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Oregon State Police Files Shed Light on the Investigation into the Earth Liberation Front’s Christmas 1999 Arson Attack on Boise Cascade

by Leslie James Pickering

See the full article, with images and a link to the full OSP file at DCSC: http://www.dcsc.ws/?page_id=8

 

Between 1997 and 2002, Leslie James Pickering and Craig Rosebraugh ran the Earth Liberation Front Press Office, exercising free speech in support of the FBI’s “number-one domestic terrorist priority” and becoming the targets of much

federal surveillance and repression as a result. Over a decade later, Leslie discovered that his associates are being questioned by the FBI, the US Post Office is copying his incoming mail, he was put on a secret list for maximum security screening at airports, he is inexplicably denied entry to Canada, and a federal grand jury subpoena was issued for records on him, his family and his bookstore, Burning Books.  Leslie, his family and supporters, have launched an extensive legal and public campaign to resist this surveillance. As a small part of this legal effort, Leslie’s attorney, Michael Kuzma, won the release of a fifty-page Oregon State Police file detailing the multi-agency investigation into the Christmas 1999 arson of forest product giant Boise Cascade. That file is the main source of information for this article.

 

Merry Christmas

Shortly after midnight on the morning of December 25, 1999, four people arrived at the NW Regional Headquarters of Boise Cascade in Monmouth, Oregon, with Christmas presents. Beneath the wrapping paper and an additional layer of black garbage bags were four 5-gallon buckets of fuel.

One person, radio in hand, was stationed as a lookout. A getaway driver stayed with the van. The other two ran across a field, arms bulging with Christmas spirit, buckets of fuel and homemade timers. They placed the buckets “under large windows and attic vents, which assisted in the fire spreading quickly into the attic area,” then set the timers. The four were already many miles down the highway when their police scanners relayed news of the fire.

By the time the first responders arrived at the scene they found “the roof assembly fully engulfed in flames.” The fire caused a total of $1,689,593 in damages and the building and its contents were totally destroyed.

Days later, the group sent the following communiqué to the Earth Liberation Front Press Office:

“Boise Cascade has been very naughty. After ravaging the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Boise Cascade now looks towards the virgin forests of Chile. Early Christmas morning, elves left coal in Boise Cascade’s stocking. Four buckets of diesel and gas with kitchen timer delays destroyed their regional headquarters in Monmouth, Oregon. Let this be a lesson to all greedy multinational corporations that don’t respect their ecosystems. The elves are watching. Earth Liberation Front”

The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) was responsible for three dozen major acts of sabotage against corporate and government targets between 1996 and 2002, and remains atop the FBI’s domestic terrorism priorities. At the time of the Boise Cascade arson, the ELF was over two years old and already known to have committed at least nine similar actions. At that point, nobody had been captured or even identified as a suspect for any ELF actions and the fires were about to become a lot more frequent.

Initial Investigation

Boise Cascade was a household name and among the world’s largest “forest product” companies. It’s branding appeared on a good percentage of the paper and lumber products used by everyday consumers. With old-growth clear cutting a major topic of controversy across the Pacific Northwest, an arson attack against the Northwest Regional Headquarters of a very large, recognizable forest product corporation was sure to be noticed. Among those paying very close attention were the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and the Oregon State Police (OSP).

Crime scene investigators sifted the ashes and ruins, uncovering evidence of the fuel, buckets and timing devices, but nothing that pointed toward any suspects.

FBI agents went door-to-door canvassing residents living near Boise Cascade’s building, searching for witnesses. One neighbor reported that he saw a portion of a “suspicious vehicle” on the night of the arson, including the chrome bumper and six to twelve inches of the right rear quarter panel, from a distance of approximately forty feet. The witness described the vehicle as a “dark colored smaller pickup.” He recalled hearing two of the vehicle’s doors close, described the sound as “tinny,” and went as far as to sketch a small graphic of the vehicle’s tail light configuration.

Investigators also canvassed nearby motels and gas stations in hopes of gathering information on “any suspicious persons or vehicles.” One inn refused to give over records without a subpoena. According to the FBI, “none of the information supplied… was helpful.”

This type of canvassing works to draw out information from the community. Being questioned by federal agents is not a casual, everyday kind of situation and people who may not have been particularly inclined to cooperate, or who weren’t sure enough of their observations to volunteer information, are pressured to talk in a face-to-face encounter with an agent. In this case, the information gathered did not prove to be helpful. Seven years later when the Boise Cascade investigation came to a close, it was revealed that a van, not a small pickup, was used in the arson attack. Nevertheless, it is important to expect these investigative techniques.

Dead End at the Press Office

The OSP was contracted by the FBI to conduct a forensic investigation of a 4GB iMac hard drive as well as eight 3 ½” diskettes, six ZIP disks and a quantity of software CDs confiscated during a January, 2000, FBI raid on the ELF Press Office. The items were delivered by the FBI to the OSP along with a list of “keywords” to aid in the search. OSP’s forensic report concluded, “after examination of thousands of hits, no information relevant to the investigation was noted.”

The fact that “no relevant information” was gained didn’t just demonstrate the ability of the Press Office to weather an FBI raid without furthering the investigation into the ELF, but also should have discredited the government’s unsubstantiated claims (echoed by media) that the Press Office was aware of ELF membership and were even members ourselves. However, in no way did investigators let up pressure on the Press Office following this fruitless raid. In fact, federal authorities continued their public accusations against Craig Rosebraugh and myself, and another full-blown FBI raid was conducted on the Press Office in April of 2001. It, too, failed to yield any useful leads.

In one small example of investigators’ relentlessness against the Press Office, OSP Detective Griffith F. Holland teamed up with ATF Agent John Comery. Comery had extensive personal involvement in the manhunt for Rod Coronado of the Animal Liberation Front in the early 1990s and on March 1st, 2000, the pair attempted to “interview” activists affiliated with the Press Office at our homes.

When Comery and Holland approach the first house, they were greeted at the front door by a female, “who did not identify herself.” When they asked to speak with the activist they had come to “interview,” she asked who they were and if they had a warrant. “We responded by saying that we did not… at which point she slammed the door shut.”

From there, the two agents proceeded to my residence, just blocks away. The report reads, “As we approached the residence we observed a male and female leaving the area from behind the residence on bicycles. We made contact with an unknown female who told us she would wake [me]. The unknown female closed the door and never returned. The female that left on the bicycle returned and asked us who we were… She informed us that she was with Subject Pickering, but that Mr. Pickering was late for a meeting and did not want to talk with us.”

Before leaving, the agents collected information on all the vehicles parked at or near both the homes they visited that day. Of the five vehicles they associated with the first residence, one was registered to the activist they came to question. Of the three vehicles in front of my house, one was registered in my name. Their notes from that day detailed four activists they associated with the Press Office, including Craig Rosebraugh and myself.

Visits like these had been happening regularly since 1997. By the time that this incident took place, three years later, when an agent made a home visit they nearly always had a federal grand jury subpoena in hand. In both of these visits, activists who had the misfortune of interacting with investigators were prepared and principled enough to prevent any assistance in the investigations. Although I can’t actually remember this specific incident among many similar visits, it exemplifies a unified resistance against the service of federal grand jury subpoenas among activists associated with the Press Office.

Holland describes visiting the first residence at 8:25 in the morning. He and Comery face resistance at the door, collect details on five vehicles parked nearby, and then travel twelve blocks to my home. By the time they’re arriving, only seventeen minutes later, my household has apparently already been alerted and I’m reported as exiting the back door by bicycle – thereby avoiding service of a federal grand jury subpoena. They again face resistance at the door of my residence, collect details from another three vehicles parked there or nearby, and are finally given the unlikely excuse that I left because I was late for a meeting at 8:42 in the morning.

False Starts

In addition to crime scene investigation, door-to-door canvassing, and the harassment of activists, investigators pursued at least a couple more false leads with a seemingly irrational enthusiasm.

That Christmas, a young man named Ryan Palmer received four packages from his mother at the same US Post Office in Monmouth, Oregon, that serviced Boise Cascade. Unfortunately, his mother’s last name was “Elf.” On February 17, 2000, FBI Special Agent Darold Hessel and OSP Detective Holland questioned Palmer at his workplace. Verifying his mother’s last name was apparently not enough, however, and on February 22, 2000, Agent Hessel served a federal grand jury subpoena to Palmer’s landlord, Denise Gatherum. Gatherum named Ryan Lewis Mills as Palmer’s roommate and provided the year, make, model and license plate numbers of both of their vehicles. Gatherum also stated that both were ideal renters and were not known to be involved in anything other than work and school. Palmer’s experiences however, were minor compared to those of another completely innocent young man.

While the FBI was conducting a January, 2000, raid on the office of the Liberation Collective, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization of which Craig Rosebraugh and myself were members and which had more or less housed the ELF Press Office for a period of time, a piece of “evidence” was collected that received an undue amount of attention. It was a “boilerplate” letter from Craig Rosebraugh and the Liberation Collective responding to Lucas Szabo, then nineteen years old, who was apparently interested in getting involved in distributing literature and organizing demonstrations against animal experimentation and fast food chains, as well as working towards getting vegan food served in his school cafeteria. What likely drew the attention of investigators is that Szabo’s home address was in Monmouth, the same rural Oregon city as the Northwest Regional Headquarters of Boise Cascade, and the letter was addressed about six weeks prior to the arson.

The same day they questioned Palmer, Agent Hessel and Detective Holland attempted to visit Szabo at Western Oregon University. They didn’t find Szabo but interviewed his former roommate, Adam Sellers Bingham, outside the University’s Department of Public Safety. Bingham told the agents that Szabo withdrew from school and moved out of his room shortly after the Christmas break. He also told them that the two didn’t associate, that he thought Szabo was an “odd” person who had laid in bed wide awake at night around the holiday, that Szabo was vegan, interested in animal rights and had several conversations with University cafeteria staff about the vegan diet. While stating that Szabo did not have many friends, he also directed the agents to an area of the dorms where he said Szabo was known to socialize with other students.

On the same day they served the federal grand jury subpoena to Palmer’s landlord, Agent Hessel and Detective Holland went to the home of Lucas Szabo and his parents. Szabo refused the agents’ requests to be invited into the home but unfortunately decided to answer their questions while they stood outside in the rain. “It should be noted,” their report reads, “that Szabo was very nervous as his hands were visibly shaking and he was shifting his weight constantly from one foot to the other.” When asked what animal rights groups he belonged to, if he was involved in any illegal activity and specifically about the Boise Cascade fire, “Mr. Szabo again restated that he was not involved in anything illegal and then he said he probably ought to get an attorney before he talked… any further.” At that point, FBI Agent Hessel told Szabo that he didn’t need an attorney if he wasn’t involved in anything illegal and threatened to subpoena him to a federal grand jury if he stopped talking. “Subject Szabo agreed to continue with the interview.”

He told the agents that he had been to the Liberation Collective storefront a total of three or four times, including once the previous week. The only animal rights activity he had been involved with was a demonstration against a rodeo in rural Oregon the previous summer, he said. He also told the agents that he dropped out of school for lack of interest and even gave them details of a vehicle he commonly drove. He was home with his family all of Christmas Eve and Christmas day, he recalled, with the exception of an afternoon visit to a friend’s house on Christmas day. Detective Holland asked Szabo if he’d be willing to take a polygraph test “to clear his name,” which Szabo refused, saying that he’d be too nervous.

The questioning then turned to his associates involved with animal rights. Szabo said he knew of a student at Western Oregon University named “Christi,” with a last name beginning with a “B,” “but he pretended not to recall the rest of it.” When the agents “pressed Szabo further,” he offered the name “Cristina Bonderlaunt,” or “Cristina Bounderant.” The investigators contacted the University shortly after talking with Szabo and had a search conducted for students with similar names. None were found.

On February 25, 2000, the detectives “received information that Lucas Szabo did socialize with a person identified as Tiana Jane Trutna.” They then returned to the University on the afternoon of March 8, 2000, and “interviewed Ms. Trutna in a vacant classroom.” There, Trutna told the agents what she knew of Szabo, that he didn’t have a vehicle and that she “doesn’t believe Szabo would be involved in arson.” Of her own experience with activism, Trutna said that she once attended a rally for Headwaters Forest in Northern California during the mid-1990s, “was involved with students for equal rights on campus” and that the extent of her animal rights activity was signing an email petition. In terms of associates, Trutna gave the name of her roommate, “Jenifer Ashley Sittser,” who also knew Szabo, the first name of Szabo’s best friend, “Patrick,” and the first name of a female, “Anna,” who she said was actually involved in animal rights on campus. Finally, when asked if she would tell the agents who had set the Boise Cascade fire had she’d known, “her response was that it would depend on where she was at in her life. She went on to explain that it would depend on her beliefs at the time as they tend to change.” The investigators wrote that they intended to conduct follow-up interviews with Ms. Trutna’s parents and sister to confirm her whereabouts.

On March 9, 2000, OSP Detective Holland returned to Lucas Szabo’s residence to “re-interview him and to interview his father.” Wearing an animal liberation t-shirt, Szabo answered the door and responded, “I have nothing further to say to you guys.” Szabo’s father, who had invited the detective into their double wide trailer, confirmed his son’s presence there at their home during the Holidays and the time of the fire. After questioning Szabo about why they couldn’t locate “Cristina” at Western Oregon University and why he hadn’t mentioned his association with Tiana Trutna, the Detective left his business card with Szabo’s father.

In addition to filing “person pages” on all of the above mentioned family and associates of Lucas Szabo, the agents gathered information on five vehicles and listed Szabo as a “Person of Interest.” There is nothing in the OSP file about investigators ever locating “Christi” (A.K.A. “Cristina”) and I have no idea if this was a real person or a ruse that Szabo attempted to mislead the investigation.

During an April 26, 2000 Federal Grand Jury, Craig Rosebraugh refused to respond to questioning about Lucas Szabo, among other topics, at risk of being held in contempt of court.

A Cold Case and a Lucky Break

In 2005, several suspects were arrested through an FBI investigation dubbed “Operation Backfire,” which encompassed twenty of the actions attributed to the ELF, including the Boise Cascade arson. Having been unable to solve over three dozen ELF crimes over the past nine years, a cold case approach was taken on one particular fire in Eugene, Oregon — the March 20, 2001 arson of thirty-five SUVs at a commercial Chevrolet dealership.

With fresh eyes, investigators noticed that Jacob Ferguson was reported as having stolen a truck from a roommate the same night as the fire. The investigators recognized him from his involvement in the high-profile campaign against the Warner Creek timber sale and numerous other milestones of the radical Eugene activist scene. Investigators speculated that the stolen truck might have been used in the dealership arson and brought Ferguson in for questioning. It was a good guess, though also mistaken: Ferguson had been secretly involved with thirteen ELF actions since 1996; however, a collective decision not to involve anyone living in Eugene for the local action meant that he wasn’t actually involved in the Boise Cascade attack.

Although the FBI later admitted that there was no convincing evidence against Ferguson and there were no real suspects in any of the ELF cases at that point, during the questioning they told Ferguson that they had concrete evidence against him. The only way for him to save himself, they said, was to inform on his accomplices and cooperate with the investigation. After momentarily consulting legal counsel, Ferguson told the investigators everything he knew and they made sure he didn’t serve any prison time for past ELF actions.

This case was cracked by nothing more than chance and Ferguson’s personal inability to handle threats from investigators. The only real lead the authorities had was Ferguson’s testimony, which would be weakened in the eyes of a jury by the facts that he had a criminal record, was a known heroin addict and had a large pentagram tattooed on his balding forehead. So investigators had Ferguson help them build a much stronger case by initiating and secretly recording incriminating conversations with other ELF members, damning his former friends and allies to prison. When the defendants saw the case Ferguson had helped build against them, some of them flipped and informed on the others in hopes of lenient sentencing. Twenty of the FBI’s most significant and most hopeless cases were suddenly cracked.

Following the busts, a few additional leads were pursued in the Boise Cascade arson, just in case it went to trial. These include: a videotape of Boise Cascade aflame filmed by a private citizen, a search of phone toll records on two of the defendants from June of 1999 through January of 2000, a “walk through crime scene and in-depth interview with the C.W.” (assumed to be Confidential Witness Jacob Ferguson), a search for an “ignitable device” with the “C.W.” in apartments on North Grant Street in Eugene, Oregon, and DNA swabs on three of the detained suspects to compare to an envelope and stamp from a communiqué (the communiqué was analyzed and “found no DNA”). None of these leads proved to be useful in the case.

Perhaps the one piece of evidence with the most hidden significance was a letter by Kevin Tubbs to Boise Cascade’s s CEO, protesting the company’s practices. In 2005, Tubbs would be convicted of involvement in thirteen ELF actions, but until then, the letter was apparently just treated as one of many voices decrying Boise Cascade and kept on file by security. According to the Government’s Sentencing Memorandum, Tubbs was actually not involved in the Boise Cascade arson because the site was near a law enforcement training institution and he felt it was too risky.

Outcomes

Not only did Lucas Szabo have absolutely nothing to do with the Boise Cascade arson or the ELF, but it appears that he never had much of a chance to get involved in activism at all. Szabo’s half-hearted cooperation is at least partially due to suddenly finding himself in a high-stakes situation that he was completely unprepared for. In almost no time, Szabo went from talking to cafeteria staff about vegan dietary options to being a “Person of Interest” in the FBI’s top domestic terrorism investigation. The OSP files make it seem that Szabo did not want to cooperate and at least attempted resistance. Had he experience with activism, it’s possible (but not guaranteed) that he would have been more firm in his resistance when investigators suddenly showed up at this door to “interview” him. At the very least, he would have had better access to legal and movement resources to make resistance a much better option than it must have seemed to be for him at that moment.

Similarly, Trutna’s experience with any kind of activism was also very limited and she displayed even less will to resist than Szabo. She had some level of involvement in a campus student rights group, had been to one environmental protest and signed one animal rights petition. During her first interaction with investigators Trutna seemingly answered all of their questions. She showed no interest in resisting their “interview” and made it clear that her politics were undefined and fluid, implying her willingness to cooperate with investigators in the future.

Szabo and Trutna show how important it is to prioritize education and training on repression beginning at the very early stages of activism. When Szabo’s name was brought up in grand jury questioning, nobody know who he was, even after circulating his name through the movement. It was a mistake for us to not have taken more of an initiative to locate him at that moment. Had Szabo or Trutna actually known something, there would have been major fallout. But for all the fumbled resistance and varying levels of cooperation, it is lucky that Szabo didn’t end up among the many wrongfully convicted, locked inside US prisons.

In contrast, Jacob Ferguson’s fall from grace had devastating consequences. After two grand jury subpoenas, Ferguson provided a wealth of information to investigators. This information directly led to thirteen of his former comrades being sentenced to many years in prison, two remaining on the run to this day, and the resistance suicide of William “Avalon” Rogers (who took his life while in custody in defiance of the prosecution). If Ferguson had acted with principle and resisted the investigation, as others had before him, it is very likely he would have never even faced charges for ELF activity, the twenty actions encompassed in the case would have remained unsolved, and the other sixteen defendants would now be alive, un-indicted, unknown, and free.

Our movements’ poor success records are not because we don’t work hard enough, aren’t creative enough, don’t have enough people or resources, or because we can’t adequately identify what we’re fighting against or the world we wish to create. We fail because every time we’ve started making any significant gains we’ve proven unprepared for the level of repression that would be brought down on us. This is a dominant historic pattern. If we are to have any realistic hope for winning any of our struggles, we need to greatly improve our capacity, as a movement and as individuals, to resist repression while maintaining an active and powerful offensive.

Any time people are facing state repression, they deserve the strongest possible support from rest of the movement, their families, friends and their communities in general, regardless of personal differences. As individuals, we have to be prepared to sustain resistance when we are alone, frightened, demonized and when our lives and futures are facing very real threats. When you surrender, you’re not just giving up your personal future, you’re giving up everyone’s future, and that’s unacceptable. We only know of the gains won by struggles that have come before ours because people and organizations fought hard and long, and made many difficult and painful sacrifices. Our plight is no different.

 

See the full article, with images and a link to the full OSP file at DCSC: http://www.dcsc.ws/?page_id=8