Rockaway’s Environmental Terrorist
On June 4, 2007, a man who grew up in Rockaway, Daniel McGowan, whose father was a Rockaway cop, was sentenced to seven years in federal prison and ordered to pay $1.9 million in restitution in connection with the torching of two Oregon forests in 2001.
McGowan pled guilty to multiple counts of arson and conspiracy, admittedly serving as a lookout as his pals in the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) burned down a Superior Lumber Company farm, which was growing genetically altered trees.
The Earth Liberation Front launched major arsons throughout the 1990’s and into 2000. They hit organizations they deemed harmful to the environment, including timber companies, land developers, SUV dealerships and slaughterhouses. They also burned down a $12 million ski lodge in Vail, Colorado that was deemed to “despoil the wilderness.”
McGowan admittedly joined ELF after stints in several other environmentally conscious but less violent organizations.
He was arrested in 2005 after speaking with an old friend who turned out to be a federal snitch and was sentenced under a law that was passed after 9/11 that lumped eco-terrorists with Muslim fanatics.
His arrest was part of a well-coordinated multi-state sweep of more than 15 ELF members that the government called “Operation Backfire.”
McGowan remains in a minimum security federal prison in Marion, Illinois. He is due to get out in July of 2013.
Both McGowan’s arrest and sentencing got little note in the outside world, other than in environmentalist circles.
Now, however, McGowan is about to get the star treatment.
Director Marshall Curry has several critically-acclaimed documentaries under his belt, having received an Academy Award nomination for his documentary “Street Fight,” about Corey Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark.
In 2009, he came out with “Racing Dreams,” about the little league of NASCAR.
Now, he will soon bring to the screen, “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front,” which tells McGowan’s story, beginning when he was under house arrest in Rockaway as he awaited trial.
According to the movie, McGowan had to weigh his options. He could turn against his friends and save himself from a trial, or he could keep his mouth shut and face life in prison.
Curry says that he picked McGowan for his film because he did not look or act like a terrorist and because it raised the question of whether property destruction with no deaths involved should be raised to the level of terrorism.
Curry said that it didn’t matter one way or the other if McGowan was really guilty.
“Either it was going to be the story of this innocent activist wrongfully accused, or it was going to be the story of the guy from Rockaway, Queens, whose dad was a New York cop, who was a business major in college, and who committed million dollar arsons. Either one was an interesting story.”
The film opens with McGowan saying on camera, “In 2001, I did this fire, but it’s more complicated than you think.”
No date has yet been set for the documentary’s release.