- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 17, 2005

A suspect in a 1998 Vail Mountain firebombing was indicted yesterday in connection with two Oregon fires as part of a federal sweep aimed at resolving a wave of long-unsolved ecoterrorist attacks.

A federal grand jury in Eugene, Ore., charged Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, 28, with multiple counts of arson in the 1999 firebombing of the Childers Meat Co. and the 2001 torching at the Jefferson Poplar tree farm in Clatskanie.

Miss Gerlach, dubbed “Country Girl” by authorities, was indicted but never arrested last year on charges that she assisted in the 1999 toppling of a Bonneville Power Administration high-tension line near Bend, Ore.

She was denied bail Tuesday after U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdahl told U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Coffin that she was a suspect in the Vail arson, a $12 million rampage that destroyed buildings and ski-lift sites at the resort.

The indictments came a week after a five-state sweep in which federal authorities arrested six suspects for a string of ecoterrorist attacks between 1998 and 2001 in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest.

The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front, two loosely organized ecoterrorist groups, took responsibility for most of the half-dozen attacks. Days after the Vail fire, ELF released an e-mail blaming the arson on the resort’s plans to expand into what it described as lynx habitat, although the small bobcat hadn’t been spotted near Vail in 30 years.

The Vail Mountain fire still ranks as the most expensive single act of ecoterrorism in U.S. history. Prosecutors have not charged anyone in the Vail arson — Miss Gerlach is the first suspect publicly identified — but Mr. Engdahl’s remarks raised hopes that the crime might soon be solved.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that maybe there will be a prosecution in this case,” Eagle County Undersheriff Jeff Layman said.

Craig Weinerman, Miss Gerlach’s public defender, said that his client had no involvement in the Vail fire.

“She is not involved in Vail or in any of these things,” Mr. Weinerman said. “The government went through a laundry list of incidents to convince the judge to deny her bail. … I was waiting for them to say she was involved with Jimmy Hoffa.”

Miss Gerlach’s family released a statement yesterday in her defense in the Vail (Colo.) Daily News, insisting that she was “a naturally peaceful person and would never, ever resort to violence.”

“I don’t believe Chelsea has ever been to Colorado, let alone lived there long enough to have any reason to care about the Vail Ski Resort expansion,” said Shasta Kearns Moore, who identified herself as Chelsea’s sister and a family spokeswoman.

Mr. Engdahl told the court that Miss Gerlach is also a suspect in the 2001 firebombing of a University of Washington horticultural research center in Seattle; the 1999 fire at Boise Cascade in Monmouth, Ore.; and the attempted arson at the Bureau of Land Management horse corrals in Wyoming in 1998.

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