EUGENE, Ore. – A federal judge sentenced confessed Earth Liberation Front arsonist Chelsea Dawn Gerlach to nine years in prison Friday, declaring she committed acts of terrorism by setting fires at a police substation and a tree farm and by toppling a high-voltage transmission line.
Gerlach, 30, is the third of 10 members of The Family, a Eugene-based cell of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, to be sentenced. All have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and arson charges connected to a string of 20 fires that did $40 million worth of damage in five states, including a 1998 fire at the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado.
In imposing a sentence one year shorter than the prosecution recommended, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken commended Gerlach for her extraordinary cooperation with authorities, which included convincing her boyfriend and other co-defendants to plead guilty after she had already made her own plea bargain and had nothing to gain.
Aiken agreed with defense attorneys that Gerlach had made great progress in redeeming herself, and might never had committed the arsons if at only 16 she had not met William “Avalon” Rodgers, the charismatic leader of The Family, at an Earth First! encampment in Idaho.
The judge scolded Gerlach’s parents for letting such a young girl go off on her own for two months, and admonished them to stay in close touch with their daughter in prison and after her release.
Without specifically saying Gerlach had been sexually abused by Rodgers, defense attorney Craig Weinerman characterized him as the “Svengali-like guru” of The Family, and noted that some of the group had complained he was sexually abusive, especially of teenagers.
Defense attorney Patrick Ehlers called Rodgers a pedophile and sexual predator, and suggested intense shame led him to commit suicide by placing a plastic bag over his head in an Arizona jail.
The defense offered details of Rodgers’ treatment of Gerlach in a DVD provided to the judge and the prosecution, but at Gerlach’s request it was not played in court.
Gerlach is charged with helping Rodgers set fires at the Vail ski resort, a meat company and police substation in Eugene, a tree farm near Clatskanie, and a lumber company office in Monmouth, and to topple a high-voltage transmission line tower outside Bend.
Aiken found there was evidence the police substation fire, the tree farm fire and the high-voltage line toppling were meant as retaliation against government actions or to intimidate the government, qualifying as terrorism for sentencing purposes.
However, she found that the Vail arson was not terrorism. She said the communique Gerlach wrote made specific reference to stopping the resort from expanding into endangered lynx habitat but did not mention any government role.
Her voice cracking, Gerlach apologized to the 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,” Gerlach said. “I am so grateful I have been given this opportunity to reconcile my past.”
She was a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia and becoming disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of civil disobedience when Rodgers contacted her, persuaded her to drop out, and brought her into his arson campaign, Weinerman said.