By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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 mink 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 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 No. 1 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 in 1998, which some environmentalists claimed was encroaching on 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 arsons 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.