Government Claims Victory Over Ecoterrorism Group

Five years ago a special ecoterrorism task force was stymied by a string of firebombings that caused some $30 million in damage to western ranger stations, genetic engineering facilities, a truck dealership, a ski resort, wild horse corrals, and lumber mills.

On Thursday, federal authorities declared they had destroyed the shadowy Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, which claimed responsibility for the largest case of ecoterrorism in U.S. history.

Four more people pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to conspiracy and arson charges stemming from firebombings in Oregon.

That brought to 12 -- 10 in Oregon and two in Washington -- the number of people headed for prison as part of the local, state and federal investigation known as Operation Backfire that was aided by an informant with a wire.

Three suspects remain fugitives. Prescott, Ariz., bookstore owner William C. Rodgers, described as the leader of the Eugene-based cell known as The Family, committed suicide in jail.

"The pleas of these individuals today together with (earlier guilty pleas) have effectively dismantled the Northwest cells of the organizations operating loosely under the mantles of ALF and ELF," U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut said in Portland.

"Today we can declare victory in that fight," added Robert Jordan, FBI special agent in charge for Oregon.

The firebombings attributed to The Family stopped after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and two of the four pleading guilty Thursday said they quit the attacks because they realized that was the wrong way to protect animals and the environment.

"I hope you will see that my actions were not those of a terrorist, but of a concerned young person who was deeply troubled by the destruction of Oregon's beautiful old-growth forests and the dangers of genetically modified trees," Daniel G. McGowan, 32, of New York City said in a tearful statement read in court. "After taking part in these two actions, I realized that burning things down did not fit with my visions or belief about how to create a better world. So I stopped committing these crimes."

After years of finding little more than melted five-gallon buckets and the residue of diesel fuel, investigators got a break in 2002 when one of the people involved in firebombing a logging company and a gravel pit in 2001 told his girlfriend, and she told her father, a state fire marshal.

Three people were convicted, and the alleged leader of that group, Michael "Tre Arrow" Scarpitti, is being held in Victoria, British Columbia, on a shoplifting charge, fighting extradition.

In 2005, the task force known as Operation Backfire adopted a cold case approach and landed an informant, unindicted co-conspirator Jacob Fergusen of Eugene, who wore a hidden recording device as he traveled the country talking with his old friends, who had disbanded.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Peifer said in Portland that the cell was tough to crack, because the members assembled their bombs in clean rooms, leaving behind no fingerprints or even DNA evidence, seldom talked to each other, and used code words and even hand signals.

The four in court Thursday were Joyanna L. Zarcher, 28, and Nathan F. Block, 25, both of Olympia, Wash.; Jonathan Christopher Mark Paul, 40, of Ashland, and McGowan.

They were headed for trial on charges carrying life sentences when the plea agreement was announced, two months after they demanded to know whether warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency were used against them. Their guilty pleas came with recommended sentences of five to eight years in prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdall denied NSA surveillance was a factor in the investigation or the plea agreement, but defense attorney Amanda Lee of Seattle said the timing of the plea agreement led her to believe it was.

She said the defendants were happy they would not have to testify against others.

Sentencing is not expected until spring, but prosecutors recommended eight years in prison for Block, Zacher and McGowan, the son of a New York transit policeman who was working for a nonprofit law firm helping abused women when he was arrested in New York.

Because he had taken part in only one firebombing, Paul's recommended sentence was five years.

McGowan pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit arson and topple a high-voltage electric tower in Central Oregon in December 1999, serving as lookout for the 2001 firebombing of the Superior Lumber Co. office in Glendale, and attempted arson and arson at the Jefferson Poplar Farm in Clatskanie in 2001.

Block and Zacher both pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge, setting fire to SUVs at the Romania Chevrolet Truck Center in Eugene in 2001 and attempted arson and arson at the tree farm. Prosecutors recommended a sentence of eight years for each.

Paul, an independently wealthy animal rights activist and volunteer firefighter, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and the 1997 firebombing of the Cavel West horse slaughterhouse in Redmond.

His sister, actress Alexandra Paul, read a statement outside the courthouse saying Paul had fought against mink farms, laboratory testing of animals, and Indian whale hunting, and he had always taken responsibility for his actions.

"When Mr. Paul saw the flames engulf the Cavel West slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore., he realized that fire was an unacceptable means to an end, no matter how compelling," she said.

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The Associated Press

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