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Four Oregonians indicted in 1998 Vail fires

May 19, 2006 | The Daily Sentinel

Four people, two of them fugitives, were indicted in connection with the Oct. 12, 1998, fires that caused $12 million in damage at a Vail ski resort.

The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the blaze, considered at the time to be the worst in American history.

The indictment handed up identifies Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, 29, Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff, 28, Josephine Sunshine Overaker, 31, and Rebecca Jeanette Rubin, 33, as responsible for the blaze. All were Oregon residents.

Rubin and Overaker remain at large, while Gerlach and Meyerhoff are being held by federal authorities in Oregon.

The four were indicted in January by an Oregon federal grand jury that said they conspired to set the Vail blazes as part of a wave of violence across the West.

The indictment handed up late Thursday marks the first time they were charged directly with the fires in Vail and is the consummation of “seven years of hard investigative work,” said Bill Leone, U.S. attorney for Colorado.

Even though the case was difficult, local and federal investigators never had any doubt they would make arrests in connection with the case, said Greg Morrison, Vail police chief at the time of the blaze.

The suspects were involved in a “closed little circle of ongoing criminality,” Morrison said. “There was no doubt in our minds that given the lifestyle of this particular criminal element that someday we would get a break and we would catch them.”

It’s to the FBI’s credit, he said, “that they have never let it die.”

Morrison, who most recently served as Grand Junction police chief, said officials were expecting some kind of activity around Vail as the world skiing championships approached the next January and February.

“We were anticipating some kind of protest,” such as having people chain themselves to trees, he said.

When he got a call the morning of the fires, “I knew exactly what was going on,” Morrison said.

There were so many fires that it was “pretty apparent it was not a random act,” said Joe Russell, then Morrison’s operations commander and now police chief in Silverthorne.

The Two Elk Lodge was destroyed in the blaze, as were four other buildings, including the Ski Patrol headquarters.

The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the fires and a Web site for the loose-knit organization featured a photo of the lodge in flames long afterwards.

The ELF said in anonymous e-mails the fires were set because a proposed 600-acre ski-area expansion would encroach into lynx habitat.

Each of the defendants faces eight counts of arson, and each charge carries five to 20 years in prison.

William C. Rodgers, who was identified by federal prosecutors as the mastermind of the Vail arson, committed suicide in an Arizona jail after he was indicted by the Oregon grand jury.

Although the Vail fires were listed among the acts in the Oregon indictment, they face no conspiracy charges in connection with the blazes because the five-year statute of limitations on conspiracy has expired.

There is a 10-year statute of limitations on the arson charges.

“The community in general is relieved” with the indictments, Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said.

In the Oregon indictments, Gerlach was accused of toppling an 80-foot electrical transmission tower outside Bend, Ore., in December 1999.

She also was charged in a fire at a Eugene, Ore., meat company that year.

Meyerhoff was accused of setting fires at a Glendale, Ore., lumber company and Clatskanie, Ore., tree farm in 2001.

Leone said the indictments make it clear that political violence won’t be tolerated.

“No matter how strongly we feel about any issue or cause, there are peaceful ways to express our views.” Leone said.

“We simply cannot capitulate to the use of violence as a means of political discourse.”

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