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The Rise and Fall of the Eco-Radical Underground

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Ferguson was getting off on being in the radical underground. By day he was a local hard-ass dude with crazy tattoos who played in a heavy-metal band called Eat Shit Fuckface, fixed up cars for a spare fifty bucks and worked summers, ironically, as a wild-lands firefighter. At night, he was an elf, so committed to the cause that after he got an ex-girlfriend pregnant, he got a vasectomy — not wanting to be responsible for bringing another soul into this world, which was headed for certain apocalypse unless he and his comrades could stop it first. But there was an even more secret part of Ferguson's life than being an elf — he was also using heroin and speed, a habit which he kept under wraps because no one around him seemed to approve. His personal life was quickly becoming a wreck: He even brought his son to a Christmas Eve arson at a logging-company headquarters as a decoy. He was sick of Sunshine, who had become a codependent zombie, and was dating lots of other girls. On the way to firebomb an animal-inspection facility in Olympia, Washington, Sunshine was arrested at a Tacoma supermarket for shoplifting a flashlight. Ferguson and Avalon set the fire anyway.

As Ferguson was spinning out of control, Avalon was retreating more and more into his cocoon. A true loner, he left the warehouse where he was living in Eugene and moved to Olympia, a quieter community 200 miles to the north where he thought he wouldn't attract as much attention. He set up an extensive pot-growing operation: He felt terrible for the plants, having to grow up in a hydroponic jail, but he certainly wasn't going to get a real job. He rarely left his house, which was stuffed with his dumpster finds: old books, broken chairs, unworkable coffeepots, the detritus of other people's lives he knew he could breathe new life into someday. He stayed up until five every morning and slept until three in the afternoon, just like his favorite animal, the bat. He studied forensic DNA testing and learned how to build the firebombs in a "clean room," a new tent shoplifted from a camping store that the elves would set up in motel rooms. No one was allowed inside without a shower cap, surgeon's mask and three layers of latex gloves, so that no fingerprints, skin flakes or stray hairs were left on the bombs.

Through those long, lonely nights, Avalon would curl up with novels by Ursula Le Guin or scribble illustrations for ever-more complicated firebombs on pieces of recycled paper — imagining himself as the professor of the movement, he dreamed of a day when he would tell the masses all he knew. At an Earth First meeting, he circulated an early zine of sabotage tricks, The Black Cat Reader. "At night," he later wrote, "we are no longer prey to our masters, but predators, seeking to change the established order and create a more just society — by whatever means necessary."

Although Ferguson and Avalon worked as a team, they weren't thrilled with each other and didn't hang out unless they had to. Ferguson saw Avalon as a freaky hardcore eco-nerd. "He had a whole house full of fucking books on how to fucking make shit," Ferguson recalls. "Goddamn, he used to fucking sketch me out." For his part, Avalon, who didn't use drugs or alcohol, worried about Ferguson's wild ways. He even wrote an article for Earth First! Journal calling for activists to stop partying. "Drugs and alcohol are used to subjugate the masses and pacify discontent," he declared in his puritanical way. "Look at the effects of alcohol on the American Indian Movement. Look at the effects of coke on the Black Panthers, and pot on Sixties radicals." If you were going to do night work, Avalon believed, you had to be sober. But they needed whoever they could get in this war.

To members of the Family, it felt like there really was a war. The massive, complicated fire Avalon engineered at Vail in 1998 was a success of epic proportions, and all across the country people were suddenly taking note of their movement. The sleepy little city of Eugene rocketed to fame the following year, during the WTO riots in Seattle. The riots were blamed on the influence of young activists from Eugene, whose mayor appealed to the world for help, calling his city "the anarchist capital of the United States." Subsets of anarchism — an ideology that views all government as inherently oppressive — were springing up all over the place, the most popular being "anarcho-primitivism," an extremist ideology pioneered by Eugene writer John Zerzan. Zerzan, who supported the goals of the Unabomber, advocates eliminating all technology — and, by extension, almost all civilization.

Ferguson vibed on the anger in the streets of Eugene, marching in monthly Reclaim the Streets rallies that sometimes ended with masked kids hurling bricks through Nike outlet windows. Vandals set fires in dumpsters nearly every weekend, trading war stories afterward at Cafe Anarquista. In the forests a kind of tree-sit mania was attracting gutter-punk kids from across the country who cared less about the trees and more about battling the government — younger versions of Ferguson who pissed on Forest Service officers from their "Ewok villages," plywood platforms 200 feet up in tree canopies. They didn't like "No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth" as a slogan. Their slogan was "Fuck Shit Up."

Still, the movement continued to draw in kids who were deeply committed to its ecological goals. Daniel McGowan, the sandy-haired son of a New York cop, hopped a train to the West Coast with a backpack of his things, hoping to find out what the green anarchists could teach him about changing the world. An earnest student of political theory, McGowan had been trained in nonviolent resistance by the Ruckus Society, and when he arrived in Eugene he volunteered to put together a page in Earth First! Journal to drum up support for political prisoners. Before long, prosecutors say, McGowan and two of his female friends were recruited into the Family. The newbies were told not to reveal their real names to one another, and went by handles like Green, Wounded Ego, Twisted Tongue and X.

There was more organization in the Family now. They started holding "book club" meetings in various squats and cities to strategize future arsons. At the beginning of each meeting, all members had to explain the evasive route they had taken there and their cover stories they had given family and friends. Avalon warned them never to speak to one another indoors in case there were bugs in their houses and to turn off their cell phones and remove the batteries when they were together to avoid detection by satellite. Each member received code books with instructions on how to use encrypted e-mails and a secret password at a shared Web site to communicate in between meetings. The technique — similar to one used by Al Qaeda — involved drafts of e-mails, which could not be traced electronically, and which self-destructed after seven days. Avalon also gave them pages of his instructions for firebombs, which they had to memorize and then destroy.

On New Year's Day in 2001, Tubbs, Meyerhoff and Ferguson — along with McGowan and his friend, Suzanne "India" Savoie — allegedly drove from Eugene to a rest area near Glendale, where they put on black clothes and earpieces. Their target was the offices of Superior Lumber, the largest BLM contractor in the state, and one of the most controversial: Forty percent of Superior's timber came from using helicopters in roadless areas where conventional logging was not allowed. The cell's van, called "Betty," broke down on the way, and Ferguson had to fix it. At the Superior offices, everything went smoothly. Ferguson and others started fires on opposite walls of the 2,000-square-foot building; flames raced up and ignited the attic without setting off the alarms below, while McGowan and Savoie acted as lookouts. They e-mailed their communiqué to Rose-braugh. "This year, 2001, we hope to see an escalation in tactics against capitalism and industry," they proclaimed. "While Superior Lumber says, 'Make a few items and do it better than anyone else,' we say, 'Choose an Earth raper and destroy them.'"

Maybe 2001 would have been the year that America finally rose up against the Earth rapers, if the Family hadn't started coming apart over more petty concerns. That March, Avalon and four others set a colossal fire at a Chevrolet dealership on the outskirts of Eugene by setting gasoline-doused sheets ablaze under thirty-six SUVs. The action was in honor of Jeffrey "Free" Luers, an anarchist tree-sitter who had torched three SUVs at a nearby dealership in town the year before. His trial was slated to start the next morning, and most of the anarchist community was gathered on the steps of the courthouse in support of Luers when they heard the news of the latest arson.

The act proved to be the group's undoing. Rumors quickly circulated that Ferguson might have had something to do with the new arson. As usual, his personal life was a mess. He had gotten into a vicious fight with his roommate, Heather Coburn, and she had thrown him out of the house because he was bringing home too many women. He retaliated by leaving a bucket of piss in his room and scrawling the words "psycho bitch" in lipstick on her bathroom mirror. The next morning, she discovered that her truck had been moved from where she parked it. She called the cops and filed a report.

In the anarchist community, no one is supposed to go to the cops for anything, and soon Coburn was ambushed by fellow activists who thought she had fingered Ferguson as an arsonist. To settle the argument, one of Coburn's friends, a herbalist and nursery-school teacher known as Sparrow, took the most irrational step imaginable: She went to the police station herself to see the report Coburn had filed.

While she was at the station, Sparrow apparently said something that served as a red flag to the cops, causing them to wonder if Ferguson was linked to the SUV fire. "I don't think she realized the implications of what she was doing," says Thad Buchanan, then the chief of police in Eugene. "It was a probing question more than anything, but she missed the connection that we would make."

A few days later, federal agents came to Coburn's house and towed away her truck. They also handed down a grand jury subpoena to each of Ferguson's ex-roommates. "Most of the questions at the grand jury were about Jake… like 'Have you ever seen him with matches or sponges?'" says Tobias Policher, one of the roommates. "I was like, 'I've seen him smoke cigarettes once in a while, so I guess I've seen him with matches, but he doesn't do the dishes very much, so I've never seen him with any sponges.'"

Ferguson was also subpoenaed, but he had an alibi for the night of the arson: He had crashed at the house of one of his girl-friends. "I told the feds I didn't have nothin' to do with nothin'," he says. "Still, they had all these undercover cops following me around Eugene all the time. I figured the feds had given me a free pass from the local cops, so I'd act like a dumbass, driving drunk and superfast."

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