SEATTLE – Six people have been arrested in connection with ecoterrorism attacks in Oregon and Washington dating to 1998, including a fire at an Oregon poplar farm that was set at the same time as a devastating unsolved fire at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture.
The university fire – one of the Northwest’s most notorious acts of ecoterrorism – was set early May 21, 2001. About 110 miles away in Clatskanie, Ore., fire ripped through buildings and vehicles at the Jefferson Poplar Farm, causing more than $1 million in damage. The Earth Liberation Front, a shadowy collection of environmental activists, claimed responsibility for both fires, which caused no injuries.
UW researchers said the two arrests in the poplar farm case gave them hope that the horticulture center fire would soon be solved. The center, which was rebuilt at a cost of several million dollars, had done work on fast-growing hybrid poplars in hopes of limiting the amount of natural forests that timber companies log. The ELF said in a statement five days after the fire that the poplars pose “an ecological nightmare” for the diversity of native forests.
“We do see it as encouraging,” said Fred Hoyt, manager of facilities and grounds for UW’s Botanic Garden. “We see this as a positive thing and a way for us to draw some resolution to this incident.”
The arrests were made Wednesday in New York, Virginia, Oregon and Arizona, and each of the defendants has been indicted in Oregon or Washington, the U.S. attorney’s office said. Besides the tree farm fire, the attacks included three other arsons in Oregon, a $1.2 million fire at a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Olympia, and the toppling of a Bonneville Power Administration transmission tower near Bend, Ore., as the millennium drew near.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Friedman declined to say Thursday how authorities developed information that led to the arrests after years of investigation. But the FBI and the Building Industry Association of Washington recently began offering $100,000 rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of ecoterrorists.
The FBI estimates that ecoterrorist groups have committed more than 1,100 crimes in the United States since 1976, causing about $110 million in property damage, and the building industry group says $8 million of that damage has been in Washington state since 1996.
As to whether the horticulture center fire might soon be solved, Friedman said: “Obviously there’s a connection there. That would obviously be a lead we’d be pursuing.”
The two people charged in the poplar farm fire were Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff, 28, and Daniel Gerard McGowan, 31. They are also charged with setting a Jan. 2, 2001, fire that caused more than $1 million in damage at the Superior Lumber Co. in Glendale, Ore. They face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of several counts of arson and use of incendiary devices. Meyerhoff was arrested in Charlottesville, Va., where he attended Piedmont Community College. McGowan was arrested in New York City.
Kevin M. Tubbs, 36, and William C. Rodgers, 40, face up to 20 years each if convicted of a June 21, 1998, arson at the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services facility in Olympia. Another fire at a nearby Agriculture Department research facility, set the same day, remains under investigation. Tubbs was arrested in Springfield, Ore., and Rodgers was arrested in Prescott, Ariz.
Sarah Kendall Harvey, 28, an administrative assistant at Northern Arizona University, was arrested in Flagstaff after being charged in a Dec. 27, 1998, fire at U.S. Forest Industries in Medford, Ore. That fire caused an estimated $500,000 in damage. She faces up to 20 years if convicted.
Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, 28, of Eugene, Ore., was charged with conspiring to destroy an energy facility and destruction of an energy facility in the Dec. 30, 1999, toppling of the transmission tower. A not guilty plea was entered for her Thursday by court-appointed attorney Pat Ehlers in U.S. District Court in Portland. Gerlach was ordered held pending a release hearing Monday and scheduled for trial Feb. 14. She faces up to 25 years on the conspiracy charge, and also was accused by federal complaint of serving as a lookout during a 1999 arson that caused $1.2 million in damage at the Childers Meat Co. in Eugene. The complaint said two confidential sources had identified her as a participant in the fire.
The 80-foot-tall tower supported transmission lines that carry surplus BPA energy from the Northwest to Southern California. No loss of service occurred because the load was instantly switched to other lines by computer, and workers re-erected the tower the next day.
The other defendants were scheduled to make initial appearances in federal court in the districts where they were arrested. It was not immediately clear whether any but Gerlach had lawyers.
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