With a new career and life to lead, Jeffrey Luers prefers not to dwell too long in the past.
Yet he says what he did in Eugene nearly 14 years ago and experienced afterwards, though difficult, changed him for the better.
In 2000, during a period of extreme civil unrest in Eugene, Luers was a well-known environmental activist and self-described anarchist. Depending on a person's point of view, Luers was someone to be admired or despised.
Frustrated over old growth logging, inaction over global warming and confrontations with authorities, Luers and a friend set fires at the Joe Romania car dealership off Franklin Boulevard that destroyed a new pickup truck and damaged two others.
Apprehended immediately and later convicted of arson and an earlier arson attempt at Tyree Oil, Luers spent 9Â 1/2 years in prison and jail, about a third of his life, before he was released in late 2009.
Now 35, Luers recently completed the requirements for a landscape architecture degree at the University of Oregon.
He said his experiences, including his time in prison, changed his views on how to advocate for the environment.
"While I was young, I thought radical action could inspire change, and that hasn't proven possible," Luers said. "That is something that I have learned from. I have now moved into different methods that will be more successful and lead to lasting change."
The events of the past 14 years led him to lasting friendships, his wife, a college degree and career.
The Romania arson was a mistake, Luers said.
But Luers insists -- as he did during his trial, that he did not attempt to blow up tanker trucks at Tyree Oil.
The fire Luers set at the dealership inspired a second arson at Romania Chevrolet 10 months later. That fire destroyed or damaged 35 sport utility vehicles and caused an estimated $1 million in damage.
Liska Chan, chairwoman of the UO landscape architecture department, said the second Romania fire still troubles Luers.
"He told me that it was one of his greatest regrets, that he inspired the second arson," she said. "And that he never wanted to do that."
Early interest in nature
The youngest of four sons, Luers grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.
His parents both worked for the U.S. Treasury Department. They said Luers displayed an interest in the natural world when he was a boy.
During family camping trips, Luers "was always interested in the growing and living things around us," said his father, John Luers. "He just had this inquisitive nature."
Luers also had a stubbornness and a deep-seated sense of righteousness. Sometimes he would get upset over things that other boys might have ignored.
"We were in the petrified forest once and Jeff saw someone pick up a rock and take it, which you were not supposed to do," said his mother, Judy Luers. "Jeff got very upset, and he just had to tell the park rangers about that."
On another camping trip, a young pigeon fell out of a nest.
Luers raised such a fuss over the misplaced fledgling that his father overheard a conversation on a park ranger's radio.
John Luers recalled one ranger saying to another:
"?'Will someone get that damn pigeon back in its nest. That kid is driving me crazy.'?"
After high school, Luers worked for the California Public Interest Research Group, a liberal group concerned with health and the environment.
"I was a canvasser," Luers said. "I basically went door to door and convinced people to give the Sierra Club money."
Luers first visited Eugene in 1997 to attend a CALPIRG conference.Coming from Southern California, Luers recalls being smitten by the natural beauty of Oregon, including old growth forests; the friendliness of people in Eugene; and the willingness of activists to protest.
He also remembers being appalled after seeing photos of clear-cuts.
Luers decided to move to Oregon.
Eugene has a long history of protest, including the 1960s and student opposition to the Vietnam War.
By the time the 19-year-old Luers moved to Eugene in 1998, another era of civil disobedience was underway.
Young people, many of them self-described anarchists, migrated in and out of Eugene. Animated by various grievances, they took to the streets to protest globalization, government and corporate power, environmental degradation and other problems.
Protesters climbed downtown trees to prevent them from being cut to make way for apartments. Confrontations between demonstrators and police were common.
Anarchists harassed conservative Mayor Jim Torrey, who favored police taking a hard line against protesters.
In summer 1999, a downtown march and protest by anarchists turned into a riot when protesters smashed windows, threw rocks and spray painted businesses to make anti-government, anti-corporate points.
Arsons became frequent, some set by people affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front.
More than 125 fires had been set in Eugene during an 18-month period, from 1999 to 2001. Many of them were minor trash bin fires, but arsonists also damaged Childers Meat Co. and used a firebomb to scorch the outside of the West University Police Substation.
The demonstrations, vandalisms and fires worried residents, said Torrey, mayor from 1997 to 2005.
"The community was very concerned that somehow we had lost control of our city," he said.
Involvement in protests
Once in Eugene, Luers joined other young people affiliated with Cascadia Forest Defenders and Red Cloud Thunder. The activists lived on platforms in old growth trees in nearby forests to prevent them from being cut. Luers, called "Free" by his friends, participated in the long running Fall Creek tree sit in the Willamette National Forest, east of Lowell.
Protesters also erected barricades to prevent the use of forest roads for logging.
Eugene attorney Lauren Regan became acquainted with Luers at that time.
She had just become an attorney, and was representing forest activists in their attempts to prevent old growth logging.
Regan said Luers' intelligence, loyalty to his friends and humility made him a leader among activists.
Luers says his experiences during the forest protests included being struck with clubs by U.S. Forest Service officers while he manned a barricade.
He said his disillusionment grew when he felt his peaceful attempts at making reforms were thwarted.
"I felt like my voice wasn't being heard," Luers said. "Things were not happening. I felt like I was standing in a room of very loud people and my voice was very tiny.
"So, ultimately, I ended up escalating the tactics for better or worse," he said. "A few years later, Craig Marshall and myself concluded there is too much at stake to not do everything we could, so we hatched this plan to call attention to climate change, a bunch of other environmental issues and American foreign policy by lighting a few cars on fire at the Romania dealership. And we got caught for that. And my life has been forever changed because of that."
Regan said police began surveilling Luers, mainly because he rented a warehouse in the Whiteaker neighborhood where anarchists stayed.
On the night of May 27, 2000, two homemade bombs were placed beneath two fuel tanker trucks at Tyree Oil on Blair Boulevard, not far from the warehouse.
The bombs failed to detonate. If they had, authorities said, they likely would have caused widespread damage.
Less than three weeks later, on the night of June 16, police were following Luers when he and Marshall headed to the Romania truck lot.
Police lost sight of Luers and Marshall before the pair reached the lot, but officers caught up to them as they drove away, after the fire was reported.
Police searched the warehouse later that day, looking for bomb-making materials.
Luers and Marshall were charged with nine felonies in connection with the Romania fire and the Tyree Oil arson attempt.
The Romania fire was meant to be small and not harm anyone, Luers said.
"The action was to be purely symbolic," he said. "The actual goal was to burn two cars. We both had (an incendiary) device, and we were going to release a public statement that explained everything. We never got that far. We were arrested."
Plea bargain rejected
In November, a week after the trial began, Marshall admitted he conspired to commit first-degree arson and possessed a destructive device in the Romania fire. His plea agreement with prosecutors did not mention the attempted arson at Tyree Oil.
Marshall served a little more than four years in state prison.
Regan was not Luers' criminal defense attorney, but she attended the court proceedings and followed the case.
She said Luers refused to plead guilty to Tyree Oil.
"Jeff, if nothing else, is very stubborn," Regan said. "True to his ethics, Jeff said from the very beginning that 'If I can get a plea deal for Romania, fine. But I'm not going to agree to a plea bargain for something that I didn't do.' "
Prosecutors declined to accept a plea bargain with Luers only for the Romania fire, Regan said, mainly because authorities wanted a conviction for the attempted arson at Tyree Oil.
Shortly after, Luers' 71-year-old-attorney, Ken Morrow, died of an apparent heart attack, prompting Lane County Circuit Court Judge Lyle Velure to declare a mistrial in Luers' case.
Luers' retrial was set for early April 2001, but in the early morning hours of March 30 Earth Liberation Front arsonists struck the Romania truck lot on Walnut Street, using firebombs to set fires under vehicles. Chevy Suburbans and Tahoes exploded, rocking the nearby Fairmount neighborhood.
Firefighters wore ventilators to keep from breathing the toxic vapors from burning plastic, tires, battery acid and gasoline.
Two days later, a statement from an anonymous group claimed responsibility for the fire, saying that "gas guzzling SUVs are at the forefront of this vile, imperialistic culture's caravan toward self-destruction. We can no longer allow the rich to parade in their armored existence, leaving a wasteland behind in their tire tracks."
Steve Romania, who owned the dealership at the time, recalled being bewildered by both arsons.
"We definitely understood their environmental cause, but to target a locally owned business to get their point across didn't make sense," he said.
Romania said it was ironic that the fires were set by people who proclaimed to care about the environment.
The fires probably caused more pollution than the destroyed vehicles would have produced if they had been driven for thousands of miles apiece, he said.
Besides the air pollution caused by the burning vehicles' paint, plastic and rubber, Romania said, the chemical foam used by firefighters to extinguish the blazes carried pollutants into the storm sewer and the Willamette River.
"They didn't think that out very well," he said.
Both arsons at his business didn't hurt anyone, Romania said, but they endangered firefighters and caused his employees to worry about their safety for weeks after each incident.
"It made us feel vulnerable," he said.
Second fire had big impact
The second Romania fire was set by an Earth Liberation Front affiliated group that federal authorities later said committed arson and destroyed property over several years in Oregon and four other states, causing $20 million in damage.
The crimes included the 1996 destruction of the Oakridge Ranger Station; a 1998 arson at a Vail, Colo., ski resort that caused $12 million in damage; the arson at West University Police Substation in Eugene; and the second Romania fire.
The group, which called itself the "Book Club," disbanded after the second arson at the Eugene dealership. Authorities had tracked most of the group's members down by 2006 with the help of a former member turned informant.
Eventually, four people out of the 10-member group were tried and convicted in federal court for the second Romania fire: Stanislas Meyerhoff, Kevin Tubbs, Nathan Block and Joyanna Zacher.
Regan was on the legal team that represented Meyerhoff.
Regan said Meyerhoff and the others set fire to Romania fire "in tribute to Jeff," but they did not know that his retrial was to begin later that day.
"Nothing could have been worse for (Luers') chances in the courtroom," she said. "The people involved had a lot of remorse about any role they may have played in the Draconian sentence that Jeff ended up receiving."
In his trial, Luers' defense was that he had intentionally set the first fire at Romania, but the act was criminal mischief not arson. Luers' attorney, Brian Barnes, also argued that prosecutors only had circumstantial evidence to tie him to the attempted arson at Tyree Oil. A single fingerprint found on an undetonated firebomb couldn't be identified and didn't match Luers,' Barnes said.
The materials used in the firebomb, while similar to those found in the warehouse rented by Luers, didn't prove Luers did the crime, he said. Many people who shared Luers' views had keys to the warehouse.
After a three-day trial, Velure convicted Luers of crimes related to the Romania fire and the attempted arson at Tyree Oil.
Deputy District Attorney Caren Tracy urged the judge to impose two mandatory minimum, 7Â 1/2-year sentences for first degree arson at Romania because the fire endangered property and people.
Velure agreed, and with the other penalties related to the Romania and Tyree cases, Luers was sentenced to 22 years and eight months in prison.
In a recent interview, Luers said he does not know who set the bombs under the Tyree tankers.
Luers' arrest had already made him a cause célÃ¨bre among anarchists and environmental activists. But his lengthy prison sentence, which was condemned as excessive by many on the left, increased his stature as a victim of heavy-handed government, Regan said.
"In Lane County, people who had murdered their wives and girlfriends got less time than that," she said.
Luers' supporters said his punishment was harsh, particularly compared to the "Book Club" arsonists, who got shorter sentences when they were convicted in federal court, which had different sentencing guidelines than state court.
Trauma of prison persists
Luers, who appealed the sentence, served most of his time at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
It was a traumatic experience, he said.
Three prisoners were murdered by other inmates during his incarceration, he said, including one who was strangled in a cell not far from his. Luers got into a fight that left him with a permanently crooked nose.
"I saw a lot of violence," he said. "I stepped over dead bodies. I have seen walls covered in blood. It was like being in a war zone. I still have nightmares about things that I witnessed in prison, things that I experienced. It's not something that you can easily let go of."
Yet Luers said prison helped changed his views.
"Looking at this violence around me, that was the path that I was choosing to try and create change," he said. "It's not the right path."
Also, Luers concluded in prison that it's important to respect people, even those who differ with him on the environment and other matters.
"When I was young, I thought my beliefs and values were the right ones. And if I could just get (others) to see that, they would agree," he said.
"But you have to able to compromise and respect the people that you want to work with, even if what you want to do is change their attitudes. You can't start by telling them they are wrong."
After Luers served 5Â 1/2 years in state prison, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that Luers was improperly sentenced to back-to-back 7Â 1/2-year prison terms for the Romania fire.
Months of negotiations over a resentencing agreement took place between prosecutors and Luers' attorneys. His case returned to Lane County Circuit Court, where Judge Jack Billings was asked to approve the agreement that cut Luers' original sentence by more than half. That made him eligible for release in December 2009.
Deputy County District Attorney Erik Hasselman told Billings that even with the appeals court's decision, Luers still faced a lengthy sentence.
Hasselman said three reasons influenced his decision to negotiate a lesser term: the much lighter federal sentences given to the 10 arsonists involved in the more destructive fires in five states; the community's desire for closure in the Luers case; and the apparent change in Luers himself.
When he spoke to Billings, Luers said: "I now not only have the benefit of hindsight but also possess the knowledge and understanding that comes from leaving the naiveté of youth behind. I can now say with all honesty that I was wrong to think that arson would inspire social change."
Billings told Luers that upon his release he might be treated as an "elder statesman" or a "veteran returning from some ugly campaign" by other activists, who could encourage him to resume his activities or recruit others to do so.
Instead, Luers should use his influence to address the world's problems in productive ways, Billings said.
In a recent interview, Luers said he took "those words to heart."
"Here I am, trying to give back to a community that has shown me so such love and respect, trying to atone for my mistakes."
Learning behind bars
While in prison, Luers took correspondence courses, granted interviews and wrote columns for both activist and mainstream publications.
Luers' story was known to environmental activists around the world, including Lilia Letsch, a 26-year-old Australian who, in 2007, was an activist who opposed old growth logging in the Huon Valley on the island of Tasmania.
She began writing Luers while he was in prison, a correspondence that eventually led Letsch to move to Eugene. The couple married last August.
Luers decided that he would study landscape architecture when he left prison. He applied to the UO landscape architecture program while still behind bars.
The department accepts 15 students a year, out of 30 to 40 who apply.
Liska Chan, the department chairwoman, said Luers was candid about his past.
"We felt like we were taking a little risk," she said. "But, at the same time, we were intrigued by someone who was so keen on turning his life around and wanting to effect change, but in a very positive, legal way."
After leaving prison, Luers took courses at Lane Community College before enrolling at UO in fall 2010. Chan described Luers as a bright student and well-liked by his peers. He became a leader in a student chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
"It's been interesting to see him grow and change," Chan said. "He has kind of mellowed out. He struck me as kind of nervous when he first started here, always very serious. He continues to be very serious, but once he got solid footing in the practice of landscape architecture, he gained more confidence."
Luers last month earned his landscape architecture degree. He's looking for a job with a landscape design firm, a requirement to become a licensed landscape architect in three years.
Luers plans to use landscape architecture to work on the environment's behalf. For his senior project, he developed ideas to make Eugene's unpaved alleys -- many of them eyesores that contribute to polluted stormwater runoff -- more environmentally friendly.
"I'm pleased with the direction my life has gone," Luers said. "I wish I had those years (in prison) back, but, at the same time, I'm proud of the person that I have become."
Meanwhile, in 2001, two months after the second arson at his dealership, Steve Romania began negotiating a sale of his dealerships to Kendall Auto Group. Soon a merger was announced. The Romania lot later was closed.
Romania, now 60 and a developer with homes in Eugene and Sedona, Ariz., said he's glad to know that Luers has earned a college degree.
"I think it's wonderful that he found a direction in his life, and that he's graduated from the University of Oregon," Romania said. "I wish him well."