KQED TV, Friday, April 12, 2002. "This Week in Northern California." Host: Belva Davis. Guests: Steve Talbot, Documentary film editor and series editor for Frontline World, David Lazarus, Business Columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Rita Williams, reporter with KTVU TV in Oakland. Steve Ginsberg, a reporter with the San Francisco Business Times.
[Opening shots of Oakland car-bombing scene, May 1990. Then a pan-back shot of the huge Oakland Federal Building...]
Davis: Who bombed Judi Bari? Twelve years later the case against the FBI goes to trial. We'll have explosive new evidence. …
Davis: It's been more than a decade since a bomb exploded in the car of Earth First activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. The lawsuit they filed against the FBI and the Oakland Police went to court this week. In 1991, the only suspects the FBI pursued were Bari and Cherney themselves, accusing them of being eco-terrorists. Cherney and Bari claimed innocence and questioned why there were no other suspects. So, Steve Talbot, you've covered this story from the beginning, you've followed it since. What new evidence or information can you tell us about tonight?
Talbot: Well basically, what I want to tell you and the world tonight is something that I've kept a secret for ten years, which has been an unsettling and strange experience for a journalist. I reported in the documentary in 1991 here on KQED that the FBI and the Oakland Police Department I felt really had made a rush to judgment on the case against Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. And it's kind of a minor miracle that they have gotten this case, a decade later, into court where they can debate that. But the issue that's still unresolved is, Who actually bombed Judi Bari? And that's not really being discussed in the case in Oakland right now, I'm afraid. What I have to report is that Judi Bari, who I became quite close with — I had first written an article for Mother Jones magazine about her, and then done the documentary here — we became quite close and about two-thirds of the way through making the documentary she took me aside and confided that she was very fearful of her ex-husband, a man named Michael Sweeney. She said that Sweeney had physically abused her, that he had raped her, and then she went on to say that in 1980 he had firebombed the Santa Rosa airfield. That was a fire that nearly killed a flight instructor who was in the hangar at the time that the blaze went off, caused over $200,000 in damage, 100-200 foot flames, one of the big old World War II hangars was destroyed. Judi Bari told me that Michael Sweeney constructed the bomb that set off that explosion in their house which was next to the Santa Rosa airfield, that she saw him do it, that she asked him not to do it, and he went ahead and did it. She did not know, and I still do not know, who put that bomb in that car. But someone tried to kill her and the secret that she took to her grave was that she thought it might be her ex-husband. I never said that at the time because she was a source. She told me that in confidence. And when the documentary came out she denounced me for even hinting at some of this in the program. And I couldn't defend myself. A lot of people said, Well, why don't you just say what's going on? — people here at KQED. I said, No, I can't do that. Journalists play by certain rules, she was a source, I can't say it. Now, she told this to my private investigator and co-producer on the program, David Helvarg. Also some of her closest friends, part of her legal advisor team, and her political allies came to me at the time and said, We don't know for sure, but we are concerned about this guy Michael Sweeney. It would be negligent not to pursue that investigation.
Lazarus: Was Sweeney implicated in these other incidents you're describing? Is he under investigation now?
Talbot: He is not. As far as I know, he is not. He refused to talk to us. Of all the loggers, all the logging companies, all the suspects in this show that we investigated ten years ago, every single person spoke to us except Michael Sweeney.
Ginsberg: Where is he now?
Talbot: He lives in the Mendocino area. I believe he's in Willits. He runs a recycling business. He's lying very low now that the trial is on. And I want to emphasize, I do not know and Judi did not know who put the bomb in the car. I don't know if it was Michael Sweeney. But what I'm saying here tonight is that he is a person who is worthy of investigation by anyone who really wants to know who bombed Judi Bari.
Williams: But isn't the trail too cold now? Isn't the evidence gone?
Talbot: It's a problem. But there's one key to this case. Everyone, all sides agree, the FBI, the Oakland Police Department, Darryl Cherney, Bari's estate, her legal team, that the key to this case is something called The Lord's Avenger Letter, which was an anonymous letter sent to Mike Geniella at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat saying, I claim that I did this bombing. It was written in kind of mock-fundamentalist, Christian rhetoric, it said it was a person who was anti-abortion and had done the bombing because she was pro-choice. I investigated someone like that up there, a former football player, who I found probably had not done this. Anyway… I'm sorry, I lost my train of thought here.
Williams: Did Judi Bari never tell authorities about her suspicions?
Talbot: No. She never did.
Williams: No one close to her after she died ever told authorities that there was this possibility?
Talbot: No. And there are witnesses now appearing in that case in Oakland who have been on the stand this week, who know exactly what I'm telling you. And they haven't said… And let me finish — I'm sorry — on this Lord's Avenger letter. Because this still could be an answer to this case. Everyone says, Whoever wrote that Lord's Avenger letter knew who did the bombing or actually did do the bombing because there's so many details about the construction of the bomb, the timing and so forth. Everyone agrees on that. Bari's legal team, Darryl Cherney's legal team, did DNA sampling of that letter. The FBI gave them the original letter. They have that DNA sample. They say it's primarily a woman's saliva sample from that letter. They've analyzed that.
Williams: They actually told us [reporters in Oakland] on Monday at the beginning of the trial during a demonstration that the saliva matched the DNA of a person known up in that area near Ukiah who was a pro-timber person. They claim that they have the name.
Talbot: Who told you this?
Williams: Darryl Cherney.
Talbot: Ah-hah. We'll see. But there are people you could match. Frontline last night runs documentaries about how DNA samples can prove people are innocent or not. You know, how you forcibly get someone to do a DNA sample is a big legal question. But there is that possible solution.
Davis: OK, does any of this, could any of this, have an impact on this trial going on now where the FBI and the Police Department is being sued? How does it relate to that?
Talbot: I honestly don't know. This case is being very narrowly focused on: Did the FBI and did the Oakland Police Department rush to judgment? Did they make a false arrest on very little evidence and did they continue to defame Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari while ultimately all the charges were dropped as you may recall? The DA decided not to prosecute. So it's being tried. It's an important case. And the FBI and the Oakland Police Department should answer for what they did, and try to justify it. But it still is not answering the fundamental question of who actually tried to kill her.
Davis: This is so interesting. I can see why you have followed it for more than a decade. Thank you very much Steve Talbot.