Davis, a Prescott cabinetmaker who called his business The First Noble Truth Woodwork, went proudly off to prison, imagining that the mountain peasants would sing folk songs about him until he was released.
Instead, he went into "a situation where power is arbitrary and unchecked and can be exercised at any time. This is through the looking glass in here," he recently told New Times.
As it turns out, the folk song is more "Alice's Restaurant" than Alice in Wonderland. Davis, with his Arlo Guthrie coif, wound up with the mother-stabbers and father-rapers on the Group W bench.
He had been convicted of vandalism. The judge found him more grandiose than dangerous. But the U.S. Parole Commission thought otherwise and has ordered him to serve out his six-year sentence.
Because Davis had bragged about wanting to shut down nuclear plants in three states to make an environmental statement, the prosecutor tried to prove he was conspiring to cause a nuclear meltdown. The government's testimony to that effect--which was discounted in both the trial and the pretrial bond hearing--turned up in Davis' parole file, along with documentation of a totally unrelated nuclear accident. The Parole Commission refuses to comment on its reasoning for denying parole, but Davis' lawyer fears he is being punished for crimes he only dreamed about.
Davis was charged with two blowtorch assaults on ski-lift pylons at Fairfield Snow Bowl north of Flagstaff, sabotage carried out in October of 1987 and 1988. After each torch job, he contacted the media and identified his group as the Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorism International Conspiracy. In September 1988, he toppled power lines leading into a uranium mine near the Grand Canyon. Then on May 30, 1989, an FBI S.W.A.T. team arrested him and two hapless co-conspirators, Dr. Marc Baker and Peg Millet, while they attempted to cut down power-line towers leading to a Central Arizona Project pumping station. Davis' girlfriend, Ilse Asplund, was arrested after the fact; so was Dave Foreman, the Tucson-based founder of Earth First!, who may have been the real target of the FBI sting.
The CAP caper was supposedly a dress rehearsal for cutting the power lines into the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix. Davis had been seen casing the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California in his VW microbus (no doubt with Arlo's shovels and rakes and implements of destruction).
The federal prosecutor made much of the crimes Davis and company might have committed if they had not been stopped. Ironically, an FBI informant drove Davis into Phoenix to buy a blowtorch, taught him how to use it and even drove him to the scene of the CAP crime. Unaided, Davis might have committed fewer crimes. In the end, the total cost of damage inflicted during the course of all four monkeywrenching incidents was less than $52,000.
At the initial bond hearing and during the trial, prosecutors hammered away at the threat of nuclear meltdown if Davis, et al., had succeeded in downing power poles at Palo Verde. In fact, expert testimony proved that cutting the lines would have little effect on the operation of the reactor unless several back-up systems failed simultaneously. Ultimately, the five defendants pleaded guilty to one charge, about $5,200 worth of damage to the Snow Bowl ski lift. Foreman, who had no involvement beyond giving some money to Davis, got probation; Baker served six months, Asplund served one; Millet is serving three years. Davis, the ringleader, got six years. As he stood before Judge Broomfield at sentencing, he spoke up in defense of his ideology, saying that he wanted "people to wake up a little bit."
"I have stood in front of men with guns and stopped them from beating women," he said. "I have stopped robberies. I have gone up a tower and pulled a man away from a 50,000-volt line." Then he lectured the judge on the environment: "I don't want my species to die. I don't want my kids to die," he said. "We are in the process of suicide. It's all legal, but it's suicide."
The prosecutor wanted Davis to be remanded to jail immediately. Broomfield, however, was taken with Davis' grandiloquence and gave him 17 days to report to prison. Furthermore, he gave Davis a sentence that would allow him to be paroled at any time during his jail term, based on the recommendation of the Parole Commission.
Says his lawyer, Jim Larson, "He got precisely the opposite." Even discounting the judge's leniency, commission guidelines would allow for Davis' release after serving 12 to 18 months of the six-year sentence; he has served 15 already.
Davis concedes that he deserved some jail time. "I was aware that what I was doing was illegal, and I felt it was a necessary thing to do to get a point across. And I was also aware that there was a penalty within the law. But I thought they would play by their own rules."
In a May hearing, the Parole Commission recommended he serve at least 30 months because of his leadership role in the conspiracy and because he would likely have continued his eco-terrorism--despite his excellent standing in the community, including having established a Phoenix drug-rehabilitation program. In September, when his paperwork came through after a second hearing, the commission ordered him to "serve to expiration," meaning he'd do at least four years. When his lawyers wrote for copies of his parole file, they found an edited transcript of the bond-hearing testimony about nuclear meltdown (testimony that had been discounted) along with a long but irrelevant manuscript from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission titled "Loss of Vital AC Power and Residual Heat Removal Systems During Mid-Loop Operations at Vogtle Unit #1 on March 20, 1990," an account of a nuclear shutdown where, as Davis says, "Some poor schmuck in a pickup truck backed into a power pole on the grounds of a reactor" somewhere in Georgia.
Says Larson, "[The Parole Commission] apparently wants to hammer him for his politics, and so they were looking for a reason to do it. We eliminated that reason and they did it, anyway."
Davis adds, "In other words, because of things I might have done, they're going to recommend that I do the full four years." Officials for the Dallas regional office of the U.S. Parole Commission, which has jurisdiction over Davis' case, refuse to comment on its decisions as a matter of policy.
Davis swears that he is through with monkeywrenching, but seems otherwise unrepentant, still referring to his crimes as "sort of an expanded civil disobedience." He's doing his time in a minimum-security camp in Boron, California, where, he says, "the wussy prisoners go." He worries about his daughters, ages 12 and 14. In letters to friends on the outside, he describes his longing for the Sonoran Desert as "like the ache a teenager gets when his girlfriend's gone for the summer."
He may not see it for some time. "You've got to understand that I'm in here for vandalism," he tells New Times. "The average sentence for murder served in this country is six years. I'm going to do four years for $5,000 worth of vandalism. They can not only take charges that have been dismissed, they can take charges a jury has found you innocent of. They can take hearsay evidence that you might have been involved in other stuff. This is Kafka-land!"
Or Officer Obie-land.