Friends of Judi Bari
The Press Democrat
Monday, Feb 7, 2005
Another Bari investigation falls short
by Chris Coursey
Press Democrat Columnist
The new book about Judi Bari, the iconic North Coast timber activist who survived a 1990 car bombing and died of breast cancer in 1997, is drawing a lot of attention.
Bari's life makes a fascinating story, and someday it will make a fascinating book.
"The Secret Wars of Judi Bari," unfortunately, is not that book.
If Berkeley author Kate Coleman's tome isn't fascinating, why is it turning up on the pages of newspapers from San Francisco to New York? Why is it the topic of talk-radio shows? Why is it drawing hostile crowds to bookstore appearances by the author?
Coleman can thank her detractors for that. The keepers of Bari's image, in an effort to discredit the author, have unleashed a publicity barrage that has turned a shallow, forgettable book into a noisy conflict ripe for media attention. Bari's ex-husband, portrayed as the antagonist in the "secret wars" alluded to in the title, has put up a Web site that devotes thousands and thousands of words to debunking nearly every negative mention that Coleman makes in her gossip-driven tale.
Coleman has acknowledged the many errors in her book, blaming misspellings, erroneous dates and geographical goofs on the lack of a fact-checker. She has argued that many of the alleged "351 falsehoods" that Bari's ex-husband, Mike Sweeney, lists on his site, www.colemanhoax.info, are differences of assertion, not errors.
But besides the sloppy reporting, Coleman also damages her credibility with gratuitous snide and disparaging references to her main character. She heaps on catty gossip about strained relations between Bari and her sister, New York Times reporter Gina Kolata. She repeatedly fixates on Bari's "unfettered, pendulous breasts," at one point writing that when Bari lay injured in her hospital bed after the car bombing, she was "bra-less as usual."
Coleman explains how the North Coast environmental community became fractured in the years after the car bombing, as Bari and her supporters pursued what would be a posthumously successful lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland police.
Less clear, though, is that the bulk of Coleman's theories about Bari's "secret wars" come from just one side of that fracture - a group of former friends who had acrimonious splits with Bari before her death. Coleman relies heavily on the hearsay of those individuals in making her case that Sweeney mentally and physically abused his ex-wife, and thus should be considered a suspect in the bombing.
But while several people have said Bari told them Sweeney beat her, whenever she was asked about it on the record Bari adamantly denied anything had happened.
In the end, Coleman's book is ripe for comparison with the original investigation of the car bombing. The cops focused on Bari and her partner, Darryl Cherney, as suspects in the bombing, then dropped the case when the facts didn't fit their theory. Coleman focuses on Sweeney, then concludes, "there was never any evidence against Sweeney that would pass muster in any court of law."
There's no evidence that's been linked to anyone, but there is evidence. Authorities have DNA and a fingerprint from the "Lord's Avenger" letter, which took credit for the bomb. According to FBI analysts, it was written either by the person who built the bomb or by someone intimately familiar with it.
But no one has bothered to compare that evidence to the many possible suspects. So while we don't know if it was an ex-husband, an ex-lover, an angry logger, a religious fanatic, a jealous rival or a government agent who planted that bomb, we don't know that it wasn't, either. Coleman doesn't solve the mystery of Judi Bari. But hers isn't the first investigation to fall short.
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