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BOOK REVIEW

Too many rumors, too few facts to examine eco-activism case

The Secret Wars of Judi Bari A Car Bomb, the Fight for the Redwoods, and the End of Earth First! Kate Coleman Encounter Books: 262 pp., $25.95

January 25, 2005|Mark Hertsgaard | Special to The Times

"THE Secret Wars of Judi Bari" could be assigned in journalism schools to teach how not to do investigative reporting. Which is a shame, because there is a valuable, intriguing story to be told here, one full of personal neuroses, political idealism, corporate greed and police treachery. At the book's heart is a mystery: Who was behind the 1990 Oakland car bombing that put environmental activists and erstwhile lovers Bari and Darryl Cherney in the hospital and then under arrest, accused by the FBI of planting the bomb themselves? The bombing cast a national spotlight on the age-old battle over logging in California's forests, a fight that continues today.

But author Kate Coleman isn't interested in the broader California timber story. Her focus is on Bari, her radical past, shifting views about eco-sabotage and, above all, on who wanted her dead. This narrower frame could yield an engaging, illuminating book. Unfortunately, the reporting is thin and sloppy and the humdrum prose is marred by dubious speculation.

The book has been attacked by some of Bari's friends and associates, including ex-husband Mike Sweeney, whose website lists 351 alleged errors. Sweeney has his own ax to grind; Coleman accuses him of physically abusing Bari and suggests that he was responsible for the car bombing. But one need not trust Sweeney nor buy his assertion of a right-wing conspiracy to have grave doubts about the factual underpinnings of Coleman's presentation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 12, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Judi Bari death -- A review in the Jan. 25 Calendar section of Kate Coleman's book "The Secret Wars of Judi Bari" gave 1996 as the year the environmental activist died of breast cancer. Bari died March 2, 1997.

One example not on the website: Coleman writes that in 1989, the FBI thought Bari and/or Cherney might be the Unabomber, whose letter bombs had killed and maimed supposed representatives of the techno-industrial complex. It's an explosive assertion, but Coleman, to judge from her inadvertently revealing "Notes" section, didn't check it with the FBI. Her sole source is a Sierra Club activist who doesn't explain how she knows what the FBI was thinking. In short, mere hearsay from someone with no reason to know the real story.

The book abounds with such shoddiness. Coleman disparages the tree-sitting activist Julia Butterfly Hill as a hypocritical sellout solely on the basis of rumors swirling through "the Earth First! Grapevine."

People say lots of things to an investigative reporter; it's a reporter's responsibility to verify information and evaluate a source's relevance, motives and credibility before publishing it. You can't cherry pick "facts" to fit your thesis. Yet Coleman's case against Sweeney rests largely on just such a rickety foundation. She cites the conclusions of Vassar College English professor Don Foster, who first identified Joe Klein as the anonymous author of "Primary Colors" after comparing the novel's linguistic idiosyncrasies with those of the Time columnist. Foster analyzed three threatening letters in the Bari case that warned of, then exulted in, the bombing.

Coleman says Foster decided Sweeney most likely wrote the letters. But she fails to mention that his credibility has been shattered by his two-faced involvement in the murder case of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. Foster first assured the girl's mother that he could clear her, for he had identified the real killer, this time from textual analysis of Web postings. When his identification was proved wrong, Foster told police in Colorado that he had determined that the mother was the killer after all. CBS' "48 Hours" revealed all this about Foster in 1999, so Coleman must not have examined Foster's bona fides closely before reporting his version of the car bombing.

Coleman doesn't explore the very plausible theory that angry loggers may have bombed Bari. Her thesis is that Bari was a pot-smoking egomaniac who latched onto the timber wars to fulfill her dream of political martyrdom -- a dream the car bombing fulfilled six years before her 1996 death of breast cancer.

The FBI had to withdraw its accusation that she bombed her own car when the physical evidence pointed elsewhere, and she posthumously triumphed when an Oakland jury ruled in 2002 that FBI agents and Oakland police officers had wrongly arrested her and Cherney to silence their political speech.

Coleman may be 100% correct, but who can know based on the mash of fact, rumor and speculation she presents here?

Mark Hertsgaard is the author of "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World" and "Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future."

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