The Caged Lion
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.
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 seacocks, 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, the 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 of 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 recrossing 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 mink, 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, 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 nationwide. 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 or antigovernment 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 vulnerability 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 the ALF, Earth First! and the ELF. At the end of August, his lawyers will be making a motion to dismiss the charges related to his San Diego lecture 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,” Coronado 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.”?
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