They were called "the Family," and if you were a member, you could never tell the police who else was.
In 1997, the Family freed wild horses collected at a federal barn in Oregon before burning it to the ground. In 1998, Family members torched buildings and chairlifts in Vail, Colo., causing millions in damage. The Family also attacked a horse facility in Litchfield, Calif., in 2001.
But ultimately the conspirators' small cell went dark as federal investigators cobbled together evidence in what they called "the largest ecoterrorism case in United States history."
Twelve years later, the slow reckoning for a string of arsons across the West between 1996 and 2001 continued to inch ahead - but in a way, it moved ahead on the Family's terms.
In a federal courtroom in Portland, Ore., one of the group's once-young members, Rebecca Rubin, 40, pleaded guilty Thursday to participating in attacks made in the name of the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. Those names became synonymous with radical environmentalism in the 1990s and 2000s.
Rubin, a Canadian citizen, returned to the U.S. in 2012 after years on the run and turned herself in.
But one thing about being a member of the Family hasn't changed. In her plea agreement, in which Rubin agreed to accept responsibility and detail her role in the Family's attacks, officials agreed she could refuse to identify her fellow Family members. Two of them are thought to remain at large.
"Rebecca paid dearly for that decision," her attorney, Richard J. Troberman of Seattle, told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. "That was something she insisted on, that she was not going to identify other people."
As a result, Rubin pleaded guilty to attempted arson, arson and conspiracy to commit arson - charges that each carry sentences ranging from five to 20 years in prison. (A representative for the U.S. attorney's office in Oregon couldn't be reached for comment.)
"She obviously is remorseful. Her motives were always pure; her methods are what got her into trouble," Troberman told The Times. "All she wanted to do was to make this planet a better place for people and animals to coexist, and she now knows she was going about it the wrong way."
Officials blamed the Family for attacks that resulted in about $48 million in property damage. Firebombs were fashioned from milk jugs or plastic buckets and sometimes set to timers.
Targets included U.S. Forest Service ranger stations, animal holding facilities, lumber companies and timber farms, the Vail Ski Resort, the Eugene, Ore., Police Department, and a high-tension tower at the Bonneville Power Administration in Bend, Ore.
In her plea agreement, Rubin acknowledged that she had helped free horses before the conspirators burned down a Bureau of Land Management facility in Burns, Ore., a role she reprised in the Litchfield attack.
She also admitted participating in a failed attempt on a U.S. Forest Industries facility in Medford, Ore., that other group members later torched, and assisted in the Vail attack, which also stalled before it was completed by other members.
According to the plea agreement, Rubin's final attack came just a few weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, after which law enforcement's tenor toward environmental terrorism became more severe.
Troberman said Rubin walked away from the Family and began to work in wildlife rehabilitation in California and Canada, where she remained after indictments were handed down in the mid-2000s.
"At the time, in all the newspaper articles, [then-U.S. Atty. Gen.] Alberto Gonzales, [FBI Director] Robert Mueller were painting these people as the equivalent of Osama bin Laden," Troberman said.
In August 2007, 10 other defendants in the case received sentences ranging from three to 13 years, according to an FBI statement. After that, Rubin had a better idea of how the cases would be resolved, Troberman said.
She tried to negotiate a return to the United States in 2009, but one charge in California held a mandatory-minimum sentence of 30 years, Troberman said. That was a nonstarter until officials agreed to reduce the charge, he said.
On Nov. 29, 2012, she surrendered at the international border in Blaine, Wash.
"She paid a very steep price for those years when she was in Canada as a fugitive," said Troberman, describing life on the run as a "prison without walls."
Rubin's sentencing was expected to be held Jan. 27.
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