The shadow from the past wore a nylon windbreaker and a baseball cap. He looked like a football coach.
But the heavyset, gray-haired man on the Malibu pier claimed to be the Fox, the self-styled environmental guerrilla whose specialty was the toxic chemical equivalent of a pie in the face.
A decade ago the Fox was famous for his calling cards. He dumped dead animals and the industrial sewage that he said had killed them on corporate carpets. He plugged the smokestacks and drains of companies that he said were fouling the air and water. He operated mainly in the Chicago area. But by one count he has struck at least 30 times in eight states. His most well-known campaigns were against U.S. Steel and Armour-Dial. Perhaps his most famous stunt was draping a banner critical of then-Mayor Richard Daley over the Picasso statue in Chicago.
Perceived by many as a mysterious, modern Robin Hood--and by others as nothing more than a vandal--his exploits were widely reported in the early and mid-1970s. And he was interviewed many times. Yet he was never photographed and few, if any, know his real name, his exact age, or his line of work, although he hints that he is, or has been, a teacher. When it came to personal details he was as cagey as his namesake, Reynard the Fox, the wily animal hero of a medieval epic.
That's still the way he operates.
In Los Angeles for a brief visit, the man who said he was the Fox arranged to meet with a reporter through a third party, a local man, one of the "kindred spirits" who have joined in his exploits or committed their own acts of sabotage.
In the interview that followed, the Fox talked about why he has faded from the limelight and why he took the law into his own hands. He also furnished circumstantial but persuasive evidence that he is indeed the person he said he is.
These days, the Fox said, he no longer seeks publicity because he proved his seriousness and credibility long ago. But his alter ego still takes action occasionally to make a point with a polluter, he said.
"Three weeks ago yesterday, I plugged the sewer of a laundry, the biggest one in the Fox River valley (in northern Illinois)," he said. "It has two pipes going into the Fox River and they dump bleach and blow off water. I went there with a kindred spirit and we plugged it up with Sakrete. I don't think I'm going to have to go back, but they know we will be back if they don't quit."
He didn't call attention to this act, he said, because his targets, eager to avoid publicity and usually convinced of his persistence, generally take steps to clean up their act.
Notify the Press
That wasn't always so, he conceded.
"There was a time when it was necessary for people, friends of ours, to notify the press when something happened," he explained. "See, when we first started, people thought it was a random nut. People had to be convinced and the only way we could do that was to throw the light of public opinion on them (polluters). . . . The publicity now is subtle but in a sense it's deadlier. . . . It's nothing in the way of saying, 'Hey, I'm a big man. The animals and the rivers and the plants can't speak for themselves so somebody has to be their spokesman.' "
If he feels that it's necessary, the Fox said he leaves a note warning polluters that he will notify government environmental watchdogs unless the pollution is stopped. "That really puts the fear of God into them," he said.
The Fox seemed troubled by charges that he is a vigilante. Throughout most of the interview he was mild-mannered and affable. But in discussing his extra-legal methods he became a passionate defender of himself.
"They continually say you can't do this because two wrongs don't make a right," he said. "But if you don't rectify the first wrong, by God, neither does one wrong make a right. It's that simple. If you're not going to obey the law, don't expect me to take that. . . . Do you need a judge and a jury to stop a crime in action? I've already been judged by society, because if I screw up they're going to get me. Nobody can break the law for 17 years unless society is willing to let them do it. . . . You have to fight by the same rules they do."
Since he began campaigning for a cleaner environment in 1969, the Fox said he has always eluded arrest despite several close calls. In many cases the police have looked the other way, he said. Authorities have turned a blind eye because he has never hurt anyone although "the opportunity to use brutal, violent force has been there," he said.
It seems likely that the Fox's appearance has been a help in his many escapes. He could be mistaken for a steelworker or a longshoreman, almost anyone but the environmental zealot he says he is.
Today the Fox said he would rather spend his time setting up a foundation, named after the Fox River in Illinois, which will perpetuate his ideals after his death, than conducting night raids. One project the foundation would oversee is returning a small parcel of land to its "pure prairie" state.
"We can start that process so that 100 years from now it'll be like when the settlers came," he said. The Fox also said he believes in the importance of educating children about protecting the environment. He frequently speaks to classes through telephone hookups, he said.
The Fox acknowledged that it was difficult to provide absolute proof that he is who he claims to be. He admitted that he has had many imitators, including "people who claimed to be the critter himself." In fact, he said, he once met a man who also claimed to be the Fox and they had a long talk. He laughed when he added that he didn't reveal himself to the other fellow.
As partial proof of his identity, the Fox displayed a collection of newspaper clippings, letters to the editor, bumper-stickers and fox logos that he has collected over the years. He also supplied the name of a newspaper reporter in his home territory who has dealt with him over the years.
Chuck Ward of the Aurora (Ill.) Beacon-News said that the person who turned up in Malibu--middle-aged, fair-skinned, gray-haired, blue-eyed, chunky-framed and medium height--fit the general description of the man he knew as the Fox. "It does sound like him," he said.
"We've been acquainted," Ward said, noting that the Fox was always secretive in his dealings with him. "I can't say I know him very well." He added that he first ran into the Fox after seeing "a funny police report about some guy plugging sewers." He described the Fox now as "semi-retired."
Over the years there has been a lot of outside interest in the Fox, Ward said. Last year, a movie researcher contacted him about the Fox, he said, adding that he wrote a column about the potential for a film. Meanwhile, the Fox said he was in Los Angeles to discuss a motion picture deal but refused to name those with whom he was negotiating.
Now in his mid-50s, which is as close as he will come to giving his age, the Fox said he has considered retiring from his nighttime forays many times. But he doesn't quit because "you get rejuvenated, you realize there are people who really care and you can't quit," he said.
And he remembered the incident that first put him on his peculiar path. "It just got to a point where I could not accept what I was seeing happening to the environment," he said. " . . . A family of baby ducks died as a result of the discharge of this company--a whole family, a hen mallard and nine little babies--and that was it, from then on in the war was on. I thought it would only last for one or two raids but I didn't realize that companies are just as hard to teach sometimes as students. You have to keep hitting them on the head."