May 25, 2007 — -- The first two members of a radical environmental group who admitted to setting a series of fires aimed at saving animals, were sentenced Thursday to 12 to 16 years in federal prison.
In an unusual move, the judge agreed with a prosecutor's request to classify the crimes as acts of domestic terrorism, making them subject to harsher prison sentences.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken sentenced Stanislas Meyerhoffa to 16 years and Kevin Tubbs to 12 years, seven months. The pair were part of a group that admitted to setting fire to a forest ranger station, a police substation, a dealership selling SUVs and a tree farm.
"Fear and intimidation can play no part in changing the hearts and minds of people in a democracy," Aiken told Tubbs before sentencing him.
Meyerhoff, 29, and Tubbs, 38, are members of the Family, a Eugene, Ore.-based cell linked to the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front. The group is suspected of 20 arsons in five states that caused $40 million in damage.
Before his sentencing, Tubbs, his voice choked with emotion, read from a statement, saying he was deeply sorry for causing harm to others. "I am disgusted, sickened, saddened and totally ashamed that I played any part in any of the incidents," he said.
Since their arrests last year, members of the cell have all pleaded guilty to charges of arson and conspiracy. They have insisted, however, that they would fight at their sentencing hearings the "terrorist enhancement" classification that could increase their prison terms and land them in supermax prisons.
The hearings are at the new center of an old storm about how to define a terrorist.
Radical environmental groups, including the Earth Liberation Front and an associate network, the Animal Liberation Front, have been called "the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat" in America by the FBI. Their members include four of the Bureau's 11 most wanted homegrown terrorists.
The groups and their supporters said that in more than 1,100 acts of arson and vandalism, the members have never killed a single person, and the "terrorist" label is intended only as a scare tactic and means of augmenting the government's rolls of captured terrorists.
Federal agents arrested the 10 defendants last year in an action called Operation Backfire. At the time of their arrest, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called the cell's $40 million dollar campaign of arson -- which targeted a horse slaughterhouse, SUV dealerships, a scientific research center, logging companies and a ski resort -- "a pattern of domestic terrorism activities."
Lawyers and activists defending the saboteurs insisted that acts of arson and property damage have never been the stuff of terrorism indictments. They said the label is intended by the government to stir public outrage and increase the length of their client's prison terms.
Prosecutors on Monday called Meyerhoff the "leader, organizer and strategist" of the cell and sought to deflect his attorneys' claims that the cell had intentionally committed acts in which no people or animals would be killed.
"How many violent acts does it take to call a person violent?" asked assistant U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdall.
Meyerhoff, Engdall said, had committed "offenses that were clearly calculated to influence the conduct of government by intimidation, coercion and retaliation."
The government said that combination of intimidation and coercion is what makes it terrorism, and the fact that no one has died is not the real issue.
Last week federal prosecutors compared the acts of the saboteurs to those of the Ku Klux Klan.
"This is a classic case of terrorism, despite their protests of lofty humane goals," said assistant U.S. Attorney Stephan Peifer. "It was pure luck no one was killed or injured by their actions."
But the defendants' lawyers insist it is statistically impossible to have committed so many acts of arson with no deaths, unless they had taken abundant steps to prevent the loss of life.
Supporters of the environmental militants maintain that the government is going after "easy targets," using witch-hunt tactics reminiscent of the McCarthy era "red scare" of the 1950s.
They accuse the government of trumping up charges in an effort to intimidate environmental and animal-rights activists -- in a "green scare."
"People are being threatened with life in prison for property damage. Michael Fortier, an accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing, was released last year after less than 10 years in prison," Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, a group that monitors activist rights in Oregon, told ABC News.
"If you look at the legislative history of terror enhancement, it originally only applied to acts of international terrorism outside of the U.S.," Regan said. "In 1995, after Oklahoma City, it could be applied to acts of murder or attempted murder. Congress intended it to apply to things like PanAm 103, or embassy bombings, not property damage."
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, and the passage of the U.S. Patriot Act, the definition of terrorism has widened and with it the size of the net the government can cast to catch suspects.
But those who own the property that's been damaged said they've been terrorized and the people responsible should be treated as terrorists.
"There is no question that people are scared," said Frankie Trull, president and founder of the National Association of Biomedical Research, a nonprofit that represents companies and research institutions that use animals for research.
"There is an extreme element in the animal-rights movement that has decided they are somehow on a higher moral plane and that they can take the law into their own hands," she said. "The Internet has made it easier to find out where scientists live and where their children go to school."
Trull continued: "I think most people would define terrorism as leaving a Molotov cocktail on someone's doorstep and thinking that's OK. … Companies are concerned with trying to protect employees and employees' families."
The FBI's current Most Wanted List of domestic terrorism suspects includes the names of 11 people currently at large. Four of those 11 are affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front and are not accused of murder. The others all committed violent crimes.
Activists see the list as proof that the government is targeting radical environmentalists rather than pursuing harder-to-find criminals bent on using violence to coerce the government.
"Some believe that the government is changing the terminology from acts of civil disobedience to acts of terrorism, because they can show concrete results by arresting domestic activists," wrote the the authors of a National Lawyers Guild upcoming report.
The FBI, however, insisted that the radicals on the Most Wanted List are real terrorists.
And yet the FBI maintained, "One of the most serious domestic terror threats facing the country are special interest extremist movements that aim to use criminal direct action against people or companies," according to spokesman Bill Carter.
"There is a distinction between constitutional advocacy and direct action. Law enforcement only gets involved when people use force, violence or criminal activity."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.