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'Who Bombed Judi Bari?' documentary seeks an answer

In 'Who Bombed Judi Bari?,' about the late Earth First! activist, Darryl Cherney and Mary Liz Thomson revive Bari's memory and investigate a mystery.

March 25, 2012|By Dean Kuipers, Los Angeles Times

On May 24, 1990, Bari and Cherney were en route to a rally when she pulled up to a stop sign in Oakland. A motion-activated pipe bomb wrapped in nails under her seat exploded, rumpling her Subaru, crushing her pelvis and backbone and driving seat springs into her body. Cherney was also injured. In the hospital, Bari said, "I begged them to let me die."

Things then went from bad to worse. The FBI and Oakland police arrested Bari and Cherney and said they had been blown up by their own bomb. The device had been in the back seat, investigators said, maybe in a guitar case. The Bay Area's Channel 4 news reported that "the two activists will be charged with possession and transportation of explosives." The Santa Rosa Press Democrat headline read: "Police say Earth First! leaders knew bomb was in car."

Despite her injuries, Bari fought back. The film chronicles defense attorney Susan Jordan's work to dismantle the case. By July, all charges were dropped.

In 1991, Bari and Cherney sued the Oakland police and FBI, saying the government had framed them and engaged in a smear campaign to discredit their movement for sustainable logging.

A key piece of evidence in their favor was a photo of the Subaru showing a giant hole in the floorboard, directly under Bari's seat. The back seat was intact.

The case went to trial in 2002, and three Oakland police officers and four FBI agents were found responsible for false arrest and, most important, for running a "conspiracy" to deprive Bari and Cherney of their First Amendment rights and frame them for the bombing. Cherney and Bari's estate were awarded a total of $4.4 million. Among those found responsible was Special Agent Frank Doyle, the FBI's local bomb expert who was influential in the case and had run what he called "bomb school" anti-terrorism courses on Louisiana-Pacific land in Mendocino.

After the verdict, Cherney immediately set about trying to make a film — a dramatic feature, at first. He and Thomson began putting together the documentary in 2009. Beyond helping to restore Bari and Cherney's reputations, and catalyzing a new investigation into the case, Thomson believes the film is an important record of a movement.

"I want the public to have a general awareness of how these struggles get won and lost," she said. "But also, in the same way that people maybe study the civil rights movement, to understand how social change happens, to realize that this is in that line of historical progression in our country."

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