The mysterious bombing of an environmental activist

Though she vehemently denied it in public, the late Earth First leader Judi Bari told me and others in private that she suspected her ex-husband was behind the notorious 1990 car bombing that is finally being examined by a federal jury.

Topics: FBI,

The mysterious bombing of an environmental activist

When I first met Judi Bari, she was lying in a hospital bed in Oakland, Calif., recovering from a bomb blast that ripped through her lower body and nearly killed her. As we spoke, she occasionally grimaced with pain, but she remained defiant in her purple Earth First T-shirt with a clenched-fist logo. She was incensed that the FBI and the Oakland police had arrested her and her colleague, Darryl Cherney, and accused them of knowingly transporting the pipe bomb that exploded in her car on May 24, 1990.

Now, a dozen years later, a federal court in Oakland is at last considering Bari and Cherney’s lawsuit against the FBI and the police for false arrest and defamation. A verdict in the case, which went to the jury on Friday, is expected at any moment. Tragically, Bari herself is not around to see the trial’s outcome. She died of cancer in 1997.

I wrote an article about the Bari case for Mother Jones magazine in 1990 and produced the documentary “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” in 1991 for San Francisco public television station KQED. Back in 1990, before the bombing, tension was mounting over Bari’s plans to lead what she called “Redwood Summer,” a series of protests against the timber companies that were clear-cutting some of the last remaining redwoods along the coast of northern California. Loggers and environmentalists were squaring off, and Bari received several death threats before her car was bombed. My documentary concluded that the FBI and Oakland police had mishandled the Bari case, ignoring evidence that absolved her and Cherney, and neglecting to pursue evidence that pointed to other suspects.

The Alameda County district attorney eventually chose not to prosecute Bari and Cherney, citing a lack of evidence. Now a jury is finally deciding if the FBI and Oakland police made a rush to judgment against two people they claimed were eco-terrorists.

But the Oakland trial focused on whether the FBI and the police botched the case, not on uncovering who bombed Bari’s car. To this day, I’m haunted by that question: If it wasn’t Bari’s bomb, whose was it? Who tried to kill her? The mystery remains unsolved.

Most of Bari’s supporters took for granted it was a political crime. From her hospital bed, Bari told me, “I should have seen this coming.” In all her public statements, Bari portrayed herself as the victim of an attempted assassination by her political enemies: the timber companies, right-wing crazies, possibly even the FBI.



But she told me something very different in private.

Bari took me aside one day back in February 1991, just outside her cabin in the foothills of Northern California, and told me in confidence that she feared her ex-husband, Mike Sweeney, might be the bomber. I can still recall the sick feeling in my stomach as she confessed her private suspicion.

Eventually Bari would publicly deny there was any chance Sweeney could have bombed her car. Sweeney denied it, too. No one ever got to the bottom of the murky drama: Bari changed her story with me, and refused to cooperate with the police and the FBI on their investigation — which was understandable when she was a suspect, less so after the charges were dropped against her.

But more than a decade later, I’m still troubled by unanswered questions in the Bari case, and I can’t help wondering whether the complicated allegiances, confused motives and conflicted feelings of Judi Bari herself — activist, mother, ex-wife, environmental hero — played a role in the bungled investigation into the crime against her.

By the time Bari told me her suspicions about Mike Sweeney, I had spent months getting to know her. I had worked closely with her as I wrote my magazine article and researched my KQED documentary. I liked her. She reminded me a bit of Bernadette Devlin, the civil rights leader in Northern Ireland. They both were short, brown-haired, fervent, outspoken.

But Bari, then 41, was not a saint. She could be vulgar, abrasive, even cruel to her minions. She was jealous of her sister, New York Times science writer Gina Kolata. She spoke idealistically of uniting timber workers and environmentalists, but more than anything she seemed to relish a good fight.

Still, I grew to trust what she told me, which is why I was stunned when she suddenly shared her dark story about Sweeney. We were walking slowly along an isolated country road — she limped badly due to her injuries from the explosion — when she said there was something I needed to know. To my astonishment, Bari alleged that Sweeney had physically abused and even raped her, on several occasions, during and after their seven-year marriage. She said he had a violent temper and she was afraid of him. I was shocked, because she had never even hinted at this in our many previous discussions. (Sweeney would eventually deny all of the allegations against him.)

Moreover, Bari declared that Sweeney had firebombed an old Navy airfield in Santa Rosa, Calif. Bari told me she discovered Sweeney assembling an elaborate coil of wires and fuses in their house near the airfield and asked what he was doing. When he informed her that he intended to burn down the hangars, she said she asked him to stop, but he refused.

I asked Bari why she had not gone to the police. Because, she said, she was pregnant with their first child and feared what Sweeney might do to her. She gave birth to their daughter Lisa in January 1981, just two months after the arson.

Despite what Bari told me about her ex-husband, she also let me know that she wanted desperately to believe that he had not gone so far as to try to kill her. It was almost too painful for her to consider, she said. Nevertheless, she felt compelled to unburden herself.

She even suggested a motive for why Sweeney might have wanted to get rid of her. Bari described Sweeney as an embittered ex-radical, who had decided to start a recycling business and resented Bari’s public leadership of a rowdy, provocative group like Earth First. In the months before the bomb wrecked her car and shattered her pelvis, Bari and Sweeney were feuding over money and ownership of a house they were building, as well as arguing over custody of their two girls.

But when my colleague David Helvarg and I began, at last, to investigate Sweeney, Bari did a curious and disturbing thing. She told us to stop. When I reminded Bari that she had encouraged us to pursue the leads in our investigation no matter where they led, and that she was the one who called our attention to Sweeney, she blurted out, “I’d like to know who did it, except if it’s Mike Sweeney.”

For personal and political reasons, Bari preferred to believe that she had been the victim of an attack by the timber industry, or some other political enemy, even the FBI. After all, that was her public persona — the martyr of a radical environmental movement.

But deep down she could not escape the idea that the person who bombed her might have been Sweeney, a man with a violent past. Bari never admitted this fear in public. It’s a secret she only told a handful of close friends.

After the broadcast of “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” in 1991, Bari denounced me for mentioning Sweeney as one among several possible suspects in the case — though I did not reveal that she herself suspected him — and asserted his innocence. It was galling, of course, because I knew she had provided the information that led me to investigate Sweeney in the first place. Her attack on my documentary perplexed many people, since the report was widely reviewed and interpreted as a pro-Bari piece, a rarity then in the mainstream media. The overwhelming response of hundreds of callers to KQED was that “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” dismantled the FBI and Oakland police case against her.

We explained how on the day of the bombing, Bari’s white Subaru had exploded as she made an abrupt swerve, triggering a simple motion control device that detonated the pipe bomb, which was coated with nails. The FBI and police insisted it was Bari’s bomb because, they alleged, it was in the back seat of her car, where she could have easily seen it, and because the nails on the bomb matched nails found elsewhere in the vehicle and at her home.

But David Helvarg and I showed that the bomb was actually hidden directly under the driver’s seat, which one could determine from her injuries as well as the gaping hole in the floorboard under the driver’s seat. I also showed that the nails could not be matched with any degree of accuracy.

I raised the obvious question: Why would Bari transport a bomb wrapped with nails — an anti-personnel device designed to maim or kill — that she knew was located just beneath her and would go off, after a timer ran out, when triggered by the motion of the car? It just didn’t make any sense. In the current trial, it is revealing that the FBI and the Oakland police are now blaming each other for who got it wrong first about the location of the bomb and the nails that supposedly matched.

The FBI insisted it had no bias against Earth First, but Helvarg and I discovered from Freedom of Information Act documents that the FBI had been tracking Earth First for years and regarded it as a dangerous group because the radical environmentalists advocated “monkey wrenching” — the destruction of logging and mining equipment. An FBI undercover agent had arrested Earth First founder Dave Foreman for conspiracy to knock down power lines in Arizona. But in their haste to portray Bari and Cherney as eco-terrorists, the FBI and Oakland police were ignoring the fact that the two had publicly renounced such Earth First tactics as “tree spiking” and were launching a high-profile campaign of nonviolent protest. Detonating nail-encrusted pipe bombs was not part of Bari’s political agenda.

Helvarg and I also conducted a thorough probe of other suspects in the car bombing. Timber companies and loggers despised Bari. We turned up a retired logger who told us he and others had been offered guns and money by an independent contractor to commit vigilante violence against any Earth Firsters caught sabotaging logging equipment. We discovered a letter sent to the Ukiah police, offering to inform on Bari and providing an incriminating photo of her posing with an automatic rifle — neglecting to mention that Bari intended the photo as a joke. The letter appeared to have been sent by an insider, someone close to her.

We also questioned a former professional football player who had become a hellfire and brimstone fundamentalist and loathed Bari for mocking and disrupting his anti-abortion rally. We even pursued several suspicious and volatile characters on the fringe of Earth First. But until Bari spoke to me about Sweeney, we had not investigated her former husband.

We began to. We discovered there had indeed been an unsolved blaze at the Santa Rosa Air Center on the night of Oct. 30, 1980. The arson fire engulfed an enormous wooden hangar, burned several small planes and forced a flight instructor sleeping at the site to flee for his life. Investigators found a tangle of hundreds of feet of wiring, electric fuses, a Kmart timer and gasoline-soaked rags used to ignite the blaze.

“It was almost murder because this was arson,” the manager of the private airfield, Bob Williams, told me. “Our flight instructor woke up with his camper in flames and just barely got out with his life.”

Williams suspected that Sweeney and Bari were behind the arson because afterward they led a public campaign to prevent an expansion of the airport. Bari acknowledged participating in Sweeney’s crusade against the airfield — though she told me she didn’t really think it was a significant issue; her husband just couldn’t stand all those little planes flying over their house. But she swore she had no part in the arson and thought it was stupid.

I tried repeatedly to speak with Sweeney himself. Alone among all the suspects and sources we contacted in researching the documentary, Sweeney categorically refused to talk with us. When I first phoned him, he slammed down the receiver. Later, he threatened to sue to prevent me from mentioning him in the documentary, but he never followed through.

At the last minute he sent me a letter in which he denied having anything to do with the Santa Rosa airfield fire or the bomb that crippled his former wife. I included his denials in my documentary. “I would never have wanted anything to happen to Judi that would have put the whole responsibility for raising our daughters on me alone,” Sweeney wrote.

When the documentary aired in Southern California, the Los Angeles Times said, “‘Who Bombed Judi Bari?’ does what many have accused Oakland police, the FBI and other police officials of not doing: thoroughly investigating the available evidence. Indeed, Talbot’s report loudly suggests that the initial arrest of Bari and Cherney after the bombing … was a rush to judgment that culminated the FBI’s tracking of the radical environmentalists.”

But Bari attacked the film in a broadside she wrote for a local alternative paper, the S.F. Weekly. (It now appears on her Web site.) “Talbot does a good job establishing my and Darryl Cherney’s innocence, and I guess we should thank him for that,” Bari conceded in the piece. But she went on to lambaste me for daring to mention Mike Sweeney — something that clearly touched a nerve with her.

“The most outrageous of his charges is that my ex-husband, Mike Sweeney, may be the bomber,” she wrote. “Talbot has only the most wildly circumstantial evidence to make him think Mike Sweeney could possibly be capable of making a bomb. He has no evidence that Mike is crazy enough to try and kill the mother of his children. My ex-husband and I have a cooperative relationship in our divorce, and he has no motive at all to bomb me. Mike was taking care of our children at his girlfriend’s house when the bomb was planted, and she can verify that Mike did not leave her house at any time when he would have had an opportunity to place the bomb. And I know my ex-husband didn’t do it, because he couldn’t look me in the eye if he had.”

My associates at KQED asked me why I didn’t defend myself by simply revealing what she had told me. But I could not do so without identifying her as my source, and I refused to do that. Bari had me at a disadvantage. She knew I would not betray her confidence as long as she lived.

But I had decided to include Sweeney in the documentary only after I discovered that Bari had told others about her allegations. She told two Mendocino County researchers who were working with her, Russell Bartlett and his wife, Sylvia Yoneda, that Sweeney had set fire to the Santa Rosa airfield. They have since confirmed this publicly.

Members of Bari’s original legal team and some of her closest friends and political allies also came to me, in confidence, and said that Bari had shared her fears about Sweeney with them. She told these friends and sympathizers that Sweeney was “bitter” and “ready to explode.” They told me in private that I would be negligent if I did not investigate Sweeney as a possible suspect in the bombing.

One of the women in Bari’s inner circle — whose identity I promised to conceal — told me that she was deeply suspicious of Sweeney, who she knew well. But she said she would not say this publicly because “Judi can’t handle this now, I have to be there for her.” But she went on to describe Sweeney as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” who was “openly hostile” to Bari until the bombing, and then afterward came on like “a knight in shining armor.” She told me, “I think he’s scared shitless that his cover is going to get blown.”

“Judi is afraid of him,” one member of Bari’s legal team told me about Sweeney, adding, “I’m afraid of him.”

Others approached me to say that Bari had also told them about Sweeney’s brutality toward her. When David Helvarg asked her about those stories, she provided specific details. In a phone call on April 19, 1991, Bari told Helvarg that once when Bari criticized his relationship with his first wife, Sweeney took her by the throat and slammed her against the wall. Around the time of their divorce, Bari claimed, Sweeney raped her, and she did not resist because their daughters were sleeping nearby.

Sweeney came from a prosperous family in Santa Barbara, Calif. His father was an oil executive and a former Nixon administration appointee. At Stanford in the late 1960s, Sweeney was editor of the Stanford Daily and became involved with an ultraleft, pseudo-Maoist group called Venceremos. After graduating he tried radical union organizing, which is how he met Bari. Later he became a self-employed air conditioning contractor.

Today, Sweeney lives in Ukiah, Calif., where he runs a recycling operation, the Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority. When KQED asked me recently to appear on a weekly news show to talk about the Bari trial, I spoke for the first time on television about what Bari had confided to me about Sweeney — the abuse, the rape, the firebombing of the airfield.

Sweeney sent an e-mail to the station — not to me — pointing out the article Bari had written in 1991, “Who Bought Steve Talbot?” (published as a chapter in her book, “Timber Wars,” as well as on her Web site), contradicting in public what she told me and others in private about her ex-husband.

Sweeney also e-mailed my brother, Salon editor David Talbot, when he learned I was preparing this piece. He pointed him to the article Bari wrote against me, and added: “Judi and her supporters struggled against all odds for 12 years to get the FBI into court to answer for its treatment of her, Darryl Cherney, and Earth First. It’s practically a miracle that the jury was ever seated, and five days after the trial starts, Steve Talbot gets on TV with an item titled ‘Casting doubt on Earth First! allegations.’ [Is this] Steve’s way of having the last laugh now that Judi can’t talk back?”

I phoned and e-mailed Sweeney, but he did not respond. I did, however, go back and reread Bari’s article as it appeared in the S.F. Weekly on June 6, 1991. Despite Sweeney’s characterization of the piece, I noticed that Bari very carefully avoided an outright denial that Sweeney burned the airfield — she called the charge “totally extraneous” but did not deny that Sweeney set the blaze. On her relationship with Sweeney, she wrote, “My ex-husband and I have a cooperative relationship in our divorce,” which was true in that they mostly cooperated in sharing responsibility for care of their children. But Bari told too many people about her serious problems with Sweeney to make that statement fully convincing.

Bari concluded the article by commenting, “I don’t think Talbot would ever presume to go to Brazil and investigate [slain Amazon forest defender] Chico Mendes’ ex-wife as a suspect in his assassination. But men seem to have a hard time taking a woman seriously enough to consider her a political target instead of a personal/sexual target.”

Yet Judi Bari is the one who told me that she feared her ex-husband might have tried to kill her. She is the one who told me he attacked and raped her. If it wasn’t true, why did she tell me? Why did she tell David Helvarg? Why did she tell some of the women who were closest to her? I had never until that moment considered Sweeney a suspect. I was limiting my investigation to the timber companies and anti-abortion fanatics and possible informants.

I kept Bari’s story a secret until after she died for one simple reason: journalistic ethics. She was my source. She revealed her story to me in confidence. I promised to listen but not to tell. It was frustrating to withhold that information from my viewers, but I am a journalist and I play by the rules of journalism, and one of those cardinal rules is: Don’t betray a source.

So, why after all these years am I revealing what Judi Bari told me about her former husband? First, Bari is dead. I protected her as my source as long as she lived. But the statute of limitations has run out. My agreement to keep her comments confidential is no longer binding.

Second, the trial in Oakland has revived interest in the case and raises the hope, however distant, that someone may actually try to get to the bottom of it. I feel an obligation to release information Bari possessed and shared with me, which might help any investigators genuinely interested in determining who tried to kill her. I can’t help wonder if her failure to share everything she knew with investigators contributed to their inability, or unwillingness, to solve the case.

A dozen years later, I wonder whether Bari ever regretted not talking to the FBI and Oakland police about what else she knew. At first, of course, she and her legal team had good reason to refuse to cooperate, since Bari was being accused, ludicrously, of bombing herself. But once the D.A. dropped the case against her and Cherney, Bari’s remaining silent only gave the FBI and police an excuse not to conduct a real investigation of who bombed her.

In fact, I talked to the FBI about the role Bari’s own evasions played in their dead-end investigation. As I was wrapping up the documentary, agent Edward Appel agreed to talk about the case on camera. He would not talk about specific suspects, but when I asked him about Sweeney, he hinted broadly that the bureau knew Bari’s ex-husband was a possible culprit. “Do you know that in this state that homicides are most often committed by relatives or friends of the victim?” Appel asked me. I replied that I knew that, and the FBI agent said, “Well, that’s something that the Oakland [police department] knows, too, and it’s something we’re very familiar with.” But he added that it was difficult to pursue suspects in such cases when the evidence is “slim” and the victim won’t cooperate. “Quite frankly, you can be stymied because people are not cooperative with you,” he told me.

One reason Bari kept silent, I think, is that she wanted to be seen above all as a kind of environmental movement hero — as a victim of corporate violence and political repression — even if that meant never answering the question of who really tried to kill her. She wanted to be a political martyr, not just another domestic violence victim.

To this day, I do not know if Sweeney placed the bomb in Bari’s car. Bari’s word isn’t proof in itself — she was in physical pain and under enormous stress after the bombing; and it’s possible that influenced her judgment about her ex-husband. And since she changed her story with me more than once, it’s hard to know for sure when to believe her: when she said she thought Sweeney was the bomber, or when she said she didn’t. For their daughters’ sake, I hope he wasn’t. For the truth’s sake, I hope that anybody who has withheld information in the case will finally talk to authorities, so the question “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” will finally have an answer, 12 long years after the crime.

Stephen Talbot's summer movie picks are "Smoke Signals" and "Bulworth."

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