The Rise and Fall of the Eco-Radical Underground

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The others in the cell weren't as cavalier as Ferguson: Their blood ran cold when they heard that the feds knew enough to even associate his name with the fires. In October 2001, figuring it would be safer to strike outside of the Pacific Northwest, they hit a wild-horse corral in Susanville, California. They worked in night-vision goggles, wearing socks to avoid leaving footprints. It would be their last fire.

Avalon wanted to keep going. He ratcheted up his rhetoric, lobbing the idea of targeting Monsanto CEOs in motorcycle drive-by assassinations; he had even gone to a gun range a couple of times for target practice with a pair of teenage dub DJs he recruited code-named Exile and Sheba. But other elves were beginning to realize that their actions were not effective. Every single place they burned down had been rebuilt — even Vail, which was insured for the entire damage, was up and running in a matter of months and was expanded in exactly the ways environmentalists had been protesting. Even some of the most hard-core cell members, including the Dog, began to see their biggest action as a dismal failure.

Fed up with the increasing infighting among activists in the Northwest — and terrified of being caught — Avalon decided to pack up and move. Before he left, though, he took everything he knew about committing arson and posted it online in a zine he called Setting Fires With Electrical Timers. Some worried that the guide, a thirty-seven-page manual far more elaborate than the instructions in the Anarchist Cookbook, would give the feds information to tie together the devices they had used in the different arsons, but Avalon scoffed: These techniques, he said, would soon be dispersed among the revolutionary masses.

Avalon drove his truck down to his Arizona college town of Prescott, the safest place he knew, and moved in with a bunch of college kids — they had houseplants, which bummed him out, but they were OK. He hung up tapestries depicting caves and wolves, and a corkboard with photos of bats and illustrations of black cats. He dropped the name Avalon — now he was Bill, sometimes signing his last name as "Cascadia." He never let anyone take his photo, dodged cop cars and kept a pile of black clothes in his closet, in case he had to make a run for it.

In Prescott, Avalon became depressed. He was still a nocturnal creature, but now he had nothing to do at night. He frequented yoga classes looking for a girlfriend, sometimes even choking down a beer at a local bar in hopes of finding a woman there. He hung out with his friend, a teacher named Erica Ryberg, as she graded papers, and he worked on a manifesto about 9/11 as an inevitable outcome of America's role as a global policeman and resource glutton. He was itching to get back in the game but was paranoid about the feds.

"I'd just declared myself an überactivist, and one day he asked me to take a walk, because he was scared of bugs," says Ryberg, a no-nonsense blonde. "He'd checked me out to find out if I was legit, and he wanted to create an affinity group; he was talking about direct actions — and not of the legal variety. I was flaky about it: On one hand, I wanted to show up and be strong; on the other, I didn't have a good feeling. It was clear to me that he was in Prescott because he was hiding."

Avalon needn't have worried — no one was looking for him. "We didn't have much on the case, but before 9/11, we were working it hot and heavy with our task force of local and state cops, ATF and feds," says Buchanan, the Eugene police chief. "After 9/11, all the federal resources got pulled from under us, and we didn't have the time as a local agency to take on the work, so the investigation fizzled. It was a cold case."

But the feds soon had a wildly expanded budget to ferret out terrorists — and few terrorists to show for it. In late 2002, the FBI beefed up the joint task force in Eugene, assigning thirty agents to investigate the Family's string of arsons. "We knew that they were linked," says Engdall, the lead prosecutor in the case. "The first thing we did was reopen the Chevy arson in Eugene, because we had the most leads on that one." Their big lead was Ferguson, the only name they had after years of investigation that seemed promising.

By then, Ferguson was lost in the throes of heroin addiction. Deep in a drug haze, he lived in New Orleans for a while, washing dishes in a restaurant, before moving into a shack on a homestead miles outside of Eugene with his new girlfriend, another heroin addict. He thought about the arsons, and he didn't like the thoughts he had. "ELF is too hard-core for this country, which is all apple pie, fast cars and boob jobs, and no one is ready for the real issues," he says. "I've raided a fox farm, and those foxes did not want to jump out — they've been bred in a cage and shat in a cage, and they don't know a human. We let out 5,000 mink and then they got run over, or went into the natural ecosystem and the minks out there got their habitat fucked up. We fed our ego, but the local activists we were trying to help were left picking up the pieces with people on the other side who now thought they were connected to arsonists. We tried to change the world, on our level. It didn't work."

One day in the spring of 2003, Ferguson's own world changed. "I was going to cop drugs and I noticed an undercover car following me," he recalls. "I was like, 'Oh, shit,' because I hadn't seen that for a couple of years. The feds brought me in and said, "We're not taking your bullshit anymore. You better take this deal right this minute or someone else will.' All I'm thinking about is my kid. I don't want to put him in a foster home. All I ever remembered of my dad is him in jail with his stupid gang tattoos and fucking bandanna on his head. My kid is a rad special person, and I wasn't going to be that kind of dad to him."

Ferguson agreed to cooperate, and his lawyer asked that he receive the $50,000 reward for information on the arsons. "When I made the deal, I was thinking I was the luckiest motherfucker in the world," Ferguson says. "But I wasn't realizing that I was the FBI's bitch from then until whenever. I had put the nails in my friends' coffins, and I had to pound them in."

During the next year, Ferguson wore a concealed recorder to an annual Earth First! camping event and to a national environmental-law conference. The government also flew him around the country to meet — and to secretly record — six of his former comrades. (In all, thirty-five CDs have been made from Ferguson's recordings.) He embraced his role as a snitch, lying with panache. He would turn up in unlikely places, like Meyerhoff's post office in Bend, Oregon. He told nearly everyone that he just happened to be in town for his mother's wedding.

In April 2005, when Ferguson "bumped into" Daniel McGowan at an animal-rights conference in New York, his mother was getting married to a "Jewish guy" in the city. McGowan had moved to the East Village, where he was an important and well-liked activist under his own name and "Jamie Moran," the alias he used to facilitate protests against the Republican National Convention in 2004. As Moran, he was quoted extensively in the press, including Rolling Stone, as an anarchist and proponent of violence during the protests. "I'd like to see all Republican events — teas, backslapping lunches — disrupted," he said. "I'd like to see corporations involved in the Iraq reconstruction get targeted, anything from occupation to property destruction."

In tapes secretly recorded by Ferguson son and obtained by Rolling Stone, the two can be heard taking a walk around the grimy streets of Washington Heights. Within minutes, McGowan was confiding his worries to his old friend. "I still fuckin', every once in a while, every couple of months, I have a panic attack about it," McGowan said, apparently referring to the fires. "You know, about shit. You know, I think about shit, and I'm like, man, I see some fucking cop stuff on TV and they're talking about DNA or some shit, and I'm just like, 'Motherfucker, man, these motherfuckers are so technologically advanced.'"

McGowan talked a good game, but he wasn't doing anything in the way of hard-core actions, and while he definitely said too much to Ferguson, he fell short of giving him what the feds wanted: a confession. He was doing a lot of prisoner support work for Luers, who probably had received a longer sentence because Avalon and the other elves had set fire to the SUVs the night before his trial. He also bragged about his latest acts of petty defiance, like snipping the spokes on police bicycles after rides by the activist group Critical Mass. "They'll park their bike outside, and I always snip, like, about four of their spokes, or five, not enough so they notice right away, but when they're biking," he boasted.

A few months later, while visiting friends in Eugene, McGowan met Ferguson for some lemonade and a bike ride to the river. McGowan was much brasher this time, talking about putting out a call through the underground to commit eco-sabotage in solidarity with prisoners like Luers. He had made copies of Avalon's firebombing manual and sent them to a group of radicals in Canada to distribute, and was trying to get in touch with some of the women in the Family.

Ferguson steered the conversation to the topic of any evidence they may have left behind. "I'm pretty firmly convinced that if there were ever any hair or fingerprints or anything on any of them burgers, it already would have hit," he said.

McGowan agreed. It all happened so long ago; the feds must have forgotten about it by now: "You know, I'm in New York," he told Ferguson. "I'm not getting arrested. They care about, like, Arab terrorists there, you know. It's not even on their radar, man."

Under Ferguson's clothes, a digital tape recorder provided by the FBI recorded every word.

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