On a warm August day in 2004, Eric McDavid was sitting inside a house near Des Moines University in Iowa, talking to Zach Jenson, a guy he’d just met, about life as a roving environmental activist. McDavid was 26, Jenson 19, but Jenson was much more experienced—he’d already taken part in loud but uneventful demonstrations that summer at the G8 Summit, an economic forum for the world’s industrialized powers held on Sea Island, Georgia, and at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Both men were in town to attend the third annual CrimethInc, an invitation-only gathering for anarchists and anticapitalists eager to share ideas about political organizing. (The name is a play on “thoughtcrime,” from George Orwell’s 1984.) Roughly 15 people who were in town for the event were staying in the same group house.
The phone rang. It was a woman Jenson knew named Anna, who said she’d hitchhiked from Florida and needed a ride in from a truck stop. Jenson, McDavid, and a few others drove out to fetch her.
Anna was 18, with hot-pink hair and a camo skirt that stopped midthigh. McDavid took one look and thought, Damn, she rode with truckers looking like that? Jenson had met Anna at the G8 protest two months earlier, where she’d presented herself as a medic who could give first aid during street demonstrations.
Anna had a sharp tongue and was quick to laugh, and McDavid was both attracted and intimidated. She dropped names of activists she knew and had obvious experience, while he was a newbie who hadn’t done anything. McDavid was an occasional student at Sierra College, in his hometown of Auburn, California, a gentle, athletic redhead who’d played high-school football, had worked as a carpenter, and was interested in political protest and anarchist theory. He came from a loving family and had never experienced any particular radicalizing event other than a few sobering moments when he grasped the effects of construction sprawl on his beloved Sierra Nevada. The wildest thing he’d ever done was march against the war in Iraq.
Anna seemed interested in him, though. That night she walked up to McDavid as he stood with other people outside the house, tipped the dregs from her beer, and said, “When are we going to bed around here?”
McDavid and Jenson exchanged looks. McDavid smiled. “As soon as I finish this cigarette,” he said.
He led her into the room where he’d been crashing, but she got into her own sleeping bag and stayed there. “I was scratching my head at that,” McDavid told me years later, recalling the incident from behind bars at a medium-security federal lockup in Victorville, California. “But I let it go and went to sleep. She was pretty much by my side the whole time during the gathering.” People at the group house assumed they hooked up that weekend, but Anna later swore in court that they never had sex. McDavid told me the same thing in an interview.
Topics at an anarchist meeting range widely, from organizing child-care co-ops to planning rowdy street protests. That weekend, during a break in a session—devoted, in part, to tips on spotting infiltrators—Anna asked McDavid point-blank, “Have you ever seriously done anything yet?”
“No,” he said. “I’m just getting into this. I started traveling just a month and a half ago.”
“What about your friend?” she asked, meaning Jenson. “No,” he said, although he didn’t really know.
“I felt a shift in her perception at that time,” McDavid told me. “I realized that’s where it was at for her, sexually and in terms of the movement.”
Anna seemed to lose interest, but McDavid had just found his reason to jump into radicalism headfirst. If this guerilla girl was looking for love in the trenches, he was going to dig one as fast as he could. Did anyone warn him that she might be a plant? “No, and even if they did, I would have blown it off,” he told me. “I was blind as hell by then.”
THREE YEARS LATER, IN a federal courtroom in Sacramento, California, McDavid was convicted of conspiracy to damage or destroy property by fire or explosive, for which he was sentenced to 19 years, seven months—at the time, the longest stretch ever given to an environmental activist in the United States. He’d been charged with planning a bombing campaign against environmentally harmful targets, a plot that involved him, Jenson, another activist named Lauren Weiner, and Anna—who, it turned out, was an infiltrator hired by the FBI.
When McDavid and Anna met in Iowa, she’d been working as a paid informant for about eight months—she would eventually make more than $65,000 over a two-year span—and she hadn’t hitchhiked up from Florida: she’d flown in at government expense. Anna had been hired to work her way inside environmental and antiglobalization organizations, with the goal of turning up links to underground activists in the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). By 2004, people in these shadowy groups were believed to be responsible for more than 1,200 cases of property destruction throughout the U.S., causing upwards of $100 million in damages.
For Anna, though, the pickings had been slim. Most people who take part in environmental protests are nonviolent, and in nearly a year of clandestine work she hadn’t found anybody worth investigating. At first, McDavid struck her as another dud.
“At the time, I thought he was inconsequential,” she said during two days on the stand at McDavid’s trial. “I thought he was a college student and not of interest to the FBI.”
She may have been right: McDavid was inconsequential, at least until he met Anna. And then, he insists, he started acting like a radical to impress her, which eventually led to his imprisonment as a domestic terrorist.
Whether McDavid deserves to be in jail is an open question. Certainly he was guilty of being stupid, letting a crush coax him into a potential life of crime. Even though he and his group never got close to building a bomb, they believed they were experimenting with one, and McDavid talked endlessly on tape in ways that sounded like he was conspiring to commit violence. The talk was about destroying dams, power plants, cell-phone towers, and a farm for genetically modified trees. During one recorded conversation, he even sounded resigned to the possibility of killing innocent bystanders.
These days, saying such things out loud is idiotic. The past decade of terrorism and rampage shootings has fostered an era of law-enforcement intervention that many reasonable people welcome. Recent cases around the country show that federal agents might well save property and lives by lowering the boom before a plot fully unfolds. Last February, for example, two Salt Lake City teenagers, Dallin Morgan and Joshua Hoggan, were arrested after they reportedly developed plans to bomb their high school. In November 2011, four elderly members of a right-wing militia group were arrested in Georgia after an informant reported an alleged plot to kill government workers to “save the Constitution.” Both these cases appear to have involved a legitimate threat.
But such episodes can raise sticky questions about civil liberties. How do investigators who make preemptive arrests tell the difference between big talk and serious intent? What if the targets are not seasoned radicals but people who, like McDavid, don’t even know what they’re doing yet? As the use of informants grows across the country—especially those targeting American Muslims—what happens when the informants do more than just report what they see?
MANY BELIEVE THAT’S WHAT happened in the case of Bradley Crowder and David McKay, young men from Texas who were arrested for making firebombs to use at the 2008 Republican National Convention. As argued in the recent documentary Better This World, they probably wouldn’t have done anything without the prompting of Brandon Darby, a one-time radical activist who became an FBI informant and acted as their mentor.
Another controversial case involved fitness instructor Craig Monteilh, who was recruited by the FBI in 2006 to infiltrate a mosque in Orange County, California, where there were no specific targets—indeed, an FBI representative had appeared before the congregation to assure them that they were not being spied on. As Monteilh related on the radio program This American Life, he became so worried about being productive for the FBI that he began harassing mosque-goers, doing things like whispering “jihad” into their phones, until his behavior caused several community members to file lawsuits against the FBI. The claim was that Monteilh had been manipulated by the bureau to create a case where none existed, violating the Islamic community’s First Amendment rights.
More recently, in September, an 18-year-old Chicago man named Adel Daoud was arrested after FBI agents provided him with a fake bomb that he attempted to detonate outside a Chicago bar. His attorney has claimed that the agents convinced Daoud that Muslim religious leaders were urging individuals like him to wage jihad.
McDavid’s case, which his lawyer, Mark Reichel, appealed unsuccessfully in the U.S. Ninth Circuit and the Supreme Court, could be an equally questionable situation. Indeed, jurors expressed doubt that his guilt had been proven, saying that they voted to convict mainly because of confusing instructions from the judge about whether Anna was working for the FBI when she met him.
“If the FBI had not been involved to sort of pull these people together through Anna, we’re not sure that anything would have come of it,” said Diane Bennett, a juror. Ten of the 12 jurors publicly stated that they felt the same way.
The courts were not impressed by such declarations. In its decision to affirm McDavid’s conviction, the Ninth Circuit ruled that it could not consider the jury statements, threw out the question of the jury instructions, and maintained that McDavid was a danger because he hadn’t shown remorse about stating his interest in destroying property. The judges reasoned that McDavid was “predisposed” to terrorism, adding, “There was ample evidence that the group could have committed the crime without Anna, even if it would have taken more time or thriftiness.”
The crime of conspiracy requires “overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy”—otherwise all you’re doing is running your mouth. In McDavid’s case, four overt acts were alleged. First, in 2005, the defendants met around a fire pit at the home of McDavid’s parents in Foresthill, California, where they discussed potential bombing targets. Second, Weiner had purchased a copy of The Poor Man’s James Bond, a do-it-yourself guidebook to making everything from soap to incendiaries to poison. Third, they performed “reconnaissance” (according to Anna) on the Nimbus Dam, near Folsom, California, and a U.S. Forest Service tree-research facility in nearby Placerville. And fourth, they purchased bleach and other alleged bomb-making materials at a Kmart.
Even so, Anna’s own testimony indicated that none of those things might have happened without her leadership and ample government-supplied funds. In its all-out battle against terrorism, did the FBI invent a radical it could catch, instead of catching radicals who already existed?
Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Oregon, says that this has happened before and that a successful appeal by McDavid would have put numerous federal cases in jeopardy of being overturned. She mentions the 2010 arrest of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Muslim 19-year-old from Portland. Mohamud was recruited to take part in a bomb-plot cell made up entirely of undercover FBI agents, who facilitated a proposed violent action during a local Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Editorials in The New York Times and elsewhere have questioned whether this amounted to entrapment of Mohamud, who faces trial in January.
If McDavid had been freed, “the use of provocateurs and infiltrators would become much more problematic for the feds at a time when they’re screaming and yelling that they need it to protect Americans from terrorism,” Regan says. Madelynn Amalfitano, a filmmaker who is finishing a documentary about McDavid called Greenlisted, puts it this way: “Are we safer for having created a criminal where there might never have been one?”
ANNA WOULDN'T TALK TO me for this story, but I was able to learn her real name and track her down using cell-phone records. Neither she nor her parents responded to interview requests. Likewise, the FBI declined to discuss Anna or McDavid, saying it cannot comment because attorneys are still attempting to appeal McDavid’s sentence. Citing a belief that the case was riddled with errors, they filed a habeas petition in the federal court in Sacramento.
Anna wasn’t always so shy. After McDavid’s conviction, she spoke to a reporter from Elle magazine about her life undercover, posing in front of the Nimbus Dam. The article, though skeptical of Anna’s motives, granted her a certain girl-power mystique. It also described a young woman who seemed driven to deliver for her FBI handlers.
It’s impossible to know which parts of Anna’s Elle biography are factual and which are cover stories, but she describes herself as an intense patriot, a hawk who wanted to do something for her country after 9/11. At McDavid’s trial, she testified that she was recruited for undercover work in 2003.
That fall, Anna was a 17-year-old student at Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale, and she wrote a paper about antiglobalization activists who were organizing to protest meetings of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), happening that November in Miami. To compile original material, Anna infiltrated the protest scene by getting into costume. “I wore camouflage fatigues,” she said during her testimony. “I wore a black long-sleeved shirt.”
According to Anna, a Florida highway patrolman in her class heard her read the paper, admired it, and asked if he could take a copy to his boss. The next day, a Miami police officer asked Anna to come in. An FBI agent was also there to meet her and asked if she would consider going undercover. She expressed interest, and just like that a confidential informant was born.
Anna didn’t do anything more at the FTAA protest, but she entered into an understanding with the FBI that, over the next few months, she would begin infiltrating radical environmental groups. A plan evolved that she would pose as a medic, but she received no training, even in first aid, just brief instructions on what to look for.
Anna came along right when the Justice Department was turning fresh attention to radicals of all types. The attacks on 9/11 had prompted the government to go hard after Muslim extremists, but the Patriot Act, passed in October 2001, also targeted environmental activists. The number of agents included in domestic Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) units across the country quadrupled under the Bush administration.
In 1998, the ELF had made a fiery statement when it burned down the Two Elk Lodge in Vail, Colorado, destroying a $12 million structure on behalf of lynx habitat. The ELF’s older cousin the ALF had been active since the 1970s, destroying labs that performed procedures on live animals, burning fur shops and farms, and disrupting sport hunting.
Like the ALF, the ELF is a loose network of individual cells with no leaders. Its members unleashed a wave of arson attacks across the U.S. in the 1990s and, in 2003, claimed responsibility for the single most expensive attack ever attributed to the radical environmental movement, a $50 million fire at an apartment complex near La Jolla, California.
In the media, Justice Department officials said the ALF and the ELF were public threats comparable to Al Qaeda. Over the years, FBI agents had tracked hundreds of actions attributed to these groups, which somehow had not resulted in a single injury. In the years following 9/11, however, the style of the attacks seemed to be getting more aggressive. In August 2003, two homemade bombs exploded at the Chiron Corporation, a biotech firm in Emeryville, California, with the second bomb timed to target first-responders. Another bomb, wrapped in nails to maximize the chances of injury, exploded on September 26, 2003, at the Shaklee Corporation in Pleasanton, California, a company that sells health and beauty products. Neither caused injury, but both were claimed by a group called Revolutionary Cells Animal Liberation Brigade and attributed to an activist named Daniel San Diego, who has since disappeared.
By deploying Anna, the government sent a teenage girl into this world of potentially deadly criminals. At the meeting with the Miami police department, the FBI agent asked if Anna could go undercover at three events in 2004: the G8 Summit and the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Anna was still in school, and the FBI wasn’t talking yet about paying her for her services, though it would cover flights, car rentals, and other expenses. Her job was to show up at protests a few days ahead of time, learn the names of organizers, and ingratiate herself with any activists who seemed bent on violent action.
DURING MCDAVID'S TRIAL, ANNA made it clear that she was the bait in a fishing expedition. She didn’t have hard targets. She was told to zero in on male anarchists—seekers and romantics susceptible to the manipulations of a brassy young woman.
For Reichel, McDavid’s attorney, the whole thing was a clear violation of the freedom-of-assembly protections outlined in the First Amendment. “You can’t target people for their political views,” he told me. “You can’t target them for their sex, and you can’t target them for their age.”
Nonetheless, that was the strategy, and while the radical anarchist underground was coed, it was still made up primarily of footloose males. Anarchists had been on the Justice Department watch list since the 1920s, but green anarchists were at the top when Anna was deployed. Investigators were then working on a massive 2005 bust centered on Eugene—Operation Backfire—eventually naming 11 activists in a 65-count indictment that included arsons at timber companies, a car dealership, and a horse slaughterhouse. This crackdown ended with prison sentences that featured “terrorism enhancements,” the first used on eco-activists.
Anna’s 2004 summer vacation became a protest tour of the U.S., and she turned up wherever radicals seemed likely to be. From June 8 to 10, she joined approximately 30 roughshod protesters intent on disrupting the annual meeting of the Group of Eight, held that year at the swanky and sealed-off resorts on Sea Island.
Anna reported that the scene was mainly a waste of time, but she did meet a shy, thin young protester who went by the nickname Ollie. This was Zach Jenson, a dreamer from the Seattle area who fed himself with food stamps and drifted from place to place along with other untethered activists. He had no record of being violent.
Anna handed over a list of names and notes to the FBI and moved on. She turned up in Boston for the Democratic National Convention, from July 26 to 29, but as she testified during McDavid’s trial, she didn’t hear about any illegal plans. Then Anna went to the CrimethInc gathering in Des Moines, where she met McDavid.
The next month, Anna proved herself to her new circle of friends at the Republican National Convention, held at Madison Square Garden in New York City in late August and early September. Unlike Boston, New York exploded in wild protests against the Bush administration, instigated by hundreds of thousands of people. More than 1,800 were arrested, a record for a political convention. And it was here that Anna first tried out a new persona: agent provocateur.
At a protest in front of the New York Public Library’s main branch in Midtown Manhattan, Anna tried to convince McDavid, Jenson, and a few others that they should take the stairs, which were off-limits to protesters. (They were using the library as a gathering point.) Unable to convince anybody to break the law with her, Anna marched up the stairs alone and was arrested. McDavid went to look for her at the 57th Street piers, where more than 1,000 activists were being detained. At his trial he learned that, only a few minutes after her arrest, Anna was already free and being debriefed by the FBI in a nearby coffee shop.
“It was a setup, even the bust,” McDavid told me. “They knew who she was.”
THAT WAS THE LAST time McDavid saw Anna in 2004: sitting in a van wearing plastic handcuffs. Soon he began barraging her with love letters. “My stuff was romantically intended,” he told me. “It had that push.” Anna told McDavid she threw the letters out, because they could link the two of them if either was arrested. In fact, she turned them over to the FBI, and McDavid kept writing.
That winter, things were popping in the eco-radical community of the Sierra foothills around Auburn. McDavid had spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with his parents and two younger sisters in their home, a beautiful place set high on a redwood ridge in Foresthill, about 30 miles northeast of Auburn. A series of ELF arsons and attempted arsons swept through nearby towns in December and January, first at an upscale subdivision in Lincoln, then at an apartment complex in Sutter Creek, and finally at a commercial complex in Auburn itself.
On February 8, federal investigators arrested one of McDavid’s friends, 21-year-old Ryan Daniel Lewis, in connection with the Auburn attack. A few weeks later, the feds turned up at the McDavids’ door, but his parents, George and Eileen—both Air Force veterans—said they trusted their son and declined to talk. Eric was called to testify before a grand jury and refused, risking a contempt-of-court charge. Later, the McDavids also refused to talk to the grand jury in Eric’s case.
The rest of spring 2005 was a time of intense study and travel for McDavid, and he turned up next in Philadelphia, in June, for a biomedical conference called BIO, an annual event on the protest calendar. He found his way to a protest gathering in northwest Philadelphia. Jenson was there, too, and they met a local woman named Lauren Weiner who was fixing bikes for inner-city kids to use. She offered to let them sleep in her apartment.
Weiner was a former snowboarding instructor from Pound Ridge, New York, a woodsy commuter town near the Connecticut border. She was studying at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and worked in an anarchist bookstore.
Anna turned up, too, after a gig that almost blew her cover. In early June 2005, in Fort Lauderdale, she had worked at a big protest against a pro-democracy forum called the Organization of American States, and she had been openly accused of being an informant. Local activist Ray Del Papa and others suspected her after she led a group in a sit-in that broke a mutual agreement with police and when she refused to use her alleged medic skills to help a woman who’d collapsed in the heat. Anna then drove organizer Sarah Seeds all the way to Philadelphia, trying desperately to convince Seeds she wasn’t a spy.
When Anna met McDavid at Weiner’s place, she claimed that she was shocked by what a year on the road had done to him. “He went from being an unobtrusive college student to a radical activist who seemed to espouse very firm beliefs in very extremist viewpoints,” she said in court. Anna said McDavid talked openly about his support for groups like the ELF, adding that he wanted to confer with like-minded people about property destruction.
Anna ended up staying at Weiner’s place, buying groceries and beer with “disposable income” she said she was earning as a stripper. On the first night, McDavid asked Anna to step out on the balcony with him. He said he had something big to talk about but that there were “too many ears around.”
That night, Anna gave her usual report to Ricardo Torres, a Philadelphia special agent who would become her main FBI handler, and she mentioned McDavid’s comment. Torres ran the name and it hit: McDavid had been called to the grand jury in the Ryan Lewis case. Though McDavid was never a suspect in that case, Anna was instructed to “follow him closely” to see if he made any comments about criminal activity around Sacramento in 2004. Anna dropped everything to investigate McDavid, having finally found someone the government considered a person of interest.
McDAVID, JENSON, WEINER, AND Anna bonded, forming what’s called an affinity group in protest politics. After they attended the 2005 CrimethInc in Bloomington, Indiana, McDavid asked Anna for a ride to Chicago. For him this was the beginning of the end.
During the Bloomington CrimethInc, McDavid had mentioned that he had a friend who was facing serious jail time. Anna, who’d been briefed, started asking questions. In her testimony, she said McDavid talked about Ryan Lewis by name, noting that Lewis had helped introduce him to anarchist ideas. He mentioned that Lewis and some accomplices had used diesel fuel to set fire to an apartment complex. Anna asked McDavid if he was involved. He said he wasn’t.
In court, Anna testified that McDavid had his own plans, that he claimed he’d been given a recipe in West Virginia for a plastic-explosive compound. Anna said McDavid was hatching a “winter bombing campaign.”
McDavid denies talking about any such campaign. He admits that he and Anna talked about explosives but says Anna spun this to make it sound as if he had definite plans.
According to Anna, McDavid got very quiet during this portion of their talk, saying he had “something to get off my chest.” Without asking whether she was an informant, he said, “If you are a cop or are working with law enforcement, I will fucking kill you.” He even described how he’d do it: by severing one of her leg arteries with an eight-inch hunting knife he carried. Flustered and scared, Anna said, “Fuck you! If I hear that you’re a cop, I’ll fucking kill you!”
“Good,” he allegedly replied.
McDavid shook his head when I brought this up. He said that part of the conversation never happened and that the government coached Anna to make him sound violent. None of it was recorded, so we’ll never know for sure, but the government failed to produce an eight-inch hunting knife after arresting McDavid and searching the cabin. McDavid said all he ever carried was a four-inch pocket knife. “That thing was a tool,” he told me. “I never threatened her with cutting her—especially not in specific places. That was extremely imaginative on her part.”
WHEN THE FOUR NEXT convened—at the McDavid home the weekend before Thanksgiving—Anna was on the FBI payroll. She apparently wasn’t in school that fall, devoting herself to the investigation. She had scarcely communicated with McDavid for months, though she had been hanging out with Weiner, whom she’d recorded as a test of a new body-wire rig the FBI had given her. To jump-start the group, Anna suggested to Weiner that everybody meet for the holiday in the Bay Area and go to the McDavid place in Foresthill. She even paid Weiner’s airfare.
“For me it was just a crazy, awesome trip to California,” recalls Weiner, who says there was no mention of a heavy political agenda. “Yeah, we were going to talk about stuff. We were going to talk about everything. We’d had this amazing summer. Anna said she was thinking about moving out to California, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to. I don’t like it here.’”
McDavid’s parents weren’t home, and as he opened the door for Anna, Weiner, and Jenson on the afternoon of November 18, he joked that they were entering “the house of a known anarchist.”
Anna’s local handler, Sacramento-based agent Nasson Walker, had instructed her to get details of a plot on tape, and before long Anna asked everybody if they were really going to talk talk this time. McDavid seemed ready to meet her head-on. He said he’d been in family therapy and had been speaking with his mother about his confused feelings toward Anna. Now he wanted to be completely open with all of them about the ideas he’d been entertaining. He showed them a print interview with anarchist philosopher Derrick Jensen, a noted critic of contemporary society whose books argue for an end to industrial civilization, calling it unsustainable.
Anna was wearing her wire, but she had trouble knowing when it was on, and both Jenson and Weiner said later that she kept asking them to speak up and repeat themselves. Her recordings missed about half of what was said. What she got, however, was enough to get everybody arrested.
As fire pit embers drifted high into the darkened redwoods that first night, McDavid said he was impressed by Jensen’s ideas. The four discussed some of the targets Jensen identified, including cell-phone towers, fish hatcheries, and transit systems. McDavid reminded the group that merely discussing these matters meant that they were, in words Anna quoted in her testimony, “broaching the area of terrorism.”
Asked which targets would be meaningful, Jenson mentioned oil trucks and tankers. Gas stations came up, and Weiner specified that Shell Oil was particularly culpable for problems in the rainforests. McDavid showed them an article about genetically modified trees, saying he’d like to visit the GMO farm at a Forest Service facility in nearby Placerville.
With the tape running, McDavid repeated his interest in making C4-style putty bombs but said he needed more information. He asked Anna if she could find more recipes for explosives. Weiner said she’d heard of a how-to book called The Poor Man’s James Bond, and McDavid asked her to get a copy.
Asked about this conversation now, Weiner, Jenson, and McDavid all give the same answer, which isn’t entirely convincing: that these ideas were presented as hypotheticals, not to be taken literally. “We talked about how we might be the ones left to fight for the end of civilization, and we should be informed,” says Weiner. “We needed to know this stuff for self-defense. We were talking, and it was good to talk.”
“Anarchists usually just talk shit,” Jenson says, “but they never really do that much.”
The four agreed to get back together in January and talk some more. To Anna they had already crossed the line into plotting, and she testified that they each agreed to the following tasks: Anna would compile bomb recipes, put together a medical kit, and find a remote cabin in California where they all could live. Weiner was tasked with buying the James Bond book. Jenson would prepare himself to train the others in the “ninja-like stealth abilities” he claimed to possess. As for McDavid—well, according to Anna, he was the leader, so they did whatever he said.
Anna went to the FBI for new bomb formulas. “We ended up sitting down with some bomb technicians from the Philadelphia FBI office, and we put together a recipe that could be sent to him that was a—basically a safe bomb,” she said on the stand. “It would make some smoke, a bang, maybe a flash, and he would think he had something that could be used as an explosive.”
On December 10, Anna sent McDavid a recipe via email, using a simple code they’d agreed upon. McDavid told me he was upset to get it. “I emailed her back and said, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It was in code, but of course I had some idea what it was. I was, like, ‘No, no, no.’” He asked that she stop. McDavid was nervous: Anna was moving too fast.
NOT LONG AFTER NEW Year’s 2006, the group moved into a cabin in the Sierra village of Dutch Flat. The place wasn’t remote—it was set amid some 100 other residences—and it was fitted with all the modern conveniences, including new appliances, electric heat, and surveillance audio and video devices installed by the FBI, which had agents positioned in a command post down the road from the cabin. Anna paid for groceries, drove everyone up there, and even handed out spending money, sometimes $100 bills. It’s almost impossible to imagine that the four of them would have gotten together like this without the FBI underwriting the whole arrangement.
On their first night in the cabin, January 8, the group started organizing themselves. Anna produced a journal that included page after page of notes about explosives and fuses—all provided by the FBI. Weiner didn’t like it, but McDavid said he thought Anna had really shown initiative. They decided to write everything down in the notebook and destroy it later. They called it the Burn Book.
Among the things they discussed the next morning, captured on tape, was the possible accidental death of civilians. “McDavid brought up the topic,” Anna testified. “And he goes on to explain ... that his personal philosophy is that it’s OK if civilians are hurt or killed during this bombing campaign. That they are just, quote, fence-sitters, so just forget them.”
On the surveillance footage, McDavid can be heard saying that bystanders might become “collateral damage.” A few minutes later, he reversed his position by saying he believed there shouldn’t be any harm done to people during their action. The prosecution argued that his initial statements proved that McDavid was in no way reluctant to be part of a violent bombing action and was thus predisposed and not entrapped.
Within a few days, the group had scouted targets, including the massive Nimbus Dam and its fish hatchery on the American River. Both Weiner and McDavid started laughing when they saw the structure, because it was clearly impossible for them to blow it up.
“It was just about silly to mention it,” McDavid said of the Nimbus plan. Anna kept pushing, saying, “Yeah, but in theory, how might it be done?” Finally, Weiner said, “Are you serious? Are you seriously asking why I don’t want to do this? Besides the fact that it is impossible?” At McDavid’s trial, the government spun this nonevent into a major save by Anna, with U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott saying that destroying the dam would have made New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina look like “a Sunday pancake breakfast.”
Later that same day, the group took a public tour at the Institute of Forest Genetics in Placerville. (The staff had been warned by the FBI that they were coming and played along.) Their tour guide briefed them about the disease-resistant trees being bred there and pointed out that the staff scientists lived on-site, only about 40 yards from the labs. When McDavid got a minute alone with the others, he whipped out the Burn Book and started making sketches, muttering that they were among “evil scientists.”
Weiner, however, was swayed by what she’d seen. “I was like, ‘These are really good guys trying to make a difference,’” she told me. “So I didn’t end up agreeing with him, and in a very cowardly, mousy little way, I voiced it.”
ROMANTICALLY, MCDAVID AND ANNA were still keeping things cool. She slept on the couch; he bunked in the main bedroom with Weiner. McDavid brought up the stalled relationship during a pizza run he made with Anna. “She said she wanted to slow it down,” he told me, “in order to do what she wanted to do—the mission—and then pick it up later.”
Meaning she held out the promise that they might get together after the campaign was done? “That was the carrot, yeah.”
Anna, meanwhile, may have been feeling agitated. She thought the bomb would never materialize, and she was often on her cell phone, complaining to her “aunt” (actually Torres). One day, Weiner scared her by showing her a large spider she’d caught, and Anna’s screams prompted Torres to head for the cabin in an SUV. But Anna was able to signal a false alarm before he got there.
Another morning, while driving into Auburn, McDavid was in the passenger seat when the glove compartment popped open and a body recorder fell into his hands. He said, “This doesn’t look like a car component.” Anna snatched it and stuffed it back into the box, saying, “Stupid old car.” Asked about this later, McDavid said, “I had no idea. I just didn’t put it together.”
McDavid was eager to try a recipe that created explosive crystals using potassium chloride (commonly used as fertilizer), and he and Anna spent most of January 12 mixing it up. It didn’t go very well, and Anna was constantly on the phone while she moved furniture and repositioned people so the FBI could get clear surveillance images. For safety’s sake, they moved their other experiments outdoors, cooking a bleach mixture in a glass bowl on a hotplate. The mixture cooled too rapidly, however, shattering the bowl.
Anna flipped out, thinking she’d just lost all the evidence. She kicked the ground, growling, “Fuck! I’m so fucked!” and then started an argument with the others. The surveillance tape shows Weiner and Anna going at it, McDavid trying to keep the peace, and Jenson keeping his mouth shut.
At one point, McDavid suggested that Anna “take it down a few notches and relax and maybe come back and chitchat later.”
Anna said, “Are we still planning on doing anything tomorrow? Or should I just stop talking about plans?”
“I would love it if you stopped talking,” Weiner said.
“I would love it if you guys followed a plan! How about that?” Anna shouted.
Anna left and marched down to see Torres and Walker, telling them she was through. They talked for two hours about the situation; despite McDavid’s obvious interest in eco-sabotage, it might never happen. The agents assured Anna that they already had enough evidence to make an arrest. She left and returned to the cabin.
In the meantime, Weiner and McDavid had smoked some pot—Jenson didn’t partake—and all three had talked and realized that they didn’t like where things were going.
“We were dependent on her, and we wanted her to be happy,” Weiner said of Anna. “So you’re passionate about it purely because your friend’s passionate about it. And then it was just ... scary. Once things become real, you’re like, ‘Oh wow, this is not anything I want to be doing.’”
During McDavid’s trial, Anna added another dramatic detail about that night. She was sleeping on the couch after the argument, she said, when she was awakened by her cell phone vibrating in her pocket. Torres, who was watching on a video monitor, had sent a text message that said, “WAKE UP!!!!” When Anna opened her eyes, McDavid was standing over her, waving an “eight-inch hunting knife.” After a few tense moments, he went back to the bedroom.
The surveillance tape for that part of the night is missing, as are any handwritten surveillance notes. There’s no record of the text message. Several jurors pointed to this possible concoction as the most egregious foul in the case. “There were things like that that some of us just didn’t really believe,” juror Diane Bennett told me.
“That was the most outrageous and difficult part of the trial,” McDavid says. “I had a very difficult time staying in my chair during that.”
“There was no way that happened,” says attorney Mark Reichel. “But this trial proves that they just say whatever they want.”
THE BUST HAPPENED THE next morning. The four went down to the Kmart in Auburn to buy more bleach. After the purchase, Anna left the store first and McDavid followed. She got in the car and he relaxed, sitting on the back of the car.
Jenson and Weiner were walking out with their stuff when McDavid heard Anna put the locks down. Sirens wailed all around as black SUVs and other vehicles came out of nowhere. Tactical teams poured out; officers with FBI and JTTF printed on their clothes drew weapons and shouted orders. As officials handcuffed and frisked McDavid, he noticed that they made no move to get Anna. “I looked in the rearview mirror and she was just staring at me,” he says. “That’s when I knew. It all came together right then.”
More than two years later, on May 8, 2008, McDavid’s defense team was stunned when Federal District Judge Morrison C. England handed down McDavid’s sentence: using a terrorism enhancement, he increased it from five years to 20. By comparison, several radicals swept up in the Eugene cases were convicted in 2006 of multiple arsons—and given terrorism enhancements—but the longest sentence was 13 years. In a separate case, Marie Mason, a Michigan animal-rights activist who’s now serving 22 years, confessed to 13 counts of arson and property damage.
Jenson and Weiner turned state’s evidence and got off on probation, which has expired. Though they testified against McDavid as part of their plea deals, neither thinks he would have done anything violent, with or without Anna’s influence. McDavid makes the same claim. “If there was any driving force within these relationships, it was her,” he says.
McDavid’s appeal argued that Anna’s tactics constituted entrapment. The Ninth Circuit Court affirmed his conviction, but Reichel still believes the case was improperly swung by a judge who committed a blatant procedural error.
According to Bennett, only an hour or so before coming to a decision, the jury was leaning seven to five toward a vote for entrapment. But a key instruction from Judge England made it impossible to do anything but convict. At issue was a date. The government always insisted that Anna was never an “agent,” just an informer. Whatever she was, if she was officially employed by the FBI in August 2004, when she first met McDavid, then there was the possibility of entrapment, since McDavid appeared to have no plans prior to her influence. If she was not an agent until July 2005, when the first alleged mention of explosives occurred, during the car ride to Chicago, then she was only an observer of McDavid’s premeditated plan and there was no entrapment.
Judge England ordered jurors to use the 2005 date, even though the ’04 date had been verbally affirmed in court. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Lapham and everyone else involved in the case admitted the instructions were an error, and this was the basis for McDavid’s appeal. But the Ninth Circuit didn’t buy it. Later, the Supreme Court declined to hear McDavid’s appeal. That sealed it: if his last-ditch habeas appeal doesn’t work, he’ll serve most or all of his time.
AFTER RECIEVING THE NEWS in 2010 that the Ninth Circuit had affirmed his conviction, McDavid said he had never expected to be released. “I have something better than hope,” he said. “I have an out date: February 4, 2022.” That’s when he becomes eligible for parole. He’ll be 44.
Will 20 years in prison mean anything?
“Yeah, I want it to open people’s eyes to the tactics this government is willing to stoop to in order to ensure prosecution and maintain the cultural perception of anarchists as crazed bombers,” he said. “That’s the quickest way to nullify any honest and open discussion of the kinds of ideas these people are proposing.”
McDavid wanted to make one thing clear: he wasn’t interested in holding a grudge. Not against Weiner or Jenson, who testified against him. Not even against Anna—though, in her case, what he’d most like to do is forget.
“That’s a person that I never wish to have any kind of energetic discourse with at all,” he said, smiling. “Couldn’t care less. She’s chosen her path.”