Today in terrorism: October 19, 1998 arson at Colorado ski resort

How far would you go to prevent something bad from happening? Here is a small example. Let’s say you were walking downtown and came across a man and a woman arguing. As you went by you noticed things were getting more heated. Voices were raised and tempers skyrocketed. There was some physical contact (fingers pointed in chests, hands slapped, etc.). It was starting to look as if the two would come to blows. What would you do? Intervene? Hang around in case real violence ensued? Keep you head down and move away?

What if the potential violence was not directed at a specific person but rather at the environment? A major oil spill perhaps. Or a plant that was issuing untreated effluent into a river. Or a resort that despoiled the natural beauty of the local environment. Would you take action individually or as part of a group?

On this day in 1998 members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) carried out an arson attack on a ski lodge in Vail, Colorado that caused $12 million in damages but not much else (the lodge was later rebuilt). The crime went unsolved until 2006 when, thanks to an FBI informant who got cell members to talk about their exploits, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach and Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff pleaded guilty to the attack. Two other Canadian members, Josephine Sunshine Overaker and Rebecca J. Rubin, remained at large for years (Overaker is still free while Rubin surrendered to the FBI in 2012). Yet another member, Joseph Mahmoud Dibbee, was arrested in 2018 in Cuba while boarding a plane to Russia.

The ELF justified its actions by claiming it targeted the resort 100 miles west of Denver because it was expanding into potential habitat of the lynx, an endangered cat. The organisation stated that its “action is just a warning…putting profits before Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated.”

The ELF was also charged in the 1990s with conspiring to burn down factories that slaughtered animals for meat, timber mills that disrupted sensitive ecosystems, government facilities that penned wild horses, and the Vail ski resort. Some have dismissed their actions as not worthy of the FBI’s #1 domestic terrorist threat (the so-called ‘Green Scare’) since the group has never actually killed anyone. Recall, however that terrorism is any act of serious violence that stems from an ideological motive: the ELF qualifies as terrorist in my books.

They say they were forced to act because:

Does any of this sound familiar? Can you hear similar requests and arguments among environmental activists today? What does it take for an activist to become an ‘eco-terrorist’?

I fear we are about to find out more and more in the years ahead.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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