Environmental arsonist fled the country in 2005 to avoid lengthy prison sentence — it worked

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Nov. 15, 2022 1 p.m. Updated: Nov. 16, 2022 5:40 p.m.

Joseph Dibee, former international fugitive and supporter of the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, got a shorter sentence than his co-defendants, raising questions about how the federal government prosecutes what it considers domestic terrorism

When Joseph Dibee and 12 other co-defendants were indicted in 2006 for numerous arsons, including the burning of a slaughterhouse in Central Oregon, the U.S. Department of Justice said they were responsible for acts of domestic terrorism. Dibee, 54, fled the country to avoid trial and lived as a fugitive until the federal government apprehended him in Cuba in 2018.

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Dibee’s crimes were not forgotten. Federal agents spent years tracking him down.

But he was sentenced this month to time served — two and a half years — and 1,000 hours of community service. He may also have to help pay the $1.3 million levied in restitution for harm caused. There was no terrorism enhancement added to his sentence. Nor was it extended because he fled the country to avoid arrest.

The journey from the government considering Dibee’s crimes among the worst criminal acts — terrorism — to a sentence that some now see as a mere slap on the wrist is due to many factors. Perhaps the most significant one of all is just time.

“Dragging things out as long as possible, having delay and time pass almost always benefits my clients,” said Matt Schindler, Dibee’s defense attorney. “The truth of these situations is however hurt you were by something two weeks ago, you’re less hurt by it now. It’s just a natural human consequence.”

It’s not a consequence everyone is satisfied with.

Joe Dibee looks off to the distance while sitting on the porch of his family's home on Febr. 17, 2021, in Seattle.

Joe Dibee looks off to the distance while sitting on the porch of his family's home on Febr. 17, 2021, in Seattle.

Megan Farmer / KUOW

Federal prosecutors had asked the judge overseeing the case to impose a seven-year, three-month prison term.

“Setting fires to help the environment is inherently an absurd concept,” the prosecutors noted in their sentencing memo. “But the dangerousness and foolishness of Mr. Dibee’s conduct has only become clearer with time.”

The way the courts treat Dibee’s particular brand of crime has changed too.

Federal prosecutors have long noted the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front caused more than $45 million in fire damage to businesses and government buildings between 1995 and 2001. At one point, top counterterrorism officials even considered the groups among the top domestic terror threat facing the country.

The FBI put out a wanted poster with a $50,000 reward, searching for Joseph Dibee after he was indicted for his alleged role in crimes committed by the Earth Liberation Front or the Animal Liberation Front.

The FBI put out a wanted poster with a $50,000 reward, searching for Joseph Dibee after he was indicted for his alleged role in crimes committed by the Earth Liberation Front or the Animal Liberation Front.

via Federal Bureau of Investigations

Also true: No one was killed in the arsons set by Dibee and his co-defendants. Historically, groups on the far-left are significantly less deadly than groups on the far right, such as white supremacists.

“Left-wing terrorism has been overpromoted,” Brian Levin, director at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “Not saying it doesn’t happen, but we saw the FBI calling this about a decade and a half ago the biggest terror threat … and it didn’t rise to that in terms of severity level.”

Still, some in law enforcement are disappointed by what they see as Dibee getting off with a light sentence.

“To see him not have to serve any additional time in what he did is unfortunate; it sends the wrong message,” said Billy Williams, who was Oregon’s U.S. Attorney in 2018 when Dibee was arrested by the FBI in Cuba and flown in a government jet to Portland.

“Now in effect the message is, if you can avoid detection for as long as possible, you have a better chance at not being held as responsible as your co-defendants and that’s the wrong message to send.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment following Dibee’s sentencing. Federal prosecutors also did not send out a news release after the hearing as it typically would on a significant national security case where the government wanted to call attention to the result.

For his part, Dibee said in an interview with OPB that he was sorry for his action and feels he did suffer.

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“The arson — singular — wasn’t necessarily the appropriate way to address the situation,” Dibee said. “It definitely had a lot of negative consequences, both for me and the environmental movement as a whole.”

The federal government claims Joseph Dibee and a group of other environmental activists caused significant damage to the Cavel West horse slaughter facility in Madras, Oregon, in 1997.

The federal government claims Joseph Dibee and a group of other environmental activists caused significant damage to the Cavel West horse slaughter facility in Madras, Oregon, in 1997.

via Federal Bureau of Investigations

Dibee didn’t feel it was fair he had to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit arson in California. But federal conspiracy charges allow prosecutors to hold defendants responsible for one another’s conduct. And while Dibee didn’t light the fire in California — prosecutors even acknowledged in court documents that he argued against it at one point — Dibee knew what others were planning “because his co-conspirators were building the incendiary devices at his house,” the Justice Department stated in court documents.

Dibee said he thought federal law enforcement was “overzealous” in its investigation. And he believes he’s paid a heavy price, including the consequences of being labeled a federal felon for the rest of his life.

When Dibee fled in December 2005, he left family behind in Seattle and gave up his job at Microsoft. He lived in Syria and Russia and traveled to Ecuador; places he said he worked as an engineer on environmental or renewable energy projects.

“To some extent I wouldn’t have all these other experiences and I did some pretty interesting stuff in Syria and I met some pretty wonderful people in Russia, and I got some really interesting and exciting work and time in Ecuador,” he said.

Still, Dibee alleged he was tortured by Cuban authorities prior to the FBI taking him into custody. After his arrest, Dibee got COVID-19 and suffered a broken jaw after another person in custody assaulted him at Multnomah County’s Inverness Jail. Later, Dibee was released to home detention in Seattle where he cared for his elderly father, who has dementia.

“I used to have a good career, I used to have respect in the community and I was well set up to retire and now I have essentially nothing,” Dibee told OPB, calling his prosecution a “political witch hunt.”

Typically, being an international fugitive, living in countries that have regularly refused extradition requests or don’t have diplomatic relations with the United States, would be considered an aggravating factor at sentencing, according to Levin. Dibee’s sentence is the shortest of the 11 co-defendants who pleaded guilty years before him. Some were sentenced to as many as 13 years in prison.

“If we were to transport all those people from back then to now, the results would be different, the language would be different and I think you’d end up with a situation where there was less of this bullshit boogie man,” Schindler, Dibee’s lawyer, said.

Dibee said he has not kept in touch with his co-defendants.

“Some of them I don’t wish ill on,” Dibee said of his co-defendants, “but most of them are just vermin, they’re vermin.”

Judge Aiken, who has overseen the case since 2006, acknowledged during Dibee’s sentencing hearing in Eugene that the case was unusual because it “straddles time.”

“There’s no doubt that these acts were violent and meant to intimidate and create fear,” Aiken said. She noted that years ago she determined a terrorism enhancement under the sentencing guidelines applied to some defendants. That made it harder to have flexibility in sentencing, she noted.

“Thirty years ago, at the time these crimes were committed was very different — yet similar to today — where people are taking decisions into their own hands and acting out in ways that are both criminal and inappropriate and dangerous,” Aiken said. “You have demonstrated that you learned lessons — although belatedly.”

Joe Dibee sits on steps leading to his family's home Feb. 17, 2021, in Seattle.

Joe Dibee sits on steps leading to his family's home Feb. 17, 2021, in Seattle.

Megan Farmer / KUOW

Kieran Ramsey, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon, helped investigate some of the arsons 20 years ago while working in the FBI’s Seattle office. He thinks Dibee’s actions amounted to terrorism and should still be treated as such.

“I’m not wrapped up in, ultimately, what he got for a prison sentence,” Ramsey said in an interview this month. “Mr. Dibee did not get the terrorism enhancement. I think that there’s been a change in the world and a different view on this conduct since 2006, 2007.”

Despite that shift, Ramsey said the arsons set by the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front were “extremely dangerous” and caused harm.

“The fact is, it’s still terrorism,” Ramsey said.

The FBI is still searching for one remaining co-defendant, Josephine Sunshine Overaker.

Despite it dominating his life for decades, it seems Dibee is already moving on from his case.

Last month, he was in Alaska working with an organization that supports Native Alaskans. The group is hopeful a “smart buoy” that Dibee designed could help a remote oceanside village grow more kelp, and in doing so also combat climate change.

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