BBC podcast re-examines Vail arson, tells new version of 1998 events

BBC's "Burn Wild" podcast host interviews Chelsea Gerlach, who was sentenced for arson on Vail Mountain 1998.

John LaConte
Vail Daily
Artwork from the new BBC podcast "Burn Wild."
Courtesy image

Vail locals listening to the BBC’s new podcast “Burn Wild” might be surprised to hear the version of events described by Chelsea Gerlach and narrator Leah Sottile.

The podcast debuted Sept. 6 and re-examines the October 1998 arson on Vail Mountain, famously described by the FBI as “the worst act of eco-terrorism in the United States.”

Sottile, a journalist who covers domestic terrorism in the U.S., interviewed Gerlach, a person involved in the arson who cooperated with the investigation.

Gerlach was facing a sentence of between 35 years to life in prison, but she received a 10-year sentence as a result of her cooperation. She’s been out of prison since 2013 and agreed to an interview with Sottile for the podcast.

“Chelsea hasn’t really spoken to the media before, not the whole story,” Sottile says in the podcast. “It took some effort, but (a producer) and I tracked her down.”

In sentencing Gerlach and others, federal investigators put together a version of the events of October 1998, which described Gerlach dropping off a man named Bill Rodgers who, by himself, placed gas cans next to buildings on Vail Mountain and lit the cans ablaze. Gerlach then picked Rodgers up at a park in Vail, and they drove to Denver, where they sent an email in which Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the arsons on behalf of the lynx habitat destruction required for the creation of Blue Sky Basin ski area. This version of events has not been publicly disputed.

But, in “Burn Wild,” using quotes from her interview with Gerlach, as well as pieces of her own narration, Sottile describes a scene in which both Gerlach and Rodgers, together, plant devices on Vail Mountain. And, those devices are described as having timers that set them off, deviating from the previously accepted version of events, where Rogers runs the ridgeline from Two Elk to Patrol Headquarters lighting the devices himself.

“By the time we got to the mountain, there had been a snowstorm, and we got stuck in the snow in the middle of the night, partway up the mountain,” Gerlach says in the podcast.

“It might have been an opportunity that other people would have stopped and turned around, steered back down the mountain, taken it as a sign, perhaps,” Sottile says. “But they didn’t, they kept going.”

According to the timeline put together by investigators, however, “they” did not keep going, only Rodgers himself kept going. During the early morning hours of Oct. 19, 1998, he ran along the ridge of Vail Mountain, lighting gas cans on the outsides of Two Elk restaurant, ski-patrol headquarters and the lift house at the top of Chair 5, then ran down the mountain on a trail, then to a bike path, then to a town park where he met Gerlach.

But, in the podcast, after deciding not to turn around, “They kept going until the firebombs were planted, and then they drove away, the mountain just a shadow in the rearview mirror,” Sottile says.

A New York Times story published in May also details Rodgers’ efforts to set off the devices by himself, saying “On the night of Oct. 18, 1998, just before the logging was scheduled to begin, Rodgers ran across the mountain ridge, setting fire to the resort’s buildings and ski lifts one by one.”

This photos of Two Elk restaurant, taken by firefighter Mark Mobley, was published by hundreds of media outlets.
Mark Mobley|Vail Fire Department

That story details the fallout of the incident and the disbanding of the Earth Liberation Front, whose members were referred to as “elves” from Eugene, Oregon.

“The indictments also tore apart Eugene’s tight-knit environmentalist community,” wrote New York Times reporter Matthew Wolfe. “Activists had screaming fights about whether the Elves who spoke to investigators merited sympathy or shunning. The Earth First! Journal started — and still maintains — a website listing the case’s informants …”

Gerlach is among those listed on the site.

“She led the prosecution on several field trips to previous arsons and a buried cache of guns, ammunition and fake passports allegedly belonging to William ‘Avalon’ Rodgers,” the site reads.

Leslie James Pickering, a former spokesperson for the ELF Press Office, is also interviewed in “Burn Wild.”

Pickering, on Wednesday, told the Vail Daily that he noticed the inaccuracies in the Vail details immediately, and, while they may be small, they’re important.

And, that’s because Rodgers is no longer alive to tell his side of the story.

“Part of the reason why the issue of the details of the arson at Two Elk and the other structures feel important to us is because Bill Rodgers died by suicide in prison to completely resist prosecution as much as he could,” Pickering said. “So, it’s kind of an intense, personal thing for people who are represented in this movement, and (Gerlach, in the podcast) is not represented as someone who (cooperated with the investigation.)”

One quote in particular from Gerlach about the Vail arson: “We had no idea how we were gonna pull that off, just the two of us,” is particularly upsetting, Pickering said.

“If she’s claiming responsibility to any extent that’s more than what she’s actually responsible for, she wants to look like she’s more down, and involved, when it was actually stuff that Bill did, that’s kind of upsetting,” he said.

But, Pickering acknowledges much of the storytelling in “Burn Wild” is a result of the editing and placement of Gerlach’s quotes.

“More likely, the editor is misunderstanding and just putting it into an order that’s making it sound like something that she’s not trying to say,” he said.

Overall, he says the podcast is a good listen but should be taken with a grain of salt. The timing of the podcast raises some questions, as well, he said.

Sottile, in the first episode, talks about her beat as a reporter — she covers domestic extremism — and tells the listener that the work is mainly coverage of right-wing militia groups, but she’s been skeptical about covering environmental extremism.

William “Avalon” Rodgers died by suicide while awaiting trial for arson crimes on Vail Mountain.
Vail Daily archives

Pickering, who is currently helping with support work for people who are in prison for the Dakota access pipeline, says there have been several examples of events that have occurred near Sottile’s home state of Oregon that have warranted coverage. At the south end of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, nearly 1,000 were arrested in 2020 and 2021, and clashes with police turned violent in efforts to stop logging of some of the planet’s oldest trees, as reported by The Seattle Times.

Sottile, in June, wrote a piece for The Washington Post about the right-wing extremist threat in the Wes and, in July, writing for Slatedetailed where far-right militias trained in advance of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. 

By focusing on the 1998 events in Vail, Sottile is also able to balance out her coverage of right-wing groups with extreme action from leftist environmentalists, something she acknowledges in the podcast.

But, in working for the BBC, “This is largely reaching a European audience,” Pickering said. “And, they’re concerned about the climate movement right now. So, playing up this extremism right now could potentially work in a soft, social way, to prevent people from taking direct action more seriously in the climate movement — it could potentially present this thing as ‘Here’s some people who tried this crazy thing way back in the day, and it didn’t work out for them.’ When, in reality, I would disagree with that.”

A quote from Gerlach that is used in episode one of the podcast appears to support Pickering’s theory.

“I can name and point to many negative effects that came from my actions, it’s much more difficult to name, and be able to state, with confidence, any positive impact from our actions,” Gerlach says. “Does that mean there weren’t any? I don’t know.”