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January/February 2004
Free Free: The Case of Jeff Luers

By Dylan Kay


Sea Otter
Jeff Luers. Photo courtesy Friends of Jeff Luers

You can judge my actions, but you can’t judge my heart. It cannot be said that I am unfeeling and uncaring. My heart is filled with love and compassion. I fight to protect life, all life, not to take it. —from Jeff Luers’s sentencing statement, June 11, 2001

Back in June 2000, a young activist named Jeff Luers, known to his friends as ‘Free,’ set fire with friend Craig Marshall to three Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) at Romania Chevrolet car lot in Eugene, Oregon, using simple milk jugs of gasoline, incense sticks and matches. Instead of receiving a three year sentence and fading into the background, Jeff was slapped with a 22.5 year sentence—which was not only longer than his lifetime at that point, but is one usually reserved for the most heinous of crimes like rape and murder, not acts of property destruction.

Jeff’s sentence has been criticized for its length, given that in Oregon, most arsonists receive sentences of 50 to 96 months; Jeff got over 230. As I write this, I read that Jeff’s trial judge recently sentenced a 21 year-old to just three years for throwing a molotov cocktail into a school. Jeff’s case has received international prominence in the environmental and social justice movements due to his severe sentence and has prompted the question, “why would someone burn three SUVs?”

Their stated purpose was to raise awareness about global warming and the role that SUVs play in that process. Both activists took measures to make sure that no one would be injured as a result of their action. In fact, the location was scouted for months beforehand. An arson specialist later confirmed that the action did not pose any threat to people based on its size and distance from any fuel source.

What Happened?
Shortly after the incident Jeff was arrested by the same police who had been following him and Craig all night. Six undercover police cars had followed them from the time they left the warehouse until just before the fire (when the police apparently lost sight of them). Jeff and Craig were then arrested, charged with multiple arson charges. A few days later, they were accused of an attempted arson at Tyree Oil—a gas facility located in the Whitaker neighborhood, home to many activists that reside in Eugene. Although there was no proof of their involvement at Tyree Oil—there were fingerprints that did not match those of Jeff or Craig—with shady evidence, the state managed to secure a warrant and searched Jeff’s residence. The most damning evidence they found was a pair of metal cutters that they alleged matched a hole cut in the Tyree Oil fence.

Overall, Jeff and Craig were faced with 13 serious charges, including first degree arson, attempted arson, possession and manufacture of a destructive device and criminal mischief.

The Trial
The trial, which started after they had spent a year in Lane County Jail, was a farce from the very beginning. Articles in the local media marginalized them as troublemakers and highlighted previous arrests. Supporters were stopped on their way to the trial by local police and threatened with noise violations. Jeff’s judge denied almost every motion made by his lawyer, including that to separate the Romania car lot case from the Tyree Oil case, allowing the state to portray them as serial arsonists and a menace to the community. Had the cases been separated, the flimsy circumstantial evidence for the Tyree case would never have stood up. Motions to sever the defendants from each other were similarly denied.

From the prosecutor’s actions, it seemed that Jeff was a trophy conviction—one that would deter future actions and allay criticism of Oregon’s inability to solve cases of property destruction by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Since 1996, over 200 actions against animal industries, logging, mining and biotechnology have been claimed by the ELF or ALF (Animal Liberation Front), causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to these companies—cases that are still unsolved. The action taken by Jeff and Craig however was not claimed by the ELF and they have stringently denied involvement in the group. Nonetheless, the prosecutor seemed to be driven by the need for a major conviction.

Five days into the trial, Jeff’s lawyer Ken Morrow died unexpectedly, causing a hold-up in the trial. A day later, Jeff’s codefendant Craig Marshall pled guilty to conspiracy to commit first degree arson and possession of a destructive device. He was sentenced to five years and five months (his release date is December 2004). After some legal wrangling, Jeff hired Craig’s lawyer and proceeded on with the case.

Three days into Jeff’s trial, unknown individuals torched 36 SUVs at the same car lot that Jeff and Craig had set fire to a year earlier, and released a statement that the act was in solidarity with both defendants and criticized car culture. Many felt that this tainted Jeff’s chance of a fair and unbiased trial and perhaps for that reason, Jeff chose to have a judge decide on his innocence or guilt instead of a jury.

After five days of trial, Judge Lyle Velure found Jeff guilty of 11 of 13 charges. Because of Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing guideline, Jeff received a seven year mandatory sentence for each car burned as well as charges of possession of incendiary devices and attempted arson—totaling 22 years and eight months.

In his sentencing statement, Jeff spoke about the many precautions both he and Craig took before the action: I took every precaution to ensure that no one would be injured by this fire. If I thought for any reason that anyone—responding firefighters or police officers—would be injured, I never would have set this fire. It was not my intention to hurt anyone or place anyone at risk.

Campaign to ‘Free Free’
Although faced with a tremendous sentence and major obstacles like his distance from his home in Eugene and being moved around from prison to prison, Jeff has been remarkably active in the first three years of his imprisonment. He is working toward a degree in sociology as well as taking paralegal classes, and many of his writings and artwork have been published, including an op-ed piece on the concept of eco-terrorism in the statewide newspaper, The Oregonian.

He also addressed the Congressional Hearings on ‘Eco-terror’ held in February 2002—a hearing that reminded some of Senator Joe McCarthy’s House of Un-American Affairs Committee political witch hunts of the 1950s. In those hearings, Congressmen Scott McInnis (representing the district near Vail, Colorado—home of the biggest ELF action ever, the 1998 burning of the Vail ski resort which was set to expand into a wilderness area) taunted former ELF press officer, Craig Rosebraugh, asking if he wanted to “waste away in prison for the next two decades like Jeff Luers.”

Jeff’s appeal was filed in January 2002 and the state government recently responded with its own brief, which calls Jeff a terrorist five times. Emboldened by a reactionary 9/11 climate, the prosecution as well as ‘property rights groups’ (like the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise) have dropped the word ‘eco’ and now labels activists like Jeff ‘terrorists,’ equating them to al-Qaeda members. Advocates for Jeff’s freedom hope the case will go to court within a year but it is impossible to tell. Promising developments in Jeff’s case are a letter released by the Eugene Human Rights Commission in June 2003, which argues that Jeff’s sentence is disproportionately long in comparison to those of people who commit violent crimes; it also urges him to utilize the appeal process and seek a reduced sentence.

This is a pivotal case for activists nationwide because it is setting the tone for how actions in defense of the Earth that injure no people will be viewed by the public and punished by the state. Prior to Jeff’s case, activists getting arrested for actions like arson or liberating animals could expect sentences of about five years or so. Jeff’s sentence is a radical departure from that model and goes hand in hand with the manner in which these actions are described by the government and media. What was once ‘direct action’ has been transformed into ‘eco-terrorism,’ and now we are seeing more often simply the term ‘terrorism’ being used. Legislators on the state and federal levels are pushing for strong anti-terrorism legislation, and are drafting the bills in such a way that actions like Jeff’s are included and punished severely—which also serves as a deterrent for future actions. Over and over, letters printed in areas in which actions occur are stating that they are one and the same with the terrorism of groups like al-Qaeda. If we want to get anywhere, we are going to have to combat this misrepresentation of our actions and not allow people that get arrested and imprisoned to fade away and be forgotten.

On June 12, 2003 supporters of Jeff in Eugene, Oregon had a ‘Free Free’ march (ending with 12 arrests). Supporters in Melbourne, Australia conducted a picket for Jeff outside the American embassy and activists in Moscow, Russia are embarking on a postcard campaign as well. Plans are being discussed for an international day of action and solidarity for Jeff this summer with protests as well as celebrations all over the country and the world.

What you can do to help Jeff
All that I ask is that you believe the sincerity of my words, that you believe that my actions, whether or not you consider them to be misguided, stem from the love I have in my heart.—from Jeff’s sentencing statement.

Jeff’s case is currently in appeal and his lawyer and the state will trade briefs before going to court again; Jeff intends to appeal his case as many times as necessary. This case is tremendously expensive and requires a lot of community support.

To donate money to Jeff’s appeal, click ‘make a donation’ on his website or send a check/money order made out to ‘Free’s Defense Network’ to POB 3, Eugene, OR 97440. Donations can also be made to his commissary account for stamps, pens, envelopes, etc. You can write Jeff directly at: Jeffrey Luers, #13797671, OSP, 2605 State Street, Salem, OR 97310.

You can also form a local support group for Jeff as part of his decentralized defense network. Groups coordinate through Jeff, and can hold benefits, put donation jars at the local bookstore or have letter-writing days to Oregon newspapers or the Governor. For more ideas, visit:

Dylan Kay
is an organizer with Friends of Jeff Luers and has been involved in the campaign to free Jeff since his arrest.


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