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The Planet

October 1997, Volume 4, number 8

Threats, Intimidation in Missouri: Ozark Activist Attacked

by Jenny Coyle

A Sierra Club activist working to protect a Missouri watershed from lead mining was beaten and left bound and gagged overnight at a remote river access on July 31. Ozark Plateau resident Becky Horton said two men and two women posing as reporters met her at the river, then hit her with sticks, broke the window of her van, duct-taped her hands to seat-belt straps, stuffed an anti-mining brochure in her mouth and taped a property rights video to her arm. Before they left they told her not to bother reporting the incident to the sheriff because he was on their side. A friend found Horton -- bruised and traumatized -- the following morning.

The assault was the most egregious of incidents announced at a Sept. 4 press conference held by members of the Ozark Chapter who have been shot at, followed, and intimidated by threatening phone calls and letters to the editor. The most recent hit came on Aug. 20 when mining committee chair Tom Kruzen was asked to retrieve a stinking package that had been sent by priority mail to the chapter's West Plains post office box. Inside the box Kruzen found the decomposing carcass of a kitten. The label used to mail the box was cut out of a copy of the same brochure that had been stuffed in Horton's mouth. Chapter members produced the brochure and a 50-page report to expose the bleak environmental track record of lead mining companies that want to begin operations in the Jacks Fork, Current and Eleven Point river watersheds (see page 8).

"We have stuck to the facts, we've made no derogatory remarks about the opposition groups, and we are more than willing to debate the issues head to head -- but not hand to hand," said Ken Midkiff, Sierra Club program director in Missouri. He told a good-sized crowd at the press conference about the activities of various "wise use" groups and detailed the involvement of certain public officials at rallies in which people were roused to a fever pitch against the United Nations, the U.S. government and environmentalists. Midkiff also quoted inflammatory language from wise-use brochures and flyers, and repeated quotes made at public meetings by leaders of the anti-green groups.

"The rallies, the meetings, the inflammatory rhetoric and the constant barrage of nasty letters in local papers have created a climate of hatred where criminal elements think it is okay to go out and beat up environmentalists," Midkiff said. The video that was taped to Horton's arm, "Behind the Green Curtain," is distributed by the wise-use group People for the West. Several members of the group attended the Ozark Chapter's press conference, and one of them videotaped it.

"I never wanted this kind of attention," said Horton, a volunteer who has received Environmental Protection Agency grants to monitor water quality and provide environmental education in the area. She audiotaped comments because she was too frightened to attend the press conference. "If I sought recognition for anything, it was for my work in protecting this beautiful area of the country that I call home. Public awareness of the escalation of this kind of criminal activity might move us all forward in a positive way. We have a right to do this honorable work. If someone disagrees, they have a right to say so -- but not to beat me and terrorize me."

Midkiff said a U.S. postmaster asked the FBI to investigate the mailing of the dead cat -- a federal crime. But the Oregon County sheriff is saying there is not enough evidence to pursue Horton's assailants. According to Midkiff, the sheriff also fails to see a connection between the attack and Horton's environmental work. The Club has contacted the Missouri attorney general and the Department of Justice for assistance.

"We ask those involved in the People of the West movement to lower their rhetoric and denounce tactics of fear and intimidation," Midkiff said. "And we ask that public officials and community leaders denounce the thugs who perpetrate this sort of violence, and disassociate themselves from organizations that promote fear and hatred."

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