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Earth First! trial continues: FBI says activists’ own bomb went off

By Chris Nichols Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday May 14, 2002

The Earth First! v. FBI and Oakland Police Department trial moved one step closer to closing arguments and jury deliberation Monday. Attorneys for both sides questioned the last few witnesses in the case that accuses the FBI and OPD of mishandling the 1990 car bombing of environmental activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. 

Defense attorneys called witness Dr. Alberto Delarti Bolanos, an orthopedic surgeon from San Mateo, as their first witness Monday. 

Bolanos testified that the injuries suffered by Bari, who died of cancer in 1997, could not have been the result of a bomb placed under the front seat of the car as the plaintiffs claim but instead resulted from a blast from behind the front seat. 

Attorneys for the defense claim the bomb was knowingly carried in the back of Bari's '81 Subaru when it exploded as the two activists were traveling through Oakland. 

Robert Bloom, attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that Bolanos did not have a complete record of documents or a record of x-rays and photographs when he concluded that Bari's injuries resulted from a bomb blast from behind the front seat. Despite this, Bolanos maintained under questioning that he was able to accurately determine the location of the bomb without further information. 

Bloom also determined that Bolanos had not previously been an advisor on matters of bomb injuries. 

Attorneys for each side also questioned defense witness Thomas J. Orloff, Special Agent with the FBI, regarding Orloff's aid in developing the search warrant affidavit. Orloff denied accusations of “judge-shopping,” or pursuing a more favorable judge to approve matters in the initial 1990 case. 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs claim investigators bypassed the initial judge in order to have their warrant approved, allowing them to search both Bari and Cherney's Redwood Valley residences and the Seeds of Peace house in Berkeley. 

In response, Orloff claimed that Judge Corrigan, though not the initial judge in line for the case, "is a very bright, thorough and experienced judge. She scrutinized the warrant while some judges would just rubber stamp a warrant." 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs continued to question how and why witnesses from the FBI pursued certain pieces of evidence and formed judgments in the case. 

Witnesses, including Orloff, however, did not recall specific details of discussions in the case, many of which took place almost 12 years ago.  

Orloff, as with other witnesses and defendants from the FBI and OPD, claimed that he pursued evidence and made judgments in the case as accurately as possible given time constraints early in the investigation. 

In response to Bloom's questions of whether or not it was important to be complete and honest in his investigation, Orloff responded, "as complete as possible at the time, as certain as possible at the time." Orloff continued that it was always important to be honest. 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs questioned Orloff about the need to search the residences of Bari and Cherney and the Seeds of Peace house for bomb material without evidence that the residents had a prior history of making or keeping bombs at their houses. 

Paul Price, a structure blast expert, was also called as a witness by the defense on Monday. Price testified that he believed from his initial assessment of pictures of the blasted car that the bomb must have been placed toward the rear of the front seat. 

When asked by Dennis Cunningham, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, whether he had looked at the actual car later when he had the opportunity, Price responded that he felt "the car wouldn't represent what it actually was 10 years later. I didn't need to go because the conditions of the car could have changed." 

James Flanigan, Special Agent and explosives specialist with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, testified that he believed the bomb in Bari's car was set off when Bari took a sharp turn onto Park Boulevard in Oakland, triggering the initiation device on the bomb.  

Flanigan also testified that he believed the bomb was placed in the back of the car under a guitar case in the back seat. When asked whether or not it would be a strange occurrence for individuals to knowingly drive around with an activated, timed bomb in the back of their car, Flanigan admitted it would ordinarily be a strange occurrence. 

Attorneys for both the defense and plaintiffs questioned Flanigan regarding his prior knowledge of Earth First. Flanigan reported that he had heard, through newspaper articles, that Earth First! was an environmental activist group that had participated in “tree spikings” in the past. Flanigan did not recall, however, other history or reports of sabotage involving the group prior to the day of the bombing. 

The final witness Monday was Patrick J. Webb, a former supervisor with the FBI. Webb was also of the opinion that the bomb had been placed in the back of the car at the time it exploded.  

According to Webb, Special Agent Doyle with the FBI did not influence his ability to evaluate evidence at the crime scene, as attorneys for the plaintiffs have claimed. 

"He's an independent guy and I'm an independent guy. He's going to say what he's going to say and I'm going to say what I'm going to say. He's probably not going to influence me," said Webb. 

On Tuesday, Webb and one additional defense witness will testify followed by two rebuttal witnesses called by the plaintiffs. Closing arguments are expected for either Tuesday or Wednesday followed by jury deliberation.