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Pen Names, Pyrotechnics, and Paranoia in the Timber Wars

The "Argus" Letter (Jan. 6, 1989)

In January 1989, more than a year before a bomb exploded in Judi Bari's Subaru, the Ukiah Police Department received a snitch-letter from a professed member of Earth First! — a self-appointed spy offering "to report illegal activities of that organization." Calling himself "Argus" (the ever-vigilant beast of Greek myth), the informant urged Chief Keplinger to view Judi Bari as potentially dangerous, a threat to the local community who should be put behind bars.

Having kept a close watch over the comings and goings of Judi Bari, Argus issued multiple warnings to the Chief of Police. Judi Bari had a record — she was arrested for trespassing in the Cahto Wilderness, then for blocking the Federal Building in Sonoma. Judi Bari might vandalize the residence of Congressman Doug Bosco to protest his stand on offshore drilling. Judi Bari was training with automatic weapons. Judi Bari financed her Earth First! operation with a mail-order marijuana business. To illustrate the weapons activity, Argus enclosed Pam Davis's joke-photograph of Bari cradling an automatic rifle à la Patty Hearst. But the Ukiah Police would not find Bari with contraband weapons, nor was it likely that Bari would ever act on her talk of producing an oil-slick in Doug Bosco's swimming pool. Argus angled instead for a marijuana rap. He wrote that Bari on December 23 had mailed dope from the Ukiah post office (which Bari herself later acknowledged to be true, though as a holiday gift for friends, not as a drug sale). When Bari next mailed marijuana, said Argus, he could alert detectives, calling them on "short notice." By catching Bari red-handed in the local post office, the cops could arrest her on "serious federal charges."

When nothing more was heard from Argus, Keplinger filed away both the letter and the photograph, forgetting about them until the explosion in Oakland on May 24, 1990. Evidently, Argus was right: Judi Bari ought to have been watched more closely.

The Warning (April 10, 1990)

No one can say that Bari wasn't warned. In April 1990, returning from a rally in Humboldt County, she found a letter in her mailbox, postmarked April 10.

The April 10 "Warning" (as I will call it) is badly typed, perhaps deliberately so, with obvious mistakes in every line, but too brief and too vague to reveal the writer's motive or intention, much less his identity. It's unclear what, if anything, the writer really knows. Unlike the anti-Bari. anti-Earth First! threats posted by Sahara Club "Stompers," the Warning mailed to Bari's home is vague in its criticism, unclear about its grounds of opposition. The writer implies that this one note represents his first and only threat — after which, something drastic will happen — but the introductory command, "get out," is vague as well. (Get out of what? Earth First! Northern California? the house?) The full-name greeting, "judi bari," implies unfamiliarity but may only indicate that the writer knew Bari, had personal issues with her, and wished to conceal his acquaintance (even as his motive for writing is concealed by vagueness); but little else can be inferred from the text, and nothing with certainty.

The "Lord's Avenger" Letter (May 29, 1990)

Five days after the Oakland blast, someone calling himself the "Lord's Avenger" posted a letter to Mike Geniella of the Press Democrat. Presenting himself as a zealot chosen by God to punish Judi Bari, the Avenger drops clues right and left that he is actually Bill Staley, a Bible-quoting, anti-abortion crusader of local fame. In November Staley had exchanged angry words with Bari outside the Ukiah abortion clinic, Staley pronouncing divine judgment on Bari, Bari responding with loud preachments and an offensive song that depicted abortion not as a woman's choice but as a comedy, and "the Christians'...bloody fetus" as a joke. 

Overestimating his skill in fictional prose, the Avenger gets his Bill Staley imitation all wrong What he gets right is the art of bomb-construction of two bombs, actually, the first of which was discovered at the Cloverdale sawmill on the morning of May 9, two weeks before the Bari blast. The Cloverdale bomb was planted on the third anniversary of George Alexander's spiking accident at the mill. For three years, Louisiana-Pacific had blamed Earth First! for Alexander's injuries while Bari (and Alexander himself) blamed L-P. Claiming responsibility for the Cloverdale as well as the Oakland device, the Avenger avers that the sawmill incident was his own work, but intended to cast suspicion on Judi Bari (and Bari may indeed have been involved). The bomber had left a sign, "L-P SCREWS MILLWORKERS" — the same message that Bari was delivering to Wobblies in the spring of 1990. The Avenger laments that authorities missed the point, suspecting a disgruntled or laid-off millworker was to blame.

The Avenger notes that the Cloverdale bomb misfired, blowing off the endcap. The second bomb, writes the Avenger, was supposed to have solved his Judi Bari problem more economically, once and for all — but the car bomb also misfired, blowing off the endcap, sparing Bari's life. 

Writing only days after the Oakland blast, the Avenger accurately reports details that could have been known only to the perpetrator. But on May 29, when the Avenger's letter was mailed, the FBI's prime suspect was still hospitalized in critical condition, under arrest, guarded, and in no shape to be writing letters to the Press Democrat. That left Darryl Cherney. Authorities searched from Willits to Oakland for a typewriter on which Cherney might have written the Avenger letter, to no avail. Finally, charges against Bari and Cherney were dropped for lack of evidence.

When it became apparent that Bari and Cherney did not, in fact, bomb themselves, investigators might well have moved on to other suspects — but Bari and Cherney effectively squelched the investigation, first by refusing to cooperate, then by suing the Oakland Police and the FBI for false arrest, libel, and related charges. The lawsuit killed whatever motivation these agencies may have had to discover the actual perpetrator. The investigation by the FBI and Oakland Police was back-burnered. In fact, it was put on ice.

Common Authorship?

What little progress has been made in the Bari bomb investigation has owed more to the media than to law enforcement or Judi Bari's lawyers. There were no apparent breaks in the case until the first anniversary of the Oakland blast, when television producer Stephen Talbot aired his KQED special, "Who Bombed Judi Bari?" Among the new evidence gathered by Talbot was the Argus letter, previously unreported, a document that had not been disclosed even to Bari's defense counsel. Talbot observed that the envelope typed by Argus [left] in January 1989 was remarkably similar to the envelope in which the April 1990 Warning [right] was posted:

Soon after the Talbot documentary aired in May 1991, Bari obtained a copy of the Argus letter and was among the first to observe that it was not just the typing, but the type, that matched: the Warning and Argus documents were produced on the same brand of typewriter, possibly both on the same machine. (But typewriter-identity cannot be established without direct inspection of the original documents, which are in the possession of the FBI and unavailable to the public.) 

The Avenger letter, though produced on a different typewriter, was mailed in an envelope that invites mutual comparison with the others:

All three envelopes have a double-spaced mailing address and no return. Though "CA" had been the standard postal code for California since the 1970s, both the Warning and the Avenger use "CALIF" instead. Periods are omitted after "DR" (Argus), "W" (Warning), "St" (Avenger) and "CALIF" (Warning and Avenger).

Though written over a 16-month period, and to three different addressees, the Argus, Warning, and Avenger texts bear a family likeness. All three letters were mailed within the North Bay postal region. All three are directed against Judi Bari personally, not against Earth First!. All three texts refer repeatedly to "Judi Bari" by her full name (plus "Bari," twice, in the Argus letter). Both Argus and the Avenger use block paragraphing. Both, when making an error, backspace and then overstrike the error with a lower-case "x." None of the three documents bears a sign-off. The pseudonyms, "Argus" and "Lord's Avenger," are supplied respectively in the closing sentence "I will identify myself as 'Argus'" and "I AM THE LORD'S AVENGER". The 1.300-word Avenger letter closes with an all-caps proclamation, not unlike the 21-word Warning, which closes with the all-caps threat: "YOU WONT GET A SECOND WARNING." Though inconclusive, this overlapping web of textual and stylistic similarities indicates that all three anonymous letters may have been written by the same subject.

Who Is the Lord's Avenger?

"I HAVE SPOKEN," writes the Avenger — but whose voice is it? The Avenger letter is the closest thing to a confession that authorities may ever get, which makes it the most critical document in the Bari case. 

The author(s) of the Argus and Warning cannot be held guilty of anything worse than harassment; but the Lord's Avenger, hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, has confessed to domestic terrorism, attempted arson, and attempted murder, while expressing no regrets except for a defect in his own workmanship that allowed Bari to survive. The author(s) of the Avenger and Argus letters may be someone close to Bari, a friend, colleague, or lover with an escalating sense of grievance against her in the years 1989-1990; possibly a middle-aged male, acquainted with religion but not devout, college-educated, reasonably intelligent, mercurial, resentful, secretive; a capable writer who is not quite clever enough to construct a convincing and consistent persona. Such inference — better known as "criminal profiling" — carries no weight past the investigative level because it cannot be admitted in court, not even as an expert's opinion. 

But an anonymous writer's identity can sometimes be established from textual and linguistic evidence, through comparative analysis with other writings — a comprehensive text-archive in which all identified suspects are represented.  Flatland has supplied me with writings and/or interview transcripts by virtually everyone rightly or wrongly associated with the Bari bombing, including both Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney (named as suspects by the authorities); Irv Sutley of the Peace and Freedom Party, and Richard Held and Frank Doyle of the FBI (named as suspects by Judi Bari); also Michael Koepf, Steve Okerstrom, Bill Staley, Mike Sweeney, the Sahara Club "Stompers," timber company spokespersons, and various millworkers; together with writing or interview-transcripts by various journalists, police officers, and local activists. There is, of course. no guarantee that the Flatland archive includes writing by the actual bomber of Judi Bari; but among the examined documents. only one writer emerges from the pack as a plausible author of the Lord's Avenger letter: Mike Sweeney.

The Avenger types and writes very much like Judi Bari's ex-husband. The Avenger letter is single-spaced, his mailing envelope double-spaced (as is true also of the Argus letter). Sweeney in 1992 wrote to Jon Shepard. The letter is single-spaced, the mailing envelope double-spaced.

Like Sweeney, both Argus and the Avenger avoid breaking and hyphenating words at the right-hand margin when typing.

Like Sweeney, the Avenger frequently omits the comma before the and or but in a compound sentence. (Argus in his only opportunity likewise omits the comma.) 

Sweeney's manner of capitalization is compatible with that of the anonymous documents. For example, both Argus and Sweeney unnecessarily capitalize "communist" as if it were a proper adjective like "Marxist" or "McCarthyite."

Sweeney sometimes uses unnecessary initial caps to highlight sarcasm. In "Howie Says Shoot It into the Sun" ("Garbage Talk," 10/29/92), Sweeney publishes a pseudonymous letter (of his own composition) ascribed to a "twin brother, Howie from Vacaville." The point of "Howie's" letter is to ridicule a proposal by the local activist Anna Marie Stenberg for above-ground waste-storage, a plan that "Howie" dismisses as a "another Bad Boy [sic] scam," designed to turn Mendocino County into "the Land of a Hundred Silos" [sic]. Alleging that "there has got to be Big Money" [sic] behind Stenberg, "Howie" mocks her proposal by suggesting that solid waste should be shipped to the sun ("Let's put those Space Shuttles [sic] to work!").

Like Sweeney, the "Lord's Avenger" uses initial caps to highlight his sarcasm: Judi Bari, "no Godly Woman," is said to spew forth "Lies, Calumnies, and Poisons" with "Evil Power," as in her pro-choice demonstration at "the Baby-Killing Clinic" (and so throughout) .

For added emphasis, Sweeney frequently capitalizes entire words or phrases, as in an article called "Recycling Tips" (...can ALSO be dropped off there ARE limits...But it's NOT necessary to remove...WATER SOLUBLE adhesives...The best strategy is to USE THEM UP," etc. [6/3/93]). This stylistic feature is evident throughout the Sweeney documents, most frequently in unpublished writings where the capitalized words cannot be ascribed to editorial intervention. The same device is used by the "Lord's Avenger" ("the VERY SAME man...PRAISE GOD!," etc.).

Like Sweeney, the Avenger makes frequent use of relative clauses — and the Avenger, like Sweeney, prefers that over which by as much as fifteen-to-one. (Many writers use which as often, or more often, than that.) 

Both Sweeney and the Avenger regularly use that even where it may be omitted as understood (e.g., "tell me that the government is actually spending..." [Sweeney (10/29/92)]; "told me that a Higher Purpose must be at Work..." [Avenger (5/29/90)].) 

Like Sweeney, both Argus and the Avenger make frequent use of infinitives, even where many Americans would use another form or phrase. For example, Sweeney writes "to try to negotiate, instead of "try and negotiate" or "try negotiating (also "to try to help" [12/12/90], "to try to increase [1/12/91], "to go to court to get her to obey a county citation to clean...try to set aside" [4/26/91]). In similar fashion, the Avenger writes "try to abort" instead of "try and abort" or "try aborting." 

When Sweeney requires the phrase, all of the, he habitually omits of, writing "all the"—. A few representative examples:

all [sic, no "of"] the sinister implications... (12/1/90)

All [sic] the food scraps go into a compost bucket,..all [sic] the packaging (12/4/90) 

All [sic] this stuff has a market... (1/12/91) 

all [sic] my grievances... (4/26/91) 

all [sic] those paper or plastic bags (5/20/91)

all the supervisors... (5/5/92)

sorting all [sic] the garbage...pick through all [sic] the garbage...all [sic] the redwoods are gone...all [sic] your [sic] local builders...out comes all [sic] the disposable diapers... (10/29/92)

I could document all [sic] this but if you don't get the picture by now, I doubt you ever will. (3/8/94)

I do not find any instance in which Sweeney writes "all of this —" or "all of the —." The of is always omitted.

The Avenger duplicates Sweeney's practice: "All [sic] the forests that grow and all [sic] the wild creatures..." 

Sweeney and the Avenger use much of the same diction for similar ends (as in their mutual use of "righteous" as a term of derision). Sweeney and the Avenger also use identical or analogous collocations (both, for example, associate the adverb, "sorely," with the participle, "lacking" [5/29/90, 12/12/90]). 

Like Sweeney, the Avenger is thematically preoccupied with lies and deceit — and the "Avenger," like Sweeney, repeatedly associates "lies" with "poison." Sweeney complains that "The righteousness of the campaign against WMI is no excuse for this relentless lying. In the end, these lies will rebound in WMI's favor...But like all the rest of these lies, it did succeed in poisoning rational discourse... (2/2/91, my emphasis). Elsewhere, Sweeney urges his readers not to "let anyone poison your mind" with the "lies," "slander," and "falsehoods" being directed against him by his critics (5/5/92). The Avenger describes Judi Bari as a "Demon" and a "Devil" who "spews Forth...Lies, Calumnies, and sow Confusion...Judi Bari spread her Poison to tell the Multitude...I turn[ed] Judi Bari's poisonagainst her..." (my emphasis). The Avenger is not the only writer who represents Bari as a publicity-hurry, preachy, and mendacious female Devil. The Flatland archive includes pages identified as an extract from an unpublished novel written by Mike Sweeney. The text features a Judi Bari-like figure named Eliza Devlin (ha! "LIES-a DEVILin"). Ms. Devlin is the vocal leader of a group called "Defenders of the Earth," an organization mockingly characterized in the novel as "Greenpeace [gone] to Hollywood!" A huge, athletic fellow named Mick DeVito — the novelist's apparent stand-in for Bill Staley — once saw Devlin at a "demonstration in San Jose, with the abortion clinic." DeVito falters "as he recalled the strange, sorrowful force of her words, and how she had seemed more like a preacher on the pulpit than a radical in the streets..." (undated, pp. 138-9).

In a similar vein, the Avenger represents Bari as a lying Devil who speaks "Satan's words" with "Evil Power." The Avenger quotes Timothy 2:11, saying that women should not preach. Depending on which text was written first, the "Eliza Devlin" fiction may recall the Avenger letter, or vice versa; but if the novel is truly by Mike Sweeney, then it was certainly a wise gesture on his part not to publish the Devlin story after the Avenger's very similar letter to the Press Democrat.

In his newspaper columns and elsewhere, Sweeney for the past decade has provided his readers with sensible advice for the reduction of solid waste, but when criticized or opposed, he becomes prickly: "I have spent my whole life experiencing retaliation because of my opinions." he whines, and "it continues today" (5/5/92). In a letter to the Anderson Valley Advertiser (12/12/90), Sweeney frets that "slanderous misinformation is being circulated about the efforts of Carol O'Neal and me flat-out lies that we're trying to set up some kind of front for Waste Management." Two months later, addressing the same issue in "An Open Letter" to Mendocino residents (2/2/91), Sweeney complains, "You were lied to. Not once, but over and over again. These lies form a pattern. I invite you to confirm these lies yourself...It's the classic all-American smear technique that was perfected in the 1950s by Senator Joe McCarthy, who accused anyone who displeased him of being a Communist or Communist dupe...Every lie has victims. I suggest that you, as the audience for those lies, have been made victims as well."

Sweeney suffers from criticism as if it were an attack on his character. In a bitter piece called "Mike Sweeney Exposed!" (5/5/92), he complains of a continuing "slander campaign" and "smear campaign" waged by conspirators "energetically trying to harm" his reputation and career. With "the brazenness of these falsehoods," Sweeney's opponents are forever "turning the truth upside down, even calling him such names as "Mandatory Mike," alleging that he had urged a mandatory recycling program. "Once again," writes Sweeney, "the slander is the exact opposite of the truth." 

(Well, maybe not the exact opposite. In a 1991 memo to Carol O'Neal, Sweeney strongly advocates "a mandatory recycling center," with "mandatory compliance" because "mandatory is the only way.")

To the linguistic and stylistic similarities between Sweeney's writing and that of the Avenger may be added new typographical evidence. As already noted, the Argus (1/89) and Warning (4/90) letters were typed on the same brand machine. I do not find among Flatland's text-archive a third document produced on the same model typewriter as these other two, but I have discovered two documents that were produced on the same brand typewriter as the "Lord's Avenger" letter. Both are memos to Carol O'Neal regarding the "Keep Mendocino Beautiful" program. Both are ascribed to Sweeney, one of which is signed by Sweeney, with an appended postscript in his own hand.

After firing Carol O'Neal from "Keep Mendocino Beautiful," Sweeney added her name to a list of the folks out to get him, a catalog of allegedly untruthful adversaries that also includes "Anna Marie Stenberg and her gang" (1990 ff.), Joan Emery (1990 ff.), Steve Talbot (1991), and Jonathan Shepard (1992). In 1994, Sweeney complained that remarks by Carol O'Neal and Paula Forsythe constituted "a campaign of completely unprovoked. unprincipled and amazingly vicious attacks..." (3/8/94) Sweeney is a man who, when criticized, feels wounded.

Hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, the Lord's Avenger likewise reveals more about his anxieties than he intends to do. He seems especially anxious to conceal the actual time and place where the Bari bomb was planted, reporting (falsely) that the clock was started and the bomb hidden in Bari's car on the afternoon of May 22, in Willits: "I put the bomb in her car whilst she was at the meeting with the loggers," he writes. The clock is said then to have malfunctioned, stopping and starting, causing an unexpected delay between the arming of the bomb and its detonation by the motion sensor, with a deferred blast on the morning of May 24. 

If the bomb was indeed planted in Willits, then Sweeney's alibi is rock-solid. Mike Sweeney was not present with Bari "at the meeting with the loggers." Nor, evidently, was the Lord's Avenger. The Avenger seems unaware that Bari's car during the meeting was parked outside the Willits Police Station, with locked doors, in full view, just across the street from the restaurant where Bari was dining with friends and sympathetic loggers. Moreover, the Willits meeting was a guarded secret, known to the participants themselves and to a few others in Bari's circle — including Mike Sweeney — but certainly not to the likes of Bill Staley and the religious right.

It was the motion sensor, not the bomb itself, that was armed by the timer. Until such time as the FBI announces contrary forensic evidence, there is no reason to credit the Avenger's remark that the clock malfunctioned; nor any reason to credit Judi Bari's inference that the bomb was really planted in Oakland; nor any reason to believe that the bomb was placed underneath her car seat earlier than the night of May 22/3 (while the Subaru was parked, unlocked, on the Bari-Sweeney property in Redwood Valley), or later than the Ukiah press conference on May 23 (when Bari's car was parked, unlocked, outside the Mendocino Environmental Center). 

Judi Bari's theory of the crime developed over time into a pandemic conspiracy, a plot that was ultimately said to include Irv Sutley, the Ukiah Police, the Oakland Police, the FBI, the Sahara Club, the timber companies, the U.S. Department of Justice, and various representatives of the media. The Lord's Avenger, said Bari, was himself an FBI agent. The agency threatened her, bombed her, and arrested her, then tried to frame Bill Staley. Bari saw that "Staley is the obvious suspect," and was "fooled" at first by the Avenger's ruse; but she soon concluded that the FBI wrote the letter to deceive Bari and Earth First! ("with the idea of 'let's have them go chase after this false suspect'"). Bari, meanwhile, did her own chasing after false suspects, especially Sutley, whom she denounced as an FBI informer (notwithstanding Sutley's history of radical politics). Bari was adamant in crediting Sutley with the Argus and Warning letters, and the FBI with the Avenger letter, but I can find no textual or linguistic evidence to link the Avenger letter with the FBI, nor have I seen compelling evidence to link Sutley with any of the three anonymous documents.

Bari's account of her catastrophe, set forth in her book, Timber Wars, is a hopeless tangle of contradictions, a virtual case study in political paranoia, with scattershot accusations, both left and right. There is one point, however, on which she never wavers. The bomb that crippled her was nor personally motivated. It was a botched assassination by the Feds. None of her colleagues, friends, or lovers could ever hurt her like that. ("And I know my ex-husband didn't do it, because he couldn't look me in the eye if he had" [Wars, 140].) Bari may be right about that. But Ed Gehrman has presented new evidence that is sufficient, in my opinion, to reopen the investigation, obliging the authorities to ask, once again, "Who bombed Judi Bari?"

(This article originally appeared in Flatland #16, February, 1999.)

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