Nearly nine years after a homemade bomb almostkilled forest activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney in their car in Oakland,Don Foster, the scholar who made his reputation by identifying Joe Kleinas the “Anonymous” of Primary Colors, has buttressed suggestionsby a California north coast writer, Ed Gehrman, that investigators of thebombing should focus far greater scrutiny on Bari’s former husband, MikeSweeney.
In an upcoming edition of Flatland magazine, publishedout of the old timber mill town of Fort Bragg on the Mendocino coast, Fostercontributes an essay entitled “The Bari Bombing: Pen Names, Pyrotechnics,and Paranoia in the Timber Wars”. In the same issue is a long articleby Gehrman, “The Bombing of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney”. Gehrman,a longtime resident of the north coast, offers a richly detailed accountof the circumstances of the bombing that almost cost Bari her life. Nearlycrippled by the explosion, Bari succumbed to cancer in 1997. Initially,the FBI and Oakland police department charged Bari and Cherney with knowninglycarrying the bomb. But the Bureau’s charges came under heavy criticism andwere effectively finished off by a public television documentary by SteveTalbot. Bari herself claimed that she and Cherney had been the targets ofa COINTELPRO-style conspiracy sponsored by the FBI.
At the time of her death, Bari was well on theway towards winning a substantial settlement from the Bureau. Additionally,Bari helped point the finger at Irv Sutley, a former Marine and left politicalorganizer. Talbot lent to credence to this theory when he uncovered a snitch-letterto the Ukiah Police containing little known details of Bari’s organizingactivities, plus charges that she and her Earth First! colleagues were engagedin weapons training. This accusation was buttressed by a photograph includedin the Argus package of Bari toting an Uzi, in the famous “Tanya”pose popularized by Patti Hearst. The anonymous letter to the Ukiah cops,signed “Argus” (many-eyed watchdog of Greek myth), also statedthat Bari had posted marijuana in the US mail on a specific date. (Gehrmannotes that Bari had admitted that the marijuana was a gift to friends.)
It was the photograph that fixed suspicion on Sutleywhen Talbot unearthed the Argus packet. In a well-known incident, Sutley,a gun enthusiast, had once visited Bari, Cherney and friends, bringing alongweapons from his armory for some target practice in the woods. To publicizea record album she and Cherney had put together, Bari and Cherney posedwith the automatic weapons and this photograph ended up in the pages ofthe Anderson Valley Advertiser, California’s foremost radical weekly. Sutleyhad sent the photograph to the AVA, and many, including the AVA’s editor,Bruce Anderson, saw this action as being that of a provocateur and possiblepolice undercover agent. No formal charges were ever laid against Sutleyand no other suspect has come under serious scrutiny by the police or theFBI.
After Bari filed her suit, the FBI lapsed intoinactivity and no local police department pursued the case, though therewere inviting leads. Aside from the Argus letter, which was mailed to theUkiah police a year before the bombing, there was an anonymous, threateningletter to Bari mailed a few weeks before the ill-fated trip to Oakland,saying she should “get out”. Finally, there was a letter to MikeGeniella, a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, who was coveringthe timber wars at the time, signed by “the Lord’s Avenger.” Thisletter mailed five days after the bombing displayed detailed knowledge notonly of the explosive device placed in Bari and Cherney’s car, but of anotherhomemade bomb that exploded prematurely, without injuring anyone, at theLouisiana-Pacific mill outside the small timber town of Cloverdale earlierin the year. Written in archaic biblical terminology, the Lord’s Avengerletter seemed clearly designed to suggest that the bomber of the was a rightwingreligious nut, violently inflamed by Bari’s public stand in favor of abortion.
Gehrman, who has been investigating the Bari bombingfor years, argues strongly in his lengthy piece in Flatland magazine, scheduledfor publication in early March, that Sutley has been unfairly accused, notleast by Bari herself. He produces the results of a polygraph voluntarilyundertaken by Sutley and suggests that among the reasons for Bari’s hostilityto Sutley was that a close friend of Bari’s, Pam Davis, had repeatedly askedthe former Marine to kill Bari’s estranged husband, Mike Sweeney, for $5,000.Sutley says he had energetically declined the proposal on four differentoccasions. Bari did subsequently admit, in the wake of the polygraph testin which Sutley stated the offer had been made, that Sutley had been approachedin this manner, but that it was all a joke.
In Flatland, Gehrman explores Sweeney’s backgroundin some detail, tracing his past from the anti-war turbulence of the Stanfordcampus in the early 1970s, where, among other activities, radicals burneddown a branch of the Bank of America, to a later arson designed to haltdevelopment at the Santa Rosa airport. Although estranged, Sweeney and Barilived on the same property in Redwood Valley and shared parenting responsibilitiesfor their two children. Gehrman scrutinizes in close detail the chronologyof the bombing, calculating that given the 12-hour clock activating thebomb, it is quite possible that the bomb was placed under the driver’s seatat the property owned by Sweeney and Bari or when the car was parked andleft unlocked in Ukiah near the Mendocino Environmental Center. Gehrmancounters, as a false lead, the claim by the Lord’s Avenger that the bombwas put in the car in Willits where, in fact, it was locked and parked outsidea police station. Gehrman cites friends who were told by Bari that Sweeneyhad used violence against her several times. Gehrman does not state whetherSweeney knew of Davis and Bari’s efforts to hire Sutley to kill him. Gehrmandoes emphasize that Sweeney had a financial interest in the property heand Bari shared.
Gehrman says he enlisted Foster’s help after hearingof his success in identifying Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colorsand that Foster became increasingly interested in the case. These days Fosterhas a national reputation as a literary detective, working pro bono on criminalcases. Aside from the work on Klein, perhaps his best known coup is theidentification of William Shakespeare as the author of a little known Elizabethanelegy.
Gehrman supplied Foster with writings by many ofthe suspects in the Bari bombing, including material from Sweeney. Amongexamples of Sweeney’s writing were some pages of a roman a clef, he hadbeen writing, including a portrait of Bari. Using his techniques of stylisticcomparison and typographical analysis, Foster states in his article: “Thereis, of course, no guarantee that the Flatland archive includes writing bythe actual bomber of Judi Bari, but among the examined documents, only onewriter emerges from the pack as a plausible author of the Lord’s Avengerletter: Mike Sweeney.” Foster also says that the “Argus, Warning,and Avenger texts bear a family likeness ….Though inconclusive, this overlappingweb of textual and stylistic similarities indicates that all three anonymousletters may have been written by the same subject.” Foster avers thatthe Lord’s Avenger letter and memos written by Sweeney to a colleague onenvironmental matters were produced by the same brand of typewriter.
It seems that those arousing suspicions about Sweeneyare seeking to push newly elected Mendocino District Attorney Norman Vromaninto convening a grand jury. But Vroman, taking over an office left in astate of spectacular disorganization by his predecessor Susan Massini, seemsunlikely to plunge into so fraught an affair, at least at the outset ofhis term. (Flatland’s website is: www.flatlandbooks.com.)