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Settlement Ends David "Gypsy" Chain Death Suit

by Nicholas Wilson
Headwaters Article Index

MONITOR Headwaters Index
Just three days before trial was to begin, a settlement has ended the wrongful death suit stemming from the September 17, 1998 death of redwood forest activist David Nathan "Gypsy" Chain. Pacific Lumber Company agreed to pay Chain's family an undisclosed sum of money, and made several significant non-financial concessions.

Chain's mother, Cindy Allsbrooks, and father, David Allen Chain, both from Texas, filed the suit two years ago. Named as defendants were Pacific Lumber, PL President John Campbell, PL logger Arlington Earl Ammons, who felled the redwood tree that struck and killed Chain, and Ammons' assistant Rhett Reback, all of Humboldt County California.

David Chain in 1997 treesit Trial was to start October 15 in federal court in Oakland. The settlement agreement was reached on Friday, October 12. Steven Schectman, attorney for Chain's parents, said "It was the right thing to do at the right time," adding that settlements are most often reached just as trials are about to begin, "when they can see the whites of the jury's eyes."

Chain's mother, Cindy Allsbrooks, told Monitor that Pacific Lumber agreed to leave the 135 ft. redwood that killed her son permanently undisturbed where it fell, and protected by a 100 ft. buffer zone where no logging can occur. In addition, PL will dedicate a portion of its nearby land as a public memorial to Chain. Allsbrooks said the memorial site will be next to the Van Duzen River, directly across state Hwy. 36 from the logging road to the death site, and just under a mile east of the entrance to Grizzly Creek State Park. A disused section of former Hwy. 36 roadway ends at the memorial, providing convenient public access and parking.

Pacific Lumber also agreed to the creation of a "community roundtable" involving Allsbrooks, a company representative, and a member of the Humboldt County environmental community to be jointly selected by Allsbrooks and the company. Humboldt County law enforcement will also be encouraged to participate. The committee will discuss issues of concern to the community and the company, and work to foster a positive working dialogue between the groups, with goal of avoiding future injuries and deaths.

Allsbrooks said these non-financial concessions were the most important factors in persuading her to settle. "These were things that we couldn't have got from a jury," she said. Another factor, Schectman added, was that the effects on the jury of the terrorist attacks of September 11 were hard to predict, adding to the normal uncertainty about the outcome of a trial. Schectman said Allsbrooks was the driving factor behind the settlement terms.

Green shoots growing from the stump of tree that killed Chain
Allsbrooks told Monitor she was ready to go to trial right up to the last minute: "There was the element of wanting to tell the story and have the facts recorded in a court of law. Then I began to realize that this may be the better way to get our story out and have changes made than if we would have chanced it in a court of law." She said she felt relieved that her family and Chain's companions would not have to undergo the stress of reliving the awful events in the courtroom.

Allsbrooks said she and other family members had already had preliminary meetings with Campbell to work on setting up the roundtable committee. Though she lives in Texas and is a business consultant there, she said she would travel to California as often as needed to make the roundtable work, and added, "I really do think it's going to bring some healing to a community that's been torn. And I hope that it involves loggers, community people, and especially the activists whom I've grown to love so much. It'll bring people together." She said the first private meeting of the committee might happen as soon as a month. She hopes that eventually there will be meetings that are open to the public.

As for the tree, Allsbrooks said she and Chain's father had visited the scene recently, and there are already green shoots growing from the stump. She said the company had given the tree and 100 ft. buffer to her family, and that it would be permanently protected. Even if the company were to sell the land, a provision would be attached to the title, she said. The family can remove all or part of the tree if they decide to do so, but they have no plans for that in the foreseeable future.

Pacific Lumber issued a statement in which Campbell, recently promoted from President to Chairman of the Board, said, "We believe that this settlement will allow the Humboldt County community to close a chapter on an unfortunate incident, and can also be used as an opportunity -- through the community roundtable -- for young people to safely channel their voices and concerns."

to recording of confrontation with videotape
Tree that killed David Chain David Chain, 24, was killed instantly when Pacific Lumber logger Ammons felled a large redwood tree which struck him, causing massive head trauma. The Texas native was among a small group of Earth First! forest activists who were trying to block or delay the logging of an old-growth redwood stand on Pacific Lumber land east of Carlotta. The California Department of Forestry had been notified of suspected logging rule violations, and had promised to send out an inspector.

Less than an hour before Chain was killed, the activists had tried to talk to Ammons, but were met with anger, profanity and threats of violence. A videotape made by one of the activists recorded Ammons saying that he wished he had brought his gun, and that he just might fell a tree in their direction. Chain's companions said they believed Ammons knew they were still nearby, less than 100 ft. from him.

One of the group, Carey Jordan, said they hadn't talked directly to the loggers for 15 to 20 minutes, but were making noise and talking among themselves while they ate lunch. "He knew we were around. He was talking to his helper like he was talking to us, dropping little comments and hints, like, ' I wonder which way I'm going to fall this. I hope they got a hard hat on.'" The group told sheriff's investigators that they believed Ammons knew they were there and intended to drop the tree near them to scare them.

But the Humboldt County Sheriff's Dept. and DA Farmer absolved Ammons and Pacific Lumber of any blame, saying they concluded Chain's death was an accident, and adding that they had considered charging Chain's activist companions with his death. Farmer said he decided not to charge the activists, though he believed they were culpable, because he felt a jury was not likely to agree. He said he agreed with Sheriff's Detective Juan Freeman that Ammons was not aware the activists were still nearby, and thought they had left.

Earth First! blockaded the logging road into the site of Chain's death and kept loggers from resuming work for three weeks, saying they were acting to preserve evidence at the scene until an unbiased, independent investigation could be arranged. The Sheriff's Dept. poured pepper spray liquid from paper cups into the eyes of activists who had formed a human chain across the logging road, lying prone with their arms locked together inside steel and concrete pipes. The tactic did not break the blockade, but deputies found a way to physically separate one pair of activists and move the rest out of the roadway. A lawsuit is still pending in the appellate courts over the department's first use of pepper spray on locked down activists at three protests in 1997.

Wrongful death suit
After Humboldt law enforcement failed to act, Allsbrooks retained Schectman to file a federal wrongful death suit against the lumber company, and the suit was filed just before the first anniversary of Chain's death. The complaint accused Pacific Lumber, Campbell, Ammons and Reback of the wrongful death of Chain, negligence, and violations of the Unruh Civil Rights Act -- a state law that bars violence based on race, religion or political affiliation. It sought an unspecified amount for medical and funeral costs and other damages. The suit alleged that Pacific Lumber failed to make and enforce adequate policies for its employees to safely handle forest protesters, even though annual protests had been going on for ten years or more.

A Pacific Lumber policy issued by Campbell in 1992 tells employees not to confront protesters, but to notify their supervisors to call for security to handle the situation. Judging by his comments to a San Francisco Examiner reporter, Ammons still wasn't clear on the concept six months after Chain's death. The Examiner quoted the following exchange between Detective Freeman and Ammons:

Freeman: "Would you have fell the tree had you known (people were there)?

Ammons: "Oh, God no!"

Freeman: "OK. That's what I need to hear from you."

Ammons: " From now on, I will get a limb and I will beat one of them within a ... of their live(s)... They'll wish I was fallin' trees."

New confrontations
Residents of Southern Humboldt County have continued to protest Pacific Lumber's logging of old-growth forests up to the present time, and there have been repeated allegations of violence by loggers and Pacific Lumber security against protesters. Humboldt authorities have never prosecuted anyone.

KMUD (Redway CA) radio news reported last week that DA Farmer had announced that he would file no charges against a logging contractor who witnesses had said bumped his truck several times into activist Steve Christianson, who was blocking a logging road. The witnesses said the logger then pulled alongside and punched Christianson after he stepped to the side.

When Monitor asked Allbrooks if she was familiar with Farmer's decision, she said, "That doesn't surprise me at all, because we're talking about the same DA that decided not to charge A.E. Ammons." She went on to say, "The young man that was punched in the face is somebody I have great respect for, and I want to say that I'm opposed to violence in any form, just as the activists are opposed to violence. When someone punches someone in the face and repeatedly hits them with a vehicle it should be punishable by law, just like people are put in jail when they trespass. So if it applies to the activist, it must apply to the business owner, the contractor, and so forth. There should have been some action they could have taken. I hope that Humboldt law enforcement will take part in the community roundtable, because I think they need it."

Hole in the Headwaters
Until 1985 when it was taken over by corporate raider Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam Corporation in a junk-bond financed buyout, Pacific Lumber was a family- owned company considered a model of good logging practices and fairness to employees, many of whom lived in California's last company town, Scotia. But Hurwitz raided the employee pension fund and changed the company's logging method from selective cutting to clearcutting, more than tripling the rate of cutting, and chopping down 65 percent of the company's forest holdings over the next decade.

In the late 1980s Greg King, then a Humboldt photojournalist and Earth First!er, "discovered" a large tract of virgin old growth redwoods on Pacific Lumber land southeast of Eureka and named it Headwaters Forest. It became the focus of over a decade of efforts to spare it from the chainsaws and permanently preserve it as a biological treasure. Although early proposals called for setting aside some 85,000 acres, years of compromises gradually whittled it down to a federal government purchase of a mere 2,500 acres of the core old-growth stand.

As part of the payment for the Headwaters Deal, the government purchased adjoining second-growth forest land from another company and delivered it to Pacific Lumber, complete with a timber harvest permit that had been obtained by the other company. It was a permit that did not meet the stricter wildlife habitat preservation requirements required of Pacific Lumber plans.

Activists quickly dubbed the area, and the logging permit, the "Hole in the Headwaters," referring to the fact that the area to be logged is surrounded by the Headwaters Forest Preserve, and suggesting that whoever approved the logging plan had a hole in his head. The logging was held up by litigation and by efforts to get the state and federal wildlife regulatory agencies to block it on the grounds that it was potential habitat for the Marbled Murrelet, an endangered sea bird that nests only on the large moss-covered branches of older redwoods. The Elk River, which runs through the stand, is also prime habitat for the threatened Coho Salmon.

Just last week, on Monday, October 22, the last of the regulatory boards signed off on the logging plan, and Pacific Lumber rushed in loggers early the next morning to begin the cutting. The following day, Activists who briefly blocked the public access road and talked with the arriving loggers for a few minutes before stepping aside were placed under citizens arrest by Pacific Lumber security and cited for trespassing by Humboldt deputy sheriffs, despite the fact that they believed they were on a public road, were not told they were on private property nor asked to leave, and were actually in the process of leaving when security and deputies showed up and arrested them.

Earth First! called for a mass legal protest demonstration on Saturday, October 27, including a four mile hike along the Elk River Road, the Headwaters Preserve public access road, which is closed to public vehicular traffic but open to pedestrians. EF! organizer Darryl Cherney said no civil disobedience or arrests were planned, and the event would be suitable for families with children.

The Headwaters saga continues.

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Albion Monitor October 27, 2001 (

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