Activist Under Investigation


Oregon prison springs eco-saboteur 'Free' by mistake, then takes him back

By Bryan Denson, The Oregonian

The man who drew the longest prison sentence in U.S. history for eco-sabotage walked out of prison this morning. After years of appeals, Jeffrey M. Luers, known to Eugene ’s anarchist clan as “Free,” was just that. But just as quickly, he was sent back to prison.

The Oregon Department of Corrections acknowledged today that it mistakenly allowed Luers to take advantage of a new law, House Bill 3508, which grants reduced sentences for certain classes of inmates. Luers’ sentence for arson made him ineligible for early release, said prisons spokeswoman Jennifer Black, in Salem .

It’s a mistake we wish hadn’t happened,” she said. “We’re reviewing processes and hoping that it just does not happen again.”

Luers was released from Columbia River Correctional Institution in Northeast Portland this morning and given 24 hours to check in with his parole officer in Lane County . He checked in this afternoon, where he learned of the error.

Authorities took the 30-year-old radical environmentalist back to prison, a rude reversal for those who worked years to get Luers out.

The day began with Luers’ supporters writing on the Friends of Jeff Luers Web site: “We are still pinching ourselves.”

Luers’ appellate lawyer in Salem , Shawn Wiley, weighed in with an e-mail comment to The Oregonian: “This day is long overdue. Jeff is a kind, thoughtful, intelligent young man, and our community benefits much more from his presence in it rather than behind bars." But their joy was short lived. Luers' saga began in 2001, when Lane County Circuit Judge Lyle Velure sentenced him to 22 years, 8 months in prison after finding him guilty of two crimes in Eugene -- attempting to set fire to a gasoline tanker owned by a petroleum distributor, then firebombing three pickup trucks at a Chevy dealership.

The sentence drew gasps because it was by far the stiffest punishment handed to an eco-saboteur in the United States . Across the nation, environmental activists and civil libertarians expressed outrage.

At that time, Luers’ crimes were paltry compared to those committed by better known eco-saboteurs. Rod Coronado, for instance, who waged a multi-state arson campaign against the fur industry, was sentenced to less than five years in federal prison.

After Luers was sent to prison, arsons by underground groups such as the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front ceased in Oregon , once a hotbed of environmentally motivated firebombings and vandalism.

Law enforcement authorities said Luers’ long sentence served as a deterrent to those who might consider setting fire to SUVs, mink ranches or Forest Service installations.

In a phone interview from prison in September 2001, Luers told The Oregonian that the gravity of his sentence did not strike him until he lay in a prison bunk one day realizing his parents might die before he is freed. Luers told the newspaper that he set fire to the pickups to protest gas-guzzling vehicles and the disproportionate amount of pollution they belch into the air.

He described the arson at Eugene ’s Romania Chevrolet as a final, desperate act of an environmental crusade that began benignly with letters to politicians, door-to-door work with the Sierra Club and tree sits to prevent logging. “It was an escalation to a level I’d never gone before and I could never live down,” Luers told The Oregonian. “At that point, for me, I could no longer say I was an activist. In my mind, I’d taken it to the next level.”

The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in February 2007 that Lane County must re-sentence Luers because Velure erred by convicting him of two counts of arson and imposing consecutive prison terms under Oregon’s mandatory-minimum sentencing law.

Lawyers negotiated an agreement that re-sentenced Luers to 10 years in prison, which would have brought him home this Christmas.

Passage of House Bill 3508 this year gave Luers even more good news. He was one of the roughly 2,000 Oregon prisoners to get notice recently that they were eligible for a fractional reduction of their sentence, Black said. For Luers, this meant freedom a few months early. But today’s foul-up nixed his freedom.

Luers is scheduled for release on Dec. 16.


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