The Unsolved Mysteries of Judi Bari 

For more than a decade, the investigation into the car bombing of environmental activist Judi Bari has been the East Bay's most compelling whodunit. Now the entire tangled case is going to court.

In the final weeks of her life, in spite of the excruciating pain she felt from the cancer eating away at her liver, Judi Bari cut back on her morphine intake. She still had work to do and she needed to remain lucid. It had been seven years since a bomb exploded underneath the driver's seat of her Subaru wagon as she drove through downtown Oakland. It was May 24, 1990, the eve of Redwood Summer, a planned campaign of nonviolent demonstrations against the logging of old-growth redwoods in Northern California.

The blast crushed Bari's pelvis, paralyzed her right foot, left her sexual organs permanently numb, and dislocated her back, making the diminutive activist look even shorter. Although doctors suspected she would never walk again, she beat the odds -- though she was never able to walk more than a few hundred feet at a time. In the end, however, she knew she wouldn't beat the odds.

By the time she discovered a lump in her breast, the cancer had already spread to her liver. Having decided not to undergo chemotherapy, which would at best extend her life for a few uncomfortable months, the 47-year-old mother of two focused on organizing what she hoped would be her legacy: thousands of pages of evidence and material related to the bombing. Soon, three-ring binders stuffed with police reports, internal FBI memos, death threats, and press clippings filled the shelves of her small cabin in the logging town of Willits.

Bari compiled more than five thousand pages of material from the FBI and Oakland police alone. They didn't turn over the documents willingly; in fact, they were ordered to do so by a federal judge. The documents were produced as part of the discovery process in a lawsuit filed by Bari and Darryl Cherney, a passenger in Bari's car who was also injured in the bombing. The suit, filed a year after the bombing, alleged that the decision by law enforcement agencies to arrest the two victims and accuse them of building the device that nearly killed them was an official conspiracy to discredit Earth First! leaders, and undermine Redwood Summer.

The lawsuit proceeded at a glacial pace, as attorneys for the FBI and the Oakland cops unsuccessfully tried to get the case thrown out. Bari's lawyers even had to fight to be able to take a deposition from her one month before she died. Despite the strenuous objections of FBI lawyer R. Joseph Sher, whom Bari later said accused her of "faking cancer" to elicit sympathy, the gravely ill activist -- her eyes surrounded by dark circles, her cheeks sunken -- gave her sworn testimony while lying on a couch.

By the time she died, Bari had condensed and summarized all the material she had gathered, preparing a sort of Reader¹s Digest version of the case for anyone who dared enter its bizarre world of kooks and spooks. "She worked on that lawsuit until she couldn't talk anymore," recalls Bari's friend Alicia Littletree. On her deathbed, Bari made her friends promise to see the lawsuit through to its conclusion. She warned Cherney, her musical partner and one-time boyfriend, that "If you settle for $1 million, I'll haunt you for the rest of your life." She clearly hoped that at the very least the lawsuit would clear her name as a suspect once and for all; and maybe, just maybe, the suit might finally answer the nagging question, Who bombed Judi Bari?

Because there never was a thorough investigation of the bombing by law enforcement agencies, truth in the Bari case has been hard to come by, and the absence of hard evidence has left a vacuum which was quickly filled by conspiracy theories. North Coast leftists have formed factions over which conspiracy theory is right. One side argues that the bombing was a plot by big timber to get rid of Bari and that the FBI jumped in to help cover it up. On the other side, a prominent Mendocino County newspaper publisher has been on a two-year crusade to get police to investigate Bari's ex-husband in connection with the bombing. And now, less than a month before Bari and Cherney's lawsuit goes to trial at the US District Court in Oakland, new physical evidence has turned up -- evidence that might help answer one of the many unsolved mysteries surrounding the Bari case.

One day while working on a construction site in Mendocino County, Judi Bari stopped and examined a piece of wood siding. Noticing that the wood had no knots, the carpenter asked her supervisor if the wood was from an old-growth tree. That piece of wood, the supervisor replied, was about 1,000 years old. And at that moment -- so the legend goes -- as Bari registered what her boss had said, an environmentalist was born.

"A lightbulb went on," she later said. "We are cutting down old-growth forests to make yuppie houses. I became obsessed with the forests." Bari was an unlikely figure to become the chief spokesperson for Earth First! in California. For one thing, she was a woman. To that point in the late '80s, Earth First! had been a macho affair composed primarily of bearded "eco-warriors." But Bari, who liked the group's confrontational style, was always trying to prove she could do whatever a man could do. Before becoming a carpenter in Mendocino, for instance, Bari worked in Washington as a mail carrier shouldering a mailbag more than half her body weight every day.

In 1988, Bari met a short, bearded man with a scrunched face, who bore a vague resemblance to a gnome. His name was Darryl Cherney and he was in the midst of a quixotic campaign for Congress. After being introduced to him, Bari immediately launched into a tirade about how he knew nothing of labor or feminist issues. "I fell in love with her from the moment we met," Cherney says. It turned out that the two shared similar politics, particularly on protecting the environment. They also shared an interest in music: Bari played the fiddle, Cherney played guitar.

As the new decade approached, tensions in logging country were running high. Blue-collar woodsmen sported T-shirts that read, "Save a logger, eat an owl" and "Spotted owl tastes like chicken." Bari would recall an incident where one logger fired a shotgun blast over the head of an Earth Firster and later punched a fifty-year-old woman, breaking her nose. In 1987, a sawmill worker was seriously injured when he was hit in the face by a shattered blade that had hit a spike in a tree. Tree spiking had been an Earth First! specialty, part of the group's campaign of industrial sabotage -- "monkeywrenching" in Earth First! parlance.

Bari could be a pragmatic organizer, and early in 1990 she and Cherney began plotting a series of nonviolent protests that they would ultimately dub Redwood Summer -- an allusion to the nonviolent civil rights protest in the South known as Mississippi Summer. The idea was to demonstrate to loggers that they and Earth First! actually shared similar interests. If the timber companies cut down all the trees, enviros reasoned, loggers would be out of work. In the spring of 1990, Earth First! even renounced tree spiking.

(Despite the olive branch extended by Earth First!, all would not be peaceful. A logging truck would run Bari's car off the road, and she would receive written death threats.)

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