As a child, Rebecca Rubin’s favourite books were Charlotte’s Web, about a pig facing slaughter, and Beautiful Joe, about an abused dog. They were fictionalized worlds of noble animals and brutal humans. As the years progressed the North Vancouver woman cast herself in a real-life role as a masked avenger, a member of a secretive cell of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth Liberation Front (ELF)—radical environmentalists who used arson and sabotage of forest industries, businesses and government installations to punish those they saw as mistreating animals and the natural world.
On Monday, in U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., she paid a heavy price—five years in prison followed by 200 hours of community service and an order to pay almost $14 million in restitution—for her part in a reign of destruction across the U.S. West that caused some US$48 million in damage between 1996 and 2001, and became what the FBI calls the largest eco-terrorism case in American history.
It could have been far worse for 40-year-old Rubin, who will be freed sometime in 2017. U.S. federal prosecutors had asked for a 7 1/2-year sentence, three years probation and $14 million in restitution.
Rubin, a soft-spoken vegan and former Simon Fraser University student, described her years on the run from the FBI as the worst period of her life. “I lost everything and everybody when I left home, ashamed and in fear for my life. I left behind my belongings, my family, my friends, a job and co-workers that I loved and all sense of safety and security,” she wrote in a three-page letter to U.S. federal sentencing Judge Ann Aiken. “I was so convinced at the righteousness of my beliefs that I chose to ignore my own wrongdoing,” Rubin then told the judge in a shaky voice, the Oregonian newspaper reported.
“No doubt she “suffered” while in hiding,” prosecutors said in their sentencing submission, “but that was suffering entirely of her own choice and causation.” But Aiken called Rubin’s written and verbal apology to the court, her family, firefighters and the targets of arson “thoughtful, well-stated, honest [and] unvarnished.”
Rubin has been in U.S. custody since her mother, Sandy Rubin, drove her to the Blaine, Wash., border in November, 2012 to surrender. She pleaded guilty last October to her role in four acts of arson and sabotage and other attempted actions, after striking a plea deal to avoid mandatory minimum sentences that could have seen her serving more than 30 years in prison.
An apparently contrite Rubin admitted her part in the Nov. 10, 1997 arson at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management wild horse corral in Burns, Ore., after she and at least four others freed some 400 horses, some destined for slaughterhouses. She also worked with several co-conspirators including William Rodgers, one of the de facto strategists of the cell, to transport fire bombs Rogers would use in October, 1998 to destroy much of the Vail, Colo., ski resort. That arson alone, which was a failed attempt by the group to stop the resort expanding into mountain territory used by the Canadian lynx, caused more than $24.5 million in damages, the court was told.
In late 1998 she played a part in transporting fuel bombs that would later be used by other members of the cell to destroy the Medford, Ore., office of U.S. Forest Industries, causing $1 million in damage. Her last known criminal act was a break-in at the Litchfield wild horse and burro corral near Susanville, Calif., on Oct. 15, 2001. She and fellow Vancouverite Darren Thurston slipped across the U.S. border near Cultus Lake, B.C., barely a month after America was rocked by the 9/11 terror attacks. They joined cell members who freed horses and used “sophisticated delayed igniters” for fuel bombs that destroyed a hay storage barn at a cost of $207,000. The use of timed incendiary devices in that attack carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years, something California prosecutors reluctantly surrendered during the extended plea negotiations.
Late 2001 was a “turning point” for Rubin and many of the so-called Elves, the amorphous group of 18 members of the ALF and ELF cell, noted U.S. Attorney S. Amanda Marshall and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer in their sentencing submission to the court. “The cell fell apart in frustration as businesses and government facilities were rebuilt. Cell members essentially grew up, woke up and came to their senses and their violence ended. Not a small factor was 9/11, which was a terrorism wake-up call for everyone.”
Rubin offered few details of her life after her last admitted arson. As Maclean’s reported earlier, she worked for two summers in 2002 and 2003 at the Wildlife Natural Care Centre on B.C.’s Salt Spring Island. In 2004, before she was indicted, she returned to California to work with endangered condors at the Ventana Wildlife Society. Unbeknownst to Rubin, investigators were closing in.
After 9/11, massive federal resources poured into the FBI, Homeland Security and other agencies to escalate the fight against terrorism, both foreign and domestic. Although her last admitted criminal act was in 2001, it wasn’t until January, 2006 that she was named as a fugitive, after others in the group traded information for lighter sentences. The indictments of the first 11 cell members—the result of a massive investigation called Operation Backfire—was announced at a news conference attended by then FBI Director Robert Mueller and former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. Seven were arrested for “acts of domestic terrorism” and four others, including Rubin, were named as fugitives.
“I was terrified to be compared to Osama Bin Laden in the media and to have my picture on [FBI] Most Wanted Terrorist posters,” Rubin told the judge. Rodgers, her co-accused in the Vail ski resort fire, killed himself in custody. “The though that what lay in front of me was so terrifying, that someone would take their own life made surrendering all all the more difficult,” she said. Others in the group have served, or continue to serve lengthy sentences, and she said she feared the prospect of spending 30 years in prison. “The most frightening thing I have ever had to do in my life was to surrender myself to the authorities.”
Rubin apologized to the court, saying she is a different woman today from the “willful, driven and stubborn” person she was when she committed the offences. “By way of trying to explain—but not excuse—my actions,” she wrote, “I reached a point in my early twenties when I could [no] longer contain or appropriately channel the grief, despair and powerlessness I felt in response to the mistreatment of animals and the natural world.”
She said she turned to arson and sabotage because she felt her years of protests, canvassing, blockading, and hunger striking were accomplishing nothing. “Although at the time I believed my only motivation was my deep love for the earth, I now understand that impatience, anger, egotism and self-righteousness were also involved.”
Now, as a 40-year-old, Rubin said she realizes there was a human impact to the “inanimate objects” she helped destroy. “Had I met the owners or employees at the facilities we destroyed, I could never have burned their buildings and caused them such pain and harm. Instead I chose to disconnect from them emotionally and was thus able to dehumanize and vilify them. . . I would never have forgiven myself had anyone been injured, or worse, in the fires, and I am disappointed in myself that I took such a risk.”
While federal prosecutors credited Rubin for fully confessing her crimes, they noted she refused to give details of the actions of two remaining fugitive members of the cell: Canadian-born Josephine Sunshine Overaker, and American Joseph Dibee. Rubin’s refusal to betray fellow activists has won her praise on numerous anarchist and radical environmental websites. Prosecutors had wanted Rubin’s sentence to send a message. “After the ALF/ELF cell in this case disbanded, a new, younger generation of extreme activists has come of age,” said the prosecution memorandum. “They look to [Rubin] as a virtual heroine, not just for her criminal acts and years underground, but for her refusal to co-operate with the government against the two remaining fugitives.”
Despite her apology and apparent contrition, prosecutors said her “intelligence, kindness, civility and mild disposition” today were also evident during her years as a “hard-core” activist. “Her personality is likely the same, only age and experience have now tempered her radical ideology.”
Perhaps she’s also learned that life is more complex than the good and evil portrayed in children’s fiction. “I understand more than you know when you work in a democracy that all things look like they’re black and white when you’re young,” the judge told her. “And there are so many shades of gray.”