Pair pleads guilty in Vail arson
Aspen, CO Colorado
EUGENE, Ore. ” Two people who have already admitted to helping set fires on Vail Mountain in 1998 as part of an Earth Liberation Front campaign formally pleaded guilty Thursday to the federal arson charges.
Chelsea Dawn Gerlach and Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff, both 29, had already pleaded guilty to some of the $20 million worth of arsons committed between 1996 and 2001 by a Eugene-based cell of the Earth Liberation Front known as the Family.
Under plea deals with federal prosecutors, they agreed to have the Vail charges transferred from Colorado to Oregon to be settled along with their other cases.
At U.S. District Court here, Judge Ann Aiken asked the pair if they pleaded guilty to those charges. Gerlach responded “yes” and Meyerhoff responded “Yes, I do.” The hearing lasted about 10 minutes.
The Vail firebombing, reportedly done in protest of the Blue Sky Basin expansion, did $12 million in damage and focused national attention on radical environmentalists who ascribed their attacks to the secretive Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, characterized by the FBI as the nation’s top domestic terrorism threats.
Two others indicted in the Vail arson, Josephine Sunshine Overaker and Rebecca J. Rubin, remain at large.
Authorities have said the group was led by William C. Rodgers, who had left Eugene and was running a bookstore in Prescott, Ariz., last December when he was arrested along with Gerlach, Meyerhoff and others. Rodgers committed suicide in jail just before he was to be transferred to Oregon.
According to court records, Rodgers recruited Meyerhoff and Gerlach to help him firebomb the ski resort in Vail to prevent it from expanding into endangered lynx habitat.
Meyerhoff gave up on the plan after Gerlach’s truck got stuck in mud and snow on its way to the mountaintop, but the next day Rodgers planted firebombs made from diesel and five-gallon plastic buckets that burned a lodge and ski lifts. Then Gerlach picked him up and drove to Denver, where she e-mailed a communique taking responsibility from the public library.
Vail Resorts Inc. has since rebuilt the lodge, located 11,000 feet above sea level.
Gerlach was working as a DJ in Portland and living with a Canadian animal rights activist when she was arrested. She grew up in Sweet Home, a timber town where her father worked in a mill, and Eugene, a college town known for its anarchist and environmental activists.
She has already pleaded guilty to 18 counts in five attacks, saying she was motivated by “a deep sense of despair and anger at the deteriorating state of the global environment,” but has since realized the firebombings did more harm than good for her cause.
Prosecutors have recommended she get a 10-year sentence in those cases. According to court records, authorities in Wyoming, Washington and California have agreed not to pursue potential cases against her.
Meyerhoff, who was attending community college in Charlottesville, Va., when he was arrested, has renounced ELF and pleaded guilty to 54 counts from seven attacks. Prosecutors have recommended 15 years and eight months in prison for those cases. Authorities in Michigan, Arizona, Washington, Wyoming and California will not prosecute potential cases against him, court records showed.
At a separate hearing on Thursday, Aiken scheduled sentencing for Meyerhoff for April 10 and Gerlach for April 18. The other eight who have pleaded guilty in the case will be sentenced during the last two weeks of April.
According to court records, the group started in 1996 by firebombing two ranger stations on the Willamette National Forest outside Eugene, where Earth Liberation Front graffiti was painted, and disbanded in 2001 after toppling a high-tension electrical transmission tower in Central Oregon.
The Vail firebombing was one of 20 firebombings in Oregon, Washington, California, Wyoming and Colorado blamed by federal investigators on the Family. Twelve people ” 10 in Oregon and two in Washington ” have pleaded guilty in the case known as Operation Backfire. Others remain at large.
The investigation went nowhere for years. But after a task force adopted a “cold case” approach, they were able to find an informant, who, with a hidden tape recorder, looked up old friends from the group and talked to them about the crimes, according to court records and testimony.
The first arrests in Operation Backfire were made about a year ago.
“We’re pleased with the progress of the case,” said Kirk Engdall, assistant U.S. Attorney. “The investigation continues. There are still four fugitives. We believe they are out of the country.”
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