By Laura Kopen
“Save the Environment, Wear Furs.”
The advertisement over the railroad viaduct at Ravenswood and Foster taunted Lise Olsen. An obstetrics nurse and cat lover, Olsen chose July 4, 1992, as the day to make her feelings public. Pouring gasoline into 21 plastic containers equipped with candle wicks, she hung her homemade lanterns over the side of the bridge, hoping they would make the next day’s news as a striking Independence Day declaration for animal rights. After several rounds with wooden matches, though, only one lantern carried a flame, and Olsen knew she hadn’t produced anything newsworthy. Concluding her protest was a bust, she took down the banner she’d brought and went home.
But four months later Olsen got more attention than she wanted. She was arrested for her July 4 demonstration and characterized as a “terrorist.” Two years after her arrest, she was sentenced to four years in prison on five felony counts, ranging from attempted arson to unlawful use of weapons. Last August, however, the conviction was reversed on appeal, and her case was remanded for a new trial. Olsen’s lawyer estimated there was a 95 percent chance that her case would not be retried, but Olsen was so shaken by her first trial that she decided to stay in prison for two more months, until three days before her scheduled parole date. She reasoned that if a virtually completed sentence didn’t deter the state from spending the time and money to retry her, at the very least it would reduce her chances of returning to prison in the event of a second conviction.
Her fears were not unfounded. Though a second trial might seem unnecessary in light of the fact that her actions didn’t cause property damage or injuries, prosecutors recently announced their plans to retry her. A spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office says the state is obliged to pursue a conviction and that Olsen’s served time is a minor point since there’s no way of knowing if her sentence would be increased if she’s found guilty.
Now out on bond and awaiting her second trial, Olsen is voluntarily under house arrest. She wears a home monitoring device, convinced there’s a secret agenda to implicate her in other crimes committed by animal-rights activists. She’s invited authorities to give her a polygraph test, search her home, and tap her phone. Believing that her stiff sentence was intended to serve as a warning to other activists, Olsen’s afraid that she’s become a scapegoat in a government campaign against the animal-rights movement.
Olsen was raised by her grandmother, who kept boxes filled with pamphlets and magazines like Nonviolent Activist and Quaker’s Bulletin. When Olsen was a teenager she saw a TV program about the first Peace Corps volunteers, and her grandmother told her, “You’ll be doing that someday.”
Olsen never did join the Peace Corps, but she did go to nursing school, and in 1985 was working at Cook County Hospital when she decided to take a sabbatical to volunteer in Africa. She tried to go to Ethiopia to assist victims of the famine, but the civil war there had become so heated that she couldn’t get into the country–even the major relief organizations were refusing volunteers. She paid her own way to Sudan, found housing, and offered her services as a Red Cross nurse and midwife to Ugandan refugees. Olsen stayed in Africa about a year and returned to the United States when the Sudanese government ordered all foreign relief workers to evacuate.
Back home Olsen began to feel American society was too materialistic. She started to study Danish and wrote to the embassies of Denmark and Norway about obtaining a work visa. She even visited Copenhagen with the hope of emigrating, but she was discouraged from staying by red tape and the difficulty of the required language tests. Olsen resumed her position at Cook County Hospital, and one day while visiting her grandmother she discovered a magazine from the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It was a discovery that would change her life.
“I had never heard of animal rights before, and I saw this and it had all this to do with legislation and about not testing on animals, and I thought, there’s people who care about animals like I do.”
She was soon writing 30 letters a month to members of Congress, promoting the cause of animal rights. Then in 1990 a coworker told her that animal experimentation was taking place at Cook County Hospital. “I’d worked there on and off for 11 years and I had no idea,” Olsen says. She did some investigating and found big monkeys in tiny cages, cats, and “a whole mess of barking dogs.” The animals were being used for medical research at the hospital’s Hektone Institute.
“I never worked so hard in my entire life to try to get the hospital to change their practice of experimentation by presenting medical research to them, xeroxing articles and sending them to residents,” she says. “I found out a whole lot of what experimentation was done just by looking at the literature that was posted in the main hallway of the hospital. Stuff about boiling guinea pigs to create burns and see if vitamin C would help them, which seemed wholly unnecessary.”
She found out that the pediatrics unit was using cats to train residents in intubation, the insertion of a breathing tube to create a passage to the lungs. Practicing intubation on animals has been illegal in England for over 100 years, and its infant mortality rate has been consistently lower than that of the United States. Olsen learned that Children’s Memorial Hospital had stopped intubation training on live animals and that Cook County’s own anesthesiology unit used mannequins to train residents for surgery. She tried several times to arrange meetings with hospital administrators to present her findings. “My position was always that if this group is skilled and doesn’t do it, then nobody has to.”
Olsen contacted animal-rights groups in Chicago, and one day a flyer from Animal Rights Mobilization appeared in her mailbox. She went to a meeting and told the group about research practices at the Hektone Institute, and soon after they held a candlelight vigil in front of Cook County Hospital. She tried to organize a debate between medical researchers who weren’t using animals and those who were. None of those invited to defend animal experimentation showed up. Animal Rights Mobilization held a press conference at the University of Chicago’s Newman Center with a representative from a pharmaceutical company demonstrating the practice of intubation on a mannequin. A video detailing conditions in Cook County’s lab was shown, and it later aired on Fox News.
Olsen continued her efforts to meet with hospital administrators and wrote press releases deploring their use of tax dollars for animal testing. One day she went to her local pet store and saw barrels of pigs’ feet and animal skins being sold as pet “treats.” She took her objections straight to the store manager. More and more, Olsen says, she was fighting for the compassionate treatment of animals in her daily activities. Washington was a long way away, and Olsen turned more of her attention to her own backyard.
A onetime resident of the Ravenswood neighborhood, Olsen had driven under the railway viaduct at Ravenswood and Foster every day. The low steel stucture is nestled between two grassy embankments and hovers over the street so closely it looks like a quaint portico to a frontier hamlet–except for the neon pink letters brightly announcing “Entering Keim Fur Country / “We Do Great Things With Fur.”‘ The other side, facing west, is painted yellow and blue with the quip “Save the Environment, Wear Furs.”
“I felt particularly strongly about this billboard because it made the claim that wearing fur coats saves the environment, and that’s extremely offensive. It’s an environmentally harmful industry because the workers are not protected from the formaldehyde used to process the pelts. There was the issue of animal suffering, but as a nurse, I was really concerned about the human health hazards, which is something that’s always played down. Here’s a guy having the audacity to claim that this is saving the environment, when it’s really hurting people and giving them lung disease, and I thought that the public had the right to know. . . . I guess it was his slogan, as opposed to just “Fur Is Beautiful.”‘
She decided to take a photo of the advertisement and send it to the City News Bureau. With July 4 approaching, she dug up a red, white, and blue banner left over from the protests at Cook County Hospital. It said “Freedom of Information,” and she got the idea to give the demonstration an Independence Day theme. She says she was inspired by the Disney movie Johnny Tremain, which tells the story of a young boy in the American Revolution. Olsen saw the film when she was in the third grade. “I can still remember the jingle, “Fight for freedom and fight for justice.’ I wanted to create an eye-catching visual effect to give it emphasis, with the underlying idea thrown back to olden times, like the traditional liberty protests.” She mulled the plan over in her mind, and in her spare time she worked out the final details.
Olsen says she’d usually volunteer to work on July 4 because she hates all the loud firecrackers, but she decided to venture out this year as a way of taking back the night for animals. She wore earplugs and donned headphones, the kind worn by runway crews. She draped the 36-foot banner from the top of the bridge, and over the sides of the viaduct she hung her “candles,” which she hoped would be bright enough to illuminate the sign and striking enough to conjure the spirit of the freedom fighters.
Every Fourth of July, strange new breeds of firecrackers with names like Bonsai, Black Cat, and Jumping Jack are smuggled over state lines. Olsen’s devices have endured several revolutions in nomenclature, ranging from “luau candle” to “Molotov cocktail.” Throughout her trial, the defense called them “lanterns” while the prosecution’s favorite term was “firebombs.” They began life as ordinary plastic Skippy jars, which she had lying around the house since her cats Hamlet and Aida were on a vegetarian diet consisting primarily of peanut butter. She fashioned her lanterns after the ones she’d made in Sudan, where electricity was a luxury. At a Hyde Park hobby shop she explained her project to the clerk, who recommended a fuse called “green underwater wick,” which is often used for making model rockets. After painting 21 peanut butter jars red and blue and outfitting them with wicks, she used wire to secure them to aluminum pie pans to catch any plastic drippings. When she tested her contraption she found it too wobbly, so she strung plastic-coated clothesline through holes in the lids of the jars to center and steady them, winding the wire around the rope at the top. She took 11 jars to the trestle on the night of July 3 and hid them in some nearby bushes. The next night, she brought along the remaining ten lanterns and used a syringe to measure out 50 cubic centimeters (about two ounces) of gasoline into each one. She hung 10 jars from one side and 11 from the other, bracing them against the edge of the viaduct with metal garden border.
Olsen says she had tested the lanterns twice over a barbecue pit and once over a trash can. Each time she had some trouble lighting them, but she’d eventually get a flame that would last for five to ten minutes until the fuel was consumed. On the night of her protest, she succeeded in lighting only one of the 21 lanterns. The others were duds. After several tries to light the unresponsive wicks, Olsen retreated to a bench at a bus stop and watched the sole lantern melt down. The spectacle hardly merited a photograph.
Olsen felt tired, and her fatigue heightened her disappointment that the project she’d devoted so much energy to was a failure. Utterly demoralized, she left the gas-filled peanut butter jars hanging from the viaduct and went home. So much for environmental consciousness.
Keim Furs is the oldest and largest family-owned fur shop in Chicago. Photographs of the original Keim Furs, founded in Vienna in 1800, give a cultivated air to the Foster Avenue store. A buzzer must be rung at the locked front door, but that’s because the proprietors are often in the back rooms, where they custom design their apparel.
In the workshop Bill Keim pulls out a folder stuffed with environmental-impact studies on the fur industry. He says he considered having a private company assess the environmental ramifications of his own business, but the estimate they gave him was so high that he has since shelved the idea. Keim says he screens the ranchers who breed the animals for his furs; a mink farm in Idaho is his favorite example of a “good clean ranch” treating its animals well. Keim believes he’s justified in claiming the fur trade is environmentally correct, citing industry reports documenting the cleanliness of fur manufacture in contrast to synthetic fiber production, which uses chemical processing and heavy machinery that emit a number of pollutants. In a family-run operation like Keim’s, the pelts are cleaned with corncobs and hand sewn on the premises. He points out that ranch-raised animals are fed the intestines of turkeys and trout, making their manure a rich natural fertilizer. After they’re killed the meat and skin are turned into food and leather, and the carcass is ground for fertilizer or animal food. In Keim’s shop, nothing goes to waste–every scrap is saved for later use. Walking around the immaculate workshop, it’s obvious that for Keim cleanliness is next to godliness.
Keim’s an anomaly in the fur business because he’s taken the concerns of environmentalists to heart. In 1990 he set up a booth in Lincoln Park at an Earth Day rally. Standing under his “Save the Environment, Wear Furs” logo, Keim told passersby that wearing fur supports the policies of “sustainable growth,” and he adamantly disputed the notion that furriers are indifferent to the practices of good ecology. “Everything has got something that can offend the environment, no matter what,” Keim says. “We can only go so far, and our industry has done very well in terms of telling people or trying to establish the fact that it’s a clean industry. You’re always going to get some bum out there who’s going to do something wrong. But they don’t stay in business that long either.”
According to Keim, the market ensures that animals are treated well because only good care will yield a healthy, attractive coat. Where the market fails, he says, government regulation is sufficient to prevent abuse. He laments that the federal government imposes controls on animal populations on public lands–by setting traps or poisoning–and then leaves the animals to die in the wild without collecting the carcasses and making them available to industry. Keim once wrote a letter to the city’s animal-control department offering to tan the skins of captured raccoons to make coats for the needy, free of charge. He never heard back.
“I was the only furrier that had–I’ll use the word guts–to go on Earth Day. And I went to the organizers, and they said, “Oh my God, you’re a furrier.”‘ Undeterred, Keim presented his argument with all the appropriate buzzwords: “Furs are a renewable resource, not a pollutant, and biodegradable. It’s probably the best piece of clothing you can wear without hurting the environment.” Keim says the people who stopped by his Earth Day booth were receptive to his message. “We had a wonderful response from people coming up, and they said, “It’s about time we heard your side of the story. Most of the things you hear, it’s just about the animal being killed.”‘
But fur is a renewable resource because the animals are bred. When asked if the color of fur changed over the course of an animal’s life, Keim replied, “They don’t make it to see winter, they don’t live a year.” Animals are interbred to alter the color and texture of their fur, and they are killed young because that’s when their fur is at its prime. For those like Olsen, the “environmentally safe” argument is a human-centered appeal that fails to address the morality of killing animals.
Keim says that antifur rhetoric has never directly affected his sales, and aside from the occasional verbal admonishment on Earth Day he hasn’t been harassed by people offended by his business. Most of what he knows about Olsen’s case is based on a few newspaper articles. If Olsen intended to defame the furrier, she chose to do so on neutral territory. The property is owned by the Chicago & North Western railway and leased to Keim for his advertising; he left the matter in the hands of the railroad and the police.
Keim says he’s never received threats to his property, his person, or any of his employees.
Has he had any communication, written or verbal, from someone who might’ve been Lise Olsen?
“No,” he replies. “They don’t do that.”
Olsen claims that the purpose of her protest was to expose a misleading advertisement. If the event had gone as planned, her photo would have been bolstered by a press release she’d made outlining the perils of the fur industry to human health.
Her press release was never sent, however, and Olsen took her banner home. There was no sign of fire or smoke damage on the bridge to indicate that anything out of the ordinary had taken place. Olsen’s abandoned jars must have blended in with all the other July 4 detritus because they remained hanging from the trestle for four days. On July 8 an anonymous caller reported them to the police precinct located two blocks away.
Based on the caller’s description, the bomb and arson squad was dispatched, supported by four beat cars, six to eight patrolmen, a district commander, the watch commander, two sergeants, five cars from the bomb technicians’ section, a Fire Department ambulance, and one engine company. Explosives expert Thomas Brady, commanding officer of the bomb squad, was in charge of the investigation, and after arriving at the scene he ordered bomb suits, another ambulance, and backup paramedics. Two technicians performed an X ray on one of the jars that led him to conclude that it was some kind of “improvised incendiary device” but not an explosive since there were no electrical components and the jars had no common trunk line or common fuse. The bomb suits were put away because they were not only unnecessary but would have been hazardous if the gasoline from the jars had somehow started a fire. Concluding a two-hour investigation of the site, Brady dismantled the remaining jars, dispersed the gas among the rocks on the tracks, and put the components in bags to go to the Police Department warehouse.
Four months later, on November 10, FBI special agent Allen Close called the Police Department with the names of four potential suspects, including Olsen. Detective Robert Schatzel, an officer with the bomb and arson squad, ran the names through the computer and found that Olsen’s fingerprints were on file. On November 17 the prints were positively matched to fingerprints found on three of the jars, and the following day Detective Schatzel went to Olsen’s home in Hyde Park to arrest her.
Olsen’s fingerprints were on file because of an arrest during her campaign against Cook County Hospital the previous spring.
After months of dealing with unresponsive administrators, she managed to schedule a few meetings, but they were later canceled without explanation. The only apparent result of her agitating was a beefing up of security: the Hektone Institute’s doors were now locked, and the elevator was shut down after the lab closed at 6 PM. That January rabbits and guinea pigs had been stolen from one of the institute’s labs by members of the underground Animal Liberation Front. Olsen decided to free two cats in spite of the tighter security. “When you try to do things in a professional manner and people don’t listen, it’s very frustrating,” she says. “That’s what turns people to activism.”
At 5:55 PM on April 23, 1991, Olsen took the elevator up to the Hektone Institute. The floor was vacant. She had exchanged her usual white uniform for a blue one, the kind that hospital messengers wear, and she carried a phony specimen–a vial of her own urine–so that if anyone asked what she was doing, she could say she’d accidentally got off the elevator on the wrong floor. (There was a urinalysis lab on the floor right below the institute.) Olsen wore a wig and carried a canvas bag under her blouse; when a security guard encountered her later, she told him that she was pregnant.
Olsen had come prepared for locks on doors and cages by bringing a drill, a hammer, a screwdriver, needle-nose pliers, and door stoppers. She openly carried a camera, a syringe, and cat tranquilizer. As she approached the lab, however, she panicked and retreated to a bathroom, where she was soon detected by a security officer making his rounds who saw Olsen’s odd getup and became suspicious. The guard called his watch commander, and Olsen was taken into custody by hospital security.
She says she waited for several hours while the hospital administration deliberated. She was finally charged with criminal trespass and escorted to the emergency room to speak with a psychiatrist.
She talked to the doctor on duty that night about Nelson Mandela, who was still in prison at the time, and after a short discussion he issued his evaluation, saying that Olsen was committed to a cause and strongly opinionated, that she displayed good insight, and that her overall mental state was normal. Olsen says the hospital’s administrative office immediately sent her back to the emergency room to see another psychiatrist–this one was less sympathetic. “I talked to him about political activism, and it’s like I had to acquaint him with what it was,” she says. “He’d never heard of Gandhi or Albert Schweitzer. Finally I had to talk to him about Jesus and liberation theology. . . . I thought he would’ve heard about Jesus.” When the doctor left the room, Olsen says, she got up to see what he’d written. The psychiatrist wrote that she had delusions about following in the footsteps of Jesus and was trying to harm people with a syringe. When he came back into the room, Olsen says, she made him change the record to “took medication and needles and declared she would inject animals.”
The doctor filled out a “petition for involuntary/judicial admission” to commit Olsen to psychiatric care, calling her “delusional” and referring to her “pressured speech and flight of ideas and impaired judgment.” It was now 2 AM. Olsen says she didn’t see the doctor’s final diagnosis, but recalls being told that they were taking her to a hospital with a psychiatric unit. “He said, “I have power. I could send you to [a mental institution].’ And I said, “I prefer that you send me where my HMO will pick up the tab, because here I’ve already been to the emergency room and it’s expensive.”‘ A nurse called her HMO and received approval to send her to Saint Mary of Nazareth.
Olsen says she was interviewed by the psychiatric resident at Saint Mary’s: “He said, “You understand, this is just for the look of the thing, but do you hear voices?’ And I said, “Just yours.”‘ Olsen was discharged.
She went to court six times on the trespassing misdemeanor, but no one, including the security officer, was ever called to testify. The case began to disintegrate, and at the final court appearance on December 19, 1991, the judge dismissed the charge. The hospital held a disciplinary hearing, and when it became obvious that she would be fired, Olsen decided to resign. But by the time the charges against her were dropped, she had been rehired in the hospital’s dialysis unit.
Olsen subsequently petitioned the court to clear her record, and Judge Thomas Fitzgerald ordered her record expunged on August 5, 1992. The order stated that all fingerprints, photographs, and other documentation linking her to an arrest that did not result in a conviction were to be removed from police records. A copy of the order was also supposed to be sent to the FBI with a request that any materials relating to the arrest be returned to the defendant or her attorney. Three months later, Olsen’s fingerprints remained on file and were matched to the prints on the three peanut butter jars.
When the police came to Olsen’s apartment shortly after 7 AM on November 17, 1992, she wasn’t unduly surprised–a few months earlier her car had been vandalized and two officers had come late at night to let her know about it. When they rang the bell, she stuck her head out the window and saw two plainclothes detectives on the sidewalk. She went down to the vestibule in her robe. Olsen says they identified themselves as police officers, but she was reluctant to invite them up to her apartment because her 96-year-old grandmother was asleep in the open dining area. The detectives told her that two uniformed officers were already on her back porch and they would state their business upstairs. A discussion ensued, but they wouldn’t tell Olsen why they were there. She finally took them up to her apartment, where she was informed that she was under arrest for arson, a charge she emphatically denied. She got dressed, called the city’s Department of Aging to request a caretaker to look after her grandmother, and went with the officers to the police station at 11th and State.
Olsen has maintained that the court should have dismissed all charges since no warrant was issued and she wasn’t read the Miranda warning. But Illinois case law allows that a person’s Fourth Amendment rights are not violated when there’s probable cause for an arrest and when the police are given voluntary consent to enter a residence. A positive match on the fingerprints established proof of identity, so the arrest was lawful as long as she let the police into her apartment.
Detective Schatzel claimed that he recited the Miranda warning from memory at Olsen’s apartment and then again at the station before questioning her. Olsen disputes this, but at trial Judge Vincent Bentivenga opined that the dispute was of minor consequence since Olsen probably understood that she had the right to remain silent, that anything she said could be used against her, and that if she couldn’t afford legal representation the state would provide her with an attorney. At the trial, Bentivenga said, “Ms. Olsen does seem also to be [a] very well educated person. She is a registered nurse. She’s got much higher educational background than our normal defendant in these courts, so there is great likelihood she knew her rights anyway, but the point is . . . that the detective told her her rights on two occasions.”
Olsen says that she was denied due process because she was a middle-class professional who dared to challenge the status quo: “The most outrageous thing about my Independence Day protest seemed to be that I had betrayed my race, my class, and my education by challenging a monied industry, one similar to the industry in which they are involved. What the fur-bearing animals are to the fur industry, defendants are to the prison industry: fodder.” Yet Olsen had been compliant during her arrest and had talked openly to a police officer about what she had done. At the trial two years later, she faced that same officer, but each recalled their conversation differently.
According to Olsen, during her initial interrogation the police suggested that the peanut butter jars were painted blue in order to be camouflaged against the blue sign. When Olsen explained that they were painted decoratively–red and blue for the holiday–Schatzel asked her to produce the banner. She called her grandmother’s caretaker and asked her to retrieve the banner from a closet. An officer was dispatched to bring the banner back to the station. He returned with a flimsy swath of paper that said “Hunger Strike in Progress.” Olsen says that when she informed officers that it wasn’t the same banner, she was told that it didn’t make any difference.
Nevertheless, Olsen says, she thought Schatzel was sympathetic. She took responsibility for her actions, freely admitting that she had made the “lanterns” and trespassed on the railroad trestle as part of a protest to attract attention for the cause of animal rights. She also claims that she told detectives she did not intend to commit arson.
But Schatzel reported that Olsen not only confessed but went on to describe lighting the lead “firebomb” and running away in fear of fire. Schatzel never requested a court reporter and didn’t record their conversation. Olsen says he never asked her to write out her version of the incident and never showed her the report he typed while she was sitting in his office. Defense attorney Barry A. Gross says that when he asked for evidence of Olsen’s confession, he was told there was no verifiable record.
Schatzel claimed that Olsen referred to the peanut butter jars as “Molatov [sic] cocktails,” which she denies. Molotov cocktails require glass containers that shatter when thrown; Olsen’s jars were plastic. “I told him that I’d made lanterns,” she says.
Before the trial the media were told things that were not included in the original police report, such as that the devices were fused and rigged to ignite simultaneously.
Shortly after Olsen’s arrest, the Sun-Times ran an article on November 19, 1992, that said an “elaborate device” found by “puzzled railroad workers” had been intended to “burn signs which say “Welcome to Keim Fur Country.”‘ In addition to indicating that Olsen “admitted” to the arson charge, the story stated that “she had rigged [the jars] with fuses so each set would erupt in sequence to form parallel walls of flame.” The article said that Olsen’s fingerprints had been taken “in April when she was charged with criminal trespassing after County Hospital laboratory animals were released. . . . That charge was dismissed with leave to reinstate.” The story never mentioned that those charges were dropped and the record legally expunged, or that the action did not succeed in freeing any animals. There were other factual errors: the article twice incorrectly referred to the Keim Fur incident as having taken place in 1991; Olsen’s name was misspelled and three years were added to her age. In the first paragraph, the incident was referred to as “a Molotov cocktail attack.” Olsen says she called the reporter with her side of the story. She wrote a letter to the editor, urging the paper to publish a retraction correcting the article’s numerous errors. Neither a retraction nor her letter was ever published.
Olsen was charged with five felony counts: attempted arson, unlawful use of weapons, and the manufacture, possession, and transportation of incendiary devices. Still, since there had been no property damage or personal injury, Olsen was convinced that she’d ultimately beat the rap. “That’s how naive I was,” she says. “But [at the time of the protest] I wasn’t a bit worried about danger because I know gas evaporates and I guess I just figured they’d be like these little peanut butter husks, dangling in the wind. I was surprised at how much gas was left there after four days. But even if they’d been there 25 days I still know I didn’t make a dangerous thing.”
Gross says that during discovery he found that the Police Department had a copy of a letter to the editor Olsen had written to the Sun-Times more than two years earlier. Olsen says she wrote the letter in response to an Associated Press article about sleep-deprivation studies using mice. “I wrote and I said, look, that is the kind of animal experimentation that is not applicable to human health. You should not be using animals for that when you already have willing human subjects, because if you have species correlation your findings are more accurate. I’m a nurse and I know what sleep deprivation is like, and you don’t have to keep these mice up. You should just be asking for volunteers from us poor sleep-deprived nurses.” Gross says that in the margin of the photocopied letter someone had scrawled, “This was written by your girlfriend.”
After seeing the newspaper story, her resurrected letter to the editor, and the final police report, Olsen began to feel that she had become a pet project of the Police Department. Olsen says “a burst of inspiration” prompted her to ask Gross to file a motion barring prosecutors from using the word “terrorist.”
Olsen’s trial started on July 25, 1994. A cart was wheeled into the courtroom with the dismantled peanut butter jars individually contained in bags with the word “bomb” written in red letters on the front. The bags were arranged in a semicircle facing the jury. The prosecution called its first witness, bomb squad commander Brady, who described what he found at the scene. Brady emphasized that for two hours all commuter trains had to be halted and street traffic had to be rerouted. After the jury saw pictures of Olsen’s devices hanging from the sides of the viaduct, they were shown–over the objection of the defense–large color photographs in which the jars were placed directly on the tracks in the way of an oncoming train. Reflecting on her first day in court, Olsen muses, “I would’ve convicted me, too.”
The defense challenged Brady’s credibility as an expert witness, saying that he never performed a controlled experiment on the lanterns, though he did conclude that they were not explosives. Under questioning by prosecutors, Brady confirmed that gasoline is a highly flammable substance that could potentially cause injury to pedestrians and damage to vehicles in case of a fire. He finished up his testimony by saying that he’d never seen or read about any case in the U.S. involving as many incendiary devices at one location.
The defense hired explosives expert Carl James Dahn, a consulting engineer who’s worked with the U.S. Defense Department. After visiting the warehouse at 39th and Michigan, where the lanterns were kept, he made a replica of one, which he then found difficult to ignite. Three times Dahn lit the wick, but when it burned down to the gasoline it smoked a bit, then stopped, with no resulting flame. On the fourth try he wrapped the wick around the top several times before lighting it. In his report Dahn wrote that he then put a match to the wick “10-15 times,” and it finally ignited, producing “a flame approximately 10 inches high [that] burned until the plastic jar melted. The pie pan caught any plastic drippings. A painted metal surface was placed within three inches of the configuration. At no time did the painted surface change color or was heat-affected.”
Still, with a charge of attempted arson brought against Olsen, the burden fell on the state’s attorney to show that her purpose in taking the lanterns to the trestle was to cause damage to the steel structure the advertisement was painted on. While both sides agreed that a lot of thought had gone into the construction of the devices, there remained a question as to whether they were failed firebombs or lousy lanterns. The prosecution claimed that Olsen’s protest was a clear-cut case of vandalism, painting her as an extremist who would stop at nothing to save animals, going so far as to say that the state was not “attempting to prove her intent to commit an arson because she was an arsonist, but because she was an animal rights activist who wanted to destroy such advertisement based on her beliefs.” The prosecution relied on her prior misdemeanor arrest, even though that case had been dismissed. The hospital security guard was even called to testify, though he hadn’t done so two years earlier.
In his closing argument, the prosecutor said that Olsen intended to create a “massive fire,” adding that she “did all these things as an act of a terrorist.” The court allowed his use of the word terrorist to remain on the record even though he had defied the order barring that term from the trial. The judge instructed the jury to only accept his assertion if they found sufficient evidence to support it. After a four-day trial, Olsen was found guilty on all five charges.
Olsen was taken into custody. She spent six weeks at Cook County Jail awaiting sentencing, and she began a hunger strike that lasted 26 days until she collapsed. Reported in the Sun-Times on August 12, 1994, the story persuaded 40 people to write letters to the judge on her behalf. Olsen’s conviction came as a shock to those who knew her, and more than 50 friends and sympathizers appeared at her sentencing to support her and speak on her behalf. She was sentenced to five years and fined $1,000, but the judge took one year off the sentence due to the support she’d received from the community. Gross says the sentencing came as a hard blow to many. “Lise has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. If you’ve spent any time with her, you know that she has more compassion in her little finger than most people have in their entire lives.”
When Olsen left those gasoline-filled jars hanging from the viaduct, she inadvertently appeared to act on the threats of animal-rights activists who advocate violence. Mainstream organizations like PETA and Animal Rights Mobilization primarily concentrate on educating the public about animal-rights issues and lobbying for stronger animal-protection legislation. But some activists, frustrated by politics, have decided to carry out direct actions against animal abusers under the umbrella of the underground Animal Liberation Front. The ALF operates on the philosophy that immediate intervention is the only way to ensure that animal lives are saved. Inspired by the tactics of Band of Mercy activists Ronnie Lee and Cliff Goodman–who were imprisoned in England in 1975 for removing animals from a research laboratory–the ALF encourages criminal activity to liberate animals from farms, labs, and anywhere they are confined. The group has no central organization or definitive membership–any individual who complies with ALF guidelines may consider himself a member. Their basic tenet encourages the economic sabotage of businesses profiting from the abuse or killing of animals. The ALF calls itself a pacifist organization condemning injury to life–human or animal. It’s been declared a terrorist group by the FBI.
Screaming Wolf, a radical offshoot of the ALF, criticizes the group for its commitment to nonviolence, scoffing at the idealism of those who believe they can bring about change through peaceful means. Screaming Wolf’s philosophy is compiled in the manifesto A Declaration of War: Killing People to Save Animals and the Environment. The book was published anonymously by two activists who claim the manuscript was mailed to them without identification. While the message is extreme, it provides startling insight into an underground faction that many dismiss. In the book’s introduction, the publishers lament that “people in this country are allowed to purchase and bear arms, but not to announce a call to arms.”
Addressing the threats posed by this minority wing of the animal-rights movement, Robert C. McClellan wrote “The Terrorists Among Us,” an overview of ALF tactics published in Security Management News. McClellan says that the primary goal of antifur activists is to remove the potential for profit, and that increasingly attacks on fur retailers involve “a timed incendiary or smoke-creating device designed to go off during the night, actuating the fire sprinkler systems. This tactic leads to major water damage, lost sales time, expensive clean-up costs, and increased insurance premiums.” Based on his years of experience in the security industry, McClellan says that “ALF terrorists have prepared themselves for getting caught and have set a procedure if that occurs. They say nothing to police except to give their name and address and request a lawyer. All other questions are answered with “no comment.’ They also never sign anything, no matter how important the document may look. They school themselves in the police interrogation methods. . . . ALF terrorists view themselves as professionals and will support anyone who gets caught while taking direct action.”
If Olsen had been connected to the radical fringe of animal-rights activism, perhaps she wouldn’t have been so cooperative during her interrogation by police. Nothing suggests she was a member of the ALF, except her prior attempt to free cats from a lab. Her protest against the advertisement doesn’t fit the bill of “direct action”–there were no animal lives at stake, and even if there had been damage to the railroad trestle, Keim wouldn’t have had to pay for it. When asked if she’d ever contacted Keim or set foot on his property, Olsen replied, “Never. Why would I? The action wasn’t really to target the company. It was more to communicate to the public about the message, that environmental message. And the intention wasn’t to destroy the sign or this company’s property, the idea just wasn’t related. . . . Yes, it said Keim Furs, and I wish he hadn’t done it, but the offensive part was the “Save the Environment’ slogan.” Olsen’s claim that she only intended to spark a debate, not a billboard, was hard to accept for law enforcement officials. A subsequent act of vandalism by ALF members targeting the fur trade probably made it harder.
In November 1993, six months before her trial, nine incendiary devices were discovered at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman-Marcus, Marshall Field’s, and Carson Pirie Scott. The national office of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was sent a fax by ALF members taking responsibility for the incendiaries. The fax said they were intended to cause water damage and that “this action signals the start of a new, more intense campaign of economic sabotage against stores which sell fur. Any store selling fur items will be considered a legitimate target. No fur will be tolerated–fur hats, fur gloves, or fur-trimmed coats are enough to put a store on the ALF hit list.” The statement concluded, “People need to wake up to the violence inherent in fur coats. For those luxury items animals are electrocuted, trapped, suffocated, and drowned. As long as innocent animals suffer at the hands of the fur industry and fur wearers, the ALF will act on the behalf of the animals.”
The newsletter The Militant Vegan reported on the Chicago incident in a chronology of ALF actions, stating that “police recovered 2 whole devices, which were described as a matchbook and timer in a brown paper bag, and the FBI says it thinks that people crossed state lines for the action.” USA Today said that the devices were “hidden in lunch-size paper bags and were made of matches attached to 9-volt batteries that were ignited by a timer. . . . Most were in storage areas and were extinguished by in-house sprinklers. None caused extensive damage.” The incident remains under investigation.
In the spring of 1994 Olsen’s friend Jacquie Lewis was at work when she was told that an FBI agent investigating a murder wanted to speak with her alone. Lewis claims the putative G-man said someone had been found dead with no identification except a note in his pocket that said “call J. Lewis.” He explained that he was trying to track down the victim’s identity by contacting every J. Lewis in the Chicago phone book. She says he handed her a brown manila envelope, and she pulled out a picture of a “fat, white, middle-aged guy in a parking lot, lying in a pool of blood.” The picture was encased in plastic.
Lewis couldn’t identify the victim, but the encounter made her suspicious. She was an officer in the Animal Rights Mobilization, and after the ALF’s department store debacle she’d been interviewed briefly for a sound bite on the TV news. The man said he’d gone to her house that morning and a neighbor had told him where she worked. But Lewis decided to check the phone book herself, calling three J. Lewises, none of whom had been contacted by a federal investigator.
William Kyes has been Olsen’s boyfriend for the last three years. A mild-mannered dog owner who’s never been politically active, Kyes didn’t know Olsen at the time of her July 4 protest, and he didn’t attend her trial. On the day she was convicted he was working at his job in a floral shop when two men in suits entered and began browsing, eyeing him frequently enough that he began to feel uncomfortable. After several minutes they introduced themselves simply as “Ed” and “Fred” and explained that they were city inspectors looking for building code violations. They pointed out that the store only had one entrance, a violation of the fire code. Kyes says he replied, “Yeah, I know. I’ve been trying to get my landlord to build another entrance. I wish you guys would give me a citation.” Ed and Fred continued to browse, and Kyes began to suspect that they “weren’t for real.” Finally, they pointed to a vase and asked Kyes to wrap it up for them. Careful not to smudge the glass, he picked up the vase with a sheet of paper, and then Ed and Fred chose a different vase. Kyes wrapped another one without handling it, and they decided they wanted another one. Several vases later, Ed and Fred finally made the purchase and left.
About two weeks later they were back. Kyes says they introduced themselves as “Ed and Fred from the state,” but this time they got right to the point. Kyes says they told him that a new state fingerprint program required anyone operating a business to have their fingerprints on file, and if he complied they wouldn’t cite him for any other violations. “They were trying to make some deal with me, basically threatening to shut the store down on some pretext like not having enough lightbulbs or whatever. I just said, well I’m not the owner and I don’t want to do this. Please leave.” A couple weeks later Kyes says he was driving from the shop when he was pulled over by an unmarked car with a siren and flashing light. “Two guys got out, and one of them had a pistol out and he showed a badge or a star which I didn’t see clearly enough to know what it said on it. I was too rattled to bother to confirm.” The man told him to get out of the car. “They pretty quickly took me back to the rear, which was spotlessly polished–you know, had a mirror finish on it–and they just had me put my hands down on it on one side of the hood and they said, “There’s too much traffic here, why don’t you go around?”‘ Kyes placed his hands on four different sections of the car while one of the detectives went through the glove box. They told him his car matched the description of a car they were looking for. “In the end they just let me go and said “wrong car.’ I was afraid of some kind of setup where they would find something in the car or drop something on me and take me away.”
Bradford Lyttle is a well-known peace activist who was arrested three times during the civil-rights movement in the early 60s and did time as a conscientious objector after the Korean War. Lyttle met Olsen in August 1992 at a conference of the War Resisters League near Eugene, Oregon. Both residents of Hyde Park, they occasionally met for lunch and attended animal-rights events together. Lyttle spoke as a character witness at Olsen’s sentencing hearing; appalled by her harsh sentence, he wrote to the judge saying that her punishment was unjust. Two weeks after the sentencing hearing, Lyttle says, he was visited by federal agents who showed him their IDs as well as photographs of the incendiary devices left in the Chicago department stores the previous November. He says they asked him, “Do you think Lise Olsen made these?”
Olsen says she was visited by two FBI agents at Cook County Jail who asked her a few innocuous questions and then left. She telephoned Barry Gross, who told her it was probably routine and not to worry about it. Soon the trials of prison life became her primary preoccupation.
When Kyes visited Olsen during her first few months at Dwight Prison, he kissed her in the visiting room in full view of the guard and several other prisoners. He was immediately instructed to leave, and Olsen was subjected to a disciplinary hearing. The inmates who saw what happened told her that they thought the kiss was punished in an unusually harsh manner, but they weren’t allowed to attend the hearing as witnesses. Olsen says she was found guilty of sexual misconduct and confined to her room for seven days. Several weeks later, she says, the warden told her that Kyes would not be allowed to visit her for three months. Next her walking privileges were revoked. “I noticed almost immediately something was different,” she says. “For one thing, I wasn’t given my security classification. I was living in a minimum-security unit, and everyone else had a classification. And I had a P by my name, for “pending.”‘
Olsen watched as violent offenders with convictions for aggravated battery and armed robbery left prison on work-release programs while her applications for work release and home monitoring were denied. She found out why when she received copies of the state’s attorney’s “Official Statement of Facts.” Intended to advise the correctional facility about the facts and circumstances of a prisoner’s crime, the statement of facts in Olsen’s case said that her “devices posed a continuing threat to all traffic in the area as well as to any curious young children that may have ventured upon them.” It went on to say that Olsen had shown reckless disregard for “countless citizens who she placed at risk for serious injury or even death.” Gross refuted the allegation in a letter to be admitted to her file alongside the government’s statement: “If lives had been threatened, don’t you think Lise would’ve been charged with attempted murder or equally serious charges?”
The official statement of facts also cited Brady’s hypothesis that an “electrostatic shoe” could have set off the gasoline vapors from the jars. Defense explosives expert Dahn wrote a letter to be submitted to Olsen’s file disputing the likelihood of such an occurrence: “In addressing the “electrostatic shoe’ comment of the law enforcement agency, I am of the opinion that it came from someone who has no knowledge of electrostatics or effect of the configuration. If they are referring to a person having electrostatic discharge causing the gasoline vapors to ignite, [one] must ask how does that person fill his or her automobile’s gasoline tank without igniting the gasoline vapor?” In a written statement submitted to the Illinois Department of Corrections after Olsen’s conviction, Dahn asserted that Olsen’s contraptions “burned just like a candle by burning the gasoline vaporized from the gasoline in the jar. At no time would this configuration cause a violent reaction [or] endanger people below the trestle. . . . The law enforcement agency overreacted to a configuration that possessed no danger to the public. Since numerous hobby shop fuses (one for each candle) were utilized on site, one could easily consider it to be a bomb. However, only one configuration (candle) did light as intended and the others remained in position for several days. In this configuration, the gasoline would have evaporated out over time without danger to people. . . . In my opinion, it is unfortunate that one person, in making this configuration with hobby shop fuses, could be so mistakenly accused of making a bomb when, in reality, it was no more dangerous than a luau candle.”
Olsen was eventually transferred to the medium-security prison at Dixon, and she filed a petition for a clemency hearing to reduce her sentence to two years. The prison review board heard the case in Springfield in January 1995. Lyttle says he appeared before the board in support of Olsen and was questioned about his arrest record and political affiliations. He says the board never referred to Dahn’s or Gross’s responses to the official statement of facts.
Lyttle hadn’t yet met Olsen on July 4, 1992, but he did feel that there was a reasonable doubt that her devices were incendiary, and he certainly felt that her sentence was unfair. Lyttle presented replicas of Olsen’s lanterns–which he crafted from her descriptions by telephone from prison–without gasoline or wicks. He says he spoke for about 45 minutes, demonstrating how they were designed with safety in mind.
Early the following morning, Lyttle says, he was visited again by FBI agents, who handed him a subpoena for his fingerprints, photographs of himself, handwriting samples, “palmprints,” and other “exemplars.” The subpoena indicated that these materials were intended for a grand jury that was slated to have its first hearing on February 1, 1995. Lyttle filed several appeals to resist the subpoena on the grounds that the grand jury’s purpose and his link to it were both unknown to him. He appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
Shortly after her clemency hearing, Olsen says, she received a notice from her bank saying that her records were being subpoenaed for a grand jury. When she put this information together with what she’d heard from the outside, she assumed the government was trying to indict her for another crime and she started taking notes. Two days after the grand jury was scheduled to convene, prison authorities took a print of Olsen’s entire hand. She hoped the print would exonerate her from whatever crime they were investigating. She asked friends to stop visiting her in prison and advised them to refuse to speak to detectives except in the presence of an attorney.
Olsen’s two cats were being cared for by Ben Ropp, a music student at the University of Chicago who lived in her apartment throughout her incarceration. He found out about the apartment from a mutual friend who knew that he needed a place to live as badly as Olsen needed a cat sitter. Ropp communicated with Olsen through letters and on the phone, and they met face-to-face for the first time after her release from prison last October.
In March 1995, Ropp was awakened at seven in the morning by two men who claimed to be investigating the murder of someone named Olsen in Florida. He told them that it was too early and that if they wanted to speak to him he would be at his job in the university library in a few hours. “I had been coached by Lise to give them this line about not talking to them except in the presence of an attorney, but my feeling was if I said that they would think I was hiding something. Lise had said they would probably come, but it was all sort of hypothetical until they actually showed up. And they wanted to come inside. They asked to see my driver’s license. I just kept saying “come back another time’ because I didn’t want to deal with them right then. I also felt protective about her place.” Ropp was shaken by the visit and called in sick to work.
He didn’t see the two men again until the following June. Ropp says he was on break at the library when he was told to go up to the personnel office, and when he got there the secretary told him that two agents from the FBI wanted to speak to him. “They asked me a lot of questions about the place, whether I’d signed a lease, and were any of Lise’s things still there. How long would I be there. And they showed me some xeroxed pages, like pamphlets or something. I was careful not to touch them, because I’d heard they used that as a way of getting fingerprints. I just kind of looked and said, “no.”‘ On July 31, the pair returned, this time stopping Ropp on the shipping dock in the back of the library and asking to speak with him in private. Finally, he followed Olsen’s instructions and refused to answer their questions.
“This was the strangest time of all because they offered me money to talk to them alone. I mean, I don’t know what else they wanted. My suspicion is that they would’ve asked me to let them come into the apartment or something like that, or worse. Maybe they were just offering me money for an apartment of my own. At this point I knew what to say and I said it, because it was so obviously a shady thing.”
Olsen was eventually granted one year off her sentence for good behavior, and in April she was transferred to the minimum-security prison at Kankakee. Within the first month of her stay there, she says, two FBI agents paid her a visit. The interview got off to a poor start: she says one of the agents called her by her first name, which she thought was inappropriate, and then he asked her if she liked this prison better than the last. “I told them, “The reason I’m in prison is because I was open and terribly naive in speaking to a policeman, and he said something very different. I will never make that mistake again.’ And I said, “I know what you are trying to blame me for. I know that you’ve gone around pretending to investigate a murder. Shame on you.”‘ Olsen says she requested a home monitor and a polygraph test so that when she was released she would be ruled out as a suspect in the incident at the Chicago department stores or in anything else that might happen while she awaited her second trial. The agents denied that she was a suspect in any investigation whatsoever, but they didn’t tell her the purpose of their visit either. “I don’t know why they really did come there,” she says. “They never did answer that question, but basically I just went into this tirade.” Olsen says she told the agents that she knew about the grand jury investigation and that she wouldn’t talk to them unless her attorney was present. “And they got up immediately.”
Pity the agent assigned the task of identifying an ALF activist. Not easily defined by socioeconomic circumstances, animal-rights activists appear to come from all backgrounds and occupations. The more radical wing of the movement has a long history in England, but in the United States direct actions against labs and businesses using animals first took off in the late 80s. Having learned a lesson from the left-wing political movements of the 60s and 70s, underground animal-rights groups stress the protection of other activists first and foremost, strictly enforcing the no-snitching rule. The higher-profile organizations must keep their distance from the more radical factions or risk knowing too much.
The Sun-Times followed up on Olsen’s trial with an article incorrectly stating that she was a member of PETA. The article perpetuated the falsehood, also believed by furrier Bill Keim, that the organization provided her with monetary support for her defense. A spokesperson at PETA confirmed they did nothing for Olsen aside from writing a letter on her behalf to the Illinois Department of Corrections requesting that she be granted vegan meals. Olsen never contacted PETA until after she was in jail. A Canadian prisoner incarcerated for taking 29 cats from a lab suggested that the group might be able to help Olsen clear her name in the smoke bombing of the department stores, since they had received the press release from ALF members taking responsibility for the action.
Olsen says that after PETA wrote the letter securing her vegan meals, “they began to send me mountains of xeroxing having to do with animals, but it was stuff that was very remote, such as “now they built another Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tokyo’ or just anything. They were spending all this money on giant batches of xeroxing and postage, and this went on and on.” In February 1995, Olsen says, she wrote to PETA, telling them of her suspicions about the grand jury investigation and beseeching them to help. “I informed them that I was being investigated in correlation with the Chicago department store smoke bombs,” she says, “which I had nothing to do with.” She requested that at the very least they stop sending her mailings and instead put the money that went to postage into her legal defense fund. The mailings stopped, and “that’s how I knew they got my letter,” she says. Olsen never heard from PETA again.
Jenny Woods, a PETA spokeswoman, says that attacks on the fur industry commonly involve spray painting on coats or breaking shop windows. But she says the incendiaries in the Chicago stores were the first she’d heard of an attack taking place inside of a store. PETA had already fielded inquiries from the press before the anonymous fax arrived, and the organization followed its usual practice–get a police report to confirm that the action took place. Subsequently, PETA granted hundreds of interviews, and director Dan Mathews was frequently quoted as saying, “We understand what drives activists to such drastic tactics. We don’t condone them, but we don’t condemn them.” PETA’s media representative could find no record of Olsen’s letter.
Even though a press release ostensibly from ALF members claimed responsibility for the incident, Olsen says, “I’m not convinced it was even animal people who did it. After all, the smoke bombs failed. Why would you send out a press release about something that didn’t work. . . . But if it was, were they glad for me to go to prison to shield someone they liked better?” Although hundreds of individuals wrote to state representatives and the Illinois Department of Corrections about Olsen’s case, she failed to gain the support of mainstream organizations like PETA, and nationwide her case remains unknown.
“We don’t know who she is,” says Crescenzo Vellucci, cofounder of the National Activists Network, which originated the annual Fur-Free Friday observance and helps animal-rights activists secure legal representation. “I don’t know why they’re bothering her, because no one I know had ever heard of her.” Vellucci eventually became familiar with Olsen’s case after she sent NAN trial documents from prison. Yet NAN didn’t publicize the case or provide legal counsel. With no clout or reputation in the movement, Olsen says, she’s become a pariah.
Though she may be unknown, Olsen was the only animal-rights activist in prison in the United States until Rodney Coronado was sentenced to four years after being accused of setting fires at Michigan State University that destroyed two research labs and a mink farm in February 1992. The attack on Michigan State’s labs helped persuade Congress to enact the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992, which defined “animal enterprise terrorism” as any act that involves interstate or foreign travel, commerce, or use of the mail “for the purpose of causing physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise” or economic damage to property, including animals and records, exceeding $10,000. The act requires that persons convicted of animal enterprise terrorism–excluding those whose actions result in human injury or death–be fined or imprisoned for not more than one year.
Olsen’s protest at Ravenswood and Foster pales in comparison to the crimes outlined in the statute: it neither resulted in extensive economic damage nor involved interstate travel. Her contention that she’s become the FBI’s poster girl for intimidating other activists seems bizarre, if only because she lacks the notoriety of activists like Coronado, who spent two years underground evading threats on his life after he posed as an aspiring mink rancher in a 60 Minutes expose on animal abuse at fur farms.
Coronado acknowledges that he was in Michigan during February 1992, but he says he wasn’t near the MSU labs when they were attacked–he was just the high-profile activist who took the fall. Unlike Olsen, Coronado did receive legal assistance from PETA and was not surprised by his indictment. In an interview reprinted in The Militant Vegan, he’s quoted as saying, “FBI harassment is a compliment. If you aren’t attracting government attention, you should reexamine what you’re doing.”
Olsen didn’t see anything positive in the attention she was receiving from federal agents. With the approach of her release date, she grew terrified of losing the protection that prison provided. She had no plans to return to activism, but couldn’t overcome the fear of being framed for other crimes committed by animal-rights activists. Her appeal was handled by lawyer Julius Echeles, well-known as a spirited defense attorney in high-profile criminal cases.
Olsen’s fear of being arrested again led to what Echeles calls her “prophylactic strategy.” She directed him to draft a letter to the FBI inviting its agents to engage in open surveillance of her activities. In the letter, dated August 6, 1995, Echeles requested that Olsen be given a polygraph examination “about any subject matter for which you have her under investigation.” He invited federal agents to search her apartment and to wiretap her telephone, and he requested that she be outfitted with an electronic monitoring device.
Echeles says the case should be dismissed because Olsen’s arrest was the result of her fingerprints being unlawfully retained by the Police Department more than three months after they should have been expunged. The state has argued that the fingerprints remained on file because of an overburdened bureaucracy and not as the result of an intentional disregard of a court order. Law enforcement officers testified at Olsen’s trial that such a procedural error was unintentional and not extraordinary, since “hundreds, maybe thousands” of expungement orders get processed through the Police Department every week. But Echeles says, “Surely the court should at the very least refuse to reward the state, even absent any demonstrable bad faith on the part of any individual, for the failure of the police promptly to obey the expungement order.” The appellate court didn’t act on Echeles’s assertion, allowing that the oversight was a violation of statutory law but not constitutional law, because the fingerprints were used to determine Olsen’s identity but not to establish a probable cause for her arrest.
Echeles also contested the prosecution’s admission of Olsen’s prior arrest for trespassing at the Hektone Institute, which found its way into the proceedings though the case had been dismissed. Echeles argued that the information was unduly prejudicial and not sufficiently relevant to merit admission. The appellate court was swayed by this argument and reversed Olsen’s conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. The state’s attorney replied that the appellate court’s decision misinterpreted Illinois case law because in both arrests Olsen trespassed in order to harm property, brought a camera with her, and performed in her capacity as an animal-rights activist. Yet Olsen didn’t harm property in either case, and she freely admitted in court that she was an animal-rights activist, so there was no need to substantiate this claim by citing her prior arrest. Her motivation may have been similar in each case, but her first arrest was unrelated to the later charge of attempted arson. The court wrote, “The State appears to have introduced evidence of defendant’s prior arrest for no other purpose than to show the jury that because the defendant was accused of committing a crime once before, it is likely that she also committed the crime charged. This is precisely what prior crime evidence cannot be introduced to show.”
Olsen’s release date was set for October 15, 1995, but to the astonishment of her attorney, friends, and family, she opted to stay in prison for the two months remaining until her original parole date while she petitioned the Illinois Department of Corrections for permission to go on the electronic-monitoring program. Olsen hoped that she wouldn’t be tried again, but she wasn’t about to leave prison without protection.
The monitor was ordered by a judge to be issued by the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, and two days after her release from prison, Olsen went under house arrest. “If they’d stop fighting me, I’d be happy to stop fighting. But if they keep molesting me, I have to keep going. I have to protect my life. I’ve made myself more defensive on purpose, really inviting them to inspect every bit of my life–listen to it, come and look at it (with my attorney present, of course), monitor me, give me a polygraph test. I just can’t imagine what more a person could do to expose their entire life. And I think it was the best way to go because there was no other way. If I am arrested and convicted again simply because I’ve been called a terrorist, I will hunger strike to death in prison. I would not be satisfied with the same impotent, sad, voiceless life I now have, locked up for however many more years.”
Within two months after leaving prison, Olsen found out that she’d soon be retried. Echeles claims that even if she’s convicted the state cannot legally add time to Olsen’s original sentence. He says he was told by someone in the state’s attorney’s office that the government wants a conviction on her record because she’s considered “dangerous.” Olsen, now 47, has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and when she does go out, she uses a cane.
Echeles says the government is “fearful that animal-rights activists are as dangerous as Timothy McVeigh or the Freemen in Montana.”
Olsen’s had to find a new lawyer for her next trial because Echeles is in poor health. None of the dozen or so attorneys she’s interviewed had ever heard of a nonviolent offender being tried a second time after serving the majority of a sentence. A trial date has not been set, but Olsen’s had to start making court appearances.
I visit Olsen in her Hyde Park apartment three days after her release from Kankakee last October. The day before she’d had the electronic-monitoring device put on. She says that while she was waiting for the device to be fitted, she was given a card to fill out alongside the other parolees, and under her name in the “arrested offense” category where the others had a number, she had the word “bomb.”
I brought some bread and pastries, and she leads me back to her small kitchen to put water on for tea. “This is really lovely,” she says. “Just me, you, and Big Brother.” She pulls up her pant leg to show me the clunky black box buckled loosely around her ankle. “Don’t you think it should be tighter?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Cynthia Howe.