In the final weeks of her life, in spite of the excruciating pain she felt from the cancer eating away at her liver, Judi Bari cut back on her morphine intake. She still had work to do and she needed to remain lucid. It had been seven years since a bomb exploded underneath the driver’s seat of her Subaru wagon as she drove through downtown Oakland. It was May 24, 1990, the eve of Redwood Summer, a planned campaign of nonviolent demonstrations against the logging of old-growth redwoods in Northern California.
The blast crushed Bari’s pelvis, paralyzed her right foot, left her sexual organs permanently numb, and dislocated her back, making the diminutive activist look even shorter. Although doctors suspected she would never walk again, she beat the odds — though she was never able to walk more than a few hundred feet at a time. In the end, however, she knew she wouldn’t beat the odds.
By the time she discovered a lump in her breast, the cancer had already spread to her liver. Having decided not to undergo chemotherapy, which would at best extend her life for a few uncomfortable months, the 47-year-old mother of two focused on organizing what she hoped would be her legacy: thousands of pages of evidence and material related to the bombing. Soon, three-ring binders stuffed with police reports, internal FBI memos, death threats, and press clippings filled the shelves of her small cabin in the logging town of Willits.
Bari compiled more than five thousand pages of material from the FBI and Oakland police alone. They didn’t turn over the documents willingly; in fact, they were ordered to do so by a federal judge. The documents were produced as part of the discovery process in a lawsuit filed by Bari and Darryl Cherney, a passenger in Bari’s car who was also injured in the bombing. The suit, filed a year after the bombing, alleged that the decision by law enforcement agencies to arrest the two victims and accuse them of building the device that nearly killed them was an official conspiracy to discredit Earth First! leaders, and undermine Redwood Summer.
The lawsuit proceeded at a glacial pace, as attorneys for the FBI and the Oakland cops unsuccessfully tried to get the case thrown out. Bari’s lawyers even had to fight to be able to take a deposition from her one month before she died. Despite the strenuous objections of FBI lawyer R. Joseph Sher, whom Bari later said accused her of “faking cancer” to elicit sympathy, the gravely ill activist — her eyes surrounded by dark circles, her cheeks sunken — gave her sworn testimony while lying on a couch.
By the time she died, Bari had condensed and summarized all the material she had gathered, preparing a sort of Reader¹s Digest version of the case for anyone who dared enter its bizarre world of kooks and spooks. “She worked on that lawsuit until she couldn’t talk anymore,” recalls Bari’s friend Alicia Littletree. On her deathbed, Bari made her friends promise to see the lawsuit through to its conclusion. She warned Cherney, her musical partner and one-time boyfriend, that “If you settle for $1 million, I’ll haunt you for the rest of your life.” She clearly hoped that at the very least the lawsuit would clear her name as a suspect once and for all; and maybe, just maybe, the suit might finally answer the nagging question, Who bombed Judi Bari?
Because there never was a thorough investigation of the bombing by law enforcement agencies, truth in the Bari case has been hard to come by, and the absence of hard evidence has left a vacuum which was quickly filled by conspiracy theories. North Coast leftists have formed factions over which conspiracy theory is right. One side argues that the bombing was a plot by big timber to get rid of Bari and that the FBI jumped in to help cover it up. On the other side, a prominent Mendocino County newspaper publisher has been on a two-year crusade to get police to investigate Bari’s ex-husband in connection with the bombing. And now, less than a month before Bari and Cherney’s lawsuit goes to trial at the US District Court in Oakland, new physical evidence has turned up — evidence that might help answer one of the many unsolved mysteries surrounding the Bari case.
One day while working on a construction site in Mendocino County, Judi Bari stopped and examined a piece of wood siding. Noticing that the wood had no knots, the carpenter asked her supervisor if the wood was from an old-growth tree. That piece of wood, the supervisor replied, was about 1,000 years old. And at that moment — so the legend goes — as Bari registered what her boss had said, an environmentalist was born.
“A lightbulb went on,” she later said. “We are cutting down old-growth forests to make yuppie houses. I became obsessed with the forests.” Bari was an unlikely figure to become the chief spokesperson for Earth First! in California. For one thing, she was a woman. To that point in the late ’80s, Earth First! had been a macho affair composed primarily of bearded “eco-warriors.” But Bari, who liked the group’s confrontational style, was always trying to prove she could do whatever a man could do. Before becoming a carpenter in Mendocino, for instance, Bari worked in Washington as a mail carrier shouldering a mailbag more than half her body weight every day.
In 1988, Bari met a short, bearded man with a scrunched face, who bore a vague resemblance to a gnome. His name was Darryl Cherney and he was in the midst of a quixotic campaign for Congress. After being introduced to him, Bari immediately launched into a tirade about how he knew nothing of labor or feminist issues. “I fell in love with her from the moment we met,” Cherney says. It turned out that the two shared similar politics, particularly on protecting the environment. They also shared an interest in music: Bari played the fiddle, Cherney played guitar.
As the new decade approached, tensions in logging country were running high. Blue-collar woodsmen sported T-shirts that read, “Save a logger, eat an owl” and “Spotted owl tastes like chicken.” Bari would recall an incident where one logger fired a shotgun blast over the head of an Earth Firster and later punched a fifty-year-old woman, breaking her nose. In 1987, a sawmill worker was seriously injured when he was hit in the face by a shattered blade that had hit a spike in a tree. Tree spiking had been an Earth First! specialty, part of the group’s campaign of industrial sabotage — “monkeywrenching” in Earth First! parlance.
Bari could be a pragmatic organizer, and early in 1990 she and Cherney began plotting a series of nonviolent protests that they would ultimately dub Redwood Summer — an allusion to the nonviolent civil rights protest in the South known as Mississippi Summer. The idea was to demonstrate to loggers that they and Earth First! actually shared similar interests. If the timber companies cut down all the trees, enviros reasoned, loggers would be out of work. In the spring of 1990, Earth First! even renounced tree spiking.
(Despite the olive branch extended by Earth First!, all would not be peaceful. A logging truck would run Bari’s car off the road, and she would receive written death threats.)
The organizers knew that for Redwood Summer to be a success, Earth First! needed more than rhetoric — it needed bodies. Bari and Cherney set out to tour colleges in the hope of attracting recruits. Their first stop would be the University of California at Santa Cruz, where they had a few friendly student contacts, but first the duo would need to stop in Berkeley at the so-called Seeds of Peace house. Seeds of Peace was a classic Berkeley hippie collective located in a sprawling house on California Street that specialized in feeding protesters. Seeds of Peace leaders had agreed to handle the mundane but necessary logistics of feeding an army of hungry Redwood Summer demonstrators.
Bari and Cherney arrived in Berkeley on May 23, 1990. The next day, their lives would change forever.
Judi Bari knew immediately it was a bomb that had exploded in her white Subaru GL wagon as she drove past Oakland High School at 11:50 a.m. on May 24. “I felt it rip through me with a force more powerful and terrible than I could imagine,” she wrote in the February 1994 issue of Earth First! Journal. “It blew right through my car seat, shattering my pelvis, crushing my lower backbone. … I couldn’t feel my legs, but desperate pain filled my body. I didn’t know such pain existed. … I begged the paramedics to put me out.”
Cherney, who was seated in the passenger seat, escaped relatively unscathed (his most serious injury was a scratched cornea). He remembers saying over and over to Bari, “I love you, I love you” as he clutched a bloodied towel to his lacerated face. Bari later recounted the fleeting and seemingly random thoughts that had crossed her mind (Beach Boys enigma Brian Wilson was one). She remembered thinking, “This is what men do to each other in war.”
As paramedics made their way into the car and began to cut Bari’s clothes, they saw that the force of the blast had already torn off her jeans. The bomb had also blown a hole through the floor of the car, revealing the asphalt below. One paramedic remembered seeing nails sticking in the back of the driver’s seat.
At the time of the blast, Oakland-based FBI Special Agent Timothy McKinley was driving around town looking for an apron for his kid to wear in a school play. His car radio was tuned to KGO-AM, and at about 12:10, he heard a report of a car bombing near the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Park Avenue. He rushed to the scene, notifying his office where he was going.
Within a half-hour, the area was crawling with FBI agents. According to his report, McKinley was advised by one of the agents at the scene “that Judy Beri [sic] and Darryl Cherney are the subjects of an FBI investigation in the terrorist field.”
Paramedics carried both Bari and Cherney away on stretchers and rushed them to Highland Hospital’s trauma unit. On her way to surgery, Oakland cops asked her, “Who did this to you?”
“Timber,” she answered.
The cops wanted names. Who in timber? Bari didn’t know whom.
“Timber,” she repeated.
Bari and Cherney also mentioned the earlier death threats. Cherney shouted that this was an assassination attempt.
At some point while she lay unconscious at Highland Hospital, an Oakland evidence technician took Bari’s fingerprints. A few hours later, she began to awaken. Still groggy from the morphine that doctors had given her, she focused her eyes on two Oakland police officers standing over her. “You are under arrest for possession of explosives,” one officer told her. Police had also arrested Cherney on the same charge.
Earth First! members and other political supporters immediately cried foul. How was it, they wondered, that the FBI was on the scene within minutes? Had the feds had been monitoring Bari and Cherney?
“This, to me, is an FBI setup,” Earth Firster Andy Caffrey told the Los Angeles Times. “They are trying to portray us as a band of bomb-throwing activists. It’s not true. I’ve known Darryl for three years. Darryl is a wimp.”
The night of the bombing, FBI agents John Reikes and Frank Doyle met with Oakland police investigators at police headquarters to brief the local cops on the case and on Earth First!. “John Reikes came to the building and he gave us a considerable briefing on them,” Oakland police Sgt. Michael Sitterud would later recall in a sworn deposition. “He told us that he was in charge of the FBI terrorist investigation unit and that these people in fact qualified as terrorists, and that there was an FBI investigation going on other incidents where these individuals were suspects.” Those other “incidents” included a recent downing of power lines in Santa Cruz. At the time, Bari publicly applauded the apparent sabotage, and was quoted in the press as saying, “So what if some ice cream melted?”
In the early morning hours of May 25, Sergeant Robert Chenault of the Oakland police began preparing the search warrant affidavit that would persuade a judge to let authorities search Bari’s Redwood Valley home as well as the Seeds of Peace house. In his affidavit, Chenault said FBI agents at the scene had determined that “the bomb device was on the floorboard behind the driver’s seat when it detonated.” This crucial interpretation of the evidence would lead the direction of the investigation for months to come. The police hypothesized that if the bomb was on the rear seat floorboard, it would have been visible to Bari and Cherney, so they must have known they were carrying around a bomb. Among the G-men who came to that conclusion, Chenault said, was bomb expert Frank Doyle. Chenault said Doyle also identified “a separate bag of nails … in the vehicle that are identical to the nails taped to the explosive device.” At 2:21 a.m., Oakland Municipal Court Judge Carol Corrigan authorized the searches of Bari’s home and the Seeds of Peace house.
When Oakland police then raided the Seeds of Peace house, it was with guns drawn and pointed at the heads of residents, according to news reports at the time. The police proceeded to trash the place, overturning chairs and emptying drawers, in search of bomb-making materials. They found none. At 5:40 a.m., Oakland police arrived at Bari’s house. Among other things, the cops confiscated a box of finishing nails, the contents of which struck Sitterud as similar to the nails fastened to the car bomb.
That afternoon, Oakland police Lt. Mike Sims told reporters that police believed that Bari and Cherney knew about the bomb and that it had gone off accidentally. He also said that investigators were not considering any other suspects.
Six days after the bombing, Mike Geniella, a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, received a three-page, typed letter taking credit for the incident. Filled with Biblical allusions and calling Judi Bari a “Woman possessed of the Devil,” the letter was signed “The Lord’s Avenger.” After initially skimming the missive, Geniella dismissed it as the ramblings of a crackpot. He set the envelope aside on his desk and returned to another story he’d been working on. A few minutes later, however, Geniella picked up the letter and reread it. It had occurred to him that this crackpot described in detail the composition of the bomb in Judi Bari’s car. “I built with these Hands the bomb that I placed in the car of Judi Bari,” read the letter. “Doubt me not for I will tell you the design and materials such as only I will Know.”
The letter declared that the primary motive behind the Oakland bombing was revenge for a counterdemonstration Bari had conducted in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic — what the Lord’s Avenger called the “Baby-Killing Clinic” — in Ukiah, years earlier. “I saw Satan’s flames shoot from her mouth her eyes and ears,” the writer said.
The reference was to an incident in November 1988 in which Bari confronted radical anti-abortionists who were intimidating women coming to the clinic. The leader of the anti-abortion protesters — who carried pictures of aborted fetuses– was an ex-football player and Louisiana Pacific mill worker named Bill Staley. At the beginning of the rally, Staley barged into the clinic and asked if this was the place where they were “killing babies.”
When she came to confront Staley and his cohorts, Barry decided that the best defense was to be as offensive as possible. Standing directly across from Staley, Bari and Cherney — who brought one of his cheaper guitars, half-expecting it to be smashed — sang a tune they wrote the night before, “Will the Fetus be Aborted.” One verse went like this:
Brigit had two kids already
And an abortion is what she chose
Christians showed her a bloody fetus
She said “That’s fine, I’ll have one of those!”
In the letter, the Lord’s Avenger also took credit for the May 10 pipe-bombing of a Louisiana Pacific Corporation mill in Cloverdale, claiming he had done so to frame Judi Bari. Local police had found a handwritten sign at the scene that said, “LP screws millworkers.” The writer described the Cloverdale bomb — which turned out to be a dud that caused minor damage — in great detail, too.
Geniella and his editors at the Press Democrat ultimately decided to contact the FBI about the letter. Within hours, an agent arrived at the newspaper’s office and took the letter into evidence. When FBI explosive experts read the letter, they concluded that “the author in fact had direct access to specific information about both devices” indicating the “author’s close participation, either directly or indirectly, with the bomb maker.”
The religious rhetoric in the letter led many people close to the case to suspect Bill Staley. But records suggest that federal investigators didn’t question Staley until more than two months later. He then denied both being the Lord’s Avenger and planting the bomb, and volunteered to take a lie detector test. According to Bari’s legal team, he was then dismissed as a suspect.
A month after the bombing, Oakland police sought permission to again search Bari’s house, as well as a trailer on the same property occupied by her ex-husband. Police wanted to look for more nails, bomb-making materials, and typewriter exemplars: In other words, police wanted to find evidence that Bari — who was still hospitalized at the time — or an accomplice had written the Lord’s Avenger letter. As for the nails found in the previous search, Michael Sitterud of the Oakland Police said in his affidavit for the new search warrant that FBI bomb tech David R. Williams had told him that the nails from Bari’s house and the nails previously found at her house were practically a match. Sitterud claimed that Williams could testify “that the ‘bomb fragmentation nails’ and the two identical nails from the box from Ms. Bari’s residence were manufactured by the same machine within a batch of two hundred to one thousand nails.” In a later deposition, Williams would deny ever coming to such a conclusion.
On July 6, the San Francisco Chronicle repeated the claim that nails used in the pipe bomb “came from the same batch as nails seized” from Bari’s house. But the same article also included a new wrinkle: Police had determined that the bomb was under the driver’s seat of Bari’s Subaru, thus making it less likely that either she or Cherney knew it was there. The reference was the first public sign that, behind the scenes, the case against Bari and Cherney was quickly unraveling.
It was FBI bomb technician David R. Williams who concluded that the bomb was actually hidden under the driver’s seat. Williams also found bits of towel cloth lodged in the driver’s seat, suggesting the bomb had been covered. And he found that the bomber had installed a crude motion detector to trigger the explosion — making it even less likely that it had detonated accidentally, as police originally alleged. As for the bag of nails found in Bari’s car — the nails police had said matched those used in the bomb — they didn’t match at all. In fact, the nails used by the bomber had round heads; the nails in the bag had flat heads.
On July 12, Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Chris Carpenter announced that the DA’s office had insufficient evidence to prosecute the two activists, but though Bari and Cherney escaped prosecution, FBI documents eventually obtained by Bari’s legal team would show that the feds remained suspicious of them. On August 13, 1990, the San Francisco office of the FBI sent photocopies of the Lord’s Avenger letter to the behavioral science unit in Quantico, Virginia to develop a psychological profile of its author. The memo conveniently provided personal background information on both Bari and Cherney. It also included a third person for Quantico profilers to consider: Mike Sweeney, Bari’s ex-husband.
Even as interest in the Bari case began to wane late in the summer of 1990, KQED-TV reporter Stephen Talbot decided to conduct his own investigation into the bombing. Talbot, an antiwar activist and former child star who’d played Gilbert on Leave It to Beaver in the ’60s, was privately convinced that Bari and Cherney had been unfairly accused of bombing themselves. He set out to show that Oakland police and the FBI botched the investigation. It proved not to be a difficult assertion to demonstrate.
Talbot and his investigative partner, Dave Helvarg, also hoped they could do what the cops hadn’t done: identify the bomber. The two began running down a list of possible suspects including the anti-abortion demonstrator, Bill Staley; a timber contractor; and an elusive acquaintance of Bari’s with a fondness for guns. As Talbot was running up against his deadline, friends of Bari’s and even people on her original legal team began privately urging him to “Look at Sweeney,” meaning Bari’s ex-husband, whom she divorced in 1988. Bari’s comrades told Talbot that her relationship with Sweeney had been turbulent, at times even violent.
Bari and Sweeney had shared a taste for radical politics, but as the years passed, Sweeney’s politics grew more mainstream; he would eventually go on to assume the post of general manager of the Mendocino Solid Waste Authority. When Talbot asked Bari about her ex-husband, she proceeded to launch into a wild story about how her ex had firebombed an airport in Santa Rosa. She told Talbot that, in 1980, Bari and Sweeney had lived in a small home in Santa Rosa next to an airfield that once served as a backup base during World War II but now was used only by a few private pilots. When the airport’s management wanted to convert it into a more profitable commercial airport, Bari and Sweeney led the neighborhood opposition. Bari told Talbot that Sweeney hated the pilots who used the airport’s hangars on weekends to work on their vintage planes. Former airport manager Bob Williams, when contacted by Talbot, said he remembered Bari and Sweeney. He said that although no one had ever been arrested for the arson, he’d always suspected Bari and Sweeney of setting an airport building on fire.
When Bari later learned that Talbot was looking at Sweeney as a possible suspect and was planning to mention the airport fire, she flipped out. Several years later in an interview with the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Talbot said that Bari called him repeatedly, demanding that he omit any mention of Sweeney in his documentary.
“Look, you’re one of the people who put me on to Sweeney,” Talbot recalls protesting, but Bari ultimately badgered him into agreeing to insert a videotaped denial into his broadcast. In it, Bari claimed that neither she nor Sweeney had had anything to do with the airport fire; she also insisted on screen that there was no way the father of her two daughters could have had anything to do with the bombing. “I was targeted for political, not personal reasons,” Bari said.
Who Bombed Judi Bari? premiered on KQED on May 24, 1991 — one year after the bombing. When Russell Bartlett, a Mendocino County archivist, saw the hour-long documentary, he was surprised to see Bari’s adamant denials about Mike Sweeney. Bartlett and his wife, Sylvia, were among a group of confidants tapped by Bari to investigate the bombing. While they were doing research on the case, Bari had told the Bartletts that Sweeney had burned down the airport hangar.
Five days after the documentary aired, Bari wrote a piece for the Anderson Valley Advertiser titled, “Who bought Steve Talbot?” in which she trashed Talbot for mentioning Mike Sweeney in connection with the airport fire and the car bombing. Talbot, however, said nothing in return. He couldn’t. Since Bari had talked about Sweeney’s alleged responsibility for the airport fire off the record, Talbot felt bound by journalistic ethics not to burn his source. He remained mum until after Bari’s death even in spite of her public denouncements of him. “It was very upsetting; it’s upsetting when anyone attacks you,” Talbot says now. “Worst of all, I was being attacked unfairly. I knew basically that she was lying.”
Whatever her private suspicions, publicly Bari was pointing a very angry finger at timber corporations and the FBI — espousing a view that many of her allies on the left shared (and still do). She argued that the whole thing reeked of COINTELPRO (short for “counterintelligence program”), an FBI dirty-tricks program devised by J. Edgar Hoover that used disinformation and agent provocateurs to “disrupt, misdirect, isolate, and neutralize” radical groups. Although the FBI officially killed CONTELPRO after its activities came to light in the ’70s, Bari said that the FBI was using similar tactics against Earth First!
A few years before the car bombing, an FBI agent had infiltrated a small Earth First! group in Arizona. The infiltration culminated in a sting operation that led to the arrest of what became known as the “Arizona Five,” including Earth First! cofounder Dave Foreman.
Bari also found it suspicious that the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco office, which led the feds’ investigation into the car bombing, was Richard W. Held — the man who once supervised COINTELPRO operations against the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles. She was to grow even more suspicious of the FBI’s role in her bombing when she learned that just one month before the explosion the FBI had held a training seminar — often called “bomb school” — in which cars blew up in front of officers who were learning to respond and investigate. The bomb training exercise was performed near Eureka in a clearcut area contributed by lumber giant Louisiana Pacific. The class was taught by Frank Doyle, the FBI agent who originally suggested Bari and Cherney knew about the bomb in Bari’s car.
Bari also believed that there had been an agent in her Earth First! circle: Irv Sutley, who was also one of the possible suspects profiled in Talbot’s documentary. A fixture in leftist politics in Sonoma County since the ’60s, Sutley was one of the first members of the Peace and Freedom Party. Several times he’d run for public office, including Congress, but there was always an air of mystery about him. Although he kept busy in Sonoma politics, he was something of a nomad who seemed to move all the time. A former marine, he also collected guns, making him a rarity among his pacifist lefty pals.
Bari met Sutley in 1988 through her Santa Rosa friend Pam Davis. At the time, Sutley was living in Davis’ garage. In November 1988, Sutley joined Bari, Davis, and Cherney at the notorious counterdemonstration in front of Ukiah’s Planned Parenthood. According to Sutley, Bari and Cherney wanted him along for protection in case things got out of hand. At six feet and 250 pounds, Sutley would be a far more intimidating presence than the gnome-sized Cherney.
After the demonstration, Sutley, Bari, Cherney, and Davis were hanging out at Cherney’s house and, as Bari later put it, fantasizing “about imaginary actions, including creating an oil spill in our pro-oil congressman Doug Bosco’s swimming pool.” In Sutley’s version of events, the conversation turned to devising images for the cover of Cherney’s upcoming album, They Don’t Make Hippies Like They Used To. Sutley then went to his car, opened the trunk, and retrieved what to Bari looked like a semiautomatic Uzi. Afterward, both Bari and Cherney posed holding the gun while Davis shot a roll of film.
A couple months later, as a joke, Sutley sent newsman provocateur Bruce Anderson of the Anderson Valley Advertiser a shot of Bari holding the Uzi with her Earth First! T-shirt clearly visible. Anderson ran the photo on the front page of his paper with the cheeky caption, “Poster Gal of the Week.” After the car bombing, the photo of Bari holding the Uzi appeared in newspapers across the country.
The picture also cropped up in a more mysterious place. While Steve Talbot was working on his KQED documentary, he scored a major investigative coup: Ukiah Police Chief Fred Keplinger revealed that on January 6, 1989, more than a year before the bombing, he received an anonymous snitch letter signed by “Argus,” a reference to a mythological deity with one hundred eyes that sees all. Also enclosed in the envelope was the photo of Judi Bari holding the Uzi. “Dear Chief Keplinger,” Argus wrote, “I joined Earth First to be able to report illegal activities of that organization … Earth First recently began automatic weapons training.
“Bari sells marijuana to finance Earth First activities. She sometimes receives and sends marijuana by US mail. On December 23, she mailed a box of marijuana at the Ukiah post office. There is no point in pursuing local charges. But the use of the US mail means serious federal charges.” The letter went on to offer help in nailing Bari for drug trafficking and added an elaborate contact protocol.
When Bari learned of what conspiracy buffs now simply call “the Argus letter,” something clicked in her brain. She remembered that around the time the Argus letter was sent, Sutley had called asking if she had any weed to sell. “While I may have been stupid enough to pose for joke photos with an Uzi,” Bari said later, “I was not stupid enough to sell marijuana.” Bari believed that only four people had copies of the Uzi photos at the time: Bari herself, Cherney, her pal Pam Davis, and Irv Sutley. She quickly ruled out everyone on the list except Sutley, the gun enthusiast. Allowed to examine a copy of the Argus letter, Bari concluded that the type bore a significant resemblance to that of an anonymous threat she got in the mail one month before the bombing. “Judi Bari, get out and go back to where you come from,” that note had read. “We know everything. YOU WON’T GET A SECOND WARNING.”
After learning of the Argus letter, Bari very publicly began accusing Sutley of being an FBI informant. She took her copy of the Argus letter and the warning letter to the police in Willits, the town in which she lived after the bombing. According to Bari, the Willits cops analyzed the two letters, concluded that they’d been typed on the same model of typewriter, and passed along the information to the FBI — who proceeded to do nothing.
Bari’s campaign was successful, however, in convincing North Coast lefties that Irv Sutley was a snitch. By 1994, Peace and Freedom Party leaders were even debating whether to expel Sutley from their ranks. Around that time, Sutley started fighting back, dropping a rhetorical bomb of his own: Five years earlier, he had been offered $5,000 on Bari’s behalf to murder Mike Sweeney. Sutley claimed he kept quiet all these years because he had hoped to settle his differences with Bari privately. When that didn’t happen, he made the murder-for-hire offer public. When the accusation became public, Bari told a radio interviewer that she had just been joking about wanting Sweeney killed.
As part of his effort to restore his good name, Sutley traveled to Los Angeles eleven days before Christmas, in 1994, to take a polygraph test. The lie detector analyst he chose was ex-Secret Service agent Joseph Paolella. After asking a few routine warm-up questions, Paolella got down to business.
“Did you receive any payment from law enforcement agencies to be an informant against Earth First! or Judi Bari?” Paolella asked.
“No,” Sutley answered.
“Were you solicited … to kill Bari’s estranged husband, Mike Sweeney?”
“Did you write the ‘Argus’ letter to the Ukiah Police Department in 1989 or 1990?”
“Were you involved in any way with the bombing of Bari’s car on May 24, 1990?”
“No,” Sutley replied.
Paolella determined that Sutley had been nondeceptive during the polygraph test. Having passed the test, Sutley avoided being kicked out of the Peace and Freedom Party, and even ran for Assembly in 1998 as the party’s nominee. But he still seemed determined to clear his name — even if it meant shifting focus onto someone else.
Ed Gehrman is a schoolteacher, sometime activist, and conspiracy buff from Plumas County. In the early ’80s, he became active in antinuclear protests, joining the Livermore Action Group, and later participated in Redwood Summer. One night in 1995, Gehrman was playing gin with a friend who knew Irv Sutley and liked the man.
“Why are you hanging out with a snitch?” Gehrman asked.
His gin buddy said Sutley wasn’t really a snitch. “Eddie, you need to talk to him yourself. Listen to what he has to say. He’s not an agent.”
Gehrman’s friend arranged a meeting. After talking to Sutley in person, Gehrman found himself fascinated by what the guy, who spoke in a deep gravelly voice, had to say. Sutley persuaded Gehrman of his innocence, pointing out that he’d passed the polygraph test, and that he’d been in an auto accident in 1975 that left him with a disabling injury that would have prevented him from typing anything, let alone a snitch letter to Ukiah’s police chief. Sutley also had no obvious motive.
Gehrman became a Sutley convert and set out to exonerate his new friend. Working from the assumption that Sutley hadn’t written the Argus letter, Gehrman tried to imagine who had. He zeroed in on Mike Sweeney, Bari’s ex-husband. Gehrman figured Sweeney had the motive to snitch because he and Bari were said to be fighting over money at the time. Besides, if police arrested Bari for peddling pot, she’d have a tough time staking a claim to their shared property in Redwood Valley.
The amateur detective, who never bothered to contact either Bari or Sweeney during his investigation, also turned over memos written by Sweeney in his role as Mendocino County recycling czar as well as a copy of the Lord’s Avenger letter to an investigator for the Alameda County District Attorney’s office who, in turn, passed on the information to the FBI. A few weeks later, the FBI returned the material saying there was no match.
But Gehrman was following another lead. Well-known literary sleuth Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar, was in the news at the time, checking out the notorious Wanda Tinasky letters — rambling rants to local newspaper editors that many people suspect were written by reclusive conspiracy fiction writer Thomas Pynchon. Foster had also gained considerable national attention for being one of the first people to identify Newsweek reporter Joe Klein as the anonymous author of the best-selling political novel Primary Colors. Foster used a method called textual analysis — that is, examining the way a writer uses words and phrases — to nail Klein. The method isn’t scientific by any means. Foster had also earned some unwanted attention when he prematurely declared to Patsy Ramsey, mother of slain pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey, that he knew she didn’t kill her daughter.
The Bari case piqued Foster’s interest, and Gehrman sent the academic a slew of documents written by various suspicious characters in the Bari case including FBI agents, anti-abortionist Bill Staley, a timber contractor mentioned in the Talbot documentary, Irv Sutley, and Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. Gehrman and Foster’s conclusions were ultimately published in the February 1999 issue of Flatland, a small newsletter based in Fort Bragg that specializes in conspiracies. “[A]mong the examined documents,” Foster says in Flatland, “only one writer emerges from the pack as the plausible author of the Lord’s Avenger letter: Mike Sweeney.”
The Flatland articles revived interest in a case that most people hadn’t thought about for almost a decade, and they immediately drew attacks from the Redwood Summer Justice Project, the nonprofit legal defense fund that had been set up to fund Bari’s lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland police. “Under normal conditions, the husband would be a suspect,” Cherney told the San Francisco Examiner, “but these were not normal conditions. We received about three dozen threatening events, personal attacks, death threats, and phony letters. There was a concerted effort against us. Within five minutes after the bombing, the FBI shows up and blames us for bombing ourselves.”
While Flatland‘s accusations were being met with hostility by the Bari camp, one old Bari ally, Bruce Anderson, publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Boonville (population 1,000), was intrigued by what they had to say. In fact, he was completely persuaded. Anderson decided to make bringing Sweeney to justice his latest crusade. To this day, Anderson still includes something in his paper nearly every week accusing Sweeney of being the bomber. “We think the whole Bari effort is a fraud,” he said in a recent interview, and continued to argue that Bari hangers-on — including Darryl Cherney — are in it for the settlement money. “I think [Cherney] knows what happened and he’s part of this scam,” Anderson said. “He’s hoping to shake down the government for $20 million.”
For those who are not familiar with the Anderson Valley Advertiser or its publisher, Bruce Anderson is a newsman who is seldom accused of subtlety. Anderson was charged with assault and battery in 1988, for instance, after slugging Mendocino County Schools Superintendent James Spence at a school board meeting. Anderson purchased the Advertiser in 1984 and immediately transformed it from a boring community weekly into a must-read tabloid. On Anderson’s watch, the paper has built a loyal readership far outside the paper’s primary zip code, while attracting such writers as Alexander Cockburn, a regular contributor to the Nation.
Anderson’s politics are tough to pin down, but it’s safe to say he’s generally suspicious of authority figures or institutions like the FBI. To put it politely, Anderson had a complicated relationship with Judi Bari. After the 1990 car bombing, he visited her regularly at Highland Hospital. When she got better and returned to Mendocino County, he offered Bari editorial space to print her musings. Many of the essays that appear in Bari’s 1994 book, Timber Wars, implicating Big Timber and the FBI, first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Always suspicious of authority, Anderson admits that he bought into the conspiracy theories being peddled by Bari. But something always bugged him, he now claims.
Anderson’s friendship with Bari was conclusively ruptured after Anderson wrote that “a number of people” might believe that Bari and Cherney knowingly had been carrying the bomb. “I cried for days,” Bari would later tell interviewer Beth Bosk in 1995. “I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I loved Bruce Anderson, and at the time of the bombing, he was one of the closest people to me in the world.”
Before the bombing, Anderson now recalls, Bari had only bad things to say about her ex-husband, Mike Sweeney — that he physically abused her and threatened to fight her for custody of their two daughters. But after the bombing, Bari changed her tune: Now, she could only say wonderful things about Sweeney and how supportive he had been. Once he read the Flatland article, Anderson realized he had managed to overlook an obvious suspect.
For his part, Sweeney has consistently denied ever writing the Argus letter, the Lord’s Avenger letter, or any death threat aimed at his ex-wife. He also has denied having anything to do with the bombing of Judi Bari. “In the eleven years since the bombing,” Sweeney says, “no law enforcement agency has ever identified me as a suspect, and none has ever questioned me about it.” As for the publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Sweeney snarls, “His stock in trade is sensationalistic lies.”
In the two-plus years Anderson has attacked him, Sweeney adds, the newsman has yet to come up with any physical evidence linking Sweeney to the bombing and points out that Anderson’s recent attempt to get Mendocino County District Attorney Norm Vroman to open a new investigation into the Bari bombing went nowhere.
Asked about his decision not to investigate, Vroman dismissed the allegations as “innuendo and conjecture.” He needed real evidence: fingerprints, DNA — something that could stand up in court. The only “evidence” they handed over, Vroman said, was a video copy of Stephen Talbot’s 1991 documentary, Who Bombed Judi Bari?
While Bruce Anderson ridiculed and ranted at them, Bari and Cherney’s lawyers quietly continued to look for new leads in connection with their lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland police. They subpoenaed the original Argus letter and the envelope in which it was sent from Mendocino County authorities. The legal team, led by San Francisco attorney Dennis Cunningham, also filed to obtain the originals of the Lord’s Avenger letter, including the envelope, and the “no second warning” threat Bari received a month before the bombing. Cunningham submitted the various letters to a qualified document examiner in hopes of finding similarities between them. The envelopes were given to a criminalist in order to conduct DNA tests from the saliva left on the flaps and stamps.
On March 1, 2001, document expert, Ann Mahony sent the attorneys her conclusions. While she said the typing on both envelopes “appear visually congruent in use of all capitals, double spacing, and positioning on the envelope relative to the margin edges,” she could not definitively say that the Argus letter and the “no second warning” letter had been typed on the same typewriter.
Cherney and his lawyers were disappointed that Mahony hadn’t come up with conclusive evidence connecting the letters. But maybe they’d have better luck with the criminalist.
After some back and forth, the FBI and Cunningham identified a mutually agreeable DNA expert: Edward Blake of Forensic Science Associates. The Richmond-based firm had done the DNA testing that exonerated falsely accused rapist Herman Atkins of Riverside last year. The Bari team gave Blake the Argus and “no second warning” envelopes, as well as two envelopes with the return addressee listed as “I. Sutley.” They also handed over a fork that Sutley had eaten with at a restaurant (a Bari backer paid a waiter two dollars for the fork).
When, on July 3, Baker sent the Bari team his report, Cherney and his lawyers were very pleased — though it raised more questions than it answered.
According to Blake, the most impressive finding, from an evidentiary standpoint, was that the DNA samples from the Argus and the “no second warning” envelopes matched. In other words, the same person licked the envelope flaps and stamps containing letters from a police informant and a less-than-subtle death threat. The DNA from the two envelopes with the addressee listed as “I. Sutley” didn’t match the DNA from the Argus and “no second warning” envelopes; however, Blake did find genetic similarities between the two sets and said they “could be genetically related in a father/son relationship,” though he added that “this unusual genetic situation could occur by chance.” Cherney then consulted Berkeley forensic mathematician Dr. Charles H. Brenner of Berkeley, who told him, “To see this degree of similarity in unrelated people is a one-in-three-hundred coincidence.” (Death records show that Sutley’s father, Irvin Sutley, died in Mill Valley in December 1998. Cherney has also turned over Blake’s findings to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office.)
Sutley says he has never been questioned by the FBI regarding the Bari case. “I had nothing to do with the bombing and I had nothing to do with setting [Bari] up,” he says. He also specifically denies any involvement with the Argus letter. “I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t write it, transmit it, or cause it to be transmitted.”
While the new information doesn’t solve the Bari bombing, or even prove that Sutley wrote the Argus letter, it is clearly an investigative lead — exactly the sort of lead that police and the FBI never bothered to look into, Cherney argues, because they were too preoccupied trying to nail the two Earth First! leaders.
Earlier this year, the FBI paid the Air Force $100,000 to try and re-enact the bombing of Judi Bari. Bomb testers found four Subaru wagons and blew them up in New Mexico with pipe bombs meant to replicate the May 24, 1990 car bombing of Bari and Cherney. Hired Air Force bombing sleuths tried to show that it was indeed possible for the bomb that exploded in Judi Bari’s car more than a decade ago to have been on the backseat floorboard — as investigators at the scene had originally postulated — rather than under the driver’s seat, as the FBI’s own investigators had eventually concluded. By casting doubt on the location of the bomb, the government hoped to make the case that its initial suspicions of Bari and Cherney had been justified and reasonable.
Attorneys for Cherney and representatives of Bari’s estate argued that the expensive bombing exercises were inconclusive and amounted to junk science. On August 31, US District Court Judge Claudia Wilken agreed and barred government attorneys from presenting the results of the New Mexico bombing tests to the jury.
Outside the courtroom, FBI attorney Joe Sher remains confident that the jury will ultimately be persuaded that a reasonable officer at the crime scene in 1990 would determine that the bomb was on the backseat floorboard. Still, the August ruling was an important victory for the Bari legal team — the latest of many pretrial victories during the decade since Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney first filed their lawsuit.
In a month, the Bari legal team will have the rare opportunity to cross-examine FBI agents on the witness stand under oath before a jury.
Cherney, now more gray and sporting a tie and a goatee instead of a shaggy beard and an Earth First! T-shirt, expresses relief that some kind of closure is on the horizon. He still doesn’t know if he’ll win or not, but at least things are moving along. He privately admits that he hopes for a Perry Mason moment in the trial — and that on the witness stand someone will finally admit that he or she bombed Judi Bari.