we help with some of the background. ... We're pleased that we're starting to see a little bit of closure to the incident."
Langlie and Seattle FBI spokeswoman Robbie Burroughs noted that the new Oregon indictment does not address a string of local arsons, including at homes under construction in Snohomish County in early 2004 and in King County in 2005, for which ELF/ALF claimed responsibility.
The Building Industry Association of Washington has offered a $100,000 reward for the conviction of anyone associated with a residential fire attributed to ELF/ALF. Those crimes remain under investigation by the Seattle-based FBI agents.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com.
Seattle Times staff reporter Peter Lewis contributed to this report.
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