In the case of Eric McDavid, alleged to be ring-leader of eco-terrorist cell, ‘game-changing’ documents seen exclusively by the Guardian show informant may have entrapped him
On the surface, she blended in very well. With a skull tattooed on her shoulder, a black-and-white keffiyeh around her neck, a shock of bright pink hair and her standard-issue dress of camouflage skirt and heavy boots, the energetic 17-year-old looked every bit the radical eco-activist she worked so hard to imitate.
But “Anna”, as she called herself, was no ordinary eco-protester. Really, she wasn’t one at all. She was an FBI informant under instructions to infiltrate fringe green groups and anti-capitalist networks and report back on their activities to the US government.
Now “Anna”, in her role at the center of a high-profile prosecution of alleged eco-terrorists in 2006-7, has been put under the spotlight following the embarrassing admission by the US Department of Justice that it failed to disclose crucial documents to defence attorneys at trial.
On Thursday, Eric McDavid, a radical green activist aged 37, was allowed to walk free after having served nine years of a 19-year federal prison sentence. Prosecutors had alleged that he was the ringleader in a small cell of eco-terrorists connected to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) conspiring to bomb the Nimbus Dam in California, cellphone towers, science labs and other targets.
Last week’s dramatic scenes in a courtroom in Sacramento, California, have focused attention on the FBI’s use of undercover informants and prompted claims that the agency lured unsuspecting activists into criminal activity through blatant entrapment.
But last November, the US attorney’s office in the eastern district of California admitted that it had “inadvertently” failed to disclose numerous documents that went to the very heart of the case. Crucially, those previously undisclosed files included correspondence between “Anna” and McDavid that suggests that, far from being the neutral intelligence-gatherer portrayed by prosecutors, she might have entrapped her prey by encouraging him to behave conspiratorially in the hope of romantic fulfilment.
‘I think you and I could be great’
Among the files are a letter and 10 emails written by McDavid to the teenaged woman he thought at the time to be his friend, peer and potential sexual partner. The writings have been seen by the Guardian and extracts of them are published here for the first time.
In the letter, McDavid declared his love for “Anna”, though he coyly added that he was not sure whether his feelings for her amounted to “just infatuation, a crush, or whatever box anybody has for this emotion”. Scrawled diagonally across the page in spindly script, his words expressed the trepidation of someone unused to venting openly his emotions. He feared that unless he shared his feelings, they would “eat me from the inside out”.
“I hope that my forwardness w/expressing all this doesn’t scare the shit out of u,” he wrote, “cause I know if I got this letter I’d probably trip out a bit, to say the least …” Having opened his heart, he blurted out with palpable relief: “Fuck that feels soooooo much better.”
At McDavid’s 2006 trial, his defence team presented evidence to the jury that McDavid had fallen in love with the woman who would turn out to be his downfall. What wasn’t known at that time, and what is revealed by the newly disclosed documents, was that “Anna”, in her guise as a fellow radical, clearly reciprocated.
In an email dated 27 June 2005, six months before McDavid’s arrest, “Anna” responded explicitly to his previous amorous advances. She said: “I think you and I could be great, but we have LOTS of little kinks to work out.” She went on to say: “I hope in Indiana we can spend more quality time together, and really chat about life and our things.”
The tone of romantic encouragement in the email had an immediate impact on McDavid. He replied three days later, using the ungrammatical language of texting: “hey cheeka, so far as us B’n great, that i think is an understatement… along w/the ‘LOTS of little kinks 2 wk out’… but if u aint learning, u aint live’n… & I do think we could learn a lot from each other.”
In subsequent emails, McDavid continued to express his feelings for her, sending her “big hugs” and saying “miss you much”. Only one of “Anna’s” replies to McDavid is included among the new batch of documents disclosed after so many years. In it she wrote intimately about her hairstyle: “I took out the braids. : ( They were hurting my head SO BADLY by the last night in philly that I was just getting pissy. I’ll do it again, but I think I want the loose pink hair, like I told you about; and I can DIY that. But pain isn’t worth that much – besides, identity is so fluid… but that’s another convo, hopefully for IN. : )”
The tone is almost flirtatious. McDavid evidently took it to be such, because he replied: “sad & glad 2 hear about the braids, glad 2 hear they Rn’t hurting u’r head anymore, sad 2 c them gone… they were pretty damn cute, & that princess laya thing was 2 hot (inside shiver)”.
McDavid’s treatment: ‘not fair’ or an ‘inadvertent mistake’?
Eric McDavid walks out of the Federal Courthouse in Sacramento after being released from prison
The judge in McDavid’s case expressed astonishment and dismay that game-changing documents had not been shown at 2007 trial, adding McDavid’s treatment was ‘not fair’. Photograph: Jose Luis Villegas/AP
It took McDavid’s defence team and his large band of devoted supporters seven years after he was sentenced to extract from the Justice Department those 11 precious documents. They were finally released on 6 November last year, fully two years after reference was made to their existence in a court declaration by “Anna’s” FBI handler, special agent Nasson Walker. That two-year delay alone belies the assurance made by the US attorney’s office in Sacramento to the New York Times after last week’s hearing that “the documents were produced to the defendant promptly after their discovery.”
At the hearing, federal judge Morrison England expressed astonishment and dismay that such game-changing documents had not been shown to the defence at the 10-day trial over which he had presided in 2007. “I’ve never heard or seen anything like this,” he said, adding that McDavid’s treatment was “not fair”.
The judge demanded to be told how such a flagrant breach of disclosure – under the 14th amendment of the US constitution, the prosecution must turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defence – could have occurred: “This is huge. This is something that needs to be dealt with, and I want to know what happened.”
McDavid’s current lawyers, Mark Vermeulen and Ben Rosenfeld, said the documents they battled for years to wrestle from US prosecutors would have transformed the trial had they been available at the time. “If the defence had the evidence it has now – that ‘Anna’ encouraged Eric’s romantic advances, leading him to believe that sexual fulfilment would be conditional on him following her plans – that would have confirmed in the jury’s mind that she entrapped him. He would have been acquitted, it’s as simple as that,” Rosenfeld told the Guardian.
If the defence had the evidence it has now … He would have been acquitted, it’s as simple as that.
The Justice Department continues to insist it was all an “inadvertent” mistake. But that narrative does not cut it for McDavid’s legal team and supporters. “They took nine years of Eric’s life away from him and they shouldn’t be able to gloss over that with a press release – there needs to be a detailed explanation,” Rosenfeld said.
Concerns raised by the McDavid case about the use of undercover informants will resonate today given the FBI’s continued reliance upon infiltration as a major plank of its counter-terrorism strategy. Its paid moles, especially those planted within Muslim communities in the wake of 9/11, are regularly accused of crossing the line from observation into entrapment.
Rosenfeld said that McDavid’s story was a warning for today’s justice system: “When people see the TV news and hear of the latest foiled terrorist outrage they think ‘Wow! The FBI is so good at its job.’ But so many of these apparent plots are complete inventions of the government in the first place – they are creating and then solving their own conspiracies.”
‘I wanted to get a conversation going with everyone’
Throughout almost a decade of legal wrangling over the McDavid case, the mysterious “Anna” has been a constant factor. In her only known interview, for a 2008 article in Elle magazine, she posed for photographs in her normal outfit of jeans, T-shirt and suede jacket, her hair by then faded from lurid pink to its natural brown.
She told the magazine that 9/11 had motivated her to engage in counter-intelligence. A year after the attacks, when she was just 15, she contacted the Militarywomen.org website to inquire about enlisting in the army.
At a community college night class in Miami she tried to impress her professor by sneaking into a meeting of anti-free trade protesters for what she called “anthropological observation”. The report she presented to class so struck a police officer who was also taking the course that he passed her details to the Miami police department, which in turn quickly recommended her to the FBI.
Within months, she was going undercover among protesters at the G8 summit of leading economic powers in Atlanta. Over the next two years she was given more than 10 federal assignments, including infiltrating protest groups at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in Boston and New York respectively, and delving into the world of radical environmental activism.
At the G8 she met an anarchist named Zach Jenson, and through him fellow eco-activists Lauren Weiner and McDavid who she first met in 2004. All three were eventually arrested, though Jenson and Weiner cut a deal with prosecutors in which they gave evidence against their co-defendant in exchange for a lesser sentence.
“Anna” told the jury at McDavid’s trial that she had been scrupulously impartial, sticking closely to legal guidelines for informants that forbade her from playing a leadership position in the group or from pushing anybody to do anything. Yet under cross-examination, she described some of the proactive steps she took to bring the “cell” together.
She bought plane tickets for Weiner to fly her to McDavid’s house for a group meeting. “I wanted to get a conversation going between everyone,” she said.
Later, she drove Weiner and Jenson across the country to meet McDavid, using a ’96 Chevrolet paid for by the FBI and kitted out with recording equipment. When Weiner showed signs of losing enthusiasm for the project, “Anna” sent her an email saying: “There’s no going back … I don’t want to be dilly-dallying around forever, which I know I could do and fall into that trap but I want to avoid you doing that too.”
In email correspondence that is included in the newly disclosed documents seen by the Guardian, “Anna” wrote to Weiner in September 2005, telling her “I’ve made some more contacts in Philly, esp with the animal liberation movement, which I’d like to bring you and the rest of teh (sic) crew more into. I already talked a little bit about it with [McDavid] – we could make a big difference on multiple fronts.”
In a later email, also to Weiner, she said: “I’d love to start helping you and the rest of the Philly kids in whatever your hearts find to do.”
The FBI also paid for a cabin in Dutch Flat, California, heavily rigged with surveillance devices, where “Anna” assembled the group, telling them she had earned the rent money working as a dancer-cum-escort. There she presented the others with a “burn book” containing six recipes for concocting firebombs, though she told the jury the devices were designed by the FBI to be duds.
‘The government owes it to Eric – to tell the truth’
As these final planning meetings for a potential attack on a science lab were taking place, the FBI appeared to grow jittery about an operation that depended entirely on “Anna”. In November 2005, just weeks before the three activists were arrested at the cabin, a formal request was made to subject her to a lie-detector test.
The request form says the purpose of the polygraph would be to “confirm veracity of [“Anna’s”] reporting prior to the expenditure of substantial efforts and money based on source’s reporting.”
The polygraph was disclosed to McDavid’s defence team under freedom of information laws in 2012, five years after the trial. A small, but potentially significant, footnote to the request form reveals that a senior federal prosecutor (AUSA) approved the test, though the identity of the official is redacted on grounds of “personal privacy”.
The emergence of the polygraph test, and of the romantically tinged correspondence, has incensed Mark Reichel who acted as McDavid’s lawyer at trial. He tried to mount an entrapment defence, having been told by his client of “Anna’s” amorous behaviour, but was ultimately stymied by lack of evidence.
Before the trial began Reichel filed a motion to dismiss the case on grounds of an improper romance between informant and defendant. In it, he accused “Anna” of having “encouraged and urged him on, to write love letters and emails to her”. The US government’s response to the motion left no room for doubt: “The defendant’s claim of a romantic relationship between him and the informant is categorically untrue”.
I demanded to see the love letters before the trial, but the government told me they didn’t exist
“I demanded to see the love letters before the trial, but the government told me they didn’t exist,” Reichel said. “They wanted the world to see they had captured a member of ELF. He was innocent, they knew that, but they couldn’t let it be seen.”
The revelation of the newly disclosed documents is likely to prompt a flurry of litigation. Jeffrey Weiner, Lauren Weiner’s attorney (and cousin), told the Guardian that he was considering legal action to have her federal conviction lifted.
He said that “Anna” had encouraged a strong and intimate personal relationship with Lauren that was “so intense and continuous she literally took over Lauren’s will. ‘Anna’ chose the most gullible people that she could find and stopped at nothing to persuade them to commit criminal acts. I’m not saying my client did nothing, but her crime was created by the US government.”
For McDavid, too, this story is not at an end. As part of his release deal, he pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy charge with a terrorism enhancement attached, meaning that although he is a free man he will continue to labour under the stigma of a serious federal conviction.
Nor is the full extent of the official deception yet known. In 2010 the Justice Department released 2,500 pages relating to the case under freedom of information rules, but it refused to hand over a further 900 pages. What nuggets of information those pages contain, particularly among “Anna’s” replies to McDavid’s emails – most of which remain hidden – only the US government knows.
McDavid’s current partner, Jenny Esquivel, who has been a leading member of his support group, said she feared the remaining documents would never see the light of day. “The government keeps trying to frame this as a mistake, but they are the only people who knows what happened and they owe it to the American people – and to Eric – to tell the truth.”
She said that in the five days of freedom he has enjoyed, McDavid has revelled in being reunited with his family and spending time with his two nieces, both of whom were born while he was in prison. “The girls were overjoyed when they heard the news that he was coming home. It was almost impossible to pull them away from him while they were here,” she said.
Amid his joy, McDavid hasn’t lost sight, Esquivel said, of those who remain in the clutches of FBI entrapment. “The travesty is that so many people are dealing right now with exactly the same problem. Hundreds are serving decades in prison for crimes that never happened.”
Ed Pilkington in New York
Tuesday 13 January 2015 20.01 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 13 January 2015 23.50 GMT
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