By Allen Best
EUGENE, Ore. – Were the arson fires that burned a restaurant and a lift terminal atop Vail Mountain in 1998 acts of terrorism?
No, not according to the fine point of law, a federal judge has ruled in sentencing Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, who assisted the arsonist, to nine years in prison. Gerlach was 21 years old in October 1998 when she drove William “Avalon” Rodgers on roads up Vail Mountain, where he subsequently set the fires.
A communiqué Gerlach wrote after the fire made specific reference to stopping the ski area operator, Vail Resorts, from expanding into habitat for Canada lynx, an endangered species, but made no mention of a government role.
However, several other cases in which Gerlach was involved — fire at a police substation and at a tree farm, plus the toppling of a high-voltage electricity line — were meant as retaliation against government actions or to intimidate the government.
“It was your intent to scare and frighten other people through a very dangerous and psychological act, arson,” U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken told another defendant, Stanislas Meyeerhoff. “Your actions included elements of terrorism to achieve your goal.” She sentenced him to 13 years in prison.
According to a report by The Associated Press, Gerlach had been recruited by Rogers during an Earth First! encampment in Idaho. She was 16 at the time, and reportedly had a crush on Rogers. A defense attorney, Patrick Ehlers, called Rogers a pedophile and sexual predator.
Rogers, as ringleader of The Family, committed suicide in an Arizona jail after his arrest in 2005.
Gerlach apologized to victims of the fires and denounced violence as a means of change. “It’s very clear to me now that if you want to live in a world of peace and equality, you need to embody those qualities in your own heart and actions,” she said at her courtroom sentencing. “I am so grateful I have been given this opportunity to reconcile my past.”
Meyerhoff also apologized. The Associated Press says that in a statement before he was sentenced, he said that the goal of sparking public discussion actually cut off debate and harmed people. “I was ignorant of history and economy and acted from a faulty and narrow vision as an ordinary bigot,” he said, his voice breaking at times. “A million times over I apologize …”
The arson at Vail caused $12 million in damage, part of $40 million in damages caused by the eco-saboteurs in several actions in Wyoming and Oregon. Altogether, 10 people have been charged, and three have been sentenced to prison.