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Activists Under Siege

BLOOMINGTON. Add Scott Wells’ name to the growing list of Indiana environmental activists to find themselves face to face with government agents. The Monroe County Councilman last week was questioned by the FBI and ATF about last month’s fire at Pedigo Bay, an under-construction housing development for the rich and powerful on the shores of Lake Monroe.

The feds’ interest in Wells was spawned by accusations at this month’s council meeting made by a radical property-rights activist that Wells knew the fire was going to occur, knew who was going to commit it, and did nothing to prevent it. But there has been no evidence produced to support the allegation, whatsoever. And history suggests it’s just the latest effort by wealthy developers and their allies to slow the growing citizen revolt against developer domination of Monroe County’s democratic institutions.

“I’ve been talking about the truth,” Wells said at the Farmers Market on Saturday. “The power of the truth scares the hell out of them. The truth burns ’em.”

The truth Scott Wells has been pursing for almost a decade now is the real story behind developer efforts to thwart this community’s clear and unambiguous desire to stop development in the watershed of its only source of drinking water–Lake Monroe.

“That’s my mission,” says Wells, a 47-year-old school teacher who also lives in the watershed, “to protect our water supply.”

***

Wells’ mission dates to 1993, when he opposed the Gentry East development along Ind. 446. Three years later, in 1996, he won a “Frontline Award” from the Hoosier Environmental Council for spearheading efforts to pass a county ordinance that restricts density and implements slope restrictions on developments in the Lake Monroe and Griffy watersheds.

Throughout these and other fights, Wells earned the nickname “bulldog” for his tenacity and determination. He also received death threats. “They’ve been trying to silence me all along,” he says. “But they’re not going to do it.”

In 2000, Wells ran for an at-large county council seat and received more votes than any of six candidates running for three seats. He was then appointed to the Monroe County Plan Commission, where he doggedly pursued environmental violations at Pedigo Bay, a luxury home development on the southern shores of Lake Monroe.

Like practically every major development in this community over the past two decades, engineer Steve Smith’s footprints are all over Pedigo Bay. He owns property adjacent to the development. Even though Smith only owned a minority interest in the development, the mailing address for project developer PB Estates LLC is the Smith Neubecker office. In a May 25th letter to “community leaders,” Smith announced he had assumed majority control.

That announcement came one day after Pedigo Bay received the latest in a series of citations and fines from the county plan department for environmental violations at the development. To date, the county has fined PB Estates more than $40,000. Among the infractions are failures to submit and implement erosion-control plans. Smith is a member of the county drainage board, which is charged with protecting topsoil and public waterways from erosion.

On June 27, an arsonist set fire to one of the homes being built at Pedigo Bay. Smith said the home, with an estimated value of $725,000, was going to be his.

***

Even before the fire was officially ruled arson, pro-development forces, news stories and editorials in the Herald-Times pointed the finger at Wells in particular and environmentalists in general for “fanning the flames” that led to the fire.

According to a July 11 Herald-Times editorial, a reporter was tipped off just before the July 9 council meeting that “something was going to come out at the meeting that would turn the place on its ear.” County resident Kevin Shiflet then distributed a legal-looking, signed and notarized “affidavit” that, according to the Herald-Times, clearly implied “that Wells knew in advance about the fire and who was going to set it.”

In the document, Shiflet asserts that Wells told him he knew the fire was “going down” and that he’d talked to “deep throats number one, two and three” on the phone about it. Given that the document has absolutely no legal significance whatsoever and is backed up by no substantive evidence, the Herald-Times concluded “the most plausible real purpose of the affidavit was to harm Wells by impugning his credibility and reputation.”

Upon releasing the document, Shiflet asked Wells, “What did you know and when did you know it?” That was followed by calls from right-wing extremists like Franklin Andrew and Leo Hickman for Wells’ resignation from the plan commission. Subsequently, a bumper sticker asking, “What did Scott Wells know and when did he know it?” was surreptitiously stuck on the bumper of Wells’ vehicle.

Within a week of Shiflet’s public accusation, Wells, who adamantly denies the charges, was summarily summoned to an interview with federal agents to answer what effectively amounted to variations on that very theme.

“They’re trying to take me out permanently; they’re trying to silence me,” Wells says, agreeing that the true objective is to ruin his name. “Your reputation is all you have. If you don’t have your reputation, you don’t have anything.”

***

The attacks on Scott Wells are chilling enough in and of themselves. But when taken in the broader context of the post-9/11 erosion in civil liberties and sensational pre-9/11 media coverage of “eco-terrorism,” they are ominous indeed.

Consider the case of environmentalist John Blair, president of the Evansville-based Valley Watch, a former Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and one of the state’s highest profile environmental leaders for more than a quarter century.

In the post-9/11 rush to squelch Americans’ freedom of assembly and expression, Blair was jailed in February for walking down the street in Evansville carrying a sign to protest Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy policy. Cheney was in Evansville stumping for 8th District Republican Congressman John Hostettler, one of the House’s “Environmental Dirty Dozen,” an obsequious political flack for the fossil-fuel industry.

“Tonight I was arrested for nothing more than exercising my rights as a citizen in what I thought was a free country,” Blair wrote on Feb. 6 in a piece published in CounterPunch. Blair was not part of any formal protest. He was neither belligerent nor confrontational. “It is clear that I was singled out only because I had a sign,” he wrote.

The last image many citizens saw on Evansville television that evening was Blair staring out the window of a squad car as he was being taken to jail. The disorderly conduct charges against him were increased at his arraignment the next day to Resisting Law Enforcement, which carried a maximum sentence of a year in jail. All charges ultimately were dropped.

“They kept me in jail until Cheney was gone, then they let me out,” Blair said in a recent interview. “I don’t know if it was their intention, but it certainly appeared that they just wanted to silence protest.”

While Blair is preparing to sue the city of Evansville for violating his constitutional rights, he readily admits that his recent experience with government authority pales in comparison with that of former Bloomington activist Frank Ambrose.

“What they did to Frank, that was appalling,” he said.

***

Almost a year to the day before Blair’s arrest in Evansville, the FBI and state and local authorities raided Frank Ambrose’s Owen County home, seized his computer and other personal belongings, including family pictures, and charged the former Purdue University swimmer with spiking trees in Yellowwood State Forest.

Ambrose had been the face man for a growing, aggressive, direct-action movement for environmental responsibility in Bloomington and Monroe County. He spoke out at public meetings. He helped organize and lead protests in the city and in the woods. He publicly embarrassed the mayor and other public officials.

Ambrose did all of this at a time when the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for another arson on a luxury home under construction in the Lake Monroe watershed and the Yellowwood tree spiking. To say law enforcement was under pressure to make an arrest is an understatement of cosmic proportions. In a public discussion in Bloomington seven months before Ambrose’s arrest, an ELF spokesman from Oregon claimed the shadowy group was responsible for more than $30 million in damage nationwide without a single person being caught.

After his arrest, Ambrose was effectively silenced. He dropped out of public view. His political activities ceased. In September 2001, prosecutors announced the charges against him were being dismissed. They offered no explanation for the decision.

Blair, who publicly defended Ambrose on environmental discussion lists and through other venues, doesn’t speculate on why the authorities did what they did. But he’s unequivocal on the ultimate result of their actions.

“Nobody wants the FBI to come knocking on their door,” Blair says. “To come down hard on somebody like they did on him, whether they had any evidence or not, they get their desired results, which is everybody falling in line. They completely chilled protest in Indiana through the treatment they gave him.”
Steven Higgs is the editor of the excellent new weekly, The Bloomington Alternative. We strongly recommend you subscribe if you care about what’s going on in the heartland of America. He can be reached at: shiggs809@insightbb.com

More articles by:

Steven Higgs is an environmental journalist and photographer living in Bloomington, Ind. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More. His new book A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana is scheduled for release by Indiana University Press on April 20, 2016.

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