Fugitive in 'largest ecoterrorism investigation in US history' caught after 12 yrs on run
PORTLAND, Ore. — One of two remaining fugitives in a string of high-profile fires across the West that focused national attention on a group of environmental radicals has been apprehended and returned to the United States after 12 years on the run.
Joseph Mahmoud Dibee, 50, of Seattle, Washington is facing several charges in Oregon, including conspiracy to commit arson, destruction of an energy facility and arson of a government building.
Authorities learned Dibee was traveling through Central America on his way to Russia, with a planned stop in Cuba. With the assistance of Cuban authorities, the FBI arranged for his detention before he boarded a plane bound for Russia.
Dibee fled the U.S. in December 2005.
In 2006, a federal grand jury in Oregon indicted Dibee and 11 conspirators as part of 'Operation BACKFIRE,' a long-running FBI domestic terrorism investigation, and the largest ecoterrorism investigation in U.S. history.
The conspirators, known as "The Family," have been linked to more than 40 criminal acts ranging from vandalism to arson between 1995 and 2001, causing more than $45 million in damages.
The group was based out of Eugene, Oregon.
One fugitive from "The Family" remains at large: Josephine Sunshine Overaker, an American citizen believed to be about 43 or 46 years old. Authorities say she fled to Europe in late 2001. Overaker faces 19 felony charges, including arson in the districts of Oregon, Washington and Colorado.
Authorities say Overaker speaks fluent Spanish and may seek employment as a firefighter, midwife, sheep tender or masseuse. The FBI continues to offer a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to her arrest.
Another member of The Family, Jeanette Rubin, turned herself in to the FBI at the Canadian border in Blaine, Washington in 2012. She had spent a decade as an international fugitive.
The U.S. attorney's office in Portland, Ore., said Rebecca Jeanette Rubin, 39, a Canadian citizen, turned herself in to the FBI at the Canadian border in Blaine, Washington.
Rubin was sought on conspiracy and arson indictments dating to 2006 alleging she helped set fires at the Vail ski resort in Colorado and at federal wild horse corrals in Eastern Oregon and Northern California, and that she tried to set fire to a lumber mill office in Medford.
Ten people pleaded guilty in 2007 to conspiracy and arson in the case, and were sentenced to prison.
The highest-profile case was the 1998 fire that destroyed a restaurant and other facilities at the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado. Other targets included a plant research facility at the University of Washington and several businesses and other structures in Oregon - a horse slaughterhouse, U.S. Forest Service ranger stations, a power transmission tower, a tree farm and an SUV dealership.
The group disbanded in 2001, but a federal taskforce known as Operation Backfire turned an informant and broke open the cell in 2005.
By then, the group's leader, William C. Rodgers, was running a bookstore in Prescott, Arizona. After his arrest, Rodgers committed suicide in jail. Authorities described him as a Svengali-like guru and sexual predator who liked to call himself Avalon, after an island from the legend of King Arthur.
The informant was Jacob Ferguson, a local environmental activist who once had a pentagram tattooed on his forehead and studied diesel mechanics at a community college. Prosecutors said he agreed to take a recorder into Family meetings around the country to break through their code of silence. Originally sentenced to probation, Ferguson was sent to prison after authorities found him selling heroin.
In a 2009 paper on environmental terrorism, sociologists Brent L. Smith of University of Arkansas and Kelly R. Damphousse of University of Oklahoma wrote that The Family members were mostly from middle-class backgrounds, though a few, like Ferguson, had a criminal history. The group developed from the environmental activist and anarchist community of Eugene, Oregon.
In the Vail arson, the group issued a communique saying the buildings were burned as retribution for the Forest Service allowing the resort to expand into critical habitat for the Canada lynx, a threatened species. The attack focused national attention on the idea of ecoterrorism.
However, by the time they were sentenced, members of The Family expressed regret and frustration that after all their hardships, they had accomplished practically nothing.
A horse slaughterhouse in Redmond, Oregon, was never rebuilt, but the ski resort and ranger stations were reconstructed, timber companies stayed in business, and wild horses were still rounded up and removed from federal lands.
Animal rights activist Peter Young spent eight years as a fugitive before officers stumbled upon him in 2005 at a Santa Cruz, California Starbucks. He eventually served two years in prison for freeing thousands of mink from Midwest fur farms in the name of the Animal Liberation Front in 1997.
"There are two rules to being a good fugitive," he told The Associated Press on Thursday. "If you have an ID under a different name and don't call your parents, you can live free for a very long time."
Young added there is a benefit to staying on the run for a long time, as Rubin did: "The lawyers all told me at different times as I was preparing to turn myself in, but never did - they said, 'You stay away for a long time, the feds usually get to the point they're not so zealous about your case anymore.'"