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."