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Sarah Bobbitt was 26 when Young first met her in the spring of 2008.
Attractive, blond, a conservative Republican, she was a photographer who worked for the University of Utah’s Daily Utah Chronicle and offered to arrange for photos from protests to appear in the student newspaper. “She was strange but disarming at the same time,” Young said. Young was not yet a Utah resident, but on a speaking tour passing through the state. Bobbitt approached him about helping her with “a campaign to rescue Guatemala street dogs, or something,” Young said. She asked to go out for dinner after the conference, then asked if she could stay with Young’s hosts who were putting him up for the night. He obliged.
“She was very forward,” Young said, but never answered whether he was sexually or romantically interested in her. Bobbitt says she briefly dated Young.
Young’s Utah comrades, he says, quickly pegged her as a snitch. She dressed conservatively and asked inappropriate questions about illegal activities—most activists are leery of informants and adhere to “security culture” (pdf) (in which information on illegal activities is discussed only on a need-to-know basis). He defended her, saying “snitch jacketing” someone prematurely is unfair and counterproductive.
Young continued on his speaking tour but returned to Utah shortly after two fur farms—one in South Jordan in August 2008, another in Kaysville a month later—had been sabotaged by activists, who released thousands of mink. The Animal Liberation Front, a nom de guerre frequently adopted by activists who anonymously take credit for illegal actions against animal enterprises, took credit for the incidents. ALF is listed as a domestic terrorism group by the FBI.
“He was the type that was always [saying,] 'When are we going to stop talking and go blow up something?' "
When Young and Bobbitt met again, she invited him to Moab for the weekend.
The trip got weird before they even got to Price. Young and Bobbitt were stuck in a car together for hours, and she asked several questions about the recent mink releases, Young says, questions which hung in the air like flatulence.
The weekend ended worse than it started. They fought, Bobbitt left him, and Young was deserted in downtown Moab, where he knew no one and had no transportation.
Why is Bobbitt suspected of being an informant, or a confidential human source (CHS), as the FBI calls them? An FBI reporting document (pdf) describes the trip this way:
“CHS reported that Peter Young arrived in Utah about two weeks ago. … CHS traveled with Young to Moab, Utah, on Thursday, September 25, 2008. CHS returned to Salt Lake City on Sunday without Young and hasn’t talked to him since.”
When City Weekly contacted Bobbitt, she denied being an informant. The Facebook conversation she had with City Weekly went silent after she was asked about the seemingly incriminating FBI document, which was provided by the government to defense attorneys for William “BJ” Viehl, 23, and Alex Hall, 21, two men who pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to releasing the mink at the South Jordan ranch in August 2008. Other documents suggest Bobbitt may have had repeated contacts with the FBI that summer about other activists.
Of the trip to Moab, Bobbitt wrote: “I am not an FBI informant and yes this is starting to have an unfortunate effect on my life. ... I briefly dated Peter nearly two years ago and haven’t talked to him since. It ended with me leaving him a long way from home, I know I pissed him off, but he was unstable, manipulative and honestly scared me. … And as for the ‘several people’ [activists who believe Bobbitt was an informant], I can only imagine they are the snobby elitists with whom I actually tried to be friends with in fighting for a similar cause. All I can guess is that they pegged the girl that didn’t fit in and who didn’t buy into their rock star’s manipulative ego.”
Beckham is disturbed by informants. He thinks it keeps people from supporting animal rights and other social-justice movements. People think, “if the government is monitoring it, there must be something wrong with it,” Beckham said.
Bobbitt is not the first individual thought to be an FBI informant by animal rights activists, so they’re always on alert. In 2001, City Weekly investigated Richard Stone, who activists complain acted more like a provocateur than an informant as he sat in on meetings to arrange protests against the 2002 Olympic Rodeo. “He was the type that was always [saying], ‘When are we going to stop talking and go blow up something?’ ” says David Berg, a Salt Lake City man involved in the pre-Olympic protest planning. According to Berg, Stone even accompanied the activists to a meeting with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah organized to discuss protesters’ rights.
Though some complain about being treated like terrorists, there are some stark contrasts between them and suspected terrorist jihadis. Detainees at Guantanamo Bay, for example, have been detained for nearly a decade without being charged with a crime. The closest local situation with any similarity—remote though it may be—is that of Jordan Halliday, 22, principle organizer of a local Animal Defense League chapter, who spent four months in civil detention for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury about the local mink releases. Halliday says that he endorses mink releases and believes he’s being targeted for his speech. “[Federal prosecutors] are trying to view me on the same terms as any ALF member because I’m vocally supportive of it,” he said. He was freed at the expiration of the grand jury but soon after was charged criminally with contempt, which could send him back to prison for years.
Often, the activists are in court as litigants, not defendants, and have successfully argued multiple times that their rights have been violated.
The most recent example involved a protest at a mink farm in Morgan County. Members of the Salt Lake Animal Advocacy Movement argued in a federal lawsuit that Morgan County and the Utah Department of Public Safety violated their rights to protest near a mink farm in November 2008. In February, the case was settled, which netted civil rights attorney Brian Barnard nearly $40,000 in legal fees from the state and county.
The criminal penalties they suffer have also been rather modest, compared to other convicted terrorists or even to drug convicts, despite complaints that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2005 lumps them together with other terrorists. Viehl, for example, was sentenced to two years in prison in February but expects to be released from prison in just five months, he wrote to City Weekly in a letter. He was given credit for time served pretrial.
The [FBI] does not intimidate political groups with investigation tools like search warrants. “That happened in the ’70s … but the Attorney General’s guidance on that is very clear, we’re not authorized to do that.”