A new documentary posing the question "Who bombed Judi Bari?" has stirred up a veritable hornets' nest of decades-old grudges and accusations among an aging Northern California activist community.
The film is produced by Darryl Cherney, Bari's Earth First! comrade and ex-lover who was in the passenger seat of her white Subaru on May 24, 1990, when a pipe bomb exploded beneath the driver's seat. It premieres in Santa Rosa on March 25 at the Glaser Center.
The impetus for Who Bombed Judi Bari? came about after two attempts to write a dramatic screenplay fell short. "When 2009 rolled around, [director] Mary Liz Thompson and I threw up our hands and said, 'Let's just make a documentary,'" Cherney says on the phone from his home in Garberville.
Cherney's goals in making the film are threefold, he says: to inspire future generations; to place Judi Bari in the annals of history as a labor and environmental leader; and to finally trigger a DNA investigation of the evidence.
After the bombing, Bari and Cherney were painted as "eco-terrorists" who'd accidentally bombed themselves with their own bomb. The two were arrested, but ultimately the charges turned out to be false. In 2002, a civil case against the Oakland Police Department and the FBI for violation of constitutional rights netted $4.4 million for Cherney and Bari's estate.
Bari died of breast cancer in 1997. No conclusive answer has been found to the question of who tried to kill Bari and Cherney in 1990, though the FBI itself has been a popular suspect among theorists.
While the film presents a compelling portrait of Bari's activist work and her charismatic eco-feminist-warrior persona, a certain faction of the North Coast community is asking why Who Bombed Judi Bari? doesn't address a theory that's been chattered about for years—namely, that Bari's ex-husband, Mike Sweeney, and not the FBI, might have been Bari's would-be assassin.
In 1990, journalist and Frontline documentary producer Stephen Talbot began researching the case for an investigative piece in Mother Jones magazine. Talbot went on to produce a 1991 documentary for KQED, also titled Who Bombed Judi Bari? After much painstaking investigation, Talbot concluded that Judi Bari could not have bombed herself and that the FBI had mishandled the case from the start.
But during a visit to Bari's cabin in Willits, Talbot says, she made a surprising confession.
"Bari told me that she suspected and feared that her ex-husband, Michael Sweeney, might have been the perpetrator," writes Talbot in an email to the Bohemian. "I later found out that she had shared the same fear with other close friends of hers." Further research uncovered strong connections between Sweeney and the unsolved 1980 firebombing of the Santa Rosa Air Center, says Talbot.
"When I looked into that and found evidence of his involvement in a previous arson, I too became suspicious of him," writes Talbot. "But I was never able to prove anything. He has always refused to talk to me and threatened to sue, but never followed through."
Sweeney, the current head manager for Mendocino County's trash and recycling services, has historically let his extensive 2005 website, LiarUnlimited.com, speak for his response. When contacted by the Bohemian for this article, Sweeney referenced the website and declined further comment.
Cherney says that he didn't include the Sweeney theory because it's "kind of a big pile of turds."
"Saying Mike Sweeney is the bomber is like saying that Barack Obama was not born in the United States," he says, explaining that Bari's ex-husband couldn't have been in the right geographic location to have planted the bomb. "It's the same mentality. And no matter how much you prove it, the contrarians are never going to believe it." He says the accusations about Sweeney all stem from personal grudges against Judi, part of an attempt to discredit her legacy and disrupt 20 years of work.
"What you find out throughout the years," Cherney says, "is that Judi Bari made a lot of enemies."
Tanya Brannan, executive director of the Redwood Justice Fund and a close friend of Bari's, speaks reluctantly about the case, her voice dripping with palpable frustration.