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Logger Not A Suspect, Investigator Says

by Nicholas Wilson
Headwaters Article Index

One-man investigation will take weeks
"The timber faller is not a suspect," says the sheriff's detective in charge of the official investigation into the death of David "Gypsy" Chain. In a Monitor interview last week, Humboldt Detective Juan Freeman said that after three weeks of investigation, A. E. Ammons, the Pacific Lumber logger who felled the tree that crushed Chain to death "is not a suspect in any particular crime, yet."

While the Sheriff has not demanded that Pacific Lumber reveal results of Ammons' drug tests, the Detective has requested details from Earth First! concerning "activists ... sent on their missions," which observers believe signals that EF! is being investigated for Chain's death.

Freeman said his investigation will not be complete for weeks because he has so many witness tapes to listen to and summarize. He's attempting to make it "as thorough a job as possible given the constraints."

"There's a lot of bogus information being put out by this organization"
An October 5 Earth First! press release alleged Ammons boasted to activists in the forest the day before Chain's death that they should fear him because he was so bad that he had a felony record for shooting and wounding a sheriff's deputy years ago. To that Freeman said "He has no criminal record. That fellow's record is cleaner than mine, and I've been a policeman for 22 years. He has never been arrested." However Earth First! came up with information they said came from public records at the courthouse showing that Ammons had been arrested in 1984 for drunk driving and resisting arrest.

"Unlike Earth First! and their ilk, I am not going to rush to judgment. We will conduct a thorough investigation and present whatever we come up with to the DA," said Freeman. "It's really sad to see that kind of stuff put out, because what EF! has done there is defame the character of the logger."

"There's a lot of bogus information being put out by this organization," Freeman continued. "They have been in a rush to judgment, and they have been since Day 2; on Day 1 they all believed it was an accident. On Day 2, after they conferred with their attorneys, they decided it was manslaughter. But at the time it happened, everybody thought it was a tragic accident, including EF! people."

Freeman said this wasn't like the July case in Santa Rosa where a 19 year-old was recently charged with second degree murder for driving 100 MPH through an intersection and killing two women. In that case, "going 100 MPH through an intersection shows a wanton disregard for the safety of others using the highway. But applying that principle to this situation requires a leap of logic without evidence to support it," said Freeman.

Freeman summarized the main issue in his investigation: "The question becomes, was the timber faller acting in accordance with the Timber Harvest Plan and accepted logging practices for falling redwood trees, or not. That's the issue, and that's what I'm delving into in this investigation, but I haven't made a finding on any of the issues involved in this thing. I would rather wait until the investigation is completed to see if there is information to substantiate any opinion, one way or the other."

Question of "wanton disregard for the safety of others"
But it seemed apparent throughout the interview that Freeman was ignoring or dismissing the testimony of seven eyewitnesses who gave sworn statements supported by videotape that Ammons had threatened to fall trees in their direction, and in fact had done so several times before felling the tree which killed Chain. The tape recorded Ammons saying he wished he had his pistol and would bring it the next day. Other witnesses swore he told them in encounters the day before Chain's death that he would not hesitate to kill them if they were in a tree he was felling or in the way. Falling a large tree in the general direction where he had seen people earlier could be interpreted as "wanton disregard for the safety of others."

Freeman said the fatal tree was a large second-growth redwood, not a Douglas Fir as some of the EF!ers said. He scoffed at the forest activists for not recognizing the species of the tree. That is important, he said, because with a redwood the faller had only limited options where to fall it. "These people don't understand timber falling," he added. "You can't just aim it at somebody and fall it on them. It just doesn't happen that way."

But photos of the scene suggest that the fatal tree was a residual old-growth redwood. There was no stump of a larger redwood adjacent to the 4 ft. diameter tree, which ruled out its being second growth. In fact, the tree had two large "sucker" trees growing from its root system as older redwoods often do, and EF! activist Josh Brown told the Monitor he counted 200 growth rings on the stump, plus or minus ten.

The photos showed, Freeman agreed, that the tree was felled diagonally uphill, at about a ten o'clock angle where twelve o'clock would be straight up the very steep slope. The tree did break into several pieces when felled, and Freeman revealed that Chain was struck by a part of the tree which broke off and rolled downhill.

Ammons drug tests not available even to police
The Sheriff's office released a statement to media dated September 17, the day of Chain's death, that preliminary findings were that it was an accident, based on the position of the tree and the body. Asked if it wasn't premature to release that statement before even taking statements from eyewitnesses, Freeman replied, "That was based on what I saw at the time. It was a preliminary opinion or finding."

Freeman confirmed information published by the Press Democrat that preliminary drug test results showed Chain had used marijuana at some time in the month before his death, but said more precise quantitative findings are not in yet that might indicate how long before he used it, and whether he might have been under the influence at the time of death.

Ammons did have a drug/alcohol test required by PL, Freeman said. "Those are confidential. They won't even release the results to me. The inference that I made was, because they have a zero-tolerance policy, if he had tested positive for alcohol or drugs, he would have been fired. And he hasn't been fired."

Attorney Jay Moller, however, has pointed out that PL could be held liable for Chain's death, and the corporation could be motivated not to signal the results.

In fact, Freeman would not even confirm the name of the logger, saying "I know his name, but I'm certainly not going to release it to anybody. The only reason his name got out is because of an unscrupulous attorney in Arcata who released his name when he shouldn’t have, and he should be prosecuted for that, because the faller hasn't been arrested or charged with any crime." Freeman apparently referred to Chain family attorney Steve Schectman, whose office is in Arcata, but Schectman told the Monitor that he had not released Ammons' name.

Freeman confirmed that the coroner released correct information that Chain was killed by part of the tree the logger felled. There was no domino effect, but that was the story he was told by other deputies when he arrived at the scene, and that's what they were told by the logging crew, but not necessarily by the timber faller, he said.

It was reported that in the wake of press reports attributed to the coroner about the drug test and the domino effect, the sheriff asked the coroner not to release any report. Freeman said it was still his investigation, and the coroner probably was not going to make any comments on it "until we turn it over to him, if and when." Freeman's report will go to the DA to make a determination if a crime was involved. If not then it would become a coroner's case.

Activists continue to watch PL activity on "Gypsy Mountain"
EF! has said no one has ever been charged with assaulting a forest activist in Humboldt County, and they say there have been many incidents over the years. Asked if he was aware of any cases that would contradict that claim, Freeman replied "I'm not aware of anybody who's been charged with it, but every time they're arrested they claim that we assault them.

"My feeling is that calmer heads should prevail as far as fanning public opinion about this incident. It's probably a good idea to wait for the results of all the various investigations are," said Freeman. He pointed out that there are at least two other investigations underway, by Pacific Lumber and the Chain family.

On October 7, the day on which officers removed the activists' blockade and reopened the logging road to the death site, Freeman confirmed that he had completed the forensic portion of his investigation of the scene Friday, October 2, and that it was okay with him if PL resumed operations. He said the company had agreed not to disturb the death scene without giving at least 48 hours notice to attorney Schectman.

Schectman told the Monitor his investigation of the scene is not complete, but he can't get a court order to protect the site unless logging is imminent, thus the 48 hour notice. He said he wants to bring in an expert to examine the scene, but doesn't know if PL will allow it.

Meanwhile, EF! activists continue to watch PL activity on what they still call "Gypsy Mountain." They say the company has moved heavy equipment closer to the spot where Chain died, and they fear that evidence will be destroyed. They were joined by a wide array of supporters in asking people to write to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to request an immediate federal investigation.

Scoffing at the concept of being sent on "missions"
Monitor has also obtained a copy of a letter Freeman sent to EF! organizers Darryl Cherney and Josh Brown making a formal request for information and cooperation, which suggests that he is focusing his investigation toward possible Earth First! culpability in Chain's death.

Freeman wrote:

October 5, 1998

Dear Darryl,

This is a formal request from the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department for your assistance and cooperation.

As you know, the Sheriff's Department is conducting an investigation into the death of Earth First activist David Chain on Sept. 17, 1998. Also, as you are probably aware, it is a top priority that the investigation be as thorough as possible.

In that regard, I have been looking into all areas of the incident, which brings me to the purpose of this letter, which is to request information from your organization regarding the training which is received by your activists before they are sent on their missions.

What I am interested in specifically, is access to records or individuals who are involved in the training of the activists who then go to active logging sites to engage the loggers in the "cat and mouse" tactic and who then try to engage the loggers in dialogue such as what the activists, including David Chain, were doing the day he was killed. I am interested in learning what training David Chain received regarding the "cat and mouse" tactic in logging operations and in any records extant regarding any such training. I am also interested in interviewing persons who may have trained David Chain before his activities in the woods commenced.

I am also requesting that you provide me with a copy of the Earth First Direct Action Manual as my copy is incomplete.

Your prompt response to these requests will be greatly appreciated,

Sincerely, Juan Freeman

A veteran member at the North Coast EF! Arcata office said David Chain had been involved with the local forest defense effort for over a year before he died, and was not an inexperienced forest activist. "Rob" (no last name was given) also scoffed at the concept of being sent on missions. "Whenever I've gone into the woods to do 'cat and mouse' or any other action, I've gone of my own volition. Nobody has 'sent' me."

He also said the Direct Action Manual was only an incomplete outline for teaching non-violence, and is by no means a "training manual."

EF! organizer Naomi Wagner's response to Freeman's letter: "You have been invited to a non-violence training as part of the effort to train law enforcement offcers in this county, and everyone has refused, except an officer from Humboldt State University, and one from the City of Arcata."

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Albion Monitor October 16, 1998 (

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