[Ppnews] Eco Justice Prisoner's death leaves mysteries

Political Prisoner News PPnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jan 2 08:46:05 EST 2006

Suspect's death leaves mysteries
FBI says man was an eco-terrorist; friends disagree
By Joe Garner, Rocky Mountain News
December 31, 2005

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Bill Rodgers asked his friend Ilse Asplund to 
bring him a pillow because his jail bed was hard.

"You can't even take a pencil into the jail, so how could I take him 
a pillow," Asplund said, recalling her visit with Rodgers 12 days 
before he was found dead in his cell in the Coconino County Jail on Dec. 22.

"When I went to talk to Bill, my concern was his well-being. He was 
so thin," Asplund said. "He said his hopes were that he would be 
released at his hearing."
But Rodgers wasn't released.

In fact, an FBI agent labeled him a leader of the elusive Earth 
Liberation Front and the "mastermind" behind fire bombings across the 
country that caused upward of $20 million in damage.

FBI agent Doug Lintner called Rodgers the ringleader of the 
eco-terrorists who set seven synchronized fires at Vail in October 
1998, destroying the original $12 million Two Elk Lodge, a 
mountaintop restaurant.

The spectacular, middle-of- the-night blaze stood for five years as 
the most damaging eco- terrorist act in U.S. history.

It also stood as a challenging mystery for federal authorities 
investigating the case who were unable to link anyone to the fires 
until this month, when Rodgers and an Oregon woman were publicly 
named as suspects.

Whatever Rodgers knew about the Earth Liberation Front, which took 
credit for the fire in an e-mail communique shortly after the blaze, 
died with him.

His death left another mystery in his circle of close friends.

Rodgers, 40, owned a used- book store in Prescott, Ariz., about 100 
miles south of Flagstaff. He was one of six people arrested Dec. 7 in 
the ongoing federal investigation of the bombings.

All six were accused of acts of terrorism linked to the Animal 
Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, radical environmental 
groups that operate in autonomous cells so members are difficult to track.

Rodgers' friends, who universally described him as a gentle and 
compassionate person committed to nonviolence, rallied outside his 
hearing and were stunned to be videotaped by law enforcement authorities.

"I'm a pacifist, a vegetarian. I wouldn't want to know anyone who was 
even suspected of violence," said Donald Roth, who hiked with Rodgers 
to celebrate his 70th birthday in September. "I even have trouble 
watching Disney's Bambi because of the fire scenes."

Rodgers' friends also were shocked that his release was denied.
He was returned to jail to await transfer to Washington state, where 
he was charged with setting fire to a U.S. Department of Agriculture 
building in 1998.

Betrayals and plea deals

On Dec. 19, the Monday after the Friday hearing, David Barrow, 
Rodgers' lawyer, visited him for the fourth time since the activist 
had been taken into custody.
"By then, we were beginning to read a lot in the papers about what 
was happening in the Chelsea Gerlach case, but we hadn't seen any of 
the affidavits from Oregon," Barrow said.

Gerlach, 28, was arrested in Portland on eco-sabotage charges in the 
same sweep that snared Rodgers.

She also had been named in court as a suspect in the Vail fires, but, 
like Rodgers, had not been charged in connection with them.

Rodgers knew little, if anything, of the case against him when he 
died. He had not seen or been told of the affidavit outlining what a 
confidential informant had told federal investigators about him.

Craig Weinerman, Gerlach's public defender, argued that the 
government's accusations against her were based on statements by her 
one-time boyfriend, Stanislas Meyerhoff, who allegedly went by the 
code name "Country Boy," and by "admitted serial arsonist" Jacob Ferguson.

Weinerman contends the two men, and a third unnamed informant, have 
snitched on Gerlach, reportedly code-named "Country Girl," after 
making deals with federal prosecutors to go easy on them.

Government attorneys also have tried to link Gerlach and Rodgers as a couple.
"When the federal prosecutor got up and said Chelsea Gerlach and 
Rodgers were friends, I got up and said, 'That's not true,' " Weinerman said.

The details of the soap opera of purported betrayals and plea deals 
playing out in Oregon were not known in Arizona, but Barrow said he 
was stunned by what he called "all the hype of this case."

"It was really odd to have a conspiracy alleged in court, but not to 
have anyone charged," he said. "It's a case totally by innuendo."

Barrow showed Rodgers the headline in the Arizona Daily Star calling 
him a criminal mastermind.

"He got a chuckle out of that headline, but it was more like 'you've 
got to be pulling my leg,' than like he took satisfaction from it, 
like a Goebbels or Hitler," the Flagstaff lawyer said.

"I didn't see any changes in him during 10 or 12 hours of interviews 
in four visits while he was in jail," Barrow said. "He was focused, 
unemotional and his questions were good questions."

Authorities said Rodgers suffocated himself by wrapping his head in 
plastic bags that prisoners who are not on suicide watch are given to 
carry toiletries and other belongings.

"If he decided to kill himself, I don't know where he was at, whether 
it was depression or a rational act," Barrow said. "I suppose suicide 
could be rationally justified as an alternative to being held in our prisons."

Sensitive, gentle person

Among his friends, Bill Rodgers was known for his good works in 
Prescott as well as for operating the Catalyst InfoShop, a store with 
mostly used books that ranged from Crime and Punishment to All the 
President's Men to Recipe for Disaster, An Anarchist Cookbook.

If you wanted to learn to sew or knit, you could join a class at the 
Catalyst. If you wanted to voice your opposition to the war in Iraq, 
you could join in a discussion at the Catalyst. If you wanted to 
serve meals to the needy, you could volunteer there for the group, 
Food Not Bombs.

"The Catalyst is not a moneymaker," said Paul Katan, one of the 
circle of friends drawn to Rodgers and his girlfriend, Katie Rose 
Nelson, who lived in an apartment over the bookstore. "They were able 
to cover expenses and just scrape by. It was very much a labor of love."

Katan, who testified for Rodgers at his detention hearing, said 
Rodgers "has never done or said anything that would make me believe 
he was involved in the things he was accused of."

Friends said there were no strangers regularly arriving in Prescott 
who stayed at the bookstore. There were no peculiar telephone calls. 
There were no unexplained trips out of town, which might be expected 
of someone masterminding a nationwide criminal enterprise.

None of the people named in the indictments and arrest warrants mean 
anything to any of Rodgers' friends in Prescott.

"Bill is a person who should never have been put into jail," said 
Roth, the pacifist who hiked on his birthday with Rodgers. "He's an 
outdoorsman. He's a sensitive and gentle person."

At the detention hearing Dec. 16, federal authorities alleged that 
Rodgers' criminal activities included possession of child 
pornography, three weapons and a box containing candles, timers and 
sponges, along with written materials on how to make bombs.

The authorities also said they had a recording of Rodgers telling 
someone he was "planning something big" for his next arson attack 
after ending his relationship with his girlfriend.

"We differ with the characterization that he is a peaceful, 
law-abiding man," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Lodge said after the 
hearing. "He is considered to be the mastermind of some of these arsons."

Child pornography charge

Asplund, the Flagstaff woman who visited Rodgers in jail, said she 
learned the so-called child pornography was a nude photograph of a 
prepubescent girl standing in a forest with her hand against a tree. 
She said the photograph may have been taken off a bookstore computer, 
to which many people had access, when the store was raided at the 
time of Rodgers' arrest.

"It was very unfortunate that his character was so maligned by 
calling the picture of the child pornography," she said.

Other friends said the candles, timers and guns were all legal 
possessions, even if they were puzzled that Rodgers may have had them 
in his home.

"I think it's widely understood that people who are economically 
privileged fare better in the criminal justice system than people 
like Bill, who lived a simple, subsistence life," said his friend, 
Katan. "It's still a question whether he really killed himself . . . 
I don't see it as an admission of his guilt, not at all."

Neither the Prescott Police Department nor the Yavapai County 
Sheriff's Department knew that a man suspected of being one of the 
nation's most-wanted domestic terrorists was operating a bookstore in 
their jurisdiction.

Located about three blocks from the city's courthouse square, where 
conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater announced his run for the 
presidency in 1964, the Catalyst InfoShop is a throwback to the 
hippie counterculture.

The shop is little more than a shed, originally a miner's cabin, 
backing up to Granite Creek.

It is one of six such structures that have been repainted in 
brilliant shades of chartreuse, cerise and magenta and billed as the 
McCormick Arts District.

The neighborhood holds its place in the life of Prescott, which has 
been transformed by affluent retirees, mostly Republican, who come in 
their RVs to visit and stay to buy ranchettes with stunning views of 
the Arizona sunsets.

"Prescott's pretty much been a cowboy town until about 10 years ago, 
when Money magazine named it one of the top 10 places to retire," 
said Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh, who retired to Prescott from 
Las Vegas.

Built over rugged canyons at 5,300 feet elevation, Prescott, like 
Denver, calls itself The Mile-High City.

The city, population about 50,000, has a tradition of tolerating, 
even accepting and appreciating, independent thinking.

A museum near the McCormick Arts District honors Sharlott Hall, a 
poet, historian and free-thinker who traveled the rugged backcountry 
of Arizona territory on horseback as territorial historian.

The city is home to three colleges, including Prescott College, a 
private, liberal arts school where "students are encouraged to think 
critically and act ethically with sensitivity to both the human 
community and the biosphere," according to the college's mission statement.

Harmony and simplicity

Gene Dilworth, of Nederland, met Bill Rodgers in 1989, when Rodgers, 
a Prescott College graduate, led a three-week backpacking trip that 
was part of Dilworth's orientation as an entering Prescott College student.

"Mostly we connected through our love of the wilderness," Dilworth 
said. "He was a nurturing man. He was deeply sensitive, both to 
people and to nature."

More than anyone else he has ever met, Dilworth said, Rodgers tread 
lightly upon the earth, living frugally, respecting simplicity and 
maintaining harmony in his life.

"I think probably everything Bill wore came from a secondhand store," 
Dilworth said.
Visitors to the Catalyst Info- Shop expected the heat to be turned 
low and the electricity switched off when they left a room, but also 
a cordial, accepting welcome.

"Bill communicated about everything he did," Dilworth said. "Maybe 
there is a note somewhere to explain what he was thinking, but no one 
is saying."

Dilworth, his wife and 3-year-old daughter traveled to northern 
Arizona this week to pay their respects to an old friend, although 
they had not seen each other in about five years.

"I'm happy to talk to you about Bill," Dilworth said. "I was proud to 
say Bill is a friend of mine.

"My life is better because I knew him."

<mailto:garnerj at RockyMountainNews.com>garnerj at RockyMountainNews.com 
or 303-892-5421

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