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The Rise and Fall of the Eco-Radical Underground

Page 6 of 7

The feds saved Avalon for last. Ferguson kept explaining that the Family was an anarchist group with no central leader, but the feds were convinced that someone had to be the brains behind the enterprise: Avalon, whom they liked to call the "intellectual architect" of the whole shebang. Just before Thanksgiving of last year, Ferguson showed up in Prescott. Avalon was living a radical's idyll. He had found himself a girlfriend, Katie Rose Nelson, a beautiful twenty-two-year-old with a punk-rock haircut and big blue eyes. She never asked him about the fires, and he never told. Together they started the Catalyst Infoshop, an anarchist bookstore in an old railroad cabin on the fringes of town, painting the walls in bright desert colors and carving out living quarters in the attic, which always seemed to get taken over by all of Avalon's crazy pack-rat belongings from the past — books, stacks of papers with drawings on both sides and a big box of alarm clocks.

Avalon's Infoshop was a quiet place, with classes on nonviolent communication and basic knitting, and Ferguson came in with his rage and his loudness, talking about how they should take down fliers from the Sierra Club because it wasn't radical enough. During a walk in the desert, Avalon confided to his old partner that he still believed in direct action. He wanted, he said, to do "something big."

A week later, as Avalon and Nelson sat in the backroom of the shop taking inventory of their stock, fifteen FBI agents burst through the door — including a female agent who had come by ten minutes earlier in street clothes to "sign up for their e-mail list." "At first, I thought it was a joke, because sometimes our friends would knock and say, 'Hey, it's the FBI,"' says Nelson. "But these were really, really big people all in blue, and I was like, 'Whoa, I don't know anybody who looks like that.'" As the agents led Avalon away, he remained calm. "Make sure you get the arrest warrant," he told Nelson.

That same day, the feds grabbed McGowan, Tubbs, Meyerhoff and two other elves. The rest of the Family would be snatched in the coming months, as some of the first batch began to inform on those whose real names Ferguson didn't know. For Stan Meyerhoff's arrest, the feds pulled out the stops: They flew Ferguson to Virginia, where Meyerhoff was a grad student in engineering, and had Ferguson stand in the hallway of the federal detention facility when Meyerhoff was brought in, just so Meyerhoff knew for sure that the jig was up. "Within twenty-four hours, with no deal of any sort on the table, Stan was supposedly squealing like a pig," says Lauren Regan, a lawyer with the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene. "Given that Jake had a heroin-riddled mind, Stan was able to fill in a lot of blanks for the prosecution." The Justice Department started doing a victory dance.

To his lawyer, Avalon maintained that he was an innocent man falsely accused. But at his second hearing, when a federal prosecutor alleged that Avalon was "the mastermind of the Vail arsons," he realized he had been betrayed. It could only have been Ferguson, the one who had always called him "hella intelligent," who had always seen him as the smart guy with the books. When the judge denied him bail, Avalon knew it was the beginning of the end: He would now be kept caged up like all the animals he had tried to save.

Back in his jail cell, Avalon took out a piece of paper. "Never did I imagine things could have turned out like this," he wrote. "I have been betrayed before and each time I was astonished, and saddened. But this is the ultimate betrayal, delivered straight into the hands of my enemies." On another piece of paper, he composed a note for his friends and family: "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."

Setting the paper on his bunk, the man once known as Bill Rodgers took out a small plastic bag from the jail commissary and placed it over his head. By the time the guard appeared to check on him in the morning, he was gone.

A few months later, on a cool winter day in February, Avalon's friends carpooled from his anarchist bookstore to the desert for a memorial service. The sky was a brilliant blue. Nelson was wearing Avalon's silver pendant of a bat and purple bat wings made from tissue paper — Avalon's bat wings, the ones he wore on Halloween — and she carried a wand, touching each mourner with it lightly. Ever since the FBI had searched Avalon's house, Nelson had worried that he might do something to hurt himself. "I definitely considered that some of the allegations could be true, and if it was true, what would Bill do," she says. "At root, his goal in life was to protect the Earth, and talking to the FBI would have betrayed that. He was not afraid of dying. I knew he wouldn't stay in jail if he could get out."

Near the end of the service, as a hundred people sat in a big circle under the trees, Nelson talked about receiving Avalon's medical records, and how she read in them that he died with his right arm straight and clenched in a fist. She lifted her fist overhead. It was quiet all around. One by one, everyone else put their arms overhead for the lost warrior, and his lost cause.

In the past few months, the Government has been very successful at using the threat of life sentences to destroy any remaining cohesion that the Family may have had. Their major tactical mistake was including so many people in the cell: Their activism became their social life, and their idealistic view of like-minded individuals as close-knit family members brought them down. Lovers have informed on lovers and friends on friends, and the list of defendants continues to grow as those who agree to a deal are forced to give up another of their brothers or sisters. The latest charges have been filed against Briana Waters, a pretty violin teacher and mother accused of taking part in a single arson.

The feds are currently looking for Sunshine, as well as for cell members Rubin, Dibee and Justin Solondz, a twenty-six-year-old who also allegedly joined up for the Susanville fire. All are believed to have fled the country. On July 20th and 21st, Tubbs, Meyerhoff, Gerlach, Tankersley, Savoie and Darren Thurston, a famous Canadian animal-rights activist who is accused only in the Susanville arson, pleaded guilty to their crimes. The prosecution is seeking sentences ranging from three to fifteen years.

Other radical environmentalists have turned their backs on those who have confessed and informed, calling them cowards and snitches. "As a movement, we're weak, young, mostly white and privileged," says Tony Silvaggio, an environmental activist and sociology professor at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. "We come from a place where the threat to our life is minimal: If we were in the Black Panthers, we'd have long ago assumed we were going to get whacked for our beliefs. We have never been challenged like this before. With all these people flipping, you can see how weak we really are."

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