KSRO, Newstalk Radio AM 1350, Monday, April 15, 2002. Host Pat Thurston. Guest: Steve Talbot.
Thurston: Steve Talbot is a reporter and documentary filmmaker who works at KQED. He produced the film “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” He made some pretty startling revelations last Friday night on KQED television about the Judi Bari case. He’s here to talk with us. … We’ve talked about the Judi Bari case before with Mary Moore. Judi Bari was a Northcoast activist who was car-bombed in 1990. Let’s bring Steve Talbot on the air to discuss this. Was it 1991 you did the documentary?
Talbot: Yes, the bombing was on May 24, 1990 in Oakland and I made the documentary one year later.
Thurston: Wow! So you got involved very quickly?
Talbot: I did, because actually I had been hired by Mother Jones magazine to write an article about Judi Bari and Earth First! and the demonstrations they were holding that summer of 1990, Redwood Summer they called it. I did that piece for Mother Jones and then I segued right into doing the documentary for KQED.
Thurston: So you were already involved with the Redwood Summer project when the bombing happened?
Talbot: Yes. I was involved as a reporter.
Thurston: We’ve talked with Mary Moore when the trial opened up in Alameda County. The estate of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney are suing the Oakland Police Department and the FBI. My understanding is the grounds of their lawsuit simply has to do with the false arrest, the defamation that they suffered, and the civil rights and equal protection under the law that they were denied. Because no real investigation was done into who bombed Judi Bari. But aren’t they seeking monetary damages? Aren’t they seeking, as a part of the award in the event they prevail — and I can’t imagine them not prevailing — are they asking for an investigation to find out who committed this act?
Talbot: As I understand it, and I’m not an expert on the actual case at this point, Yes, they are asking for damages, and they are asking for an apology, and they asking that an investigation take place. I think that certainly that latter point is really justified. But as you stated, the case is pretty narrowly focused. Over the years there have been a lot of charges and counter charges. At one point Bari and Cherney were saying that the FBI had put the bomb in their car. Or was involved in some grand conspiracy against them, which I don’t believe the evidence supports. But on the narrow charge of, Did the FBI and the Oakland Police Department rush to judgment? Did they say things that later proved to be inaccurate, as far as where the bomb was placed, and as far as whether nails that were attached to the pipe bomb that exploded matched more or less identically? They said at one point that nails that were found elsewhere in her car and at her home in Redwood Valley… Those statements proved to be incorrect, and as you know the District Attorney in Alameda County decided not to pursue any charges against Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney at the time. So I think, a) it’s a minor legal miracle that they managed to get this case to trial after all these many years, but I think they have a case. They can argue that. What I have been discussing with people lately is that the problem is that this case does not get to the heart of the matter, as to who put that bomb in her car. If it wasn’t Judi Bari’s and Darryl Cherney’s, if it was not an Earth First! bomb that exploded, who put the bomb in her car? That question, I’m afraid, is not going to be answered by this trial.
Thurston: When you produced the documentary, Who Bombed Judi Bari, I understand that you were probably the first person publicly to raise the question that one of the suspects… that it could potentially have been a case of domestic violence, that it could have been Judi’s ex-husband Mike Sweeney.
Talbot: That’s right. It’s not the way I approached the case, I must say. I’m sympathetic to the environmental movement. I’m even sympathetic to a lot of what Earth First! has been doing, although they clearly had done some illegal acts as well, and taken part in other activities I would not have supported. But I was sympathetic to Judi. I thought she was a victim in this case. The more I got to know her I felt more strongly about that. So I went in looking at possible people from the logging community who might have gone after her. And she also was very outspoken in favor of abortion, and I looked very seriously — we have some religious fundamentalists in northern California who had threatened her and other people because they were pro-abortion. So I looked very hard at that. And only because various people who were very close to her, close friends, members of her legal team, political allies, and eventually, this is the key point, Judi herself, who came to me — all of them in confidence at the time — and said, Look, we appreciate your doing this investigation. The media have basically been hostile to us. You’re at least giving us a fair shake listening to what we have to say. You’re doing a serious investigation. You have private investigators working with you and so forth. And we’re glad that you’re looking at the timber industry. However, Judi has been physically abused by her husband on occasion, a man named Michael Sweeney, and he actually had raped her, and then Judi told me at the time in confidence that he had also fire-bombed an airfield in Santa Rosa and she had given me a very elaborate description of how she… they had only been married a year or so — or actually together a year or so, they weren’t actually married yet. She was pregnant with her first child. She was about to give birth in a couple of months, and she came upon him, she told me, constructing an arson device, very complicated, electrical wiring, light sockets, flammable materials, in their house on the edge of this airfield, and that he in fact on October 3rd, 1980, set this device off. It exploded, set of a huge blaze at the Santa Rosa airfield. It was a fire that destroyed a giant old World War II hangar, damaged and destroyed several small planes at the airfield, and nearly killed the flight instructor who was sleeping in the hangar at the time. So it was officially ruled an arson by police and fire investigators, but they never solved it. Judi Bari told me in 1991 as I was investigating this case, kind of late in the game in my investigation, that Michael Sweeney, her ex-husband, had indeed fire-bombed the Santa Rosa airfield and that he had been threatening and abusive to her. So that came as an enormous shock to me. It took me aback. My team of investigators began at that point to look seriously at Michael Sweeney.
Thurston: And I understand he was the one person who was uncooperative and wouldn’t be interviewed for the documentary.
Talbot: That’s right. We talked to a lot of very hostile people. People who did not want us asking them questions about this case. But I must say that everyone, from the logging community, people in the anti-abortion movement, other people who were involved in Earth First!, various people who had had suspicions raised about them, even when people were not anxious to have us asking questions of them, they spoke to us. And the only person who was hostile from the very beginning — in fact when I first called him he slammed down the phone as soon as I introduced myself — and never talked to us ever was Michael Sweeney.
Thurston: I believe Judi was not his first wife. Did he have a history of abuse with other women?
Talbot: Well, what I can say at this point is that he was married to a woman named Cynthia Denenholtz, who as I understand it, and I’m not positive about this, but as I understand it she is now a judge in Sonoma County. They had been married, they had been students at Stanford together. They’d been active in left-wing politics. They had been involved with a group that had a history of violence, in fact a group that was called Vinceremos, not the Vinceremos Brigades that went to cut sugar cane in Cuba, but a group that was kind of a wannabe Black Panther group. And they were involved, based in Stanford, egged on by a professor there named H. Bruce Franklin, into breaking a prisoner out of jail in southern California, shooting a prison guard in the process. The escapee was eventually captured in a high speed chase on the Bay Bridge in the early 70s. Various people were rounded up and went to jail. Bruce Franklin somehow managed to walk away and became a tenured professor at Rutgers, although he left Stanford. And there’s no evidence that Michael Sweeney himself was directly involved in any of *that*, but he was a member of this group, and so was his wife. And then they moved up to the Santa Rosa area. She left him, divorced him, and in court documents she did complain that he was harassing her, mainly by filing legal papers against her at very inopportune and difficult times in her life. There were some suggestions of abuse, but I could never confirm those.
Thurston: One thing I think is important to get out is that a lot of what you’re talking about now, you revealed for the first time on KQED Friday evening on television. This was not information that you had revealed previously, particularly that Judi had told you about the abuse. As a matter of fact, my understanding is that after the documentary, Who Bombed Judi Bari, aired, Judi became very angry with you and she said some pretty nasty things about you, didn’t she?
Talbot: That’s right. It was a very unsettling and strange experience and I didn’t really defend myself at the time, even though some people at KQED and others would say, Why wasn’t I saying that she was the source of all this information? But I didn’t, because it was a matter I considered a matter of journalistic ethics. She was a source and she told me this in confidence and all the other people who mentioned these things to me too who were close to her, also told me this in confidence. So I felt that I could not betray a source. And I’ve kept this a secret, basically, for ten years. But now because it’s such a long time ago that this happened, and also because she died five years ago, I feel that I now can tell this story, honorably. And I think it’s important to tell this story because the trial is happening now and because the case has never been solved.
Thurston: Are you doing a follow-up documentary or are you writing about this at all?
Talbot: I’m going to write a piece this week in fact for Salon.com, the online magazine. I’m working on that now. Unfortunately, as far as coverage of this case goes, I’m extremely busy in my other life which is developing a new series which is going to debut on Public Television soon, on the Frontline show, the PBS documentary series that I’ve been working for for the last ten years. So I’m afraid that at least in the short term I’m not going to do a documentary TV follow-up to the Judi Bari case, but I certainly wanted to get this information out into the public discussion.
Thurston: Steve, why not write for Mother Jones? They commissioned you in the first place to write about what was going on, why wouldn’t they be interested in a follow up here?
Talbot: I’m sure they would be interested. Actually, this is all coming at a very inopportune time for me, this trial and this case coming back because I’m extremely busy with my new job producing a new series called Frontline/World which is going to be part of the overall Frontline series, a new quarterly that will deal with international events. Our pilot is May 23rd. So I’m really trying to squeeze in this commentary above and beyond my regular job. … I’d like to say just one last thing here. I’ve got to emphasize that I do not know whether Michael Sweeney put this bomb in Judi Bari’s car. She went to her grave not knowing who had done it. But the one thing I really want out of the world and feels like a real burden off my shoulders is to finally be able to say what Judi told me so movingly and convincingly in 1991. Which is that this guy had done some some things which seems very suspicious.
Thurston: I’ve got to go the news here, Steve.
Talbot: Go for it.
KSRO, Newstalk 1350. Pat Thurston Show, Tuesday, April 9, 2002. Host: Pat Thurston. Guest: Mary Moore. Topic: The Bari/Cherney Federal Case.
Thurston: I’m gonna tell you my view on this. I’m just going to be very frank about it. I think this lawsuit is important, but I think it doesn’t reach far enough. I think there should be a demand for an investigation. And I think there’s a real reason that they’re not mounting an investigation. That’s because they don’t want to discover that it’s possible… We all know that it’s possible… There have been allegations made that Judi Bari’s ex-husband actually did this. What’s being asked for by you (Moore) and by Bruce Anderson and by some others, including me, is to do a real investigation in which he would be considered a suspect, and he would be investigated! I mean really investigated. Other suspects would be investigated as well!
Moore: Not only that, it was said in the story today on the front page, that DNA technology back in those days was in its infancy. That’s true. But it’s not anymore. They have DNA. Why can’t they just simply… I don’t want to just point the finger at Mike. That’s who I suspect did it, but I don’t know. I don’t know. Why can’t they just test it with the various people who they have suspected?
Thurston: There is evidence that could be DNA-tested. Buy my point is that the people who are pushing the lawsuit forward do not want to find out if indeed it was a case of domestic abuse, spousal abuse…
Moore: That’s right.
Thurston: They don’t want to find that out because then Judi would just be another woman who was beaten by her husband, instead of the martyr that she is now.
Moore: And the icon for the movement of nailing the FBI. This is not the best case for that though. We’ve had many cases over many many years in the movement of the FBI looking at us and all. This is not the case! … Judi Bari can be remembered for all the wonderful organizing that she did. We don’t need to make an icon out of her and blindly follow what is being put out here. Your point is key to all of this. Judi Bari was a hell of an organizer. But she was a very proud woman and I don’t think she’d want it publicly known that there was domestic violence in her marriage, both down here and we know up in Mendocino County also.
Thurston: What about the DNA evidence?
Moore: Well, they could go right up to Mike Sweeney now. They could certainly go to Irv Sutley. They could go to Pam Davis. They could go to any number of people who were connected with Judi who were under suspicion for one reason or another. I’d gladly give my DNA and put it in there. The (Lord’s Avenger Letter) envelope was apparently licked by a woman. But the stamp was put on by a man. The Lord’s Avenger letter was written shortly after the bombing and there was so much knowledge about how the bomb was made that it had to be written, or at least dictated, by the person who made the bomb. It was sent to Mike Geniella (of the Press Democrat) and it was full of all sorts of flowery religious stuff. I knew Mike, the ex-husband, quite well. He was in my affinity group back in the late 70s. He’s a very very smart man. Whoever wrote that letter, if they weren’t a religious zealot, wrote it so that it would appear that it was a religious zealot.
Thurston: It seems like that’s one piece of evidence that just about everybody agrees that the perpetrator, the actual bomber, had to have some involvement with that letter. Therefore, if you test the envelope where it was licked, if you test the stamp, there’s a real possibility that you’re gonna come up with some evidence that can be matched. All you have to at least vindicate certain people who are suspected is to get samples and show that they don’t match!
Moore: And this technology is no longer in its infancy. We also had Don Foster, who is an attributional scholar. He was given six or seven blind samples of people who were suspects, and he didn’t know who had written it. He analyzes through the way you express yourself on paper. And he came up with Mike Sweeney. That’s probably not conclusive in court. But that certainly added to my suspicions which I’ve had all along, because Mike was never investigated. And an ex-husband is usually at least questioned whenever violence is done to an ex-wife.
Thurston: Couldn’t one of the remedies that the litigants are seeking be that they at least investigate as far as gathering the DNA evidence and samples from the suspects?
Moore: I would certainly hope so! I’m not privy to the internal workings of the Redwood Summer Justice Project and the folks that are bringing this suit. Maybe they have. It would be a question worth asking them. But as far as I know from reading the lawsuits which have been amended down, and gotten narrower and narrower, that is not being asked. And I don’t know why. Even if it weren’t being asked there, why isn’t there more coming from those parties in terms of, like, screaming, We want an investigation! One of the people who’s party to that is a well known activist here who’s whole thing is around domestic violence! How can she ignore that?
Thurston: You’re talking about Tanya Brannan.
Thurston: If the Oakland Police Department and the FBI, and it does seem like from the stuff coming from the litigants in the case that they’re essentially blaming the Oakland Police Department or the FBI for the bombing itself. Particularly the FBI. If that’s the case, and if particularly the FBI wanted to show that this is ridiculous, we didn’t have anything to do with it, the FBI could DNA test that stuff.
Moore: Yeah. They could. But I think the final thing that’s presented to court has been narrowed down to whether or not they were unjustly arrested.
Thurston: And that’s a shame. Is there anything we can do to get a real investigation to happen?
Moore: People could put pressure on Norm Vroman up in Mendocino County, or Maria Bee and the folks down in Oakland. We, the people who have been following this and are not investigators but we’ve had to do the job, believe that the bomb was placed in Mendocino County. There is some controversy about that. I would never swear in court, but that’s what I suspect. And it went off in Oakland. So you could make the case that either of those District Attorneys could open up an investigation.
Thurston: And she departed from Mendocino County. So that would also do it. It’ll be interesting to watch what happens in this trial.