After almost ten years, Steve Talbot still wants to know...
Who Bombed Judi Bari?
Interviewed by Bruce Anderson
AVA: You spent a lot of time investigating the Judi Bari Bombing case, and you've kept up with developments related to it since. In your film for KQED the most likely suspect in the suspect pool you developed seemed to be Mike Sweeney. Who is Mike Sweeney?
Talbot: Sweeney was born October 4, 1947. He grew up in Santa Barbara. His father was an official in the Nixon administration and an attorney for one of the big oil companies. Sweeney graduated from Stanford in 1973 with distinction in economics. He should have graduated in 1970 but he'd dropped out for a few years to live in San Diego were he took a course in refrigeration mechanics. He was editor of the Stanford Chief, the student newspaper. He married Cynthia Denenholtz in 1971. They separated in 1978. She worked for the Sonoma county DA in family support division and had two kids with Sweeney, Heather and Zachary. Sweeney filed suits to harass Denenholtz when they split up. He filed one on the first day of her bar exams just to throw her off.
AVA: Mike at Stanford?
Talbot: I interviewed several people who knew Sweeney at Stanford, political people. They thought of him as someone who bore tremendous resentments and was generally a difficult person, and even a scary person. Sweeney was involved with a revolutionary group called Venceremos which was involved in episodes of violence.
AVA: They killed an unarmed Hispanic kid transporting a prisoner from Chino, among other "revolutionary" acts.
Talbot: Make sure people know that wasn't the group of people who called themselves "Venceremos" and went off to Cuba to cut sugarcane. Many of my friends went to Cuba and did that. Venceremos at Stanford were sort of Panther wannabes. They were Stanford Maoists with a few Hispanic working people up front. Sweeney moved to San Diego for the Republican Convention like a lot of lefties at the time -- there was the early talk that the Nixon convention was going to be in San Diego in 1972. And there were going to be big protests because the left decided, "OK, in 1968 we did the Chicago Democrats and now we're going to go get the Republicans and Nixon. And there was such pre-convention turmoil in San Diego that the Republicans eventually backed out and held their convention in Miami. A lot of people, including David Helvarg who worked with me on the Judi Bari documentary, were moving to San Diego to take on the Republicans. And apparently that's when Sweeney went down. Herbert Marcuse was also in San Diego then and a lot of other left people. There were also some para-military groups of right-wingers who shot up the house of some anti-war organizers. It was scary in San Diego at the time. Anyway, Sweeney was there. For our documentary, we interviewed people who described him as a student and in San Diego, as secretive and, well, devious. He got a contractor's license about that time. Cindy Denenholtz, his first wife, she was also in Venceremos at Stanford -- and she, like Sweeney, also went from conservative to radical overnight.
AVA: From revolution to reaction in one easy lesson, and what a familiar transformation with so many of these people. Judi Bari and Mike Sweeney?
Talbot: Sweeney and Judi Bari got together in 1979 and were married in 1981, just before their first child, Lisa, was born. They met through union politics. Judi was working in a postal workers union on the East Coast and Sweeney was trying to do labor organizing in Southern California. They met at a labor conference -- I don't know whether they met at a formal union thing or they met because they were both Maoists. But they met at a union convention. Their marriage lasted seven years; they divorced in May of 1988. Judi used to say Sweeney's parents hated her. I mentioned to Judi that my brother was an editor and she said "your brother is the editor of that magazine?" I said, "Yes," and she exclaimed, "Don't you just hate it when your sibling's more successful than you are?" She said it seriously with no irony at all and it took me aback, a) because I happen to get along very well with my brother. We're good friends. And b) I thought, Wait a minute, being the editor of a Sunday magazine is better than a TV producer? I took offense. (Laughs.) I didn't have any idea who her sister was at the time. Then I found out that she'd Gina Kolata, the well-known New York Times science reporter. That must have been quite a family. Clearly it was a left family, also a left family like many who were, I think, scared by the McCarthy era.
AVA: Judi seldom mentioned her sister, but when she did she was quite contemptuous of her. "Oh, that yuppie." I met Judi's parents once, and I can tell you they are very nice people. Mr. Bari, "Art," as he insisted I call him, was a diamond cutter, I believe; Mrs. Bari was a math professor at Johns Hopkins. All of this must be pure hell for them. Anyway, Judi and Sweeney break up but continue living on the same property in Redwood Valley. And Judi then took up with Darryl Cherney?
Talbot: I don't know when she and Cherney became romantically involved, but it was right around the time Sweeney and Judi broke up -- 1988. There was tension over the break-up all by itself, and they argued bitterly about how to split their property in Redwood Valley. I went out there and tried to do an interview with Sweeney and, in the film, he's slinking away in the distance. He was the one guy who I attempted to talk to who refused to talk. Not only refused to talk, he threatened to go to lawyers. He also said he would call the police to keep me away from him, which completely threw me. When I first called him I called cold, thinking, 'Alright, here's another person on my list that I can talk to. Yet I got such a hostile immediate reaction that I was taken aback. And that made me curious about him, because I thought, 'Well, why is he responding this way?' People who knew him at Stanford described him as 'not just smart but brilliant,' but described his personality as 'explosive' and considered him a 'dangerous' type. The Stanford people said there was a lot of anger and tremendous resentment in Sweeney.
AVA: Have you ever encountered an odder group of people?
Talbot: No, although I've done some films with pretty strange characters; but this was the oddest group. Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolutionaries would give the Mendo contingent a run for the oddball money, but even Gingrich...
AVA: What attracted you to this story and who the heck are you?
Talbot: I worked at KQED as a reporter and producer from 1980 to 1989. I left KQED in 1989 because they were running out of steam and money to do documentaries. Newsroom ended. I was at the very tail end of Newsroom, although by then it was called by another name, Evening Edition. Belva Davis was the host. I was a reporter for the last six months of that show. The week it went off the air I was arrested by the Navy for allegedly trespassing on the Concord Naval Weapons space and they were threatening to prosecute me for espionage. So we got John Keckar the lawyer KQED hired. Keckar later became Oliver North's prosecutor. He was a decorated, wounded Vietnam Veteran, a progressive lawyer, Marine. Tough. Smart. He couldn't wait to go after the government on that issue and they backed down. There was about a week when I was in the papers here being threatened with espionage charges. This was before. This is 1980. This was all... Concord basically. There was a tiny peace group out there making an issue of, "Do you have nuclear weapons stored here?" Basically people ignored them. We came along and did this first news report and then the documentary, "Broken Arrow" that made a huge issue out of it. And then after that, there had been protests during the Vietnam war because people knew that was a big issue and then that era ended. The 70s was kind of quiet. And we came along and did this report -- Hey, guess what? Concord, Walnut Creek, the nuclear weapons are in your backyard. And at the same time we started reporting about nuclear weapons accidents and we actually got the small agency in the Pentagon to release to us information that there had more nuclear weapons accidents than they had ever admitted before. So it became a big story. Basically, that's what I did at KQED, having before that come out of the left and six or seven years in Berkeley with the left-wing International News Agency. We used to do the foreign reporting for KPFA and the Pacifica stations and, the Bay Area, KSAN, a rock station. After KQED, I made a lot of documentaries and I did a lot of investigative reporting. I covered stories having to do with the waterfront, went to Africa and did films about the ANC before Mandela was released from prison, and I did stories on the ANC's leadership in exile. I went to Guatemala and did stories about its and other Latin right-wing military dictatorships, and I did stories about Henry Liu who was assassinated at his home in Daly City by a Taiwan hit squad dispatched by the Taiwan government because they wanted Liu, one of their most formidable critics, out of the way. And I did a story about nuclear weapons accidents and about where nuclear weapons were stored in the Bay Area. Broken Arrow was the first one I ever did on that subject. I've done a lot of investigative reporting and a lot of political reporting. I also did some writers' biographies, which are sort of my break from the more intense, political films I've done; they're my way of having fun. I've done films for PBS on Dashiell Hammett, Maxine Hong Kingston, Dos Passos, and other writers. When Earth First! popped up I was interested. A friend of mine, Doug Foster, was editing Mother Jones. So this is really where the story starts. Doug Foster says to me, These two Earth First! people were in Oakland and a bomb went off in their car. This is pretty shocking. Do you want to do a story about it? I said, Yeah! I saw the story in the newspapers. I don't anything about them. But I'll look into it. Actually I did know one thing about Earth First! I did a documentary in the mid-80s for KQED about the Tuolomne River where there was a big environmental fight to stop the Tuolomne River from having yet another dam put on it. River rafters, trout fishermen, and lots of local people fighting to protect the river. Dave Foreman was up there speaking at some of the protests about keeping the Tuolomne open. So I knew of Dave Forman, a little about Earth First! I knew Dave. We used a clip of Dave Forman giving a fire and brimstone speech to some backpackers in Yosemite about how to fight to save Tuolomne.
AVA: And you met Judi Bari, the victim of what seemed to be an assassination attempt.
Talbot: So I wrote a piece for Mother Jones. I interviewed Judi in her hospital bed at Highland Hospital within a week of the bombing and I liked her. I got to know her and the people around her -- Karen Pickett, for example. I also met Darryl Cherney. That's when I started working on the story. And I wrote a pretty long feature piece for Mother Jones magazine about Judi Bari. And it was a complete loss. Aside from the AVA, I wrote the most favorable piece for any publication approaching mainstream, magazine journalism. I remember another piece that appeared in California magazine at the time. Darryl and Judi denounced him because he wrote the piece identifying all the suspects and saying it looked like Mike Sweeney to him, and that was at the time of the event. Judi was furious with the coverage.
AVA: But the Judi Bari wing of Earth First! liked your piece on her for Mother Jones.
Talbot: Yes. And I went on to cover Redwood Summer. Mother Jones is to blame for all my involvement. I still hadn't solved Who Bombed Judi Bari. But when the Mother Jones story came out Anna Marie Stenberg and various other people called me up and said there are some things you ought to know. And I said, Oh really? And I got deeper into the story and the question of who might have done it if it wasn't the timber industry or the FBI or the combination of both as Earth First! was claiming. I went to KQED and said, Here's the story. I'm going to find out who bombed Judi Bari. They approved and I started work on it. And then to cut to the chase, my initial focus was to show how both the Oakland Police and the FBI might have screwed up this investigation -- how they had falsely accused her or, at a minimum, had accused her on the basis of evidence that didn't support the accusation. David Helvarg, who's a private investigator and a journalist, and I teamed up on the story for KQED. And we spent out most of our time dismantling the FBI case and the Oakland Police Department case. I still think we've done the best job anybody has done, by far, actually investigating what happened. Judi was grateful and even said, albeit in passing, in her later denunciation of me that she was grateful for our work.
AVA: As you're dismantling the FBI and Oakland PD's odd version of events, there's still no light bulbs going off in your head about who may have done it.
Talbot: That's right. Who did it? So of course following her (Judi Bari's) lead and others I looked at all the timber companies and I looked at certain smaller guys who weren't directly tied to corporate timber but whose jobs were very precarious, and who wore hard hats and worked in the woods. You gave me names and other people gave me names and we went out and talked to people like Ed Knight who's in the documentary who made it clear that there was a lot of violent talk among timber people directed at Earth First! We talked about the violence in the documentary and I certainly talked it in my Mother Jones article.
AVA: But no Who in the Who Dunnit?
Talbot: To get to what you're interested in here: Only after I'd done the Mother Jones article, and only after I had completed about two-thirds of the KQED research for the documentary... Only then did a whole slew of people come to me, take me aside in private and said, Steve, this is all well and good that you're looking at L-P. but here are some things you ought to know. And they began to tell me about Mike Sweeney. And I was aghast at myself. I hadn't looked at Judi's personal life at all. I'm not sure I'd even heard of Mike Sweeney before. But when all these people came to me and said you better have a look at the ex-husband, I began to think, Oh, my God, I'm missing something here. And that's when I went off and tried to interview him. Really pretty late in the game, to be honest. I called him up and when I got him on the phone he was the most hostile of any of the people I talked to in the whole course of the investigation. That aroused my suspicion. The people who came to me to suggest that I look at Sweeney were among Judi's closest friends. Regardless of what they were saying publicly at the time, people at the MEC took me aside to say, "Look at Sweeney." I can't tell you who they were because they told me in confidence, but suffice it to say that prominent people on her original legal team, who were with her through thick and thin throughout important battles with the FBI and the Oakland Police, also took me aside and said, "Look, we don't know who did this. We don't know if Mike Sweeney did it. But if you're doing a serious investigation, you've got to look at Mike Sweeney." Then, as I said, when I called him I got such a hostile response I went to work finding out about him. And I went to Judi. 'What's the deal on Mike Sweeney?' And Judi tells me a great deal, at length, over many conversations. Some things you've printed in the paper already, things that I know she told you -- some of which I'm still not prepared to reveal -- and not to be coy, but because Helvarg and I have talked about writing something as definitive as we can. We're trying to revisit the case, but both of us have been so busy with other work. We're on opposite coasts now. He's in Washington. But I still would intend to write something and try to sum up what I know. But I will say, which I've never said in public before beyond what I said in the documentary, is that her conversation with me Judi told me point blank and in great detail that Sweeney had set fire to this Santa Rosa airport hangar and that he had done it with a rather complicated explosive device. She said that part of the device had worked and part of it hadn't worked. Helvarg and I looked at the one that hadn't gone off. It bore some resemblance to the explosive device that was put in her car. So, again, that disturbed me and aroused my curiosity and made me more concerned that maybe Sweeney had something to do with the car bomb.
AVA: The Santa Rosa fire bombing of the old airport in 1980 was a serious crime.
Talbot: Yes, it certainly was. It almost killed someone. There was no political reason to do it and in fact that's what Judi told me she'd said to Sweeney at the time when she came upon him, in their house, right near the airport, assembling this device. She said she would ask him why he wanted to blow the hangars up because it was not only risky in terms of the law but seemed out of proportion to the irritation of a few planes flying over their house on weekends. She first of all said that it was Sweeney's idea. She never understood why the old airport was such a big thing to Sweeney; why they should be working on stopping it from becoming a full-time airport or developed as a housing tract as opposed to other issues. She said that Sweeney was annoyed by the weekend planes whose pilots used the old hangars to work on their vintage planes and to occasionally fly them, and that had Sweeney was very public about the airport being both a nuisance and a safety hazard. I don't know if they owned or rented their place near the old air field, in southwest Santa Rosa, but they were living in it. I went out for a look at it. It was a tiny little house in a sort of middle-class neighborhood but right on the edge of this once large airfield. The airfield was valuable property because it was in the middle of suburban sprawl which was then, as now, a political issue. There was a debate going on in 1980 about whether or not the old airport should become a commercial airport. It had been a backup base during WW II. Judi took part in the public campaign to try to shut it down completely, but she swore to me that she did not plan or take part in the firebombing of the airport that she said Sweeney carried out in October of 1980. She said it was Sweeney's idea and that he had done it by himself. But she knew about it. As I said, once she told me that, on top of all her friends telling me, "Look at Sweeney. Their personal life -- Judi's and Mike's as a couple -- has been difficult, sometimes even violent. You'd be remiss not to look into Sweeney." So, when I asked her about Mike Sweeney, Judi said, "Well, you know, he did once firebomb this airport."
AVA: But when you asked him about it in 1990 as you're putting your documentary together for KQED...
Talbot: He would never talk to me about it. That made me very suspicious. Bob Williams, the manager of the old airport, said Sweeney was accused of sabbing his ex-wife's (Cynthia Denenholtz) pump in Sebastopol during the period Sweeney was harassing Denenholtz at the time of their divorce. Everyone involved in the airport issue had suspicions that it was Bari and Sweeney who led the campaign against the airport. Sweeney debated Williams about the airport on Channel 50 once. It all makes me think that Sweeney's a leading suspect and he ought to be investigated. And the other side of it is, I'm stuck in this time warp of eight years ago. I read what others have said about it. I'm intrigued by it. But I can't tell you, Yes, Mike Sweeney did it because I don't know. But if the question is, Should Mike Sweeney be investigated? Is he a person with a violent history and someone who had the ability to assemble a device like this bomb, then the answer is, Yes. He ought to be investigated. So that's my official position on the Mike Sweeney question.
AVA: But when the film was made she claimed privately to people like me that you had betrayed her.
Talbot: I've been a journalist all my working life and I rely on sources and I keep faith with my sources. The only reason I'm saying this now is because Judi is dead. My source is dead. I kept this secret for almost a decade and I just think it's too important a piece of information for anyone looking into this case seriously not to know. What was incredibly frustrating to me was that of course Judi, having supported my investigation all along, then denounced the documentary even though over half of the documentary was exactly to her liking because it deconstructed the Oakland Police and the FBI claims that she had to have known she was carrying the thing when it exploded. It was disillusioning, that's for sure. Here's someone who I had been very supportive of and I liked with whom I'd shared a lot of confidences. Then to have her turn around in print in an article which is still on the website and find myself attacked for saying in my film what she herself had told me, and had told me about in great detail -- that Mike Sweeney had ignited the old airport in Santa Rosa in 1980, I still felt I was bound by journalistic ethics not to denounce her and reveal the secret back in 1991. Believe me, it was incredibly frustrating because she knew at that time she was lying about what she'd in fact told me, and she knew I knew she was lying about it. And others around her also knew that and no one in that group rushed forward and said, Oh, Steve, we know Judi told you this.
AVA: I still feel guilty about not defending you. I wimped out completely. I knew she'd told you about Sweeney. Lots of people knew she'd told you. I was a complete dupe, a coward and a fool. I convinced myself that her work mobilizing people against the corporate timber companies outweighed unpleasant aspects of her character and the even more unpleasant aspects of her personal behavior.
Talbot: Without going into anything else that she told me, let me put it this way: She told other people who then told me that he had, well, let me put it exactly right: There are people, including yourself Bruce, but there are others who told me that Judi told them that he had threatened her physically several times and that she said that he had raped her as well. When I heard those stories, I found them incredibly disturbing as well. Now that's Judi making those claims? Was Judi lying when she told people that? Or not?
AVA: When she told me, and told me many times, that Sweeney, who I did not know, had beaten her up and had raped her on different occasions, I didn't know what to think. I found it hard to believe that someone as strong as she was wouldn't have retaliated against him at the time. But on the other hand, and not knowing Sweeney -- still not knowing him other than knowing that he's been unlucky in love, obviously -- I didn't know if what she was telling me was true or she was simply an embittered woman taking a few gratuitous shots at her ex. I can say this, though: She could be very convincing, very moving even when she talked about how unhappy she'd been as a much younger woman up against unremitting sexual pressure exerted by boys, then men. Frankly, I believe her on the violence in the marriage, but don't believe her on much of anything else. Before the bombing, Sweeney was the arch-villain; after the bombing, he was Mr. Wonderful. It was that dramatic, and I remember the big flip-flop because she'd told me that he'd been threatening to take her to court for custody of the two girls on the basis of her "life style" -- late nights with Cherney and the hootenanny gang, pot, dangerous political activity, and so forth. And given the composition of the local courts at the time and her general unpopularity along side Mr. Stanford, the recycling man, she was worried. When I saw her at Highland Hospital three days after the bombing, I asked her if she was also now in for a custody dispute on top of being blown up in an apparent murder attempt. And suddenly the rapist, the man she said had beat her up and from whom she was now divorced, this man was "wonderful."
Talbot: I came in after the flip-flop because the first time I ever met her was after the bombing. And one of the first things she told me was how helpful her ex-husband was being. But then later, over time, months later, she sat me down and told me the story about how he made this incendiary bomb that had set fire to the airport. She told me a lot of contradictory stuff about Sweeney too. That has always been amazing to me, always amazing. because I'm sure there were people, We interviewed the guy in the film who was the manager of the airport --Tom Williams. He suspected Sweeney was responsible although Sweeney was never charged with the arson. I was not able to determine to what extent they pursued an investigation of him...
AVA: And then he eludes investigation when his ex-wife is bombed in the middle of Oakland.
Talbot: Yes, how he, in the midst of all this stuff remains sort of invisible is amazing. The whole focus of the Oakland bombing case to begin with was the FBI, the Oakland Police and the local press in the Bay Area, especially the Oakland Tribune, but the Chronicle too, saying it was Judi's bomb; that it was an Earth First! bomb. That's what the cops and the major media said for the first several months after the bombing. And it was a handful of people, her supporters and a handful of journalists, yourself, and myself, looking at this and saying, No. They have it wrong. The Oakland Police and the FBI have missed the obvious evidence here or they've concocted it. Was it Judi Bari's bomb and the FBI and the Oakland Police Department were right about what had happened? Or were they wrong? To the extent I made any contribution to this case, it was to say the Oakland Police and the FBI were wrong. Then, the next question which remains unsolved is, Okay, if it wasn't Judi Bari carrying the bomb, then who put the bomb in her car? And I still think very little progress has been made on an answer to that very basic question. But I repeat: Anyone who seriously investigates this case and does not look at Mike Sweeney as a possible suspect is making a big mistake.
AVA: I know we agree that something is going on here that's more than a big mistake.
Talbot: We showed the documentary to one of her attorneys at the time, Rich Ingram. He took us to where Judi's Subaru is in storage. We took a look at the car. The cops said it was obvious the bomb was in the back seat of the car where she'd covered it up with what they variously said was with a guitar or something else. But it was obvious that the bomb was under her seat. Either you have to believe that Judi was phenomenally stupid or suicidal -- neither of which I believed -- or it's conceivable that someone gave her this bomb to use some place and said, "It's not going to go off." Betrayed. Someone totally betrayed her. Logically, I guess that's something you'd have to look at. I don't believe that myself. It's not a likely scenario, but that's something you would look at. So then, the real question is, well, Who put it there? And like I say, there were a range of possible suspects. And, I suppose, we have to ask, Did the FBI put it in her car? I don't think so. There are people who say lots of hideous things about the FBI, which I agree with, including the criticisms of their outrageous COINTELPRO program. But the idea that the FBI would actually take a bomb and try to kill Judi Bari?
AVA: Historically speaking, they haven't committed assassinations although they've created the circumstances in which assassinations are likely to occur...
Talbot: Exactly. I don't believe the FBI tried to kill Judi Bari. Where's the motive? So then you have to look at the timber industry. We looked at possible surrogates for the industry, who weren't quite corporate timber but who felt very threatened by the looming Redwood Summer demonstrations. Gyppo loggers, for instance. We found out that there surely was a climate of violence among them. Those guys would hit you. They would threaten you. They might take a shot over your head. If they caught you setting fire to a fellerbuncher they would undoubtedly try to hurt you. But I couldn't find anything to implicate loggers. That isn't to say they didn't do it, but it is to say I found nothing at all pointing at them as the culprit. Or culprits. I don't know who did it. I still don't know. But I think you have to look at the possibility that there was someone closer to her who put the bomb in Judi Bari's car.
AVA: The Lord's Avenger?
Talbot: As you know the Rosetta Stone of this whole case is still the Lord's Avenger letter. Whoever wrote that letter did the bombing, or was intimately connected to it. There's no doubt about that. Anyone who does a serious investigation has to look at who would have written that Lord's Avenger letter. And the Foster analysis of it, and the analysis of Gehrman in Flatland, has some very interesting things to say about Mr. Avenger. I think they're definitive, but I think they're intriguing too. That Sweeney could have been the person who wrote that.
AVA: Among other writing samples discovered by Professor Foster and Ed Gehrman are pages from a novel Sweeney had written based on a figure Sweeney calls "Eliza Devlin," a female environmental activist just like guess who.
Talbot: Yes, I've heard about that. And then, the other connection is that this Cloverdale bombing was a very similar in design and composition to the one that was in Judi's car, and they were both detonated within a month of each other and they were both related to issues having to do with the timber industry. Again, whoever set that one, the one in Cloverdale, is probably the person who put the bomb in her car -- the connection is there. And then the final thing is the Argus letter. Judi congratulated me for digging it up. That was the letter that had been sent by someone in what year? who wanted to snitch on her. Someone calling himself "Argus" sent the letter to the Ukiah Police Department, which the Ukiah PD had stashed away in their files for some reason that I still don't quite understand. But they turned it over to me. I got the guy on a good day, I guess. Keplinger. I recall that's his name, the Ukiah police chief back in 1990-91. The Argus letter caused me to be very suspicious of Irv Sutley, which is why in the documentary I really questioned him. The reason I did that is, without going through the whole long story, if you look at that letter, most of it is absolutely accurate about what Judi was doing, including the accusation that she had mailed marijuana. So there was a lot in that letter that was true. There was one thing that wasn't, which was that Earth First! was engaging in military training. It was quite a stretch to think that that could have been true. And it wasn't true. So the offer was to set her up, catch her in this marijuana through the mail.
If you trace back who knew she was sending pot through the mail at the time the Argus letter was written, there's a very small universe of people who could have been aware of it. Very small. Darryl Cherney, for one. I don't think he would have written it and I didn't think so at the time. I asked him about it. Pam Davis was the person we asked point blank in the film whether she'd written the Argus She looked a little guilty, but she said she hadn't done it. She was close to Judi; she knew all about the photos. Remember this was the photo that Irv posed her with the gun. And so I thought, ah ha! Irv Sutley and Pam Davis had told me about how he had pointed the gun at her.
AVA: Enter Irv Sutley, mustaches twirling.
Talbot: So I looked into Irv, and Irv's got a very odd background. I became very suspicious of Irv. Now I must say the one thing that changed for me a bit since then is that Irv has consistently tried to stay in touch with me, send me material. He's kinda annoying about it sometimes. He has been open and he has been available all these years. And other people I know who know and trust him, who knew him in various stages of his life were saying, look, he just wouldn't have done that. So I began to think, Well, maybe not. Maybe I was wrong to suspect Irv. At the time I thought he was worthy of further investigation, but he's been one of these people who has always said, Come and investigate me. That openness about Irv leads me to believe that he's what he says he is -- innocent of the charges made against him by the Bari forces. But they went off on him; they started attacking him and saying that I hadn't said in the documentary he was the FBI agent. Well, I never said he was the FBI agent. The more I look at it, the less likely it seems. But my change of mind about Irv Sutley came after the documentary.
AVA: Sutley was not in position to spy on Judi Bari effectively. He didn't know her well, he seldom was around her, he didn't even live in Mendocino County.
Talbot: So one thing I didn't think of at the time I made the film, which in retrospect I now realize, is that the one other person in the world who I can think of who knew all this information about Judi and is capable of writing that letter was Mike Sweeney.
AVA: "Argus" is the kind of literary reference a Stanford grad would be more likely to know than Sutley, a left-wing warehouseman.
Talbot: Yes, but at the time I made the documentary I just never made that connection. I thought of this little world of Pam Davis, Irv Sutley, Darryl Cherney, and Judi as they posed Judi with Irv's gun was self-contained and that the person who had sent it to the Ukiah Police Department had to be in this little group. I never thought, Ah ha! another person who would have known about Judi's activities was her ex-husband who she was still involved with building a house in Redwood Valley and with whom she lived on the same property. She also shared custody of two children with him. But Judi was also involved in recent disputes with Sweeney over property, over money, over child-rearing practices, over politics, lifestyle, boyfriend.... So I thought, Well, yeah. Why didn't I think of that at the time? I think these are the key documents; the Argus letter offering to turn Judi in to the police way back in 1989, and whoever wrote the Lord's Avenger letter -- and factor in the bomb at the L-P office in Cloverdale, that's the person or persons who are the most likely people to have put the bomb in her car that nearly killed her. When you look at these documents and these events, the possibility that Sweeney could have been the person who'd done it, who did it, looms large. That's not to say it's definitive evidence because it's not. But you just can't dismiss it.
AVA: But all of this has been ignored by not only the authorities, such as they are, but by the Bari-ites who have somehow parlayed vague, completely unsupported accusations against Big Timber and the FBI, with Sutley as logistics man, into cash, careers on the PC circuit, a $17.7 million federal law suit, and even record albums!
Talbot: Yes, and all these years they've been pushing the lawsuit. And from my point of view, I wish them good luck. Not many people know as well as I do how badly the FBI screwed up this case, this investigation. And the Oakland Police Department, they not only behaved suspiciously, but badly. It was sloppy police work, biased police work from the outset. I think obviously false statements about the case were made by the police and the FBI and I don't think they're going to be able to defend themselves in court. More power to Judi's estate and her lawyers for pushing the case. It was a false arrest and false accusations were made. Make it a public issue. I'm all for it.
AVA: Have you been in touch with the Redwood Summer Justice Project?
Talbot: Frankly, over the last eight or nine years, her lawyers have called me from time to time asking for help, asking for suggestions, asking for documents, and I've helped where I could. I've cooperated with them all along. I've been as helpful as I possibly could be and I've had a friendly relationship with them. I've sent them files of mine and I've opened up files that I've kept so that they could see them. And there's a final thing: Tony Serra, who I don't know except by reputation, and he's got a great reputation -- my brother once wrote a laudatory profile of him -- Tony Serra taking on this case is a major development. I'd be nervous if I were the Oakland cops or the FBI. So I'm all for it going ahead and the Oakland PD and the FBI being called out and taken to task and punished for what they did.
AVA: Me too, but who did it and why is the whole Bari-ite gang so frantic about stopping discussion of the case?
Talbot: That still, however, begs the question of what for me is the fundamental question in this mystery. Now, they could argue, tactically, they might argue Why is Bruce... Why is Steve... Why is Irv Sutley, Ed Gehrman... Why are these people raising this issue now?
AVA: I've raised it for years.
Talbot: Let's get this case out there. The attempt to shut down discussion of it is complete, absolute bullshit and is incredibly irritating and pisses me off no end. I want it to get into the Federal court. It could be fascinating. In the course of the legal team's investigation they have found out some interesting things -- the whole bomb school thing, for instance. (A class just before the Oakland bombing "taught" by the FBI under the auspices of a College of the Redwoods, Eureka, police-training class consisted of, among other instructions, an exhibition on L-P property of a pipe bomb explosion in a junked car.) All I know is what I've read about it, and the little bit they told me. To me, it's disturbing that the FBI ran a bomb class on L-P property just before Judi Bari was bombed in Oakland, and then the guy who ran the class shows up at the scene of the Oakland bombing. I'd love to know more about it. I'd love to have somebody on the witness stand asked about that. If Tony Serra or any of the other lawyers in this intends to do that, it's fantastic. I'll be there if I can and I'll read about it if I can't. I look forward to it. Does that prove that they, the FBI, put the bomb in Judi Bari's car? Of course not. It doesn't prove that. Is it worth pursuing? Yes.
AVA: It made me sick, what the bombing did to her. It still makes me sick, and I want to know who did it, and I don't want any records sealed, and I don't want any settlement of the case outside court, and I don't want any little PC twerps telling me what I can and can't know.
Talbot: Amen. I remember Judi in one of those moments when I could tell where she was being very honest, it was very heartfelt, I would say -- she said, Bombs, goddamn people who set them off even if they think it's for a good cause, they have no idea what pain and suffering a bomb can bring. And she knew the damage bombs do; that's one thing she really knew. I hear Judi saying that every time I read about a bomb some place, Oklahoma or anywhere else.
AVA: But the Bari-ites have been on your case non-stop since 1991. I achieved non-person status with them around '93 when I argued with her about settling a SLAPP action with L-P at Albion. Cockburn gets it from them too on a fairly regular basis.
Talbot: Here's what happened in my case. I knew Judi pretty well. I spent a fair amount of time with her in the very early 90s when I wrote the Mother Jones story, and in 1991, and when I did the documentary in 1991-92. So in that period I was very involved with her and I knew a lot of people around her. I remember I spent a lot of time driving around with Darryl Cherney and he could never wait to get the latest issue of the AVA and read it and say what a great guy you were. Your publication was taken very seriously by them. So I know all the people around in those days, all the people who showed up for Redwood Summer including the actual Earth First! people, people like Cockburn who spoke at the first two rallies, you who spoke at the Fort Bragg and Samoa rallies. Then I knew her, but once I finished the documentary and once Judi denounced me for saying things that she knew she had told me about in the first place... I never spoke to her again. I sent her notes occasionally, but I never saw her again, never talked to her on the phone again. Never. I wrote notes occasionally to Darryl and Darryl wrote back once or twice. David Helvarg ran into Darryl a couple of times and Darryl told him how the documentary was great because it really absolved them of responsibility for knowingly carrying it because why would anybody in their right mind transport an anti-personnel bomb beneath their own driver's seat?
AVA: I could always talk to Judi, but the rest of them.... I've never met a more unpleasant, dumber, humorless, arrogant, and generally awful group of people in my life. If these people are the so-called movement, this country is fucked.
Talbot: I don't know those people. I remember Karen Pickett from eight or nine years ago, but the whole crowd that's in Redwood Summer Justice Project, I don't know any of those people. They're not the people who I knew back eight or nine years ago during the Redwood Summer protest. They weren't around. So the whole phenomenon that you've been writing about in the AVA, I don't know these people. I had no contact with them. Look, the dream that Judi had at her best moments, that she was able to articulate, of an alliance between genuine environmentalists and workers in the mills, in the woods, who knew what was going on, was worth going all out for.
AVA: You're looking at her main public relations guy from 1988 to 1992. I was all the way on board. Mr. Dupe. Mr. See-No-Evil.
Talbot: You weren't alone there. But she made some efforts to carry out a vision worth supporting, and from my point of view the time when that looked the best was that Fort Bragg demonstration where I thought, God, something real is happening here. There was an open mike on that flatbed truck in the middle of town. There were cops on all the roof tops and cops keeping a couple of hundred locals away from the environmentalists and people were heckling the speakers and some loggers got up to the mike and talked about the damage they'd seen done to the woods and the streams ?
AVA: The great Duane Potter, a logger the hecklers were afraid to heckle.
Talbot: But the enviros let them get up and talk. And I thought okay, maybe something is actually going to happen here. The truth of the matter is it never happened. The environmental movement hasn't kept it up. My impression is that Earth First! has faded. away a little bit. But that rare moment when there was a real possibility of a worker-environmental alliance, passed.
AVA: And the Democrats, and the lawyers, and the show biz people, and the mystics, and the nuts, and the time-capsule hippies moved in and transformed Judi Bari's dream of a real grassroots political counter-attack against the outside corporations that control the forests to the kind of tame, lame, hootenanny rituals we've seen since.
Talbot: What happened with the rest of Redwood Summer is that it became much more of a counterculture event. I think some of those people were totally well-intentioned but had no idea what they were getting in to.
AVA: I think it was professionally sabbed.
Talbot: And others, maybe they were deliberately trying to lead things astray. I know that the Fortuna march was very scary. It was like the lambs were being led to the slaughter, to march with a few hippies through this town seething with anger. I was there. I marched in that march. It was scary. It was a bad idea.
AVA: I was not there. By that time people I'd never seen or heard of were in charge. I said a march of a bunch of exhibitionists through a place like Fortuna was not only politically counter-productive and arrogant, but it was very dangerous. You couldn't have conceived of a dumber thing to do, which is why I believe the tax-funded disrupters did it.
Talbot: My impression at the time was that Judi was still in a lot of pain. She wasn't getting around much at all then, especially then. And she was kind of withdrawn from the scene. It was trying to lead this by remote control and that was not possible. That was Judi at her best, trying to form this alliance and being someone who really had the ability to mobilize people and get them moving together in the right direction, but then there was Judi at her worst, infighting, and this little incestuous world of people...
AVA: She was never the same after the bombing. She became much more imperious, much less tolerant and much less democratically disposed. She also surrounded herself with ass kissers. She enjoyed being a famous person. Her head got turned, I'd say. But she had guts right to the end. Nobody can say she didn't. The injuries she suffered from that bomb would have unhinged Atlas. And on top of all this, I think she spent the last years of her life with a terrible, terrible secret...
Talbot: She was brave. I've read stuff that you've printed about it. All I knew of the MEC, for instance, was from when I was up there during Redwood Summer and when I was investigating the bombing. What I saw at the MEC is people there who were very close to her. I knew that Mike Sweeney worked there and I have to say that there were prominent people at the MEC who were very suspicious of Sweeney. And they were among those who took me aside and said, Let me... Well, without going back through my notes, I can't really give you anything solid on that.
AVA: Do you think the bomb was placed in Judi's car while it was parked outside the MEC?
Talbot: What I can say is, and as we showed in the documentary, I felt that there were three places where this bomb could have been placed in the car. Exactly three. Really looking at that, not just imagining where it could have been placed, was outside the secret meeting in Willits Judi had with the gyppo loggers. But that just was highly unlikely. However, that night after the meeting, she went to the property she and Sweeney shared in Redwood Valley and that is a place that the bomb could have been put in the car -- as we said in the documentary. Another place where it could have been put in the car is in Ukiah when it was parked near the MEC, where she was briefly present for a press conference, as I recall, before she drove down to the Bay Area. It could have been put in there. The third possible place -- what she tended to think toward the end of my relationship with her -- was that someone in Oakland, as she spent the night at the home of this character David Kemnitzer, someone could have put the bomb in her car there. Kemnitzer's a very strange guy. He was also someone I was suspicious of at the time because of his past. But again, looking at the nature of the device, it seemed to me, and again as we said in the documentary -- and I am even more convinced of it now -- the two most likely places where it could have been put in the car were on her property that she shared with Sweeney and in front of the Ukiah MEC. And once again to draw the circle, those are two places where Sweeney could easily have had access to her car, which was not locked while it was on their property. So again, reason to investigate him.
AVA: Sweeney also would have known whether or not the two little girls would be in the car, and Sweeney, as a resident of the property they shared in Redwood Valley, and Sweeney with his office at the MEC in downtown Ukiah, was the only person who would have had access to Judi's car without arousing suspicion at either place.
Talbot: Right, Judi would be the only person, along with Utah Phillips, in the car as it left either Redwood Valley or Ukiah.
AVA: Phillips seems disinterested, to put it mildly. If I'd known I may have driven a hundred miles with a bomb as co-pilot, I think I'd be interested in finding out the wherefores of the experience.
Talbot: It would make me have a lot of bad dreams, second thoughts. I'd be very curious, very curious. There are a lot of people who ran from the story who are absolutely innocent, who got scared by all the threats of violence around Redwood Summer and bombs going off. You know how people get attracted to a political movement, and suddenly there are guns around -- not guns in this case -- but it happened in the 60s. And I know a lot of people who say, "Oh my God, this is what it is? I'm out of here!" And they would run back to the woods, or run back to whatever their life was and they would never talk about it. As a journalist you wish that wouldn't happen because you want to talk to and interview everybody. Do I blame those people? No. I don't blame them. No, absolutely not.
AVA: When the famous Judi-With-The-Gun was mailed to me, I got on her case. I told her it was an extremely dumb thing to do, what with the national media and all the local jackals denouncing Earth First! as a terrorist organization.
Talbot: At the very least that photo... you have to say that was a stupid political decision. Now it could have been a prankish moment, it could have been any number of things you can think of. But if your purpose was to come to Northern California to organize an alliance between disgruntled workers and environmentalists, that was one of the very last things you would ever do.
AVA: Judi Bari, before the bombing, and I've known lots of middle-class people like this, didn't seem to believe that violence could happen to her. That rally at the Ukiah Planned Parenthood office, for instance, was unnecessarily provocative. There were some visibly deranged people on the other side, the kind of people one does not provoke just for the hell of it. So she and Cherney drive up, get out of their car and walk straight into these nuts singing that song literally in their faces, "Shall the fetus be aborted..." I thought for sure we would have to fight them, and I definitely wanted no part of Staley or a couple of the other nuts with him. I felt exploited, frankly, because I would have had to intervene to try to protect them if the nuts had gone off, but I hadn't been told beforehand what they planned to do. If I'd known I would have said, "Sorry. I don't visit the rubber room unless I have tactical superiority."
Talbot: Right. Very scary; the whole confrontational style Judi had was very dangerous. She unleashed powerful feelings in people. Staley, for instance, was a very scary person, very scary. Helvarg and I went up to interview him and both of us were nervous. He was a big guy; he is a big guy, a former All-Pro football player. And he had an explosive personality. The idea of going up and singing the song that they sang right in his face, well... Listen, my sister is a doctor and she's done a lot of abortions in her life for Planned Parenthood. And at various stages she's had to assume false identities and wear flak jackets to work. So I know about the dangers and battles of abortions and what can happen to people who work in medical clinics. They are very courageous, but I know how scary that can get. I know that Staley had been accused by the women in the Planned Parenthood Clinic of bursting into the office and threatening them. I tried to talk to the women at Planned Parenthood and they were still so frightened of him that they didn't want to make any kind of accusations. Very creepy. And look what we know about the whole anti-abortion movement and violence. I mean, bombs -- it's terrifying. So for Judi... to go up there and sing about fetuses and abortions -- incredibly outrageous, incredibly provocative. One side of that was to say, Well, Judi was incredibly brave. She was in your face. She would go and do that. The other side was, well, unwise. But was that the best tactic? To stop anti-abortion zealots from picketing the Planned Parenthood clinic?
AVA: No, but it was a great way to get your picture and your name in the local papers. But she was sui generis, as they say.
Talbot: She was indeed an extraordinary personality. I think she accomplished something politically. Her dream of what she might accomplish was terrific. She fell short of the dream, and from my perspective, at least in the case of looking into who really had put the bomb in her car, frankly she backed off at a certain point. If it wasn't big timber or the FBI who was it? In a way, she didn't want to know who it was. And she might have known.
AVA: Seeds of Peace, Kemnitzer. Lord's Avenger. Everywhere you look in this case there are implausible people.
Talbot: I went to the Seeds house in Berkeley where Judi had first gone before she went and spent the night at Kemnitzer's. The Seeds of Peace house was pretty seedy. Even Kemnitzer's was a lot cleaner than Seeds' place. I've never heard of them since, but that doesn't mean anything. Let's put it this way: I never... They are not my kind of political organization. Whatever happened to Pam Davis?
AVA: From what I'm told she lives where she's always lived in Santa Rosa. She's one of several people who probably could fill in a lot of the blanks in this case but she won't talk to people who have tried to interview her. Sutley discovered an interview Judi did with one of her gofers at KZYX here in Anderson Valley -- a woman named Annie Esposito -- in which Judi confirms that she asked Pam Davis to ask Sutley if he would kill Mike Sweeney for Judi. Judi says in the tape that she asked Davis to hire Sutley but that it was a joke. Ha-ha. Of course it's a joke until it isn't a joke and the person who started the joke has plausible deniability. "Gee, I was only kidding, but he went out and killed the guy and now I've got to pay him $5,000? Frankly, Steve, I think Mike got Judi before Judi got Mike.
Talbot: I have read about Pam relaying an offer from Judi to kill Sutley, and I've heard it from him as well. And who knows? And I also read that Judi laughingly admitted that on the radio but said it was a joke. But what I do know seriously is what we started talking about a while ago when we started talking about serious problems in that marriage, and after the marriage. They were divorced. They had serious differences. Sweeney and Bari. And the physical violence. And clearly Denenholtz, who doesn't talk about this either, regarded Sweeney as someone who harassed and threatened her repeatedly after their divorce. So there's some history here.
AVA: So you complete your documentary Who Bombed Judi Bari and Judi Bari is very unhappy about it.
Talbot: When it was telecast it did not surprise her. She knew what was going to be in it because I told her in advance. And she in fact sent me a videotape of herself making various denials which I included in the documentary near the end of the film. So she knew exactly what was going to be in the documentary and she tried to get me not to put the Sweeney material in -- she didn't have a lot of people call up to pressure me or to pressure KQED, and she didn't make any legal threats, but she called me often and at great length harangued me not to put the speculation about Mike Sweeney in the film. And of course I would say to her on the phone as I'm saying here today, "Look, you're one of the people who put me on to Sweeney and you are a friend of the people who also came to me and told me about Sweeney. What am I supposed to do? And she would say things like, "Oh, you're just a journalist. I thought you were an activist." I kept saying, "Judi, I do have a political history. I was in the anti-war movement, among other things, but I'm a journalist."
AVA: And that's one of the major mysteries of the case! If Sweeney announced tomorrow that he bombed his ex-wife the false arrest case against the Oakland Police Department and the FBI would be unaffected.
Talbot: Of course. From my point of view there's absolutely no contradiction in saying I support the lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland Police Department. I'm full of praise for the legal people like Tony Serra for taking this case up. I hope that they do a terrific job. I hope a lot is revealed in the courtroom, if it goes to a courtroom. I completely agree with the judge who made the ruling recently in the 9th Circuit of Appeals that the case should proceed with the Oakland Police Department in it. And all that is absolutely terrific. Go ahead. But at the same time there should be a full discussion among people who really care about who put this bomb in her car in the first place.
AVA: I think the FBI has a lot to hide and the Bari people have a lot to hide.
Talbot: Well, the FBI has not gone through its best years recently. They've managed to alienate a large number of people, right and left. You and I can spend the next two weeks talking about the FBI, but I'll say this again: I do not believe -- I'm not sure there's anyone out there who actually believes the FBI would put a bomb in Judi Bari's car to try to kill her. And again, if they did, the chances are they would have used something that worked. But I just don't believe the FBI would deal at that level at all in this case. Yeah, you have the Chicago police department breaking down Fred Hampton's door and executing Panthers at war with the police in the 1960s and early 1970s. I have no problem believing that. When I got my own personal FBI file I was a college student in Connecticut and working a lot with the Panthers who were very active in New Haven. Bobby Seale was put on trial for murder there. I was very active in demonstrations against that trial, but when I got my modest FBI file back almost everything was all blacked out. It had to do with my phone conversations with the Panthers -- mainly inviting them to my campus, speaker fees, etc. The tap was on the Panther end of the line. Of course the FBI was up to their armpits in trying to disrupt the Black Panther Party and in attempting to disgrace Martin Luther King. It was hideous, hideous stuff with Hoover. Insane.
AVA: My modest FBI file places me at MLK's famous Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965. Flattering as I was to be included, I wasn't even on the continent; I was in Borneo with the Peace Corps. And my file was heavily "redacted," as they say. Look at the FBI's record; disgrace on top of disgrace: AIM, the Panthers, Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Bari case -- everywhere you look the FBI is doing something outrageously, murderously stupid, the kind of stuff that should not be tolerated by what bills itself as a political democracy. They should have been disassembled years ago when it became common knowledge that J. Edgar Hoover was seriously deranged.
Talbot: The Judi Bari case was bungled. Let's hope they get nailed on it. Let's hope the truth comes out in court -- if it gets to court. But at the same time I think it's eminently reasonable for people to ask the question which still hasn't been answered: Who bombed Judi Bari?
AVA: Thank you, Steve. This one ought to get our FBI files re-activated lickety-split.