A near-murder mystery, passionate in a leisurely sort of way, is being played out month by month, week by week here on California's North Coast. It began with a bang, almost a deadly one, in Oakland a decade ago. The prime intended victim of that bomb survived, and died of cancer in 1997. The case turned hot again a year ago, and now, week after week, a newspaper editor crisscrosses Northern California publicly accusing the former husband of this dead woman of being her would-be killer.
I remember well enough when the car bomb nearly finished off Judi Bari, May 24, 1990. It was on the eve of Redwood Summer, a campaign largely organized by Bari herself and billed as the big face-off between the timber industry and Earth First!. A pipe bomb on a timer exploded under her seat as she drove her Subaru south through Oakland toward Santa Cruz.
The end cap on the pipe blew off, and so most of the blast went sideways, through the driver door instead of up into Bari's body. Even so, she took injuries that damaged her dreadfully. Her companion, another Earth First! organizer called Darryl Cherney, was scarcely hurt.
Things were pretty strained in timber country at that time, on the edge of Redwood Summer, one of those periods when the tension ratchets up and you think something might blow, and then it did. There were and are plenty of rough customers in the woods-timber companies, loggers who thought Earth First! would take their way of life away. It seemed possible to imagine that someone with know-how in explosives had decided to raise the stakes in the timber wars.
On the other hand... Some eco-saboteurs had just cut down two power poles near Santa Cruz as a protest against logging. Bari had publicly endorsed the sabotage, telling the press that desperate times called for desperate measures and that "so what if some ice cream melted?" In fact, the outage knocked out power to a broad swath of Santa Cruz County, including hospitals. As with many others (including, so I gather, Bari's sister, Gina Kolata of The New York Times) it crossed my mind that maybe Bari was knowingly carrying the bomb as she and Cherney headed toward Santa Cruz and who-knows-what plan of action.
But would a person carrying such a device put it under her seat? Why not the trunk? And this pipe bomb was by its nature and construction strictly antipersonnel, specifically aimed at someone, maybe the person sitting four or five inches above it.
The FBI and the Oakland Police Dept. ignored the second point and finessed the first by declaring that the bomb had been on the back seat under a violin case. Then, when it turned out the fiddle case had been barely damaged, they said the bomb had been behind the driver's seat on the floor. They charged Bari and Cherney with knowingly carrying an explosive device.
I wrote columns back then inferring that Bari might have been the target of the darker corporate forces; some of these I wrote for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the weekly newspaper edited out of Mendocino county by Bruce Anderson.
Anderson now says the fellow who put the bomb together, set the timer and snuck it into the car was none other than Mike Sweeney, Judi's ex-husband.
In the summer of 1990 Anderson wrote plenty about Judi and the darker corporate forces, too. He'd drive down to visit Judi in Highland Hospital in Oakland and relay news of her condition to the AVA's readers, half of whom live in Mendocino County, the other half being a nationwide AVA fan club. Back then, Anderson was pretty much in Judi's corner, and the AVA's columns hospitable to her vigorous surmises -- chief among which was the charge that the FBI, in league with Big Timber, had tried to kill her and Cherney. It was an unconvincing charge, but it lives on in the somewhat less dramatic lawsuit currently brought by Cherney et al. against the Bureau, requesting $17.7 million in damages for wrongful arrest following the explosion.
Anderson thought, with good reason, that the FBI and Oakland Police Dept. had blown the investigation and faked the case against Bari and Cherney. Even before the bombing he'd been puzzled by a photo of Bari carrying a weapon resembling an Uzi, which the AVA had been sent by a Sonoma County ex-Marine and latter-day leftist named Irv Sutley. Anderson published the photo, trying to take the edge off it by billing it as a prank, but thinking: Why would Bari offer fuel to all those who, on the edge of Redwood Summer, were charging her and Earth First! with being violence-prone? Was Sutley some kind of agent provocateur on the FBI payroll? Had the FBI also known that a bomber was laying his plans and kept its mouth shut?
BIG BREAKS in the Bari bombing case come around its anniversaries. Thus far there have been two such breaks, in 1991 and 1999. As noted at the start, this is a murder mystery that takes its time.
In May 1991 KQED, the San Francisco PBS station, aired a documentary on the Bari bombing by Steve Talbot (brother of Dave, the Salon magnate). It was a handy piece of work. For starters, Talbot devastated the FBI and Oakland police's case against Bari. He filmed the wrecked car and showed beyond a doubt where the bomb had actually been: under the driver's seat. Then he looked at other possible suspects. There was Sutley, the gun-toting former Marine who had elected to join the Communist Party in the early 1970s. There was Bill Staley, the ex-football player and religious zealot whose anti-abortion rally had been disrupted by Bari and Cherney, provocatively singing, "May the foetus be aborted." There was the logger whose costly machinery might have been sabotaged. And there, popping onto the tv screen, was Mike Sweeney, the ex-husband.
Earlier this year Talbot told Anderson in an interview published in the AVA that he was two-thirds of the way through making his KQED documentary when "a whole slew of people came to me, take me aside in private and said, Steve, this is all well and good that you're looking at L-P [Louisiana-Pacific, a big timber company] but here are some things you ought to know. And they began to tell me about Mike Sweeney...and said you better have a look at the ex-husband. I began to think, Oh, my God, I'm missing something here." Among such people were members of Bari's original legal team, who'd been with her through the big battles with the FBI and Oakland Police Dept.
Talbot tried to interview Sweeney and says he found him the most hostile of all the people he'd talked to about the Bari bombing. So Talbot and his investigator Dave Helvarg began to check up on Sweeney's past, which began its arc through human history as the first wail of a baby born to wealth in 1947, son of an oil company lawyer who did a tour of duty in the Nixon administration. From the pleasant surroundings of upscale Santa Barbara, Sweeney went to Stanford and became involved with a Maoist group called Venceremos (not to be confused with the Venceremos Brigade, which took volunteers to Cuba to cut sugarcane). Venceremos at Stanford was into Panther-style black leather jackets and berets, plus guns, some of them wood, some of them the real things, the kind the people have a right to bear, though not to discharge, as Venceremos did -- fatally -- at an unarmed Hispanic kid transporting a prisoner from Chino. Sweeney edited the Stanford Daily. He also contributed an extremely well-informed article to Ramparts -- the San Francisco-based radical monthly later transmuted into the overskirt and bonnet of Mother Jones -- about the famous incineration of the Bank of America branch at Isla Vista, conceived of at that time by many enraptured leftists (myself included) as a delightful omen that capital was on the ropes.
The people Talbot talked to who knew Sweeney back then spoke of someone with "tremendous resentments," "generally a difficult person, even a scary person."
In 1971 Sweeney married Cynthia Denenholtz, who had made a similar transition from the conservative swaddling clothes of infancy to Maoist studenthood. The two had a fractious parting in 1978. Talbot says Sweeney harassed his estranged wife with lawsuits, including one filed on the day of her bar exams just to throw her off. These days Denenholtz is a family court judge in Sonoma County and won't talk about that phase of her life.
Sweeney got together with Bari in 1979 after they met at a labor conference. They married in 1981. At that time they were living next to a small airfield southwest of Santa Rosa. Ten years later, Bari told Talbot in confidence that they'd both disliked the noise of small planes taking off and landing, and both had campaigned against the possibility of this airport expanding; nonetheless, she claimed, she had watched in disapproval as Sweeney assembled an explosive device -- long electrical cords, lightbulbs with filaments exposed, plus a timer -- which, though not a total success, succeeded on the night of Oct. 30, 1980, in destroying a big hanger and three small planes, nearly killing Mike Yung, a flight instructor, who had to run for his life.
The statute of limitations on the Santa Rosa airport arson has long passed, and Sweeney's name has been put around more than once as the prime suspect. While Bari was alive Talbot felt bound to respect the confidentiality she had requested. Other people described to him in great detail her ex's alleged violent deeds, including physical assaults and even rape. Bari herself made the same charges to Bruce Anderson and other friends.
By the end of the 1980s Bari and Sweeney were estranged, living separately on the same property in Redwood Valley, north of Ukiah, some 130 miles north of San Francisco. In common they had two children and a house they'd built on the property. Their lives were heading in different directions. By this time Bari was having an affair with Cherney, immersed in Earth First! and planning Redwood Summer. Sweeney was building a respectable career for himself as a recycler -- a pursuit that involved him in the thoroughly non-Maoist, non-Earth First! milieu of the Democratic Party.
CONSIDER now explosions, intended explosions and letters threading through our story.
- 1970: the incineration of the bank in Isla Vista.
- Jan. 17, l989: an anonymous letter, unearthed by Talbot, delivered to Ukiah police chief Fred Keplinger, signed by "Argus." Who he? Argus, aka Argus Panoptes, he of 100 eyes (or three or four); who slew Echidne (half beauty, half serpent, devourer of men) as she slept; whose head was crushed with a rock by Hermes the messenger, the newsman, as he -- Argus, that is -- stood guard over Io; who in this instance wrote to Chief Keplinger a letter sharply disobliging to Bari, enclosing another picture of her with an automatic weapon, fingering Bari as "leader and main force" of Earth First!, claiming (falsely) that Bari's Earth First!ers were doing military training and stating (accurately) that Bari had celebrated the spirit of Christmas by sending marijuana through the mails on Dec. 23 previous. Hundred-eyed Argus offered to tell Keplinger the next time Bari was about to use the U.S. mails to send dope, with Keplinger advised to respond by placing an ad in a local newspaper, the Ukiah Daily Journal. Keplinger did as instructed, but 100-eyed Argus either had all of them shut or Bari was too busy to make it down to the post office with shipments of the divine herb.
- April 10, 1990: a warning letter to Bari's home: "judi bari/get out andgo bac k [sic] to where you come from/we know every thing/ YOU WON'T GET A SECOND WARNING"
- Early May, 1990: an explosive device is left next to some gasoline in a Louisiana Pacific logging mill at the south end of Cloverdale, a town on 101 about 20 miles south of Ukiah. Not far off, facing the freeway, is a placard saying "LP Screws Millworkers." The infernal device fails to ignite the gasoline because, as happened later in Oakland, one end cap on the piece of galvanized pipe blows off. The device is in the same genre as the one that exploded in 1980 at the Santa Rosa airport, and the one that will go off in Oakland three weeks later -- bomb experts noted the similarities.
- May 24, 1990: the Oakland bomb nearly kills Bari.
- May 29, 1990: The "Lord's Avenger" letter is sent to Mike Geniella, a reporter with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat who has been covering the timber wars. Figure out who wrote this letter and you'll know who tried to kill Bari and Cherney. The letter purports to be the missive of a religious nut, written in scriptural diction, larded with biblical quotations -- but nonetheless interspersed with extremely accurate descriptions of both the bomb left at the Louisiana Pacific site in Cloverdale and the bomb that went off in Oakland. The clear intention of the Lord's Avenger letter was to focus suspicion on Staley, the Bible-quoting anti-abortion crusader whose vigil outside a Planned Parenthood clinic had been so rudely disrupted by Bari and Cherney.
JIM MARTIN is a pleasant fellow who lives in Fort Bragg (old logging town on the Mendocino coast) and publishes the biennial Flatland, a kind of archive/resource catalog of books and pamphlets of interest to students of Secret Government, Freemasons, etc. For his edition of Flatland published in the early spring of 1999, Martin gives the cover to Judi Bari (carrying automatic weapon), and several pages inside to new evidence amassed across many years by a local writer, Ed Gehrman.
As soon as it leaves the print shop this issue of Flatland brings the Bari case back to life. It's Topic A on the North Coast, and it swings Bruce Anderson into the conviction that Bari's attempted killer was her ex.
One of Gehrman's main motives was to clear the name of his good friend Irv Sutley, denounced by Bari and the AVA as a likely FBI informer, if not worse. Sutley duly emerges from Gehrman's review looking pretty good. The famous gun photo of Bari was conceived of as a droll cover for a record album made by Bari and Cherney, They Don't Make Hippies Like They Used To. The prime accusation against Sutley -- that he wrote the Argus snitch letter -- doesn't seem to stand up. It contains information to which it seems highly unlikely Sutley had access. He lived outside the area, beyond access to the Ukiah Daily Journal. He volunteered to undergo, and passed with flying colors, a polygraph examination administered in Los Angeles on Dec. 14, 1994, by Joseph Paolella, a licensed polygraph examiner. Paolella reported that in his judgment Sutley was telling the truth when he (a) denied being a paid informer for law enforcement agencies, (b) confirmed that he had been offered money by a friend of Bari to kill Sweeney -- a mission (later confirmed by Bari, who called it a joke) he had declined, (c) had not written the Argus letter and (d) had not been involved in any way in the Oakland bombing. Beyond this, Sutley has, according to Gehrman, physical injuries -- he hasn't used a typewriter since 1975.
Gehrman realized quickly enough that the Lord's Avenger letter was the Rosetta stone of the mystery. To the amateur eye it looked as though the Argus letter and the warning letter were typed on the same machine. The Lord's Avenger letter seemed to be typed on a different machine, but was sent in an envelope addressed in a manner suggestive that it shared common authorship with the other two.
Gehrman began to look for specimens of Mike Sweeney's typing. He found them, in communications sent by Sweeney to people who later showed them to Gehrman. Being a committed recycler, Sweeney had sent some communications on the back of drafts of a novel he was writing (about Eliza Devlin, a Bari-type leader of a group called Defenders of the Earth). In 1997, Gehrman wrote, he was shown personal and business correspondence typed and signed by Sweeney: "At least two of these documents used the same typeface and -- to an untrained eye -- the same typewriter with the same characteristics of the 'Lord's Avenger' letters."
Gehrman thought this would be enough to force the police to reactivate the investigation. The relevant documents were sent to the Alameda county D.A.'s office (which has jurisdiction in Oakland). In due course back came a letter from the FBI saying there was no match.
(Let us note at this point that the FBI's role has been murky throughout. First, the Bureau had an informant on the North Coast in the buildup to Redwood Summer [identity never divulged] who had warned of "heavy-weight" Earth First! activists traveling south. Then there had been the sloppy effort to nail Bari and Cherney with the bombing. The FBI was on the scene minutes after the explosion, which suggests they may have been trailing Bari's white Subaru. Amazingly, at no point had the FBI ever questioned the man with a notably fragrant past, who had shared property and children with Bari, even though most police investigations of attempted murder of this type usually start with relatives of the victim.)
Remember Don Foster? He's the Vassar English prof who used textual analysis to out Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors. After his Klein triumph, Foster worked on cases for the FBI, pro bono. Gehrman got in touch with him, piqued his interest, sent him the data and in due course got his reward in the form of an investigative summation by Foster, published in the same edition of Flatland.
Foster concluded that "among the examined documents, only one writer emerges from the pack as a plausible author of the Lord's Avenger letter: Mike Sweeney." Foster arrived at this judgment on the basis of commonalities in punctuation, capitalization, syntax and verbal mannerism, as well as in emotional concerns. Foster also agreed with Gehrman that the Lord's Avenger letter (the original of which has not been released by the FBI) was produced on the same brand of typewriter as two memos to Carol O'Neal from Mike Sweeney regarding a "Keep Mendocino Beautiful" program.
THE HOUR Bruce Anderson got his copy of Flatland was the hour he was convinced. He phoned Sweeney at his recycling office. As Anderson recalls it now, "When I called Sweeney to ask him about Foster's certainty that he'd written the Lord's Avenger letter, that was the first Sweeney had heard of it. I had the clear feeling it was as if a hand had reached up out of the grave and grabbed him by the throat. Sweeney was very polite to me, while I was telling him he probably did it. He said, 'Are you going to write about this?' And I said, 'Of course.' 'Can I have equal space?' 'Of course.'"
Sweeney sent in a denial of Foster's analysis, which Foster eagerly pounced on.
Anderson never gives up. It's partly what makes the AVA an exciting read. Long ago he started going after an educational bureaucrat called Jack Ward. He kept at him year after year, until people screamed, with the repetition of the charges. In the end the AVA got its man. Ward went down in disgrace, convicted of financial shenanigans, and went to jail.
Anderson is playing the same game now. There's scarcely a week but that he doesn't go after Sweeney. And he's taken the show on the road, like a North Coast Zola shouting "J'accuse." Thus far he's taken Sutley, Martin and Gehrman, plus Mary Moore (a friend of both Bari and Sutley) to meetings in Sacramento, Arcata, Oakland, Berkeley, Sebastopol and Willits. He plans another indictment of Sweeney on the steps of the Ukiah courthouse on the 10th anniversary of the bombing, then will reenact what he believes to be Sweeney's placement of the bomb in Bari's car, outside the Mendocino Environmental Center Sweeney frequented. (The 12-hour timer means a device could have been put in the car in Ukiah or on the property shared by Sweeney and Bari. Then, when time on the clock elapsed, priming the bomb, it would only have taken a swerve, such as Bari remembers doing, to set it off.)
"Months after the bombing," Anderson says, "Sweeney made a replica of the bomb and put it on display at the Mendocino Environmental Center, to 'help the environmental community understand the nature of the device.'" Anderson snorts. "I admire the brazenness of it but... Then it was taken to the house of a peace activist, where someone spotted it and called the police, who took it away and blew it up." Gehrman has a tape recording of a rally against the FBI at the Federal Bldg. in San Francisco where Bari describes her ex-husband's clever reconstruction of the bomb that nearly killed her.
Anderson's gone on any radio station that will have him, notably KSRO in Santa Rosa, where a popular talk show host, Pat Thurston, offered Sweeney and Cherney equal time. Both Anderson and Thurston suggest that Thurston's subsequent firing by KSRO was instigated by Sweeney's father, a friend of the station's owner.
Putting it charitably, Sweeney has scarcely behaved with the upright and ungoverned fury of a man falsely accused of trying to murder his former wife and her boyfriend. His denials have been discreet, his brandishings of threats of libel demure.
Far more vociferous have been Cherney and his Earth First! circle. They've furiously denounced Anderson, Flatland, Foster and Sutley. Their strategy is mostly to avoid direct debate, but rather to try to persuade Anderson's hosts to cancel his meetings. At two of the events I've attended, one in Berkeley and one in Earth First! home turf in Garberville, where Anderson rented the Veterans' Hall for $50, the opposition has been highly unimpressive, even though the allegations put forward by Anderson and the others have sometimes been less than coherent. Earth First!'s major beef is that Anderson's crusade is interfering with its own (torpid) decade-long investigation, which has produced very little in the way of serious investigation of who tried to kill Bari and Cherney beyond barrowloads of documents acquired from the FBI, and the $17.6 million wrongful arrest suit now being carried forward by noted San Francisco attorney Tony Serra, which was indeed wrongful. But where are the results of the supposedly intense probe by Bari and Cherney's "Redwood Summer Justice Project?" The project has managed to recruit some big liberal names -- Victor Navasky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Pete Seeger, Peter Matthiessen -- apparently endorsing the investigation.
As Anderson sees it, there are two possibilities. "Either Bari was knowingly carrying a bomb, only Sweeney had constructed it without fully informing his wife of the nature of the device," he speculates. "That may be a stretch. More likely," he alleges, "he tried to kill her. He would have had the children, the property and clear sailing on the career track. He was becoming a respectable person."
"Why did you take up the case again?" I ask.
"I never really left it. The event shocked me, the attempt on her life, and immediately there was so much that was suspicious, both about the FBI's conduct, but also about Judi's contradictory behavior. Suddenly she started saying Mike was 'wonderful,' even though she'd been worrying about custody of the kids and saying that Sweeney was the worst husband that ever lived. I think they had each other in a mutually felonious choke hold and had no choice but to cover for each other."
"What could happen next?"
"Either a federal grand jury, or maybe the attorney general's office would get into the case, it being a federal offense to blow someone up."
IN THE LONG winter evenings, as storms out of the Gulf of Alaska lash the North Coast, many a household picks over the unfolding mystery. The other night my neighbor Joe Paff, who taught at Stanford when Sweeney and his first wife Denenholtz were students there, pulled down a concordance and checked the biblical allusion in the Lord's Avengers letter, designed to throw suspicion onto Staley. This was at a time when Bari and Sweeney were often on bad terms, with Bari consorting with Cherney and worried that Sweeney would somehow get custody of the children.
Bingo: The author of the Lord's Avenger letter had clearly used a concordance to give the impression of profound biblical knowledge. And as Joe worked his way through the eight biblical allusions, it became clear that the composer of the Lord's Avenger letter had picked eight quotes from holy Scripture, five of which, in their specific biblical context, suggested fury at a deceiving woman who usurps male authority:
"The hand of the watch Moved once again and the bomb was Armed and administered Divine Justice. But it did not kill! I had wanted that she should be cut Down quickly like a diseased horse that must be put down but the Lord Willed that she should Live on in Pain 'suffering the vengeance of eternal fire' Jude 7."
And the seventh verse of Jude? Who was worthy of "eternal fire"? Those who had committed fornication and lusted after "strange flesh."
Let's leave the story for the moment with another of the Avenger's quotes, this one from Deuteronomy 32, 35: "To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense, their foot shall slide in due time, for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that come upon them make haste."
So far as Sweeney is concerned, he agreed to respond by fax to any questions I might have. I duly faxed him 21 questions covering all the allegations against him noted in this article. Prime assertions in his faxed response:
At Stanford he participated in "a broad antiwar coalition of which the Venceremos group was a part," but beyond that committed no illegal act. He behaved properly to both his wives, had nothing to do with the fire at the Santa Rosa airport, wrote none of the letters, had nothing to do with any of the bombs, never had a Bible or concordance, never built a bomb replica, wasn't at the Mendocino Environmental Center on May 23, and did have the premises he shared with Bari searched by the FBI after the bombing. He says he's never been questioned by any law enforcement agency and won't take a polygraph.