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Flames of Dissent

The local spark that ignited an eco-sabotage boom — and bust

BY KERA ABRAHAM

PT. IV: THE BUST

The dog's barking punctuated a steady bang bang bang on the front door. It was 7 am, and Heather Coburn was not in the mood for this. She swung open the door to encounter dark-suited federal agents, who stoically informed her that they wanted to talk to her about her housemate, Jake Ferguson. When she refused, they flashed a search warrant and said they were going to tow her truck.

It was spring 2001, a peak time in Eugene's eco-radical scene. The vandalism at the fall 1999 WTO protests, summarily blamed on "Eugene anarchists," and the rowdy anti-establishment protests that followed — confrontations between black-clad anarchists and cops, broadcast by a pulse of locally based radical green media — had catapulted this damp little city to international infamy. Some of the more extreme activists were calling for revolution against "Earth-raping" corporations and the government by any means necessary, and a surge of arsons claimed by the Earth and Animal Liberation Fronts told the world that they were serious.

The obsessively secretive eco-saboteurs had eluded federal agents for years, but the mystery of Coburn's truck presented a crack in the case. Over the next five years, through grand jury subpoenas, informants and the threat of life sentences, federal agents would wrestle that crack ever-wider. Eventually 12 environmentalists would plead guilty to conspiracy and arson, their faces, for so long masked, exposed to the world in the unforgiving grays of newspaper ink.

About a week before her FBI wake-up call, Coburn had discovered that her truck was missing from its usual spot outside her North Grand Street house. She'd had a nasty fight with Ferguson the night before, accusing him of pitting his multiple lovers against one another. "He was hostile and belligerent and trashed my house and moved out," she said. "I woke up the next morning and my car was gone."

Assuming Ferguson had ganked her truck, Coburn called the police and reported the truck stolen. By the time an EPD officer arrived, she had found her truck parked a block away and told him to forget about it. That same day, upon advice from her friends, she filed a restraining order against Ferguson. What she didn't realize was that on the night before, eco-radicals had torched more than 30 SUVs at Romania Chevrolet, the same dealership that Jeff "Free" Luers and Craig "Critter" Marshall had burned the year before. That morning also happened to mark the start of Luers' trial.

Some of Coburn's friends were furious with her for going to the cops, suspicious that she'd told them too much. One woman, an activist called Sparrow, went to the police station and asked for both the report and the restraining order. According to statements made by retired EPD Chief Thad Buchanan to Rolling Stone, Sparrow's inquiry helped police connect Coburn's truck to Ferguson, and Ferguson to the arsons. Buchanan did not return EW's calls.

When Coburn and her boyfriend, Tobias Policha, went to pick up the truck in the Gateway Mall area, FBI agents handed them both grand jury subpoenas. Coburn didn't like the idea of grand juries, which force people to testify in secret proceedings without a lawyer in order to indict a suspect. But she had just gotten a big grant from the city to do permaculture projects in Whiteaker, and she knew that if she refused to testify she could end up incarcerated for contempt. She wasn't willing to make that sacrifice.

The grand jury testimony wasn't so bad, or even so revealing, Coburn said. But many of her friends — who hated nothing so much as law enforcement — would never forgive her for it. "I felt really persecuted by the community," she said. "People I don't even know labeled me a snitch because I wouldn't go to jail rather than go to the grand jury."

In an effort to be open, Coburn went to the Shamrock House Infoshop and offered Tim Lewis, an eco-anarchist filmmaker, a "play-by-play" of her grand jury experience. She told him that there had been questions about Ferguson, SUVs and "relationships with certain people." But she really didn't think anything would come of it. Sure, her friends were radicals, and they could act stupid at times — but not so stupid as to commit arson, she figured.

She was wrong.

 

More subpoenas followed Coburn and Policha's. Ferguson was ordered to appear before the grand jury, but he consulted with a court-appointed lawyer and skipped out to New Orleans for a few months. Another activist, Carla Martinez, was served a subpoena in fall 2001 and announced that she would not testify. About three years later, the grand jury re-subpoenaed Martinez — and this time she complied.

Around May 2004, FBI Special Agent John Ferreira showed up at the home of eco-activist Jennifer Woodruff, who has a son with Ferguson, and served her a grand jury subpoena. "'Arson's wrong and we think you can help us,'" she remembers him saying. Woodruff, then 31 years old, with tattoos on her hands and long, dark hair, told Ferreira that she wouldn't testify.

But internally she was scared of jail, of being taken away from her son. When the feds offered to interview her and two other activist women with their lawyers present, rather than alone before the grand jury, Woodruff initially agreed. Still, a sense of impending betrayal kept her awake at night, and on the day she was scheduled to testify she told her lawyer she'd changed her mind. I can't give in to those bastards, she thought.

She remembers federal prosecutor Kirk Engdall getting upset and threatening to have her jailed for contempt. "I never heard from them again," she said.

But her son's dad, Jake Ferguson, did. By 2003 he was strung out on heroin, playing heavy metal guitar (his bands: Eat Shit Fuckface and Caricature of Hate) and living in Saginaw with his girlfriend, also an addict. The feds were on to him.

Ferguson wouldn't speak with EW, but his court-appointed lawyer, Ed Spinney, offered this version of events: The arsonists who torched the Romania lot in 2001 used Ferguson's truck without his permission, implicating him in a crime he didn't commit. "He was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury but instead spoke voluntarily to the government and told them that he had nothing to do with it," Spinney wrote by email. "For the next couple of years he was almost constantly under the surveillance of the government."

In 2003, feds contacted Ferguson again and told him that people within the community had linked him to the Romania fire and other arsons. And that, ostensibly, is when Ferguson agreed to cooperate. Court records indicate that by spring 2004, Ferguson was wearing a hidden recording device in an effort to bait other saboteurs, his friends, into incriminating themselves.

The terms of the government's deal with Ferguson are confidential, Spinney said. Federal prosecutors have declined to comment, and Eugene police involved in the investigation have been barred from discussing it with the press. Although the Rolling Stone article suggests that Ferguson may receive $50,000 and a get-out-of-jail-free card for his cooperation, Spinney denies that Ferguson has received either financial compensation or total immunity from the government (yet). But the fact remains that Ferguson, who has admitted to at least 15 acts of sabotage — more than any of the defendants now before the courts — has not been indicted.

 

According to the Rolling Stone article, Ferguson wore the hidden recorder to an annual Earth First! gathering, to the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at the UO, and to meetings with six of his partners in crime, by then scattered across the country. In December 2005 the feds swooped in for the bust, arresting William Rodgers, Kevin Tubbs, Stanislas Meyerhoff, Chelsea Gerlach, Kendall Tankersley and Daniel McGowan. They also jailed Gerlach's Canadian boyfriend, Darren Thurston, on immigration charges; he would later be indicted for arson.

In January 2006 they arrested southern Oregon residents Suzanne Savoie and Jonathan Paul; in February and March, Joyanna Zacher, Nathan Block and Briana Waters, all from Olympia, Wash. By April they had also indicted Josephine Sunshine Overaker, Rebecca Rubin, Joseph Dibee and Justin Solondz, who are still at large. At some point during the sweep Spokane natives Jennifer Kolar and Lacey Phillabaum came forward to cooperate, according to the FBI.

Federal prosecutors minced no words, calling the defendants "eco-terrorists" and threatening them with staggering, post-9/11-style sentences. Faced with that terrible decision — rat out your friends or sit in jail until you die — each defendant, it seems, reacted differently. Meyerhoff reportedly started cooperating immediately; Tubbs, Savoie, Gerlach, Thurston and Tankersley had made the same decision by the time they pleaded guilty in July. So did Kolar and Phillabaum, who pleaded guilty in October. While "snitch" provisions have not been made public, virtually all such deals require cooperating defendants to name names, according to Civil Liberties Defense Center attorney Lauren Regan, who lived with Phillabaum for a year.

Four defendants before the federal court in Oregon — McGowan, Paul, Block and Zacher — pleaded not guilty. On behalf of all four, the team of defense attorneys filed discovery motions asking the feds to hand over any information that had been obtained through National Security Administration surveillance or warrantless wiretaps, which a judge had recently ruled illegal.

The federal prosecutors stalled, pushing back their court-ordered deadline three times while maintaining that no illegal surveillance had occurred. But eventually they struck a plea deal with the defendants: In exchange for withdrawing the discovery motion and confessing to their own crimes, all four defendants would get dramatically reduced sentences and would not have to implicate anyone else. They took the deal, pleading guilty in November.

Only one defendant, Briana Waters, continues to plead not guilty before the federal court in Washington. Her attorney is pursuing a discovery motion similar to that filed by the Oregon defense team.

Hanging like a pall over the community is the knowledge that Rodgers had made an entirely different decision. Alone in his jail cell in Flagstaff, Ariz., in December 2005, he had scrawled two notes, one bemoaning his betrayal, and the other addressed to his friends and family. "I chose to fight on the side of the bears, mountain lions, skunks, bats, saguaros, cliff roses and all things wild," he wrote. "I am just the most recent casualty in this war. But tonight I have made a jailbreak — I am returning home, to the Earth, the place of my origins." With that, he placed a plastic bag over his head and suffocated. Reportedly, he died with his right fist clenched in the Earth First! gesture of defiance.

It may have signaled a call to action — or the death of a movement.  


Check back on Dec. 21 for Part V: The Aftermath.

 

GRAND STAND

In March 2006, an FBI agent and Eugene policeman surprised nursing student Jeff Hogg by his car in the parking lot of LCC. "'You're not in trouble or anything; we just want you to testify against the arsonists,'" he remembers them saying. "I was pretty freaked out, but I wasn't surprised they wanted to talk to me."

Photo by Kera Abraham

Hogg, an Earth First!er who had been active with the local scene from the 1995 Warner Creek blockade to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, speculated that his grand jury subpoena may have had something to do with his alleged participation in "Book Club" meetings, which prosecutors describe as secret, conspiratorial eco-radical gatherings that took place in four cities, including Eugene, around 2000-2001. And, of course, his ex-girlfriend was former Earth First! Journal co-editor Lacey Phillabaum, who was in a relationship with hard-talking radical Stan Meyerhoff. Both Phillabaum and Meyerhoff, by then, had been fingered in the arsons and were apparently cooperating with the feds.

But Hogg wouldn't testify, and in May 2006 he was incarcerated for contempt, leaving his studies on hold and his partner, Cecilia Story, to pay the mortgage on their home. "It would be different if I'd been somebody who stole a car or something and knew my charges," he told EW through the Plexiglas at Josephine County Jail. "For me, it's a bunch of unknowns."

He would remain in jail without charge, refusing to cooperate with the grand jury, until November. During those six months on the inside his life had been thrown off-track, his studies put on hold, his parents upset with him for missing his grandfather's funeral. But in eco-radical circles, media-shy Hogg became a hero. — Kera Abraham

 

 

The Actions

Oct. 28, 1996: Attempted arson of USFS's Detroit Ranger District station in Willamette National Forest; arson of USFS vehicle in parking lot. "Earth Liberation Front" (ELF) spray-painted on the side of the building. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Overaker

October 30, 1996: Arson of USFS's Oakridge Ranger District station in WNF, Ore. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Overaker, Tubbs

July 21, 1997: Arson at Cavel West horse slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore. Communiqué attributed arson to Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and "Equine and Zebra Liberation Front." LINKED TO: Ferguson, Tubbs, Dibee, Paul, Kolar

Nov. 30, 1997: Arson at BLM Wild Horse and Burro Facility in Burns, Ore.; about 400 horses and burros freed. ELF/ALF claimed arson via communiqué. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Overaker, Tubbs, Rubin, Rodgers

June 21, 1998: Arson at the USDA's Animal, Plant and Health Inspection Service in Olympia, Wash. Claimed by ELF/ALF via communiqué. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Overaker*, Tubbs, Rodgers, Dibee.

September 1998: Preparations for arson at BLM Wild Horse facility in Rock Springs, Wyo. Suspects heard on scanner that police were coming and buried materials. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Tubbs, Rubin, Rodgers

Oct. 4, 1998: Attempted arson at Wray Gun Club, Wray, Colo. LINKED TO: Kolar

Oct. 11, 1998: Attempted arson at BLM Wild Horse Holding Facility in Rock Springs, Wyo; 40-100 wild horses freed. ALF claimed responsibility via communiqué. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Overaker, Tubbs, Rubin, Rodgers, Meyerhoff, Gerlach

Oct. 19, 1998: Arson at the Vail Mountain ski resort in Vail, Colo. ELF claimed responsibility via communiqué. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Overaker, Tubbs, Meyerhoff, Rubin, Gerlach, Rodgers

Dec. 22, 1998: Attempted arson at U.S. Forest Industries headquarters in Medford. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Tankersley, Tubbs, Rubin

Dec. 27, 1998: Arson at U.S. Forest Industries headquarters in Medford. ELF claimed responsibility via communiqué. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Tankersley

May 9, 1999: Arson at Childers Meat Company in Eugene. ALF claimed responsibility via communiqué. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Overaker, Tubbs, Meyerhoff, Gerlach and "others"

Dec. 25, 1999: Arson at Boise Cascade logging company regional headquarters in Monmouth, Ore. ELF claimed responsibility via communiqué. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Overaker, Meyerhoff, Gerlach

Dec. 30, 1999: BPA high-tension line toppled near Bend. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Overaker, Meyerhoff, Gerlach

Sept. 6, 2000: Arson at EPD West University Public Safety Station in Eugene. LINKED TO: Meyerhoff, Gerlach, Tubbs

Jan. 2, 2001: Arson at Superior Lumber offices in Glendale, Ore. ELF claimed responsibility via communiqué. LINKED TO: Ferguson, Meyerhoff, Tubbs, McGowan, Savoie

March 30, 2001: Arson at Joe Romania Chevrolet dealership in Eugene. Communiqué sent to ELF press office did not explicitly attribute the action to ELF or ALF. LINKED TO: Meyerhoff, Tubbs, Block, Zacher, Rodgers

May 21, 2001: Arson at Jefferson Poplar Farm in Clatskanie, Ore. ELF claimed responsibility via communiqué. LINKED TO: Meyerhoff, McGowan, Savoie, Block, Zacher, Ferguson*, Gerlach*, Tubbs*, Rodgers*

May 21, 2001: Arson at the University of Washington's Urban Horticulture Center in Seattle. ELF claimed responsibility via communiqué. LINKED TO: Meyerhoff, Gerlach, Rodgers, Waters, Kolar, Phillabaum, Solondz

Oct. 15, 2001: Arson at BLM wild horse and burro corrals in Litchfield, Calif.; 200 horses and burros freed. ELF claimed responsibility via communiqué. LINKED TO: Dibee, Rubin, Thurston, Solondz, Meyerhoff, Tubbs, Gerlach, Rodgers

*Implicated in preparations for arson, not arson itself

Source: Federal prosecutors' indictments and information. Actions that have been confessed to in court but have not resulted in indictments are not included here.

 

 

The Accused

Jake Ferguson Age: 34

Bio: Came to Eugene around 1994 with then-girlfriend; son born in 1995. Core activist at Warner Creek blockade. Lived in Eugene area on an off into the present. Dated* defendant Overaker around 1996 and Tankersley around late 1998. Recently studied diesel mechanics at LCC.

Legal status: Unindicted informant; implicated in 15 actions

* Note: The term "dated" is used loosely throughout this piece and indicates a spectrum of relationships: friends with benefits, polyamorous affairs, long-term monogamous partnerships. We note only known relationships among the accused and subpoenaed.

Stanislas Meyerhoff aka "Country Boy" Age: 29

Bio: Graduated from South Eugene High School in 1995. Dated defendant Gerlach from 1994–2000, and Phillabaum from 2001 until recently. Around 2001 moved to Bend, and about four years later moved to Charlottesville, Va. FBI agents arrested him in December 2005 at Piedmont Community College, where he studied engineering.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to eight actions, spanning 1998-2001, in July and September 2006. Recommended sentence: 15 years

Chelsea Gerlach aka "Country Girl" Age: 29

Bio: Eco-activist from age 15; graduated from South Eugene High School in 1995. Dated defendant Meyerhoff from 1994-2000, and later Thurston. Did outreach for the Warner Creek campaign. Studied environmental issues at Evergreen State College and LCC. At time of arrest in late 2005, was a house DJ living in Portland.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to six actions, spanning 1998-2001, in July and September 2006. Recommended sentence: 10 years

Sarah Kendall Tankersley Harvey Age: 29

Bio: Moved to Eugene from Ohio in fall 1995 to study history at the UO. Around 1997, became involved with the campus Survival Center. That spring, with Cascadia Forest Defenders, perched atop a metal tripod on the road into Hull-Oakes Lumber mill; peacefully confronted police at June 1 protest against tree cutting in downtown Eugene. In 1998 volunteered with Food Not Bombs; briefly dated informant Ferguson. Left Eugene around 1999, attended Humboldt State and graduated with molecular biology degree in 2004. Arrested in Flagstaff, Ariz., where she was working in support of families with disabled children, in December 2005.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to two 1998 arsons in July 2006. Recommended sentence: more than four years

Darren Thurston aka "Goat" Age: 36

Bio: Canadian animal rights activist with two prior eco-sabotage convictions; served almost two years in prison in the early 1990s. Arrested with then-girlfriend Gerlach in Tacoma, Wash., on Dec. 7, 2005, on immigration charges; later indicted for arson.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to participation in one 2001 arson on July 20, 2006. Recommended sentence: more than three years

Suzanne Savoie aka "India" Age: 29

Bio: Southern Oregon-based eco-activist formerly involved in forest defense campaigns in the Siskiyou Mountains and Applegate watershed. Briefly dated defendant McGowan. Later worked in a home for the developmentally disabled; turned self in to FBI agents in mid-January 2006.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to two 2001 arsons on July 21, 2006. Recommended sentence: More than five years

Kevin Tubbs aka "The Dog" Age: 37

Eugene connection: Animal rights activist from age 22; studied fine arts and philosophy at the University of Nebraska. Moved to Eugene with then-girlfriend around 1995. Volunteered at Earth First! Journal; briefly lived in a trailer behind the journal's Glenwood-area office. Core activist at the Warner Creek blockade. Arrested on Dec. 7, 2005 at his Springfield home, where he lived with his fiancé, dogs and cats.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to eight actions, spanning 1996-2001, in July 2006. Recommended sentence: more than 14 years

Briana Waters Age: 31

Bio: Grew up in Lansdale, Penn., and Berkeley, Calif; later lived in Olympia, Wash. Produced and directed Watch, a documentary on a 1999 forest defense campaign in southwest Washington. Graduated from Evergreen State College in 1999. At the time of arrest in March 2006, was working as a violin teacher, married, and had a baby daughter.

Legal status: Pleaded not guilty to UW arson; trial scheduled for May 2007

Joseph Dibee Age: 39

Bio: Lived in Seattle; worked at family sewing company, and later as a technician for Microsoft. Dated defendant Kolar. Reportedly "communications" specialist during Warner Creek blockade and banner-maker for other environmental actions. Indicted in January 2006 for alleged participation in one 2001 arson and one 1998 arson.

Legal status: Fugitive

Jonathan Paul Age: 40

Eugene connection: Grew up in the Eastern U.S.; animal rights activist. In early 1990s, jailed for almost six months for refusing to testify to federal grand jury. Dated defendant Kolar; later engaged in legal skirmish with indictee Dibee over rights to anti-whaling nonprofit, Sea Defense Alliance. In 1998 spoke at the National Animal Rights Conference at the UO, suggesting that the ALF and ELF movements be united. Arrested in southern Oregon, where he worked as a hotel employee and volunteer firefighter, in mid-January 2006.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to one 1997 arson on Nov. 9, 2006. Recommended sentence: five years

Nathan Block aka "Exile" Age: 25

Bio: Worked as a carpenter and lived with defendant Zacher outside Olympia, Wash. Arrested in February 2006; detectives allegedly seized 44 pounds of pot from his and Zacher's rented house.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to two 2001 arsons on Nov. 9, 2006. Recommended sentence: eight years

Lacey Phillabaum Age: 31

Bio: Grew up in Spokane, Wash.; high school debater. Came to Eugene to study art history at the UO around 1993. Worked at campus Survival Center and radical student newspaper The Insurgent. Supported the Warner Creek blockade; co-editor of Earth First! Journal from 1996-1999. Spoke at spring 2001 environmental law conference panel: "Does Property Damage Have a Place in Mass Protest?" Appeared in Tim Lewis films Pickaxe, Breaking the Spell and others. Dated subpoenaed activist Jeff Hogg from about 1996-2000 and defendant Meyerhoff from about 2001 until recently. Beginning around 2001, worked as editor of In Good Tilth newsletter, freelanced for Bend altweekly The Source. In 2005 moved to Charlottesville, Va., to take reporting position at C-Ville Weekly. Turned herself in to federal agents sometime around early 2006.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to one 2001 arson on Oct. 4, 2006. Recommended sentence: three to five years

Daniel McGowan aka "Sorrell" Age: 32

Bio: Grew up in Queens, NY; earned degree in business administration and Asian studies from University of Buffalo in 1996. Participated in 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Lived in Eugene from March 2000-January 2002; was short-term editor for Earth First! Journal, contributor to Green Anarchy magazine, volunteer for Shamrock House Infoshop and campaigner to support Jeff "Free" Luers. Briefly dated defendant Savoie; washed dishes at Morning Glory restaurant. Returned to New York in 2002, studied acupuncture, organized protests against the Republican National Convention and worked for WomensLaw.org. Arrested in New York City in December 2005; married in May 2006.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to two 2001 arsons on Nov. 9, 2006. Recommended sentence: eight years

Joyanna Zacher aka "Sheba" Age: 28

Bio: Involved in 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle. Worked as a nanny and lived with defendant Block outside Olympia, Wash. Arrested in February 2006.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to two 2001 arsons on Nov. 9, 2006. Recommended sentence: eight years

Jennifer Kolar aka "Diver" Age: 33

Bio: Grew up in Spokane, Wash.; raced sailboats. Dated defendant Jonathan Paul, and later fugitive Joseph Dibee. Pursued doctorate degree at the University of Colorado. Turned self in to federal agents in Washington sometime around early 2006.

Legal status: Pleaded guilty to a 1998 arson and a 2001 arson on Oct. 4, 2006. Recommendedsentence: five to seven years

Rebecca Rubin Age: 33

Bio: Canadian scientist; studied cranes. Indicted in January 2006 for alleged participation in six actions, 1997-2001.

Legal status: Fugitive

Josephine Sunshine Overaker aka "Maria" Age: Uncertain; likely 32-35

Bio: May have lived in Eugene in mid-1990s. Dated informant Ferguson around fall 1996. Reportedly participated in a number of forest defense actions. Indicted in January 2006 for alleged participation in nine actions, 1996-1999.

Legal status: Fugitive

Justin Solondz Age: 27

Bio: Born in New Jersey; part-time carpentry worker. Indicted in spring 2006 for alleged participation in two 2001 arsons.

Legal status: Fugitive

William Rodgers aka "Avalon" Age: 40 at death

Bio: Arizona-based eco-activist. In 1996, briefly joined the Warner Creek blockade. Allegedly co-authored a 2001 paper with Meyerhoff on how to build time-delayed incendiary devices. Before his arrest in December 2005, was living in Prescott, Ariz., with his then-girlfriend and running an activist bookstore, The Catalyst Infoshop. A member of the Arizona Indymedia collective, he apparently committed suicide by pulling a plastic bag over his head in a Flagstaff, Ariz., jail cell on Dec. 22, 2005, while awaiting extradition to Washington state.

Legal status: Deceased; never indicted

 

Part I: In Defense of Cascadia

http://www.eugeneweekly.com/2006/11/02/coverstory

 

Part II: Eco-Anarchy Rising

http://www.eugeneweekly.com/2006/11/09/news1

 

Part. III: Eco-Anarchy Imploding

http://www.eugeneweekly.com/2006/11/22/coverstory

 

Part V: The Ashes
http://www.eugeneweekly.com/2006/12/21/news1