February 6, 2008
John Wade was out to save the planet. But at 18, his radical environmentalism landed him three years in a federal prison. Now he's back with a message.
Inside the stiflingly hot prison cell there was barely room to move. A triple bunk bed, next to an open toilet, consumed half the room, so that only one of three cellmates could stand up to move at any given time. When a cellmate used the toilet, he was typically six inches away from another prisoner’s head.Back to the Cover Story
That was life “in the hole” at the Federal Correctional Institute in Petersburg for John Burton Wade, for about six months of his 37-month sentence.
At age 18, the recent graduate of Douglas S. Freeman High School didn’t quite fit the bill. He’d been planning to finish college. Now older, tougher men surrounded him, many of them convicted for dealing drugs in Richmond and Washington, D.C.
What got Wade here was his role as an environmental activist who went on a politically charged vandalism spree through Richmond and surrounding counties. The FBI branded him as an “eco-terrorist.”
As inmate No. 38548-083, Wade earned the nickname “hardcore” or “go-hard” for his stubborn questioning of prison policies and for refusing to snitch on another prisoner who assaulted him. Wade was put “in the hole” on several occasions for different reasons, such as the time he recalls arguing with a prison officer who was supposed to proctor a college test for him but had been dragging his feet for months.
Wade’s been out of prison a year, and it’s unlikely you’d ever peg the 22-year-old as a felon with a tough nickname. He has a slight build, a runner’s body, thin and wiry with close-cropped hair. A student at Virginia Commonwealth University, he greets customers with a casual smile at the Second Debut by Goodwill in Carytown, where he’s worked since his January 2007 release (he chose to be “a retail slave” there, he says, because he’d rather work for a nonprofit than some corporation).
The few VCU professors who knew of Wade’s past didn’t think much of it when he came up with the idea to put on an environmental film festival for Richmond, to be held at the Byrd Theatre this weekend. Ever the activist, Wade spearheaded the event — lining up films, securing sponsors, even harassing former presidential candidate Ralph Nader to speak.
But Wade didn’t feel the need to inform festival sponsors about his controversial past, he says, until Style Weekly broke the story of his prior conviction last week. (At press time, Wade says Style was the only company that had pulled its advertising sponsorship.)
The unearthing of Wade’s past and the resulting exposure has rekindled a debate about the environmental movement, especially the role of extreme activists and former radicals the government has dubbed “terrorists.”
Wade grew up in the West End suburbs near Forest and Patterson avenues. When he was 5 his mother died from a heart condition. His father remarried, bringing two new stepbrothers and a stepsister into the family, joining Wade and his two brothers. He says his family of eight did well enough financially that he led a comfortable life.
As a teenager Wade read a lot and says he learned about liberalism and environmentalism mostly from books, as well as from a friend who became politically aware at an early age. Wade’s father describes him as a smart young man, “intellectually mature” and always involved in social issues.
He’s never owned a car, and rides a bicycle everywhere. At Freeman, Wade and his friends helped start an environmental club called Friends of the Earth, which got the school to improve its recycling program. At the time, Wade belonged to mainstream environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy, and supported progressive political candidates.
But it was a famously influential 1975 novel by Edward Abbey, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” that helped pushed Wade into what radical environmentalists call “direct action.” The author romanticizes characters that engage in environmentally destructive activities in the Southwest, challenging readers to take action. The FBI defines such action as inflicting damage on anything that exploits nature for profit or science.
Wade cannot recall exactly how he first heard of the underground Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, saying it was “probably something to do with a direct action against a Vail, Colorado, ski lodge” that threatened a lynx habitat. That action resulted in $12 million in damages. From there, it was just an Internet click away to ELF’s Web site, which included suggestions on how to destroy property.
ELF has no official presidents, spokesmen, physical headquarters or membership fees. Potential members, in autonomous cells, engage in direct action and follow ELF’s philosophies. Then they send media coverage of their actions to the site.
Such media coverage was emerging in Richmond in 2002.
At the time, Wade says he was “very sensitive” to what he perceived as destructive things happening to the world around him. “To me,” he says, “the Short Pump mall construction was so gratuitous, and suburban sprawl was already such a big problem. I hated Route 288 construction because that fueled it.” As for solutions, he says: “Local government was not responding at all to the environmental community’s legitimate calls for planned growth. Instead they were just bowing to special interests.”
He and his high-school friends took matters into their own hands.
Between July and October 2002, according to federal documents, Wade and two of his friends — Aaron Linas and Adam Blackwell — used acid-like etching cream to deface the windows of at least 25 SUVs, leaving notes for the drivers decrying consumption. They vandalized a McDonald’s in Henrico County, used axes to attack new homes at the Temple Heights subdivision in Goochland and damaged construction equipment near the site of Route 288. These would later be called the first actions in Virginia claimed by an ELF-affiliated group.
Something more serious happened Sept. 21, 2002. Around 7:30 p.m., using Wade’s computer, Linas and Blackwell typed up a letter. Then the two drove to an East Coast gas station on Broad Street in Henrico and filled a gas can with kerosene. Wade says he stayed behind because he was against arson.
Linas and Blackwell drove to the construction site of the Short Pump Town Center, where they discussed burning down a building that was near completion. Instead they decided to try to blow up a crane on the site, valued at $270,000. They fashioned a wick out of an American flag, inserted it into the opening of the crane’s fuel tank, poured kerosene around the crane and put cardboard under the tank to absorb additional fuel. They lit the flag with a Zippo and ran.
The crane didn’t explode, so they tried to blow up a $65,000 Caterpillar construction vehicle and a 2001 Ford pickup truck. When the equipment didn’t explode, the two left to deliver their typed note somewhere else: the home mailbox of the owner of the general contracting company. It read:
How can you sleep at night, in your bed, in your house, with your beautiful wife, knowing that none of it was earned by the merit of your character, but by destroying the environment and contributing to urban and suburban decay by establishing revolting SPRAWL such as Short Pump? Think about it. — ELF
Although Wade maintains that he had nothing to do with writing the letter, it was partly what led authorities to trace the crimes back to his house. Months later, federal authorities arrived at Wade’s home at 6 a.m. “I was shocked — any parent would be,” says his father, David Wade. “We had no idea.”
But he seems to want to keep things in perspective. David Wade theorizes that the FBI became frustrated when they were unable to capture some of the bigger ELF-perpetrated crimes out West and wanted to make an example of his son and his two friends who were decidedly easier targets.
Authorities considered what Wade and his friends did to be acts of terrorism under the Patriot Act because they were crimes committed “with the intent to coerce … the civilian population.” Although the government never claimed that Wade attempted arson, Wade pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to attempt to destroy by fire or explosive a vehicle used in interstate commerce.”
U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer, who heard the case, was troubled by it. According to the Virginian-Pilot, he said the middle-class activists displayed “an arrogance that is deep and cutting” and represented “the seed of destruction” in a free society.
Wade was sentenced to 37 months. The plea deal reduced the environmental terrorism charges to vandalism, and the three men were ordered to pay restitution for damages totaling more than $200,000.
Linas, who lives in Richmond, served 24 months of 42-month sentence. He’s also a VCU student and says he remains active in environmental causes, including the film festival. Although he no longer considers himself militant, he says that prison made him more motivated to achieve his goals. He remains convinced the government used their case for publicity. Wade says Blackwell cooperated with authorities and received five to nine months. Style was unable to reach him.
Wade was allowed to complete his freshman year at Mary Washington College in 2003 before heading to prison in May 2004.
“I would never minimize what he did,” Wade’s father says, “but he paid a high price. The magnitude of his passion exceeded the maturity of his judgment. But his heart has always been in the right place.”
At the time, Wade’s case triggered debate on Capitol Hill about the war on terrorism. Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded that the FBI would do a better job tracking Al-Qaida terrorists by diverting more resources from the agency’s domestic-terror program, according to news reports.
Details still stick with Wade, and perhaps some bitterness. He says he can still recall the anchors on the socks worn by the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Paul J. McNulty (who later oversaw high-profile terror suspect cases such as John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban member). Wade seems pleased that McNulty resigned from his position as deputy attorney general of the United States during last year’s U.S. attorneys scandal.
Wade’s first impression of prison was that it was dirty and dark, oppressively hot, and that he was surrounded by mostly “crackheads.” Wade felt lucky that his three-year, one-month sentence was lighter than most.
Throughout his prison term, his passion about the environment and social issues seemed to morph into a combustible passion for prisoners’ rights. “There’s definitely no effort made in prison in any fundamental way to rehabilitate prisoners,” Wade says. “All they really intend to do is break your spirit by enforcing petty restrictions.”
Wade decided against spending his money in prison because he didn’t want it to go to the Bureau of Prisons and “the corporate interests behind it.” Besides, he says, most of the stuff he might want could be had for a bag of mackerel ($1.15) from the commissary — he recalls two bags of mackerel would get you a haircut. “Everybody there has a hustle — you find something you can do to make it easier on yourself,” Wade says. “Mine was working in the kitchen, sneaking out some oatmeal from dry storage to sell.”
Wade says he read all the books he ever wanted to read, from J.D. Salinger to Leo Tolstoy (“In prison, Tolstoy is nothing,” he says. “You can read ‘War and Peace’ in a week”). He also tutored other prisoners and taught a creative writing workshop. One of the assignments he gave his class was to write an editorial about a problem they had with the prison administration. That didn’t score him points with officials.
In the outside world, Wade was getting attention. His name and location appeared on several Web sites honoring those imprisoned for defending the environment. The Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger featured Wade in a story about the government’s crusade against homegrown eco-terrorists. In the story, the reporter portrayed him as another political prisoner in a misguided war. Wade was quoted as saying, “Direct action is a nighttime activity, and lobbying is a daytime activity.”
Two days after his release in January 2007, Wade was attending VCU, to which he’d applied while in prison. It was surreal, he says: “Being in jail for three years and then, suddenly, the next day you’re on VCU campus.”
Wade’s on parole for three years and has been living with his dad, who says he’s noticed a change in his son. “He went in a boy and came out a man, just because of the time frame in his life,” David Wade says of his son’s incarceration from age 18 to 21. “But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how productive he has been since he got out. He’s had two semesters of straight A’s, he works full-time, and through all of this, he continues to live in accordance with his beliefs — he minimizes consumption and waste, rides his bike everywhere, eats the right foods.”
Wade says all aspects of his life have been affected. He learned who his true friends were. He can’t vote or travel to certain countries. Probation rules are extremely strict, meaning he can’t communicate with his former high school friends who were also arrested. “I can probably never teach or be a lawyer,” he says.
But it’s the term “terrorist” that continues to dog him, and many people who have studied these cases believe it’s grossly misapplied.
Peter Manus, a professor of environmental law who runs an advocacy center at the New England School of Law in Boston, notes that extreme environmentalist action has been mislabeled terrorism since well before 9/11. He tells Style via e-mail that the in-your-face tactics of groups such as Earth First, ELF and even Greenpeace have historically generated this sort of hyperbolic rhetoric from the opposition.
“The term is abused when it’s used to describe folks who commit just any kind of illegal act as a political statement, even when those acts are crimes and do serious economic damage to, say, a ski resort, a whaling expedition, or a construction project,” Manus writes. “Terrorism is the attempted control or coercion of others through fear — that’s why it’s got the word ‘terror’ in it — and my view is that the term should be reserved for the horrific types of acts that we have all witnessed over the past several years in the international arena where death and torture are used to focus attention on one or another cause.
“Destroying construction vehicles where no lives are put in jeopardy, although anti-social, just doesn’t fit the definition.”
Government prosecutors “admitted that before Sept. 11,” Wade says, “I would have been tried in state court and given probation.”
More mainstream environmental groups say that radical movements such as ELF only hurt their cause and that there are more effective ways to make change. The local chapter of the Sierra Club is intolerant of any law-breaking acts, even civil disobedience.
“Sure, I get frustrated and wonder whether I can bring about change,” says Michael Town, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. “But I’ve learned that working within the system, and engaging the public in the process, is a much more powerful method for affecting positive change.”
Since 2001, a majority of states have introduced laws aimed at eco-terrorism, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of conservative state legislators spearheading such efforts. Opponents, however, say that existing state laws against vandalism and arson are sufficient because militant environmental and animal groups have never hurt anyone.
Michael Hough, Criminal Justice and Homeland Security Task Force director for the council, notes that since 2003 the FBI has credited eco-terrorists with more than $200 million in property damages. He thinks it’s appropriate to label them as terrorists for their high level of organization and competence. He asks, “If it was your house, building, or condo burned down, wouldn’t you feel terrorized?”
Some of the new laws seek to outlaw unauthorized filming of animal enterprises, a method often used by groups investigating animal cruelty, and ban donations to organizations alleged to support eco-terrorism. They would enhance penalties for crimes such as trespassing and vandalism, making someone who trespasses in name of radical activism a terrorist.
All this seems to support the argument that Wade was, perhaps, used as a pawn in a political movement aimed at linking environmental radicals to post-9/11 terrorists.
“Martin Luther King Jr. would definitely be a terrorist if he were around today,” says Wade, who likens his own philosophy to that of Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson.
Wade concurs that his past radicalism was misguided. But only to a point. Did he ever apologize to those whose property he damaged? The owners of the SUVs? The McDonald’s? The Goochland County homes?
“No,” he says. Instead, he offers: “I’m sorry that my actions were not productive, but I still have a hard time looking at McDonald’s or the Short Pump construction companies as victims.”
The ELF actions are not just symbolic, he says: “These actions were supposed to be widespread enough to make destroying the environment a cost to business. We wanted it to be something these companies would have to consider before undertaking these projects.”
Wade says today’s environmental movement has become so mainstream that he feels the underlying message is “too watered down.” He says he’s still committed to the idea that “fundamental shifts need to happen,” although he knows this is a marginal, radical belief.
He confirms that he is no longer associated with ELF and that he does not want to commit any crimes or further alienate himself from others. Wade says he looks at the three years he spent in prison as “a waste for the environment ... Right now, I just want to be productive. I don’t know, really, what that means yet.” S
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