[Ppnews] Caged Lion: Article about Rod Coronado

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 9 11:25:02 EDT 2006

The Caged Lion


Environmentalist Rod Coronado returns to prison a 
decade after his radical heyday


Tuesday, August 8, 2006 - 6:05 pm


Rod Coronado's hair is cropped so close to his 
skull it takes a while to notice it’s more gray 
than black. His face is gaunt, his cheekbones 
surfacing from the planes of his face like the 
masts of those whaling ships he sunk as a young 
man. While Johnny Depp entered his 40s playing a 
pirate onscreen, Rod Coronado is hanging up his 
cutlass, metaphorically speaking. You could say 
the onetime boy wonder of the radical 
environmental movement is having a midlife 
crisis. At the very least, he is growing up. 
Going back to jail can do that to a guy, even a 
guy who’s known as the poster boy for radical 
environmentalism or, depending on your point of view, ecoterrorism.

Coronado was sentenced Monday to eight months in 
federal prison on what many decry as trumped-up 
conspiracy charges, and he’s facing the prospect 
of serving as much as 20 years if a federal judge 
in California doesn’t look kindly on a motion to 
dismiss charges here. He weathered prison pretty 
well the first time, but now he’s got a 
4-year-old son. This time, prison wasn’t part of the plan.

Coronado seems shell-shocked when I meet him at a 
café in Tucson, where he has made a home and a 
life after spending much of the ’90s either 
living underground or behind bars. It is so hot 
this time of year that even an environmentalist 
who walks Coronado’s walk has agreed that the 
most important criterion in choosing a place to 
talk is air conditioning. He orders a tamale pie 
made of sweet potatoes, cheese and mushrooms, and 
he’s drinking coffee — “I’m not a vegan anymore,” he announces.

We meet a couple of weeks before Coronado is to 
be sentenced. I’m one of the last journalists he 
will speak with before doing time. During the 
interview, Coronado calls himself “naive” and 
says he was surprised by the vehemence of the 
government’s reaction to his more recent 
political activities, innocuous compared to the 
daredevil stunts of his youth. But times have 
changed, and the word terrorist now functions as 
carte blanche. Rod Coronado is the last of a 
generation, and his story is a bell curve of the 
radical environmental movement’s rise and fall in America.

Coronado, lithe, handsome and articulate, with 
the dark skin of his Yaqui Indian forebears, 
spent four years in prison for damaging 
laboratories in the Midwest that were 
experimenting with ways to make minks more 
amenable to becoming coats. After his release, 
he’d become the equivalent of a retired athlete 
selling insurance or modeling underwear. He 
hovered at the edges of the radical environmental 
movement, but, as far as anyone knew, his days as 
a hardcore monkey-wrencher were over.

You could say that his midlife crisis started 
with an appearance on 60 Minutes in November of 
2005. Less than six months before that John 
Lewis, FBI deputy assistant director for 
counterterrorism, had testified to Congress that 
radical environmentalists were the country’s 
number-one domestic-terrorism threat. The 
statement practically begged Ed Bradley to ask 
why, if these guys were so dangerous, there had been no arrests.

The implicit question being, of course: If the 
feds can’t catch a bunch of skinny vegans, how 
could they stop terrorism? Real terrorism, that 
is. “It made them look like they were still chasing the ghost,” Coronado says.

In December 2005, the FBI made the ghost flesh 
when it arrested more than a half dozen people 
believed to be members of the Earth Liberation 
Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front 
(ALF). The FBI made the arrests in the usual way 
it cracks down on radicals, by using informers. 
In this case, agents persuaded Jake Ferguson, a 
former heroin addict and heavy metal guitarist 
who had gravitated to ELF circles, to wear a 
wire, a repeat performance of the way they’d 
infiltrated the radical environmental group Earth 
First! in 1990. The arrests were the culmination of a 10-year investigation.

There is always a sad tale in these FBI cases, 
the crack in someone’s personality that allows a 
radical cell to be infiltrated. According to the 
Seattle Times, Ferguson told a former bandmate 
about his difficult upbringing without his 
father, who spent time in prison. Ferguson 
reportedly said he hoped his cooperation with the 
Justice Department would spare his own son the same.

The FBI reported that animal-rights advocates 
have been responsible for $110 million in damage 
since the 1970s, including the $12 million arson 
that destroyed the massive Two Elk Lodge at a 
Vail, Colorado, ski resort, which some 
environmentalists claimed was encroaching into 
lynx habitat. Up until then, this was the single 
biggest act of arson eco-sabotage in the history 
of the radical environmental movement, and it 
focused national media attention on the 
arsonists. But for several years, neither media 
attention nor the ministrations of the FBI 
stopped the symbol-laden campaign of destruction. 
The eco-saboteurs burned down a slaughterhouse to 
protest the roundup of wild horses. They torched 
a Hummer dealership. And they escaped, until 2005.

One of those caught in the sweep, a 40-year-old 
named William C. Rodgers, described as a balding, 
soft-spoken man who liked to hike and read, 
committed suicide rather than face life in 
prison. Another ELF saboteur, a woman named 
Chelsea Gerlach, pleaded guilty last July to 
eight counts of arson related to the Vail fires, 
plus involvement in various arson fires around 
Oregon, including fires at a meatpacking plant, a 
police substation and a Boise Cascade office. By 
comparison, Coronado hadn’t done much more than 
talk in recent years. Apparently, that was enough.

At an age when other kids were heading off to 
college, Rod Coronado was hanging around the San 
Francisco Bay Area, listening to the historic 
figures of the radical environmental movement. 
Dave Foreman was preaching the gospel of Earth 
First! The New Mexico native, who had worked as 
the Wilderness Society’s top Washington, D.C., 
lobbyist, invoked the Boston Tea Party in his 
rhetoric. The situation was direr than we had 
realized, Foreman told audiences. Three-fifths of 
the world’s mammal species were likely to go 
extinct in the next generation, and there was no 
time to waste on niceties like lawsuits or 
lobbying. Quoting far-right presidential 
candidate Barry Goldwater, another nature-loving 
son of the Southwest, Foreman was fond of saying: 
“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

Also on the scene was a florid Canadian named 
Paul Watson, who had been expelled from 
Greenpeace in 1977 for his less-than-strict 
adherence to the tenets of nonviolence. He bought 
an English trawler and christened it the Sea 
Shepherd, and named his anti-whaling group the 
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Watson left 
the parleys at International Whaling Commission 
meetings to others. His job was to put whaling ships out of commission.

“I had been reading this material,” Coronado 
tells me, picking at his tamale. “I approached 
Paul and said, ‘I want to go to Iceland and sink 
some ships.’ He didn’t say, ‘You’re crazy.’ He said, ‘What do you need?’ ”

Coronado became the eco-equivalent of a 
Dickensian boy thief, a seemingly fearless young 
man who wriggled in and out of impossible 
situations, always managing to triumph. By the 
account of one member of the Sea Shepherd crew, 
Paul Watson steered the boat, raised funds and 
talked to reporters. The daring (and thinner) 
Coronado climbed aboard Japanese and Norwegian 
whaling vessels in the dark of night and opened 
the shuttlecocks, clambering back aboard the Sea 
Shepherd as the whaling ships slowly took on water.

Coronado's activism, as with a majority of 1960s 
radicals, was not so much a rebellion against his 
parents as an extension of their ideals and their heritage.

Coronado grew up in a family of Yaqui Indians 
from the borderlands of Sonora, Mexico, and 
Arizona. The Yaquis have the distinction of never 
having been conquered. The Toltecs, Aztecs and, 
later, the Spanish failed to bring them to heel, 
although the Yaquis were converted by Jesuits and 
engaged in thriving commercial pursuits in tandem 
with the priests. Once the Mexican government 
expelled the Jesuits, the Yaquis became outlaws. 
In the 1870s, one of the Yaqui leaders actually 
declared Yaqui territory a country independent from Mexico.

In 1903, the Porfirio Diaz government expelled 
the Yaquis, sending them to southern Mexico to 
work as slaves on the haciendas. Those who 
remained became known for their refusal to bend 
to the laws of the U.S. or Mexico, crossing and 
re-crossing the border to escape persecution, 
often becoming bandits or soldiers who fought on 
the U.S. or Mexican side, depending on the 
politics of the moment. In the mid–20th century, 
many came to the U.S. to work in the agricultural fields.

Through all of this, the Yaquis maintained many 
of their old beliefs. These included the 
collective memory of an earlier way of life, a 
time with no war, when they communed with 
animals, particularly deer, and with flowers. 
These were the traditions Coronado learned from 
the late Anselmo Valencia, a tribal elder in 
Tucson who took him in when he was living underground in the mid-1990s.

Coronado says that his grandfather was an 
apostolic minister, and his parents were, in his 
words, “dirt-poor farm workers,” who instilled in 
him the ideals of social service, traveling to 
Mexico in the summer to bring clothes to poor 
people. Coronado started working with Yaqui kids 
and, in his own words, “felt whole.” But it was 
not his Boy Scout demeanor that made him famous; it was his tactical skills.

During lunch, I ask Coronado to tell me about his 
time with the Animal Liberation Front.

“I was a leader of my own ALF cell,” Coronado 
says. “I started one cell in California, and I 
moved to the Pacific Northwest to create another. 
There are two to eight people in a cell at any 
one time. They’re very independent. And anyone 
could propose and carry out an action. The person 
who had the idea would do the recon, the 
intelligence gathering, and sell the idea to the 
rest of us,” he says. “I was generally that person.”

Before bombing the mink labs, Coronado had 
traveled around for 11 months as an investigator 
for Friends of Animals, pretending to be a 
businessman interested in getting into the mink 
industry. He was an undercover agent, only for 
the animal-rights movement instead of the 
government. Coronado was, by his own account, 
“very good at what I did.” But he quickly grew 
disenchanted with the mainstream group’s 
bureaucracy. “I gave them the information,” he 
says. “They pretty much used it for fund-raising. 
I felt like I owed those animals I watched die a lot more than that.”

Borrowing from his Sea Shepherd experience, 
Coronado decided to target laboratories 
researching the domestication of minks, which he 
had learned about during his Friends of Animals 
undercover stint. Coronado and his ALF colleagues 
rescued 60 mink — legally — buying them from a 
small farm in Montana. The animals had been bred 
in captivity, but once the ALFers fed them live 
animals, they refused to go back to dry food.

“Once they tasted blood, their instincts came 
back,” he says. “We would always release them 
near water. They’d be swimming like mad, using 
their bodies like they never had before. It was a 
part of us too, that experience of living that 
way. We saw that it was a part of us.”

The ideal of absolute freedom at any cost was a 
young man’s fantasy, and a profoundly American 
one, familiar to readers of Edward Abbey and the 
Western writers who preceded him. But the members 
of Coronado’s ALF cell were pragmatic enough to 
realize they could never afford to buy all the 
mink being raised on farms, or all the lynx and 
bobcats. Coronado was eventually convicted of 
torching a researcher’s office at Michigan State 
University and destroying years of research data 
at an off-campus mink laboratory. He was sent to 
prison in 1995, where he served 48 months of a 
57-month sentence, with time off for good 
behavior and time served. But he had started a 
movement. Before Coronado, nobody had raided a 
mink facility. “There were 70 raids on fur farms 
from the time I went to prison to when I got out,” Coronado says.

This may help to explain why, when animal-rights 
activist David Agronoff was questioned by a grand 
jury last year, ostensibly about the arson of a 
condominium complex in San Diego, all the 
investigators wanted to talk about was Coronado.

In March 2004, Rod Coronado, accompanied by a 
writer from Esquire magazine, was arrested by 
authorities in Sabino Canyon. The canyon, a 
scenic thoroughfare of rock and water in the 
highest of the five mountain ranges surrounding 
Tucson, Arizona, had been closed so state Game 
and Fish Department officials could trap and kill 
five mountain lions. Uncontrolled sprawl had 
brought condos and trophy houses up to the lions’ 
doorstep, as it were, and the lions had been 
sniffing around. When state officials were about 
to shoot the mountain lions, Coronado found 
himself in a position familiar to anyone who’s 
volunteered: He was the only one willing to show 
up every single day and keep interfering with the 
hunt by springing the traps set for the lions, 
and, if necessary, placing himself between gun 
and animal. Then he was busted, and his life threatened to fall apart.

“We saw all those other guys get rounded up,” he 
says, referring to the Vail saboteurs. “They were 
targeted for serious criminal offenses. There 
were informers giving solid evidence.” He leans 
forward, putting down his coffee cup. “Hunt 
sabotage is usually a ticket, maybe a $500 fine.”

Coronado and the reporter were arrested and 
charged, but only with misdemeanors. A few months 
later, the feds added a felony conspiracy “to 
interfere with or injure a government official” 
to Coronado’s charges. The state of Arizona added 
two misdemeanor charges of its own. But the worst was yet to come.

On February 15, 2006, a grand jury indicted 
Coronado under a little-used law prohibiting the 
distribution of information related to the 
assembly of explosives and weapons of mass 
destruction. His crime? He’d spoken at a 
gathering called “Revolution Summer” in San Diego 
in 2003. After his standard inspirational speech, 
someone asked how he’d blown up the mink labs. He 
grabbed a plastic juice bottle from a table and 
explained that he’d filled a similar bottle with 
gasoline, set a timer, and that was pretty much 
that. Or it was until a photo of Coronado 
brandishing the juice bottle made an appearance before Congress.

“I was pretty naive,” Coronado says. “I got out 
of prison and said, okay, it’s the Age of Bush. I 
told myself, okay, I can lecture, I can do 
aboveground organizing, but that’s all I can do.”

It didn’t help that hours before Coronado’s 
arrival, arsonists had set fire to a San Diego 
condominium complex, causing $50 million in 
damage, and leaving behind an ELF banner. 
Although Coronado apparently had nothing to do 
with the arson, the political climate was 
becoming distinctly dangerous for anyone who 
could be labeled a terrorist — even an 
ecoterrorist. And the definition of terrorism 
seemed to shift depending on the government’s 
priorities — and the Bush administration’s need 
to keep the Christian Right on its side. The U.S. 
Department of State defines terrorism as violence 
against noncombatants, while other agencies, 
notably the FBI, put crimes against property in 
the same category. Yet the FBI does not consider 
abortion-clinic bombings terrorism, despite the 
fact that they have resulted in six deaths. 
Although radical environmentalists are, by the 
FBI’s own account, the agency’s top 
counterterrorism priority, no one has been 
injured, much less killed, by radical 
environmentalists. By contrast, individuals with 
ties to white-supremacist and other 
anti-government groups have killed six people and 
injured more than 135 since 1996, according to 
the Southern Poverty Law Center. The FBI’s 
decision to investigate radical environmentalists 
through its counterterrorism office has been 
questioned by its own Office of Inspector 
General, which in a 2003 report recommended that 
eco-sabotage should be handled by its criminal division.

If there was any doubt that the feds are 
targeting Coronado, it was dispelled just a few 
weeks ago, when he faced yet more charges, this 
time for possessing eagle feathers, prohibited 
under the Migratory Bird Treaty and the Bald 
Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Eagle 
feathers are used in Native American religious 
ceremonies. Coronado had refused to register as a 
tribal member for political reasons, which 
increases his liability to prosecution.

In December, Coronado was found guilty in federal 
court on all the charges stemming from the hunt 
sabotage outside Tucson, and this week, U.S. 
District Judge David Bury said he wanted to send 
a message that if you use “force and violence in 
civil disobedience, you are going to be punished 
for it; it’s anarchy.” In addition to eight 
months of prison time, Coronado must pay 
restitution and is prohibited from associating 
with activists involved with Earth First!, the 
ALF and the ELF. At the end of August, his 
lawyers will be making a motion to dismiss the 
charges related to the San Diego incident on the 
basis of freedom of speech. If they don’t 
succeed, Coronado could face 20 years in prison.

As he faces years of separation from his son and 
his partner, Coronado seems to be in an argument 
with himself about whether it was all worth it. 
His son “wants me around to go to the museum,” he 
says. “He remembers when I was going to the 
mountains to protect the kitties. But he wants me to find another way.

“Prison changed me,” he says. “But not as much as 
it should have, in retrospect. Every time I go to 
court, there is very little said about Sabino 
Canyon. It’s all about my criminal history.”

These days, Coronado talks about acting with 
compassion and love, says that a violent 
political action will merely beget more violence. 
“We should never be against rescuing innocent 
victims,” he says. “But any aggressive action on 
our part is too easily characterized as terrorism.”

When Coronado talks about the mountain lions of 
Sabino Canyon, he gets feisty for the first time, 
as if breaking out of depression.

“I don’t wish I hadn’t done it,” he says, 
referring to the hunt sabotage. “Too much of my 
spirit and the spirit of the wild would have 
died. The fact that they could go into this 
protected area, a place where the natural world 
is supposed to be whole, and kill the largest 
predator in the desert . . . Good old boys can 
kill lions everywhere else but not here, not in 
Sabino Canyon. It was one of those times when you 
had to take a stand. You’re gonna have to make 
some personal sacrifices. That’s part of American history.”

Perhaps it’s merely a painful irony and not a 
statement about America. But it must mean 
something when an informer’s son gets to grow up 
with his dad, while the son of a man who tried to 
stop violence against animals will be sending letters and drawings to prison.

“I’ve felt like Don Quixote,” he says. “I’ve been 
banned from going to meetings. The same effect I 
had burning down a building I had by walking into 
a Game and Fish meeting, being who I am, having done what I did.

“I’ve given 20 years of my life,” he says. “I’m 
intimidated. I’m scared. I’ll quit. I’m probably 
going to move to the Midwest and just focus on raising a family. They’ve won.”

The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
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