After a decade on the run, Rebecca Rubin pleaded guilty this week for her role in a sabotage and arson spree across the American west — acts that turned her and her fellow Earth Liberation and Animal Liberation Front members into some of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives.
In this story, published in the July 15, 2013 issue of Maclean’s, Ken MacQueen explores how a shy animal lover from North Vancouver landed in the crosshairs of the biggest eco-terrorism investigation in U.S. history:
“After constructing your first timer, you’ll feel the playing field shift in your favour—even the largest earth-destroying, animal-abusing corporations are now vulnerable”
– Setting Fires With Electrical Timers: An Earth Liberation Front Guide
On Aug. 20, Rebecca Rubin, an unassuming 40-year-old animal lover raised in an affluent North Vancouver neighbourhood, is expected to stand in a Eugene, Ore., courtroom and plead guilty for her role in what the U.S. Department of Justice calls “a campaign of domestic terrorism in five western states.” She is accused of being a member of the Family, a term coined by the FBI for an amorphous, autonomous cell of about 18 American and Canadian eco-terrorists who committed some 20 acts of arson and sabotage between 1996 and 2001 on behalf of the extremist Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) movements. The cell caused an estimated $48 million in damages to government installations, research facilities and industries that offended their world view, though they are responsible for no injuries or deaths. Rubin initially pleaded not guilty to her role in helping burn down a ski resort in Vail, Colo., two U.S. government wild-horse corrals in eastern Oregon and northern California, and an attempted arson at an Oregon lumber mill. Without a plea bargain—which has been in the works during the eight months she’s been in custody—she faces minimum sentences that could exceed 35 years without parole.
The Elves, as they called themselves, were mostly white, mostly middle-class, so skilled in the craft of clandestine activity, coded communication, arson and sabotage that they literally wrote the book on such tactics—documents that circulate to this day on the Internet. They were warriors, they were true believers that illegal means are justified in the protection of animal life or habitat. “It is not unlike freedom fighters in Nazi Germany destroying the gas chambers,” Canadian David Barbarash—a former boyfriend of Rubin and a one-time ALF activist and spokesperson—once explained.
But what began for the Elves with high ideals, powered by the adrenalin rush of their destructive “direct actions,” has ended with betrayal, imprisonment and suicide. The game changed for them after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. government poured enormous resources into a federal Department of Homeland Security as well as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to fight terrorism—a definition that ran the gamut from al-Qaeda-schooled mass murderers to environmental extremists, turning the Elves into a high-priority domestic security threat. Determined to end their arson rampage, the agencies formed a top secret investigative unit, Operation Backfire, which the FBI describes as “the largest eco-terrorism case in United States history.”
Even at that, the Elves—a rare mix of anarchism and military-style discipline—proved near impossible to crack. It would take 10 years, and a series of minor mistakes before Eugene-based FBI special agent John Ferreira had the leverage to turn a top member of the cell into an informant. In the face of betrayal, pledges to take past secrets to the grave fell apart. Many named names and cut deals with prosecutors to avoid huge prison terms. “It was a domino effect,” says Ferreira. Rubin was one of the last to be identified. She was the careful one, a cypher known to many in the cell only as “Kara” or “Little Missy.”
She remains an enigma. A former B.C. employer calls her a gentle bohemian. To others on the radical edge of environmentalism she remains a heroine of the movement. In the eyes of U.S. authorities, though, she is a terrorist, worthy of a $50,000 reward, and an FBI wanted-poster warning: “Should be considered armed and dangerous and a flight risk.” Beyond that they knew little. The wanted poster listed her height at five foot five to five foot eight; 130 to 145 lb.; hair, brown; eyes, hazel. Rubin was indeed elusive—an international fugitive, long after the Elves fractured and disbanded in late 2001. By 2007, 10 others in the group had received prison terms up to 13 years. Other arrests have followed. Rubin’s faint trail—from Colorado, through Oregon, Wyoming, California and B.C.—was relentlessly tracked by Colorado-based FBI special agent Jane Quimby, lead investigator for the massive Vail arson, which gutted most of the buildings and facilities of American’s busiest ski resort. Always Rubin remained just out of reach.
In the end, it was the fugitive herself who grew tired of the hunt. After grinding, lonely years on the run, she has seen the Elves crumble, and lived with the knowledge of their many betrayals. “She was forced to live in what is, in some ways, a prison without walls,” says her Vancouver lawyer, Ian Donaldson, who began a series of negotiations that led to her surrendering in Blaine, Wash., to U.S. authorities last November. Just two members of the Elves remain at large. Unless they’re caught, Rubin’s testimony will be the final word on Operation Backfire. Now, it’s her turn to deal.
“Today you will be branded a terrorist, but someday you will be remembered as a selfless warrior who dared to fight for what was right” – The Animal Liberation Primer
Some of what little is known of Rubin’s early life was pieced together by journalist Petra Bartosiewicz for a profile she wrote in 2011 for Marie Claire magazine. Her parents divorced when she was young and she was raised by her mother, a nurse. She was articulate, though at times painfully shy. She always had an affinity for animals, perhaps not surprising since she lived in the district of North Vancouver, a community on the slopes of the North Shore Mountains cut out of ancient forest—the sort the Elves risked all to protect—but now thick with towering second-growth trees. Though it is just 20 minutes from downtown Vancouver, it’s a world apart, a place where coyotes prowl and bears lumber down along mountain paths and streams to munch on backyard bird feeders and to pillage garbage cans.
She attended Simon Fraser University, though she would not resume her studies and finish her undergraduate degree in geography until early 2002. After hearing a guest lecture at the university by anthropologist Jane Goodall, she was inspired to spend time at a gorilla sanctuary in East Africa. In 1994, 21-year-old Rubin was back in Canada. She’d joined a B.C. group, Friends of the Wolf, protesting a program to poison targeted wolves on behalf of B.C. ranchers. She and others launched a hunger strike, although she told a reporter she’d stop before her health was irreparably harmed. She also joined a group protesting a landfill expansion proposed for the massive Burns peat bog in Delta, B.C. It was there she met and began dating David Barbarash, a brash, uncompromising environmental activist. “She was an extremely genuine person, she was very caring and compassionate, gentle and kind,” Barbarash says of their first meeting, in an interview with Maclean’s. Rubin was one of those who locked herself to objects to block access to the site. “It inspired me; there was someone who was walking the talk.”
At the time they met, Barbarash was fresh out of jail after a 1992 break-in at the University of Alberta in which he and fellow British Columbian Darren Thurston freed 29 cats from an animal lab and left behind more than $50,000 in property damage. Barbarash had fled to the U.S. after the break-in, but was caught by authorities in 1994 and extradited to Canada, where he served four months in jail after pleading guilty. Thurston, who years later joined the Elves, was convicted at trial and served two years for the break-in. Barbarash today rejects a suggestion he may have radicalized Rubin, who is a decade his junior. “We were just two people who shared very similar views,” he says over coffee in a café on the Sunshine Coast of B.C., where he now leads a quieter life. “There’s a lot of people who join movements of various stripes for various reasons: straight-up political reasons, or philosophical or psychological or emotional,” he says. “I don’t think she was angry at her parents or angry at society or any of those kinds of psychological motivations for expressing herself. She genuinely cared about the issues involved and generally wanted to make a difference.” Nor was she one to waver, even in the face of betrayal, he says. “When Rebecca has deeply felt convictions she sticks by them right to the end,” he says. “She would sooner go to jail than speak of others.”
Barbarash’s and ALF’s philosophy was that destruction of property was justified if the property imperilled animal life. “The ALF believe that, by definition, violence cannot be committed against inanimate objects and things that are not alive and cannot feel pain and suffer,” Barbarash said in a 2005 interview on an ALF website. “One cannot injure a brick or a pane of glass. Therefore the destruction of property is not viewed as a violent activity, even if it involved the use of aggressive tactics such as fire.”
The relationship between Rubin and Barbarash instantly put her on the radar of both the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the RCMP and what was then the National Security Investigations Section (NSIS) for Barbarash’s and Thurston’s activities in Edmonton and their ties to radical environmental and anti-fascist groups. By 20, she was already drawn to those on the radical fringe. RCMP search warrant applications to install listening devices in 1995-97 show both men were under suspicion of sending pipe bombs to Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, other white supremacists and an Alberta cattle embryo-transplant centre among others. “The oppression and abuse of animals does not happen in a vacuum, outside the oppression and abuse of women, minorities and other targeted humans,” Barbarash once said, in explaining why activism must extend beyond harm to animals and the environment. They were also suspected of sending more than 20 threatening letters signed by the “Justice Department” to bear-hunt outfitters, fur shops and other animal-related businesses. The envelopes were booby-trapped with razor blades positioned to slice fingers when the envelopes were opened. The blades, the letters warned, were contaminated with either rat poison or HIV-tainted blood, though subsequent analysis of the letters found that claim to be false.
A threatening letter sent to Zundel in April 1995 and signed by the Anti-Fascist Militia warned “next time it might be BOOM!” Indeed, a month later a package booby-trapped with a pipe bomb wrapped with nails was mailed to Zundel in Toronto. The Toronto police bomb squad removed and detonated the device. “On June 23, 1995, the names of Darren Todd THURSTON and David Nathan BARBARASH surfaced as potential suspects,” said an RCMP warrant.
A month later, Terry Mitenko, vice-president of Alta Genetics Inc., the cattle-breeding company, narrowly escaped serious injury or death when a similar package exploded in his office in Cochrane, Alta., blowing out windows, spewing shrapnel around the room and throwing him against the wall. He was spared because he was behind his heavy wooden desk when the bomb exploded.
What followed was an extended game of cat and mouse with investigators. Thurston and Barbarash, and most probably Rubin, were trailed by the RCMP’s Special O surveillance unit, and at times by CSIS, in what became a jurisdictional nightmare. Some 9,000 of their emails, faxes and phone calls were monitored from a special room at provincial RCMP E Division headquarters in Vancouver. Storage lockers rented by the men were monitored by video and secretly searched. Envelopes and razor blades and cardboard index cards, of the kind used to position the blades, were allegedly discovered.
The men, after years of activism, had long worked on the assumption that they were under watch. If they had any doubts, those ended by March 1997 when Thurston discovered electronic bugs and transmitters, powered by battery packs, hidden in his Vancouver basement apartment, and another in his car. Both had been installed by the RCMP’s Special I electronic surveillance unit, a warrant later revealed.
A year later, in March 1998, RCMP pounced, charging Thurston and Barbarash with 27 counts of mailing an explosive or dangerous thing with intent to cause bodily harm. Barbarash and Rubin, then 24, were charged with possession of an explosive device. Police found nails, sponges, batteries, two alarm clocks, battery connections, alligator clips and a soldering iron in a bedroom the two frequently shared in a Vancouver rental home—components that could be assembled as part of an incendiary device, a police expert testified at a preliminary hearing.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled there was sufficient evidence to send the three to trial. Though evidence against Rubin was largely circumstantial, Judge Kenneth Lysyk ruled: “Members of that jury might ask themselves what other purpose Ms. Rubin could possibly have for possessing that unusual combination of items, and members of that jury might also consider that the provision of a fuel and ignition source was not a complicated matter.”
Then, in a stunning turn of events, the case police had assembled during a three-year investigation collapsed at trial in September 2000. The judge ordered the RCMP to disclose key documents to the defence, which it refused to do. The Crown prosecutors stayed all charges, in part because releasing the information would jeopardize another investigation. Barbarash says the documents they refused to disclose included the notes of four undercover agents who were trying to entrap them after infiltrating the activist scene at a left-wing Vancouver café. He calls it a botched investigation: “They just said, ‘Here’s the crime, here’s who we think did it, let’s make the trail to that crime.’ ” Bombings, Barbarash now says, would have violated the ELF-ALF pledge not to physically harm animals or people. “In all of my activities it’s a philosophic principle: you just do no harm—physical harm—to anyone, and that includes the people you’re fighting against.”
Rubin and Barbarash ended their relationship about six months after their arrest, though they remain friends. Her unassuming nature and desire to avoid the media glare had its advantages. She was barely a blip on the RCMP-CSIS radar by the time her charge was stayed in 2000. Nor did the FBI know until years later that “Kara” had already crossed the line—and the U.S. border—as a member of the Elves.
“Veteran activists only allow a select few to know about their involvement with direct-action groups. Those few consist of the cell members who they do the actions with AND NO ONE ELSE!” – Security Culture: A Handbook for Activists
Life in the FBI was rarely boring for special agent John Ferreira. He’d spent much of his early career tracking Palestine Liberation Organization efforts to raise money through criminal funds and working international organized crime files. In 1995, he transferred to Eugene, Ore., a geographically blessed mid-sized university city, equidistant to the Pacific to the west and a vast, green swath of national forest lands to the east. But this was never quite the idyll of first impressions. In the 1990s there was an often tense relationship between the area’s forest industry, and the nature-loving free spirits and environmentalists the city attracted. The forests there, as in Washington state and British Columbia, were alive with conflicts, tree-sits and blockades waged in defence of old-growth timber and animal and bird habitats. While the protests were generally peaceful there was also a harder, radical element that spiked trees to put loggers at risk, or dumped sand in the fuel of heavy equipment. That element would eventually form the nucleus of the Elves, generate major media buzz with their actions, and draw believers like Rubin to the cause.
On Oct. 28, 1996, the so-called monkeywrenching escalated. A U.S. Forest Service truck was set ablaze at the Ranger district headquarters in Detroit, Ore.—torched, authorities learned years later, by Jake Ferguson, 23, a hard-living drifter, anarchist and heavy metal rocker. He was aided by his girlfriend, Josephine Sunshine Overaker, a Canadian-born U.S. citizen, with skills, the FBI would later claim, as a firefighter, midwife, sheep tender and masseuse. The couple spray-painted “Earth Liberation Front” and “Stop raping our forests” on the building and left a fuel-filled plastic jug rigged with lighted incense sticks as a crude timer on the building’s roof. The building was spared when the device failed to ignite.
Two days later, Oct. 30, 1996, the two were joined by Kevin “Dog” Tubbs, a Nebraskan who moved to Eugene to work as an editor for the Earth First! Journal, for an assault on a forest-ranger research station in Oakridge, Ore. Tubbs would testify years later that Ferguson and Overaker placed timed incendiary devices around the building. The 25,000-sq.-foot station was gutted by fire, destroying irreplaceable photos and research, and causing $5 million in damage. At this point, the evidence suggests Rubin was still in Vancouver with Barbarash, trailed by Canadian investigators.
The second arson in two days stunned the region. “Some people are afraid to go out in the woods by themselves, but most of us are just plain angry,” Tim Bailey a Forest Service biologist, told the local High Country News. “Arson is a kind of chickens–t crime.”
The local Sierra Club was among the groups offering a reward for information leading to suspects. But the hardcore saw it as a call to arms. “When the arsons took place, many environmental activists did not know what to think. The most lucid of them were happy, understanding that their opponent had been attacked,” the Puget Sound Anarchists website would later write in a fawning history of the Northwest Elf Cell. “Unfortunately, some activists were afraid and wanted to distance themselves from what had happened.”
The Oakridge fire, with its major damage and sinister undertones, fell into the jurisdiction of the FBI’s Eugene office, and the case landed on Ferreira’s desk. There wasn’t much to go on: piles of ash, no fingerprints or forensics, a code of silence, and a region full of committed environmental activists, most of them operating inside the law.
Back in the 1990s, a frustrated mayor of Eugene called his city “the anarchist capital of the United States.” Ferreira, who still lives in Eugene, has a gentler take. It’s the “hippie capital,” he says. “They’re pretty liberal and believe in protecting the Earth and the animals, which is perfect. I do, too. But when they crossed the line and decided to do some criminal acts, that’s when we get involved.”
The next year, 1997, the Elves changed their targets from protecting trees to freeing wild animals. That July, they targeted the Cavel West slaughterhouse in rural Redmond, Ore., a facility that bought wild horses rounded up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and sold the meat for export. Tubbs did reconnaissance of the plant and realized a larger crew would be needed for its destruction. He recruited his friend Ferguson, as well as Joseph Dibee, a software engineer at Microsoft, and Jonathan Paul, a veteran animal liberation activist. Paul angered the rest by breaking the cell’s strict protocol by bringing in his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Kolar, without vetting and prior approval of the group. Kolar, a computer geek with a master’s degree in astrophysics, would soon prove her worth as the group’s computer security expert. Still, the plan went ahead using firebombs (a mix of gasoline, diesel and glycerin soap they called “vegan Jell-O”) attached to timers. Well away from the scene, they buried their dark clothes, shoes and bolt cutters after destroying them with acid. The plant burned to the ground. Tubbs wrote a communiqué attributing the blaze to the ALF and the “Equine and Zebra Liberation Front.”
Again, beyond the taunting claims of the saboteurs, there was little for the FBI to go on, says Ferreira. “These are autonomous cells. You’re talking about three, four, five people [per action], and only they know.” Even within the cell, some members, like Kara, a.k.a. Rubin, rarely gave up their names.
It was later, too, the FBI would learn about the Elves’ “book club.” It was an old-school but effective code technique to set a rendezvous. A message would go out designating a series of page numbers, lines, words or letters—meaningless to all but a select few who knew to apply the key to a designated book, such as The Dispossessed, to learn the time and place of a meeting. “They were getting paranoid that the FBI or law enforcement was everywhere,” says Ferreira—who only wished that was the case. The members would refine security measures, improve methods of sabotage and identify targets.
It was Kolar, who later worked in Seattle as a software engineer for a series of tech companies, including SchemaLogic and AOL, who devised a method of secure email communication the FBI hadn’t even heard of at the time, says former agent Jane Quimby. Cell members would share an email account. A message would be written and left in a draft folder. Other cell members would use a shared password to sign in, read the email and add their own comments, without ever sending the email and leaving a detectable trail. Former CIA director David Petraeus used the same clandestine communication technique last year when he conducted his extramarital affair. “And I thought,” Quimby says with a laugh, “I know where that’s coming from.”
By November 1997, 33-year-old William Rodgers, code name “Avalon,” an Arizona-based activist, had joined the cell and taken a partial leadership role. He was expert in incendiary devices, a co-author of the ELF book on timers and, at five foot six and about 120 lb., among the more elf-like members of the cell. He was extraordinarily well-read, abstentious and reclusive—the polar opposite to Ferguson, the rangy wild man. Yet, the two, along with Tubbs, planned the attack on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wild Horse Corral at Burns, Ore., where animals are kept for adoption, though some were destined for slaughter. This was also the first known action by Rebecca Rubin in the U.S., the FBI allege, although she was already awaiting trial on the Canadian charge for possession of an explosive device.
Again, the details would spill out years later in plea negotiations by Ferguson and Tubbs, linked romantically with Rubin by some accounts. With Tubbs acting as lookout and monitoring police channels, Ferguson, Rodgers, Overaker and allegedly Rubin, crept into the sprawling facility, released about 400 feral horses and burros back to the wild and set incendiary devices in the large wooden barn. They signalled Tubbs by radio when they were done. He returned to the site to pick them up, and they vanished before kitchen timers ignited the firebombs—plastic pails of jellied fuel with gas-soaked sponge fuses—causing extensive damage. ALF and ELF jointly claimed responsibility. “The BLM claims they are removing non-native species from public lands (aren’t Europeans also non-native),” the communiqué asked. “This hypocrisy and genocide against the horse nation will not go unchallenged.”
With each major arson, and lesser actions like freeing farmed mink or vandalizing fur stores, the pressure increased on Ferreira and his FBI masters for a break in the case. “The community was very outraged,” says Ferreira. “They were frustrated because we couldn’t do anything.” The Elves were the most destructive cell, but they weren’t the only eco-saboteurs. Anyone with a paint spray bomb could sign their work “ELF” or “ALF”; there were attacks across the U.S. and Canada.
Many wrote press releases and submitted them anonymously for distribution to vocal sympathizer Craig Rosebraugh, a vegan bakery owner in Portland, Ore., to Darren Thurston, who operated an ALF support group from Vancouver, or to ALF spokesman David Barbarash, then living on Vancouver Island. Because their identities were known to police, the spokesmen claimed they weren’t active monkeywrenchers, but mere information conduits with no knowledge of who the saboteurs were. “I was now a known ALF activist, severely curtailing any future surreptitious activity,” Barbarash explained in an interview on the group’s website. “Becoming their spokesperson seemed to me a logical thing to do, and a way in which I could continue to support their efforts in an above-ground capacity.” The websites and news releases to mainstream media were effective “recruiting tools” for others to join the fold, says Ferreira. “Their mindset at the time was, ‘We’re getting screwed by the government and private business that are making a fortune off the Earth and the animals. Well, it’s time to stop that.’ ”
The Elves, with each new action, were building their reputation on both sides of the law. To the FBI, “eco-terrorists” in the pre-9/11 world were the leading domestic terrorism threat in the U.S. But to the like-minded few they were mythical heroes, like Robin Hood and his band; merry tricksters with noble intent, outsmarting their oppressors at every turn.
“The objective of every action should be assured destruction. The risks are too high for anything else.” – Setting Fires With Electrical Timers
By the 1990s, with more people taking to the slopes, there was pressure to expand Colorado’s premier ski resort in Vail into a trackless area of White River National Forest. Mainstream environmentalists fought the plan, saying it threatened the range of the endangered Canadian lynx, and two elk herds. The debate was also monitored by the Elves. When a last-ditch injunction filed by the Colorado Environmental Coalition was rejected by a judge on Oct. 14, 1998, it only confirmed the Elves’ belief that direct action was needed.
Just three days previously, the Elves had experienced a major setback. Rubin is alleged to have been among a group of seven that attempted to torch federal wild-horse corrals in Rock Springs, Wyo. Others in the crew included Rodgers, Ferguson, Overaker, Tubbs and Chelsea “Country Girl” Gerlach, a former lover of Rodgers who was now living with Stanislas Meyerhoff, an old boyfriend from high school. She would later settle with Thurston. (Tracking romantic relationships among the Elves was something of a lost cause, the FBI’s Quimby says. “One man’s girlfriend today was another man’s girlfriend the next day. It was a pretty transient lifestyle.”) The arson plan fell apart after Rubin allegedly opened a corral gate before the incendiary devices were set, alerting police to the escape of several dozen horses. They quickly aborted their plan.
The Elves headed to Colorado barely a week later, and along the way bought supplies, paying cash, and wearing baseball caps to hide from security cameras. They then stopped at a motel to assemble the timers, a task in which informants implicated Rubin as well. Years later in a jailhouse interview published in Outside magazine, Gerlach described the extreme security measures followed during her time with ELF. “Like being in a hotel room for days on end, everyone clad in painter’s suits and face masks and hairnets and multiple layers of latex gloves, craned over tiny electronic devices and soldering irons.” The group also chose routes that avoided most security cameras, she said. “We cleaned the fingerprints off everything, even wristwatches, which I thought was overkill until I lost a watch climbing over a chain-link fence. We were very good at it. That’s why the government didn’t know who did these things.”
Once they got to Vail, Gerlach, 21, and others, allegedly including Rubin, 25, attempted to drive Gerlach’s truck up the mountain, loaded with about 280 litres of fuel and other incendiary equipment. It got stuck in the snow and mud. “We spent hours trying to dig it out,” Gerlach later said. They stashed the fuel containers in a hidden cache, wrapped in white trash bags to further conceal them in the snow. “The fuel was still miles below our target—a string of buildings and ski lifts on a ridge at 11,000 feet; it would have to be hiked up the mountain.” Most of the group, including Rubin, argued to abort, or at least delay the arson. They headed to Oregon, leaving only Gerlach and Rodgers behind. The next night the duo retrieved the fuel. Rodgers spent several days hiking the fuel, can by can, up several kilometres of mountainside.
This time, Rodgers set most of the fires by hand, running from building to building along two kilometres of ridgeline, the night before bulldozers were about to roll on the expansion. The fires destroyed the 24,000-sq.-foot main lodge, two restaurants, several ski lifts and two ski-patrol buildings. One building was spared when Rodgers, fortunately, checked inside and found two hunters sleeping in a heated washroom.
The night sky was lit with fires as Rodgers scrambled down through the trees. It was daylight by the time Rodgers, limping from a twisted ankle sustained during his adventure, reached Gerlach’s pickup. He’d changed from the black clothes he had been wearing into hiking gear he kept in his backpack; just another outdoorsman on a morning walk. The two drove to Denver, where Gerlach used a library computer to draft a communiqué: “On behalf of the lynx, five buildings and four ski lifts at Vail were reduced to ashes,” it read in part. “Putting profits before Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated. This action is just a warning. We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and un-roaded areas. For your safety and convenience, we strongly advise skiers to choose other destinations until Vail cancels its inexcusable plans for expansion.”
The email arrived in the inbox of Rosebraugh, ELF’s unofficial spokesman in Portland. “When I opened it, my jaw dropped,” he wrote in his 2004 book, Burning Rage of a Dying Planet: Speaking for the Earth Liberation Front. He quickly churned out a press release. “New cells can be created only if the ideology reaches and appeals to more people,” he explained in his book.
Total damage in Vail was estimated at $15 million, with $12 million of that covered by insurance. Another $13 million in lost revenue wasn’t reimbursed. “Call that the ELF tax,” said Gerlach. It was then the largest single act of environmental terrorism in the U.S., but FBI investigators had little to go on.
The Elves escalated their actions, usually with a few key members and a fluid cast of new recruits. Among their acts of arson in Oregon through to mid-2001, they burned the U.S. Forest Industries headquarters in Jackson County, the Childers Meat Company in Lane County, the Boise Cascade timber company regional headquarters in Monmouth, and they tried to burn a Eugene police station. They’d also rang out New Year’s Eve, 1999, by toppling a high-tension power tower near Bend, Ore. The year 2001 began with a major fire at the Superior Lumber Company timber mill in Douglas County. While Rubin isn’t accused of participating in these acts, she’s named in the indictments as a conspirator in all the Elves’ sabotage.
The escalation troubled investigators who feared it was only a matter of time before someone was injured or killed. A second firebomb—on a delayed timer at the Childers fire ignited by a gas main moments after two firefighters passed by—was “a very scary incident,” says Ferreira.
Then, in March 2001, Rodgers, Tubbs and Meyerhoff used sheets soaked in fuel to torch some 32 new SUVs at a Eugene Chevrolet dealership. Ferreira arrived to see rows of vehicles blazing in the night sky, vehicle alarms blaring, tires and fuel tanks exploding. “We were totally stunned at the enormity of the arson,” he says. To the Elves it was a giant middle-finger thrust in the face of the establishment. “Sucking the land dry, gas-guzzling SUVs are at the forefront of this vile, imperialistic culture’s caravan toward self-destruction,” read a statement sent to the ELF press office. It also claimed the action was in solidarity with non-“Family” activist Jeff “Free” Luers and a cohort who were about to go to trial for an earlier arson of three light trucks at the dealership.
If the Elves’ action was intended to help Luers, it was a disastrous miscalculation. Luers was found guilty and sentenced to an extraordinary 23 years by an unsympathetic local judge. He served almost 10 years before the sentence was reduced on appeal. Luers had rejected a deal to plead guilty to a charge of intending to cause physical harm to another person, he explained after his release. “For years the FBI had been trying to show that environmental activists were terrorists and I didn’t want to give them a victory. I chose to fight that all the way.”
Luers’s heavy sentence was indicative of growing community anger. It also opened fissures within the Elves, many of whom had opposed the SUV arsons. “By 2001, everything was falling apart,” Gerlach said in her Outside interview. “People were getting more reckless just when I thought we needed to be more careful.” Not so Rubin, however, who appeared to go to ground after the 1998 Vail arson—perhaps because her possession-of-explosive charge was heading to trial in Vancouver in 2000.
Two groups of Elves struck again in two coordinated attacks on May 21, 2001: at the Jefferson Poplar Farm in Columbia County, Ore., and at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle. This time the alleged sins were experiments in genetic engineering. The $6-million fire at the university raged out of control, destroying a library and rare, centuries-old manuscripts and slides of the 1980 volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens. The actual target professor’s poplar-tree research, funded by the forest industry, was backed up elsewhere, and in any event was the work of traditional cross-breeding methods, not advanced genetic mutations. Those two misguided actions caused a profound rift among the Elves. Daniel McGowan and his then-girlfriend, Suzanne Savoie, later said their actions at Jefferson and the massive collateral damage at the university set the movement back. “It’s hard to really justify in hindsight,” Savoie admitted in a 2011 documentary, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.
The schism widened further as some in the group discussed moving from arson to murder. “In the spring of 2001, Meyerhoff had conversations with William Rodgers about assassinations,” a Department of Justice sentencing document says. “Rodgers and Meyerhoff discussed the tactic of two riders on a motorcycle being able to weave in and out of traffic, shooting someone and then fleeing the scene and dumping the gun.” The idea wasn’t acted on before things fell apart.
Meanwhile, separate local police, FBI and ATF investigations in Oregon and Colorado were going nowhere. “I tell you right now, from ’96 to 2001-02 we were getting our butts kicked,” says Ferreira. “[There was] internal fighting between agencies trying to find out who was doing all these actions. We were accused of knowing a lot and not telling anybody,” he says. “I told them: ‘There’s two ways to solve this: You either catch them in the act, or get somebody to flip one of the cell members.’ ”
“Some things to [watch out] for in people you choose to do illegal direct action with are lengthy criminal records and drug addictions, which can often by used by the police to pressure activists into giving them information” – Security Culture: A Handbook for Activists
Jake Ferguson once joked that the Elves needed him because all the vegans in the crew were too weak to do the heavy work. He was an outsider even among a radical fringe of eco-anarchists. He grew up with a father in jail, and his own minor criminal past. He had a pentagram tattooed on his forehead, and had a spiralling heroin addiction. Although he was one of the most active members of the Elves, investigators had no inkling of his involvement in the arson rampage until a series of events linked him to the SUV fires—one event, ironically, that he had nothing to do with.
Josephine Overaker, who, like her boyfriend Ferguson, was a drug addict, made two key mistakes that eventually provided crucial links. She had lost a personal phone book in Detroit, Ore., prior to the first arson at the ranger station, though initially it was not linked to the event. Then, in June 1998, she was arrested for shoplifting sponges—used for an ignition device when soaked with gas—and a flashlight at a hardware store in Tacoma, Wash. A day later, the Elves torched a federal Animal, Plant and Health Inspection Service office in nearby Olympia, Wash. Her proximity to the arson didn’t register until investigators gathered intelligence on area activists and began exploring her ties to Ferguson. “That started us to solving the case, because she screwed up,” Ferreira says. “With that, we knew she was more than likely involved and anyone around her would be involved—and that was Ferguson.”
At that point, though, it was little more than Ferreira’s theory, and there were more than a few skeptics among the FBI. Agent Quimby was among them, she admits. She had been handed the case file for the Vail arson, and an investigation that was as cold as two-year-old ashes. She recalls a summer meeting in Denver of arson investigators. “John talked about Overaker. Nobody really believed him.”
Ferreira, however, plugged away, hitting Ferguson and his friends and associates with door-knock visits, grand jury summonses, as well as increased surveillance. Ferguson, with his mix of addiction, anger and anxiety, was the key, Ferreira was certain of that. But how to turn him?
Then came Sept. 11, 2001: airliners were hijacked, buildings tumbled, thousands died. Everything changed.
Resources flooded into federal investigative agencies, attitudes hardened against any act of terror or sabotage; civil rights diminished. Already, a 1992 law, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, enacted after heavy lobbying by the biomedical research industry, had created a category of criminal activity, “animal enterprise terrorism,” that offered the possibility of stiff sentencing enhancement for sabotage by underground animal rights groups. In October 2001, the George W. Bush administration passed the USA PATRIOT Act that added sweeping new powers of investigation, surveillance and arrest to suspected terrorist activities of every sort, both foreign and domestic.
It was in this uncertain time that two Canadians—Rubin and Thurston—slipped back across the border from Canada to make the Elves’ last stand—just one month after 9/11.
“By acting anonymously, and in extremely close-knit groups of trusted associates, the ALF and ELF remain impervious to infiltration and will continue to remain beneath the radar of police agencies” – David Barbarash, Jan. 12, 2002, Underground magazine
In October 2001, Barbarash’s friend Darren Thurston, now in Vancouver, received emails from Joseph Dibee and allegedly Rubin, asking him to participate in an action somewhere in the U.S., a Justice Department sentence report says. All three slipped across the B.C.-Washington state border near Cultus Lake Provincial Park on Oct. 11. They were met on the U.S. side by Dibee’s one-time girlfriend, Jennifer Kolar. The target this time was the Bureau of Land Management’s Litchfield wild horse and burro corral near Susanville, Calif, a semi-rural, high desert city that tied its economic fortunes to the growing human prison industry—a bit of ironic foreshadowing that seems to have eluded the Elves.
They were joined in the action by Meyerhoff. Part of the Canadians’ task was to eliminate all fingerprints and trace evidence from Dibee’s truck and all equipment, as plea documents by Thurston and others later revealed.Water bladders, flashlights, tools, backpacks and pepper spray were all either washed before the action or wiped down with alcohol. Dibee and Meyerhoff mixed containers of gas and diesel. En route they were joined by others. They arrived at night at a mound overlooking the Litchfield facility, where they tested a night-vision scope before setting up tents elsewhere and cleaning their equipment once again.
On the night of Oct. 15, they dressed in black, wore cotton gloves and put socks over their shoes to eliminate tread marks. Meyerhoff and Kolar placed incendiary devices in a hay storage area, the porch of a building and under a vehicle, while Thurston and allegedly Rubin travelled to the corrals. They breached the wire fencing with cutters, and used ropes and tarps to funnel the horses out of the corrals. They left in three vehicles and the Elves scattered a final time. Thurston and allegedly Rubin slipped across the border to Vancouver.
Just one explosive functioned, causing about $84,000 in damage. Thurston released a communiqué to the ALF website, threatening to target other “industries and organizations that seek to profit by destroying the earth.” It would be the last missive the Elves produced. Many moved on with their lives: going to school or building careers, forming new relationships and burying their past. The cell went dark—just as the investigation was heating up.
“Many activists get drawn into situations they are not able to handle, and some are so caught up in the excitement that they either don’t realize what the consequences can be or they just don’t think they’ll ever have to face them” – Security Culture: A Handbook for Activists
It was the summer of 2002, more than half a year after the Susanville action, that Rebecca Rubin, then 29, arrived with the newest crew of a dozen volunteer interns working at the Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre on B.C.’s idyllic Saltspring Island. Jackie Ballerone, a director at the centre, which cares for injured and abandoned birds, sea and land mammals, recalls picking her up at the ferry. She was dressed in thrift-store finery, a bit older and more worldly than the usual student intern. “I have a recollection of taking her right from the ferry to take a dead fawn out of somebody’s pond,” Ballerone says. “It was quite an introduction. She helped me drag this bloated little body out of the car and wrap it up in a tarp and she didn’t blanch. I thought, this is a good sign. She’s not squeamish.”
Like all interns, she cleaned enclosures and did diet preparation. The interns lived in cabins in the woods. “I suspect that we were a pretty good hideout for her,” Ballerone says in retrospect. Rubin was a gifted, enthusiastic caregiver. “She’d obviously been around animals, and she gave a damn,” says Ballerone.
One time a farmer delivered a live chicken to the centre, and its head was drooping because of an injured neck. The centre doesn’t treat domestic chickens, but Ballerone offered to euthanize the bird. Rubin intervened. She turned a woman’s hair curler into a neck brace, looked after the bird and named it Chicken. “She wasn’t going to have Chicken euthanized just because she didn’t fit the mould.” She and Chicken would roam the grounds together, and she took it with her at the close of summer.
Rubin was vague about her life beyond Saltspring. She spoke of living in the off-season in an isolated cabin, with neither electricity or running water, in the wilderness near Coquitlam, B.C. She said it was owned by her mother. Her social life was a mystery. “I used to hear her now and again referring to some guy she held in great esteem,” says Ballerone. “Kind of referred to him as a past lover. She was pretty hooked into him.”
She got on well with the other interns, though she stood out as a true free spirit, never one to shave her body hair or obsess about her looks. Ballerone remembers her chatting to another intern riding in the back of a vehicle on the way to an animal release. “God, your feet get dirty working here,” Rubin complained. “I’ve tried everything to get my feet clean—I even tried soap.” Still, Ballerone recalls her as attractive, with intense brown eyes, a nice figure and beautiful flowing hair. “Pretty in that bohemian, hippie, earth mama kind of way.”
At the time of the first internship she was still unknown to the FBI. When Rubin applied to return to Saltspring for the 2003 season, centre staff were happy. But it was a different person who returned, “kind of pissed off at the world,” says Ballerone. “I suspect something had gone down during the winter.” That something was likely the FBI and the ATF, which had cranked up the investigation. Ferreira was dogging Ferguson’s footsteps. “We were turning up the heat, knocking on a lot of doors,” says Quimby.
The once enthusiastic Rubin became a voice of discontent. “Let’s call it her Norma Rae campaign, getting the other interns a bit disgruntled about this, that or the other thing. She became the Fair Police,” says Ballerone. By the close of summer 2003, centre staff were glad to see her leave, and they expect the feeling was mutual. She can only speculate now that Rubin knew things were falling apart and the first doubts and fears about her past were seeping in. “I believe she had the temperament to be led by a strong personality with a convincing argument regarding an issue she cared about. But I was surprised that she was [allegedly] involved in property damage,” says Ballerone. “History is full of it, isn’t it? Every charismatic leader has a whole bunch of young people under them,” she says. “But, you know what? She was also her own person. She was no milquetoast.”
In a risky move, in 2004—with Operation Backfire now assembled as a full-blown, albeit top secret, anti-terrorism investigation—Rubin followed her heart back to California. She signed on as a field intern with the Ventana Wildlife Society to work with endangered California condors. She was based in Pinnacles National Park, a craggy, mountainous ancient volcanic field east of the Salinas Valley, and a release site for condors. Rubin, who had hid so carefully behind pseudonyms as an activist, made no secret of her name; neither could she have known there would soon be a traitor among the Elves.
Rubin was welcomed in the society’s July 2004 newsletter as “Rebecca from British Columbia, where she has been working as a wildlife rehabilitator.” It could be taxing, isolating labour, monitoring nesting sites, hauling birds into the mountains for release, conducting blood tests on trapped birds for contaminants like lead. In subsequent newsletters she was praised for the “wonderful job” she was doing. It was meaningful work, suited to her ideals and loner’s temperament, but her past was catching up.
“Helping animals extends beyond damaging and liberating—it includes keeping your mouth shut in the police station. An imprisoned activist is a useless activist.” – An Animal Liberation Primer
John Ferreira is a collector. He has a deep love of sports and an expertise in related autographs and memorabilia, so much so that he opened a sports collectables shop in Eugene upon retirement from the FBI. Back in the 1990s, he went undercover in California for a three-year FBI sting—Operation Bullpen—to expose the multi-million-dollar trade in fraudulent memorabilia. From 1997 to 2000 he juggled both the fraud and arson cases—shuttling between California, where he posed as a memorabilia buyer, then back to Oregon to collect intelligence on Overaker and Ferguson, one of the few Elves to live in Eugene. Ferguson had a young son there living with the child’s mother, an activist not affiliated with the Elves. Darren Thurston, who later had access to thousands of pages of discovery documents for his trial, claimed investigators used hidden video, tracked phone and Internet traffic and planted rumours and disinformation, talking to Overaker’s family members and even old classmates, culled from her lost phone book.
Ferreira says he used grand jury subpoenas and frequent informal chats with Ferguson to let him know he was under watch. Eugene Police Det. Greg Harvey, who was also investigating the arsons, would alert Ferreira to Ferguson’s whereabouts. Ferreira would happen by for a chat with him, friendly-like, but relentless. Finally in 2004, some eight years after Ferreira began his investigation with the Oakridge ranger station arson, enough of the pieces were in place. He approached Ferguson at a local market. “I tapped him on the shoulder and said, you’d better talk to your attorney because I can arrest you right now,” says Ferreira. “And it’s true, I could have.” Ferguson cracked, lawyered up, and arranged to spill his information—a “co-operating witness,” in FBI terms—in exchange for an immunity deal.
Ferreira admits to being stunned at all that poured out when Ferguson met with a prosecutor. He pulled up the list of actions on the ELF-ALF website that he had knowledge about. “I kind of flipped,” he says. “We knew he was involved, but how deeply? We didn’t know he was that deep.” Ferguson implicated himself and others in about 15 acts of arson or sabotage. “No doubt about it,” says Ferreira, “we made a pact with the devil.”
Part of the immunity deal required Ferguson to wear a wire to implicate his former comrades-in-arms. “I had to do whatever they wanted, and it wasn’t something I felt good about,” Ferguson admitted years later in a CNN interview. “Ferguson is a troubled individual, a long-time heroin addict and speed user, and a father to a nine-year-old boy,” Thurston wrote in a 24-page rumination on Operation Backfire that he drafted in 2007 while in U.S. prison. “I can only speculate that he panicked at the thought of giving up drugs or never seeing his child again.” For the FBI sting to succeed, they needed absolute secrecy. For the next year, with Ferreira as his minder, Ferguson reluctantly wore a recorder. He visited or “accidently” ran into former Elves all across the U.S., hoping to get them to talk about old times. Ferreira, in turn, gave regular updates to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., and to a small group of investigators from various agencies meeting in a “war room” on the fourth floor of the federal building in Eugene.
Gerlach, who was living with Thurston in Portland, Ore., recalls Ferguson showing up at a club where she was DJing. Later he showed up at Kevin Tubbs’s house in Springfield, Ore., where Thurston and Gerlach happened to be visiting. “Clearly Ferguson had orders to not only track down each and every Backfire suspect he had worked with, but to sow distrust among each of us as he went,” wrote Thurston. And on it went. Ferguson visited Meyerhoff, then a biomedical engineering student in Charlottesville, Va., who was disastrously happy to talk over old events. He chatted up fiery activist Daniel McGowan at an animal rights conference in New York City. Finally, in November, 2005, he met William “Avalon” Rodgers, who was operating the Catalyst Infoshop and Bookstore in Prescott, Ariz.
With most of the players accounted for, the FBI decided to strike. In the end, it was all rather sad and anti-climatic. Many of the Elves had moved on with their lives. Tubbs was an assistant manager at an adult video store. McGowan was working for a domestic violence organization. Rodgers had his bookstore. Kolar was raking in money in the tech sector in Seattle, racing sailboats and active in a local yacht club. Thurston and his girlfriend, Gerlach, were living under assumed names in San Francisco and then Portland. “People grow up,” says Quimby.
Then came Dec. 7, 2005, 11 a.m. FBI agents armed with arrest warrants emerged from surveillance vehicles to scoop Elves from doorsteps, workplaces, a restaurant. Kolar, in New York for an AOL company meeting, took a call from Quimby on her cellphone. “I told her not to hang up and just listen to what I have to say,” says Quimby. She told her about the arrests. “I identified some of the arrestees, using the code name of Avalon (for Rodgers), Country Girl (Gerlach) and Country Boy (Meyerhoff) along with their real names to add credibility.” She advised her to return to Seattle, and left her numbers for the FBI and the federal prosecutor. By one account, the security-conscious Kolar shut down her cellphone, removed the battery to avoid a trace and, after realizing all was lost, used a pay phone to arrange a return flight home, a surrender and a subsequent detailed confession.
In custody were Thurston, Gerlach, McGowan, Savoie, Meyerhoff, Tubbs, Paul and soon Kolar. They all believed they would never betray each other, says Quimby. “It’s real easy to say, ‘Oh, I’d never do that.’ Darren Thurston was saying the same thing. They’re all saying it—until you’re the one sitting there with the cuffs on. That tends to change your perspective a great deal.” As prosecutors played them Ferguson’s incriminating recordings and spoke of sentences of 30 years to life, most crumbled, signed plea agreements and named fellow conspirators, ultimately bumping the number of accused to 18. “Before the arsons they made a pact not to talk about it. Ever,” says Ferreira, who retired within months of the first arrests, after 10 years on the hunt. “Well,” he says with a laugh, “we got them to talk about it.”
The arrests and indictments of 11 people—four, including Rubin, still at large—were announced on Jan. 20, 2006, at a high-profile Washington, D.C., news conference attended by FBI director Robert Mueller and then-U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales. “Terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the motive,” Mueller said. Gonzales, in what amounted to judicial marching orders, warned: “Persons who conduct this kind of activity are going to spend a long time in jail, regardless of the motive.”
After 9/11 and the PATRIOT Act had come into being, there was zero tolerance for terrorism of any form. “We had the new terrorism legislation,” says then-FBI agent Quimby. “I think politically there was an incredible amount of pressure from the department of justice that this needed to be characterized as a successful terrorism investigation.”
Activist-anarchist websites in the U.S. and Canada call the Backfire arrests the “Green Scare” era. They added the names of all ELF-ALF conspirators who cut deals to “snitch lists,” complete with fiery condemnations, inevitably delivered by posters hiding behind pseudonyms. In Canada, Thurston, Rubin’s alleged co-conspirator at Susanville, was condemned by some in the movement for co-operating with authorities. He served 37 months in a U.S. prison.
Thurston concluded, as he later wrote from prison, that he had little choice. Four co-conspirators were willing to testify against him at trial; his live-in girlfriend and fellow saboteur, Chelsea Gerlach, was co-operating with the prosecution. One charge alone, stemming from the use of the timed incendiary device at the Susanville corral, carries a minimum 30-year sentence. (A sentence Rubin also faces if she is unable to bargain away the Susanville charge.) Combined with the conspiracy charges—and the possibility of “enhanced” charges under the tough anti-terrorism laws—he faced the possibility of a life sentence had he gone to trial and been found guilty.
Now, back in Vancouver and working as a information technology consultant, Thurston replied with a brief email when contacted by Maclean’s: “Thank you very much for your interview request. I am not interested in talking about Rebecca Rubin. I am not interested in media about my past. I have been working on changing my life around and am on a different path nowadays. My life in federal prison and back in Vancouver has not been all that easy, as you may have heard.”
Others who co-operated but were more deeply involved in the arsons earned harsher sentences, and many remain in prison: Meyerhoff, 13 years; Tubbs, 12 years, seven months; Gerlach, nine years. McGowan, who didn’t co-operate in a significant way, was sentenced to seven hard years in a communication management unit, the Orwellian name for terrorist isolation units, which monitor communications and severely limit access to outside contacts.
Not named in the indictment were two key members: Ferguson, who had cut his deal (though he was later jailed on drug charges) and Rodgers, the tactician and incendiary expert. Facing the prospect of life behind bars, Rodgers left two notes in his Arizona jail cell. One lamented the “ultimate betrayal” of those he’d trusted. The other read: “Certain human cultures have been waging war against the Earth for millennia. I chose to fight on the side of bears, mountain lions, skunks, bats, saguaros, cliff roses and all things wild. I am just the most recent casualty in this war. But tonight I have made a jailbreak—I am returning home, to the Earth, to the place of my origins.” Guards found him dead the next morning, with a plastic bag over his head.
The two remaining fugitives are Joseph Dibee, who is believed to be in Syria, where he has family, and Josephine Overaker, who police believe fled the U.S. in mid-2001. She has been variously reported as dead, or living in Germany or Spain or even Canada. They remain on FBI wanted posters, with $50,000 rewards on their heads. As for Rubin, she was ultimately identified by Ferguson in 2005. Until then, she was “Kara,” a spectre to the FBI, without form or particulars. Because of Rubin’s alleged role in the Vail fire, “she became one of my primary targets,” says Quimby. “Rubin kind of became one of my girls.” And as the years passed, something of an obsession.
“This case has been another tremendous lesson in the lengths the state will go to [to] target successful activists and imprison them” – “Fired Back: Some words in response to Operation Backfire,” Darren Thurston
In 2005 Rubin had ended her California internship. From Ferguson’s recordings, Quimby had gleaned her name, if little else. “From an investigative standpoint she was really interesting because she did keep a real low profile,” says Quimby. Finally, in an “obscure magazine,” she found a group photo of the condor team at Pinnacles. She had a face, a location and co-workers to question.
By now, Rubin had been named in the Backfire indictment of January 2006, as one of four fugitives. From the Pinnacles photo, Quimby tracked down a former California roommate, and learned Rubin had returned to Canada—with a dog she’d gotten from the pound. “Okay, she’s got a dog,” says Quimby. “The dog’s name was Inez, I still remember this. I actually did a grand jury subpoena to get [pound] records because maybe she had to fill out stuff to adopt a dog.” Her hunch paid off. The pound records yielded her mother’s address in North Vancouver and a picture of the dog.
Quimby started a difficult, frustrating process of working with Canadian authorities and the RCMP. “Our whole idea is, ‘We need to go talk to Mom. Or maybe she’s with Mom and we wanted Canadian authorities to snatch her up.” She soon found Canadian police wouldn’t act without a provisional arrest warrant, and for reasons that still escape Quimby, that request was caught up in bilateral politics and never materialized. “Oh, my God, that was like a nightmare.” From what Quimby knew of Rubin, she would ensure the dog was well-treated, had all its shots and veterinary care. Half in jest, half in frustration, she created an FBI wanted poster of Inez, with its photo, height, weight and particulars. She figured it would make quite a talking point on veterinary office bulletin boards. “You go to every veterinary shop within 50 miles of mom’s house and you’re going to find the dog, and you’re going to find her. That was my theory.”
Finally, later in 2006, as Quimby recalls, she and a fellow agent from Portland got permission to visit Canada. They paid a visit to the home of Rubin’s mother and stepfather, but the North Vancouver house appeared empty, save for a barking dog. Bingo, thought Quimby. They visited Rubin’s mother at her work as a public health nurse. She invited them to her home later that evening, where they were politely received.
“I just talked to Mom, the way I would talk to any mother,” says Quimby. “At that point we had all kinds of people in custody, they were already making deals. Hey, your daughter has been implicated in this. Everyone else is making their deal. The best chance is to come in, yada, yada, yada.” Rubin’s mother was noncommittal, saying she’d have to think. “I gave her my card and said, ‘I hope you’ll call me. It’s not going to go away. Your daughter is going to be running, looking over her shoulder.’ ”
Interesting, thought Quimby during the visit, there is now no evidence of a dog. The agents, of course, had made no mention that they knew about Inez. “I’m totally convinced at that point Rebecca was here. Mom probably called her right away and said, ‘Get the heck out of the house.’ ” Rubin’s family in North Vancouver, when contacted by Maclean’s, declined comment until the case is resolved.
Quimby’s hope the RCMP would launch an all-points investigation for a pound mutt, who might have an accused eco-terrorist on the other end of the leash, proved groundless. The RCMP were friendly enough, but not inclined to locate Rubin. The years went by. There would be occasional calls to prosecutors from lawyers sounding out the possibility of a deal for Rubin. Then nothing. “Where is Rebecca Rubin?” became kind of a running joke between Quimby and her Colorado colleagues: “‘What do you want for Christmas?’ I just want Rebecca Rubin to turn herself in. ‘What do you want for retirement?’ I want them to find Rebecca Rubin.”
Quimby retired from the bureau in December 2010, with Rubin still out of reach, but with the first inklings that there were renewed negotiations for her surrender. The prosecutor phoned to ask Quimby’s thoughts about cutting a deal. “I’m like, hey, at this point I would just be happy to say she came into custody. You guys figure it out.” Then, another call last November when Rubin surrendered. “Okay, that’s one more down,” thought Quimby, more than a decade after she was put on the case. Two to go.
“Upon arrest, ‘no one talks, everyone walks’ went out the window pretty much immediately” – “Fired Back: How we ate ourselves from the inside out,” Darren Thurston
Rubin’s time on the run remains largely a mystery. Her friend Barbarash, who didn’t participate in the actions, can only speculate about what she may have felt. “You can’t be yourself to other people. In a sense you’re living a lie to whoever you meet,” he says. “I think that was probably a very troubling aspect of all those years in hiding.” He wonders, too, about her decision to remain on the run almost seven years from the time the FBI named her a fugitive. “If that were me,” he says, “I might have a little regret if I realized that years down the road I’d be free now if I just did my time.”
A friend of Rubin’s approached Vancouver lawyer Donaldson on her behalf about the possibility of surrender several years ago. He advised Rubin consider the risk of sacrificing what freedom she had. Still, Rubin persisted, and a series of personal meetings followed. Imagine the strain she was under, he says. “You can’t be visible. You have to stay under the radar and that causes a whole series of complications—including not visiting your mother.”
He says, too, she feels regret for her past. “Part of it was she wanted to get it behind her,” he says of the charges. “She’s spent a lot of time reflecting, and I think she is truly remorseful for the consequences of her misguided actions. She gets it. Today, she gets it,” he says. “There are many different things you can do to try to improve the world, and being a martyr probably isn’t the best way to accomplish most things, I would say.” Donaldson says he doesn’t know where she was living. “Didn’t want to know,” he says. “All I know is that she was at large, living her life.” She is single and without children. “That’s one of the things she, in effect, sacrificed,” he says. “That’s part of her punishment.” Rubin told Barbarash last year of her plans to surrender. “I didn’t really have any advice for her, just to do what she felt was right,” he says. “What could I say?”
Donaldson brought Seattle lawyer Richard Troberman into the loop, and tentative negotiations began, although the U.S. policy is not to formally bargain until fugitives are in custody. It took several years but last fall they were able to flesh out the contours of a plea bargain Rubin was comfortable with. “So, she comes in, and I notify the whole world that she’s here and we’re ready and willing to be arrested at any time—and nobody cared,” says Donaldson. Paradoxically, after all those years on the run, Rubin couldn’t get arrested when she wanted to. “It was the most remarkable thing,” he says. Finally, after about a month and a half, Rubin had her mother drive her to the Blaine, Wash., border crossing on Nov. 29, 2012, where she surrendered to waiting authorities. She’s been in various lockups in Seattle, and now Oregon, ever since.
As to what the Elves accomplished, beyond spreading fear and causing millions in property damages and lost income, it depends who you ask. Ferreira interviewed many of them: “What they said is, ‘We didn’t accomplish a damn thing.’ ” One burned-out horsemeat packing plant did close for good. But trees are still cut, feral horses are still rounded up and most everything else was rebuilt with insurance money, often bigger and better. The Vail resort, the Elves’ great statement, reopened and expanded. It’s now the largest single-mountain ski resort in the U.S., and the second-largest in North America, after Whistler Blackcomb. “The lynx,” says Quimby, “still roam free.”
Most of those arrested apologized in court for their actions, with varying degrees of sincerity. Some, like Daniel McGowan, would later explain they acted out of love for the planet, and frustration that their more conventional methods of protest were ignored. “When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you,” McGowan says in the If a Tree Falls documentary, “what are you supposed to do?” Barbarash, the one-time ALF spokesman, would like to think all the actions he publicized contributed to a society more sensitive to environmental issues and more likely to reject exploitation of animals for testing and food. “All of the radical activists and people on the extremes of politics that push the envelope, that moves the centre of the spectrum toward progressive [positions],” he says.
The collapse of the Elves has not stopped hundreds of smaller acts of eco-sabotage in the years since. In 2006, ELF activists burned a house under construction in Guelph, Ont., and ALF claimed responsibility for freeing 28 beagles from the veterinary faculty of a Madrid university. Both actions were dedicated to the memory of William “Avalon” Rodgers. In 2008, ELF activists torched a row of new, multi-million-dollar homes in the Street of Dreams subdivision in the Seattle area. ALF activists vandalized four fur stores in the Vancouver area on a single night in 2012. This spring a West Vancouver shop, owned by Real Housewives of Vancouver star Jody Claman, was splattered with black paint and ALF graffiti. Still, Ferreira doubts a group as large and destructive as the Elves will rise again. “To create another sophisticated, autonomous cell like what they were doing is difficult now,” he says. “Nobody trusts each other, because everybody is snitching on each other.”
Barbarash says his own views have evolved. By the time he resigned as North American spokesman for the ALF in 2003, he could no longer agree with the movement’s mantra that property destruction was a non-violent act. It does, he concedes, cause psychological, if not physical harm. “I began to feel that, in fact, I was participating in a movement that was putting a lot of—it sounds kind of New Agey—but putting negative energy out into the world.” That said, he says he doesn’t regret any of his actions, nor does he condemn those who continue in the cause. He doesn’t know if Rubin has changed her views, but to portray her as a terrorist “is one of the most ludicrous concepts out there,” he says. “I understand the nature of her actions: they’re political, they involve fire, arson. I understand where that terrorist label is coming from,” he says. “But if you just look at the individual, and you look at what a real terrorist is like—someone who places bombs at a marathon or flies planes into buildings—you know, it’s as black and white as you can get.” Even Quimby draws a vague line between the Elves’ attacks on businesses and property and those that target human life. “I think in the overall scheme of things now, you look at the type of terrorism that’s taking place in the country, it kind of puts it in a little different perspective,” she says in an interview following the deadly Boston Marathon bombing.
How then do you define a woman who can both rescue a wounded chicken and allegedly slip across the border to burn buildings in the dead of night? “Why do you feel they are so incongruent?” Barbarash asks. “They’re both activities that come from the same place. The actions are extremely different but the source of compassion is still the same.”
Donaldson, the Vancouver lawyer, doesn’t speak for Rubin on this, but her actions caused him to reflect on the “complexities” of animal rights. How many diabetics are alive today because the co-discoverers of insulin, Frederick Banting and Charles Best, experimented on dogs, he asks. “Is there a greater good? I don’t know,” he says. “If it’s testing cosmetics, maybe not. If it’s discovering insulin, I think you can make a pretty good pitch, right?” He says Rubin and others got swept up in “misguided activism. It’s not the beliefs that are wrong, it’s the means.” Somewhere in all that smoke the message got lost. “You can take a certain moral high ground when it comes to releasing caged animals that you can’t take when it comes to destroying pubic property on a serious scale,” says Donaldson. “You just can’t.”
And yet the radical fringe remains an active and revered strike force for those who see corporations as the true terrorists—and fire and sabotage the only weapons they understand. The Internet is aflame with those who see the actions of the Elves as heroic. Among them is Roslyn Cassells, a former Vancouver park board commissioner, and Canada’s first elected Green Party member. She calls Rubin, who she met years ago, “a kind and gentle person who has devoted her life to standing up for those who have no voice, the animals and our beloved Earth.” In a series of emails with Maclean’s, Cassells argues such acts are a last resort. “One thing you should consider is how many of the eco-activists behind bars tried many tactics before direct action to make positive change for animals,” she writes. “Direct action is one of many tactics used by those fighting to make this world a better place for all. It forms a continuum together with other tactics such as educating, public campaigns, letter writing, protesting, legal actions, etc.”
Maybe Rubin believes those things, too. Or maybe she did. Or maybe, as Quimby thinks, she was a follower, a relatively minor player swept along in the vortex of the movement—one who didn’t realize that 9/11 was “a game-changer” that hardened social attitudes and fixed the government, and its agencies, with a terrible resolve. There was no more patience for those playing Robin Hood in the forest. No rest and no mercy.
In the end Rubin proved one of the strongest and most elusive of the Elves. The shadow woman who stole through the night to free wild horses now sits in a cage. But no one else is in jail because of things she said. No one lost their freedom because of Rebecca Rubin. Except Rebecca Rubin.
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