Operation Backfire (FBI)

Operation Backfire (FBI)

Operation Backfire is a multi-agency criminal investigation, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), into destructive acts in the name of animal rights and environmental causes in the United States described as eco-terrorism by the FBI.[1]



In 2004 the FBI merged seven independent investigations from its Portland, Oregon field office and called them Operation Backfire. According to an agency statement, the operational focus is on investigating acts of domestic terrorism, carried out on behalf of two activist groups, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF).[2]


In December 2005 and January 2006, with assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the FBI indicted six women and seven men on a total of 65 charges, including arson, conspiracy, use of destructive devices, and destruction of an energy facility. The defendants were named as Joseph Dibee, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, Sarah Kendall Harvey (née Kendall Tankersley), Daniel McGowan, Stanislas Meyerhoff, Josephine Overaker, Jonathan Paul, Rebecca Rubin, Suzanne Savoie, Justin Solondz, Darren Thurston, Kevin Tubbs, and Briana Waters.[3] A number of other unindicted co-conspirators were also named. A 13th alleged co-conspirator, William "Bill" Rodgers, also known as Avalon, committed suicide while in police custody.[4]

According to reports,[5] and their own websites,[6][7][8] most of the indicted individuals initially claimed to be innocent of the charges. Prosecutors alleged that the 11 conspirators collectively referred to themselves as "The Family" and had taken an oath to protect each other.[9] The FBI indicated that some of the charges relate to an 1998 arson attack, claimed by the ELF, on the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado. Other charges were related to another attack on the botany labs at the University of Washington in 2001.[10] The combined cost of the damage from the attacks is estimated at approaching $80 million.[11]

Convictions and abscondings

Josephine Sunshine Overaker
Rebecca J. Rubin

In late 2006, a number of self-described ELF members pled guilty to arson and other charges in U.S. federal courts.[12]

On November 11, 2006, Joyanna Zacher, Nathan Block, Daniel McGowan and Jonathan Paul pleaded guilty to several eco-sabotage related charges, as part of a global resolution agreement with prosecutors. Judge Ann Aiken presided over the hearings. The change of pleas from the four defendants resolves all current “Operation Backfire” cases in Oregon.[13]

On December 15, 2006, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach and Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff, pleaded guilty to $20 million worth of arsons committed between 1996 and 2001 by the Eugene-based cell of the ELF known as "The Family". Their fire-bombing of a Vail ski resort resulted in damages totaling $12 million, with the FBI characterizing the ELF as the United States' "top domestic terrorism threat". Gerlach has previously pleaded guilty to 18 counts of arson in other attacks, saying she was motivated by "a deep sense of despair and anger at the deteriorating state of the global environment," but adding that she has "since realized the firebombings did more harm than good." Meyerhoff has renounced ELF and pleaded guilty to 54 counts, but is still under indictment in Michigan, Arizona, Washington, Wyoming and California.[14]

On March 6, 2008, Briana Waters, who was arrested in Operation Backfire for another ELF attack in Washington State, was found guilty of two counts of arson[10] and sentenced later that year to six years in prison.[15]

The FBI alleged that the group was led by William C. Rodgers, who was arrested in December 2005 and committed suicide in jail just before he was to be transferred to Oregon. Two other ELF members indicted in the Vail arson, Josephine Sunshine Overaker and Rebecca J. Rubin, have not been apprehended; Rubin is believed to be in Canada while Overaker is believed to be in Spain. One other indicted co-conspirator not part of the Vail arson, Joseph Dibee, is also believed to be abroad; Dibee is believed to be beyond the reach of the FBI in Syria, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States.[16]

Solondz was captured in China in March 2009.[17]

Chelsea Dawn Gerlach

Gerlach was arrested in Portland, Oregon on December 7, 2005, and on July 21, 2006, she pleaded guilty to three counts of arson. The fires were at Childer's Meat Company, Boise Cascade, and an EPD substation. She was also charged with one count of destruction of an energy facility, the BPA transmission tower; one count of aiding and abetting an attempted arson, 12 counts of aiding and abetting an arson, at the Jefferson Poplar Farm; and eight counts of aiding and abetting arson in Vail, Colorado. The Vail fires caused $12 million damage, leveling the Two Elk Lodge and the restaurant on top of Vail Mountain.[18] The fires also razed a ski patrol headquarters and several lift buildings. On May 25, 2007, she was sentenced to nine years in prison.[19] She is serving her sentence at a Federal Prison. With time served and time off for good behavior, she is potentially eligible to be released in October 2013, after five years of imprisonment.

Related operations

In January and February 2006, as a result of separate investigations, but widely reported as extensions of Operation Backfire,[20][21][22] three more individuals, Zachary Jenson, Eric McDavid and Lauren Weiner, were arrested in Auburn, California for conspiring to damage facilities "by explosive or fire."[21] Eric McDavid, the only one of the three who refused to sign a plea agreement, was found guilty on all counts,[23] and faces up to 20 years in prison, and a $250,000 fine, when sentenced on the 6th of December. In Washington, Nathan Block and Joyanna Zacher were arrested on charges relating to a 2001 arson on a farm near Clatskanie, Oregon[24] and in Tucson, Arizona, Rod Coronado, a prominent American eco-anarchist, was arrested on a felony charge of demonstrating the use of a destructive device.[25]


The indictments of the 18 activists for alleged acts of eco-terrorism has drawn condemnation from activists and alternative media organizations. The National Lawyers Guild condemned the operation and the resulting indictments, arguing that "life sentences for property damage offenses where the actor has no intent to harm an individual are simply unconstitutional."[26] Animal liberation activist and physician Jerry Vlasak accused the FBI of targeting "a bunch of above-ground, well-known, peaceful animal-rights activists and environmental activists and charg[ing] them with being members of the ALF and the ELF."[27]

In response, then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales argued that "there’s a clear difference between constitutionally protected advocacy — which is the right of all Americans — and violent criminal activity."[20]

See also


  1. ^ Federal Bureau of Investigation - Major Executive Speeches - January 20, 2006
  2. ^ Federal Bureau of Investigation - Press Room - Headline Archives - Eco-Terror Indictments
  3. ^ Eco-terror Indictments - 'Operation Backfire' Nets 11
  4. ^ Eco-Defense Arrestee Bill Rodgers Found Dead in Cell in Arizona
  5. ^ Secret Grand Jury investigations have led to indictments of 12
  6. ^ Free Darren Thurston Support Site
  7. ^ Support For Daniel McGowan
  8. ^ Support Chelsea Gerlach
  9. ^ 11 Indicted in 'Eco-Terrorism' Case
  10. ^ a b Briana Waters convicted, Seattle Times
  11. ^ Federal Bureau of Investigation -- Eco-Terror Indictments
  12. ^ http://www.oregonlive.com/newsflash/regional/index.ssf?/base/news-17/1166084876304650.xml&storylist=orlocal
  13. ^ Notes from Oregon Eco-Sabotage Plea Hearings | Interactivist Info Exchange
  14. ^ Two plead guilty in 1998 Vail ski resort fire
  15. ^ Briana Waters sentenced, Seattle Times
  16. ^ Operation Backfire update, November 19, 2008, FBI.gov
  17. ^ Levin, Dan (November 28, 2009). "China Jails Environmentalist Wanted in U.S". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/28/world/asia/28china.html?_r=3&th&emc=th. 
  18. ^ "'Prime suspect' named in Two Elk fire". Associated Press in Vail Daily. December 14, 2005. http://www.vaildaily.com/article/20051214/NEWS/51213008. Retrieved 2007-02-14. "A 28-year-old woman was called a ‘prime suspect’ in the arson attack that destroyed the Two Elk restaurant and damaged nearby chairlifts on Vail Mountain in 1998." 
  19. ^ "Support Chelsea". http://www.supportchelsea.net/. Retrieved 2007-05-24. 
  20. ^ a b FBI Continues Crackdown on Environmentalists : AZ IMC
  21. ^ a b Independent Media Center | www.indymedia.org | ((( i )))
  22. ^ Asheville's Finest Webhost: PurpleCat.Net
  23. ^ "California man found guilty in eco-terrorist plot". Press Enterprise. 2007-09-28. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. http://www.libertypost.org/cgi-bin/readart.cgi?ArtNum=201350. Retrieved 2007-11-13. 
  24. ^ portland imc - 2006.02.23 - Two More Indicted Today for 2001 ELF Jefferson Poplar Action
  25. ^ Federal Bureau of Investigation - San Diego Field Division - Department of Justice Press Release - February 22, 2006
  26. ^ National Lawyers Guild
  27. ^ Backstory: Eco-vigilantes: All in 'The Family?' | csmonitor.com

External links

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