On a Thursday morning in the summer of 2000, scientists at a US Forest Service research facility in Rhinelander, Wis. discovered their vehicles had been vandalized overnight and rings of bark had been removed—a fatal process called "girdling" —from a whole forest of trees involved in a long-term genetic experiment.
The environmentalist group Earth Liberation Front took credit for the damage "on behalf of native forests everywhere," but investigators were unable to tie physical evidence to individual subjects.
The case stayed closed for seven years, until two of the saboteurs—Ian Wallace and Daniel McGowan—were arrested on other ELF-related charges. Based on their "cooperation," according to Meredith Duchemin, assistant US attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, FBI agents arrested two more suspects, including Wallace's high school ex-girlfriend, Katherine Christianson.
Christianson committed the crime at age 19 in Wisconsin. She was 27 years old when the FBI arrested her in Santa Fe, where her parents live and she was a licensed massage therapist. She'll be 29 when she finishes her two-year sentence at the federal women's prison in southern Minnesota. Then she will share $450,000 in restitution with co-defendant and high school classmate Bryan Lefey, who is serving a three-year sentence.
"Frequently, these people, 10 or 20 years later, regret what they did…but there has to still be a penalty for it or else there's no deterrent value," Duchemin tells SFR.
Although Christianson and Lefey pleaded guilty to the charges in February, both are now appealing their cases. Prosecutors applied a "terrorism enhancement" to the charges, which extended the statute of limitation three years and expanded the sentencing guidelines.
Christianson and Lefey's cases illustrate an appalling trend in terrorism prosecution, according to Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, which provides legal support to political activists.
"What we're seeing is traditional forms of protest that have been effective in most of the important social movements over the last many decades now may be called terrorism," Boghosian tells SFR. "That's hugely frightening and the chilling effect is just as bad because it violates the First Amendment by frightening people into being afraid of action."
But Duchemin draws a line between ELF's actions and traditional civil disobedience.
"Traditional activist groups are really based on the environmental martyr concept, where you intentionally cross a line, you get arrested and, as you're going to jail, you garner sympathy for your cause," Duchemin says. "The goal of [ELF] is not sympathy for the cause, but to intimidate other people. They do it in the dead of night and take tremendous pains not to get caught."
Boghosian says the prosecution in this case may be less about justice and more about justifying the federal government's counter-terrorism programs. She points out that in 2005, the FBI announced animal rights and environmental groups were the country's "No. 1 domestic terrorism threat."
"This is a distraction," Boghosian says. "If they label environmental activists the No. 1 terrorism threat, then of course these prosecutions may make it seem like the government's actually accomplishing something in its intelligence efforts."
Boghosian says the Guild has seen a marked change in how aggressively the Department of Justice has pursued these cases over the last five years. She says prosecutors have begun using conspiracy charges and terrorism enhancements in order to elevate acts that should be treated as regular property crime.
"We've seen a rash of visits by the FBI to homes of friends and family, grand jury subpoenas and other really intimidating tactics," Boghosian says. "Knowing that your friend who you might've joined in an action with years ago might give up your name has a huge chilling effect."
The ELF cell began hatching the plot to attack the US Forest Service facility at a July 2000 meeting in Tennessee of Earth First!, a radical environmentalist group co-founded by New Mexico resident Dave Foreman in 1979 and often associated with ELF. Foreman tells SFR he left the organization in 1989 in part because it was moving toward the type of destructive activism becoming popular in animal rights and anarchist extremist circles.
Yet, from the beginning, Earth First! was inspired by author Edward Abbey's "monkey wrench" mischief. Foreman says he was "certainly" involved in civil disobedience and sabotage, but stayed away and cautioned others to stay away from arson or other dangerous types of vandalism.
"I find it unfortunate that it seems what happens is that young people have gotten sort of caught up in the spirit of things and they go off and do some things without really thinking it through," Foreman, who now runs Albuquerque-based The Rewilding Institute, says. "The friends they're with turn out not to be that trustworthy and, when they're caught and they're faced with a bad sentence, they rat on all of their friends and their friends end up getting worse sentences."
In her plea deal, Christianson offered to testify against Lefey before he, too, signed a plea agreement.
When contacted by SFR, Christianson's stepfather, Scott Bobbitt, says the case is personal, not political, and the family would not comment further. Her attorney, Mark Maciolek, did not return SFR's calls.
According to a sentencing memorandum filed in court, Christianson's relationship with Wallace predated his interest in environmental activism and she joined in the act "wanting to be part of her boyfriend's life, not wanting to lose him to the new world of exciting and interesting people that he found in the activist community."
By the time of her arrest, Christianson had "completely distanced herself" from ELF and "led a completely law-abiding life" since committing the crime in 2000, according to Duchemin. Meanwhile, Duchemin claims Lefey was still "really involved with individuals sympathetic to ELF and has remained sympathetic to ELF," which explains his harsher sentence.
Lefey's attorney, Reed Cornia, says the prosecution stretched the truth on Lefey's continuing involvement.
"Bryan's from Olympia, where there is strong sympathy towards a lot of this activity and he had a lot of friends that were associated with different groups, but Bryan himself hadn't been involved in this for a long time," Cornia says.
Lefey's case was further set back when environmentalist activists voiced their sympathy and willingness to help.
"These organizations who want to support people who are caught up in this often times hurt the people who have been charged with these crimes more than they help," Cornia says. "The government pulled up these websites and said, 'Hey, look here's his name; he's still involved with ELF or Earth First! because this website says to send letters to him.'"
One blog brought up during sentencing was midwestgreenscare.wordpress.com, a blog kept by the group Earth Warriors are OK! According to Minnesota-based EWOK! activist Thomas Addo, the "Rhinelander" prosecutions are part of the US government's "Green Scare," a political persecution of environmental and animal rights activists similar to that waged against socialists during the Cold War. Addo also says the government weakens its stance on terrorism by expanding it to include vandalism.
"I think there's a consensus in the United States, even in some of the more radical circles, even I would agree, that someone detonating a bomb inside a truck and blowing up a building and killing people is terrorism," Addo says. "I think by using the terrorism enhancement on somebody who basically engages in a non-violent action where nobody was hurt, what it does is delegitimize what real terrorism is."
But Duchemin says it's not the scale but the intent.
"The [ELF members] believe that legal means of protesting are not enough and you basically have to scare the public into doing what they want the public to do," Duchemin says. "We live in the greatest, most free country in the world and you have a right to protest anything you want on any given day and it should always be that way, but this really isn't about environmental protesting—it's about crime."