IT WAS A SWELTERING DAY in the summer of 2004, and Eric McDavid, then 26 years old, was in Des Moines, Iowa, for an annual gathering of self-described anarchists.
McDavid had come from his parents’ home outside Sacramento, train-hopping the 1,700-mile journey and scavenging for food where he could, including in dumpsters. An idealistic young man with a shaved head and a thick red beard, McDavid had been drawn to activism following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when his parents gave him a copy of Michael Moore’s book Dude, Where’s My Country? McDavid began to attend protests in the San Francisco area, eventually gravitating toward anti-government views.
In Iowa, McDavid was staying with other activists in a farm house with a large porch. They were attending CrimethInc, which was described, in the gathering’s literature, as an event for anarchists “in pursuit of a freer and more joyous world.” Activists would come and go from the house, talking and smoking cigarettes or pot on the porch.
“Hey, anybody want to go for a ride?” someone shouted. “I’ve got to pick up somebody out on [Interstate] 80 at a truck stop.”
McDavid, in an interview with The Intercept, recalled hopping into the car with another activist. A few minutes later, McDavid spotted her, short and petite, no more than 120 pounds, with pink hair and a camouflage miniskirt. She said her name was Anna. He was quiet on the ride back, impressed and slightly intimidated by the story she told of hitchhiking from Florida with truckers.
McDavid recalled that Anna sidled up to him on the porch.
“So when are we going to bed?” she asked.
McDavid looked at his friend, whose eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“As soon as I get done with this cigarette?” he responded.
McDavid went upstairs and unfurled his sleep sack, offering to share it with Anna. She demurred, which confused McDavid, but she was flirtatious for the rest of the CrimethInc gathering and McDavid became enamored. She told him that she was 24 years old and had spent time in Iraq in the National Guard, which turned her against the government.
“If you’re asking if it made me angry and wanna, you know, destroy it,” she’d say later to one of McDavid’s friends, “then the answer would be yes.”
None of it was true. Anna wasn’t an activist. That wasn’t even her real name, which at the time was Zoe Elizabeth Voss. She was a paid FBI informant.
At trial, McDavid’s lawyer, Mark Reichel, argued that the FBI had used Anna to lure McDavid into a terrorism conspiracy through the promise of a sexual relationship once the mission was complete. “That’s inducement,” Reichel told the federal jury. “That’s entrapment.” The jurors weren’t persuaded, however. In 2007, McDavid was convicted of conspiring to use fire or explosives to damage corporate and government property, and he was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison, one of the longest sentences given to an alleged eco-terrorist in the United States. At the time of his conviction, the FBI had built a network of more than 15,000 informants like Anna and the government had classified eco-terrorism as the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat — even though so-called eco-terrorism crimes in the United States were rare and never fatal.
Seven years after his conviction, the government’s deceit was finally revealed. Last November, federal prosecutors admitted they had potentially violated rules of evidence by withholding approximately 2,500 pages of documents from McDavid. Among the belatedly disclosed documents were love letters between Anna and McDavid and evidence that Anna’s handler, Special Agent Ricardo Torres, had quashed the FBI’s request to put Anna through a polygraph test, commonly used by the FBI to ensure informants aren’t lying to agents as they collect evidence. The new documents also revealed which of the letters and emails the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit had reviewed before offering instructions on how to manipulate McDavid and guide him toward a terrorist conspiracy.
“The United States is currently reviewing its potential remedies for McDavid’s breach and whether to pursue those remedies,” federal prosecutors warned in their formal response.
The extent to which the crime was manufactured by the government can be fully measured now, thanks to the release of the hidden documents that became public earlier this year and hours of undercover recordings that were obtained exclusively by The Intercept and Field of Vision, which are releasing a documentary about the case, Eric & “Anna,” directed by one of the authors of this story, Katie Galloway, along with Kelly Duane de la Vega.
“To me, there are big American themes here,” said Ben Rosenfeld, a lawyer who was among those representing McDavid after his conviction. “Man entrapped by FBI and their informant — and railroaded by prosecutors who withhold and distort evidence at trial — is released after serving nine years of an outrageous 20-year sentence. He then dares to ask for an explanation, and the U.S. attorney’s office threatens him with re-prosecution just for asking. The court then runs cover for all of them and refuses even to probe who was responsible. That’s the opposite of accountability.”
IN THE FALL of 2003, Anna was 17 years old and a sophomore at a South Florida community college. Eager to impress her professor, she proposed an extra credit assignment: infiltrating protests at the upcoming Free Trade Agreement of the Americas summit in Miami.
“I wanted to figure out what they were doing and why they were interested in doing what they were doing,” Anna said at McDavid’s trial. “So I went to Goodwill, and I got some ratty clothes, because I knew the protestors were more into a grunge lifestyle than your average Old Navy or Gap lifestyle.”
She wasn’t a natural spy. Protest organizers suspected a plant and shut her out of their meetings. The next day, she showed up again, this time in a mask, and managed to attend a meeting where organizers discussed their plans.
After Anna presented the report to her class, a classmate who was a state law enforcement agent asked if he could share the paper with his bosses. Anna agreed. She soon received a call from the Miami Police Department, the lead agency during the protest.
“We have some questions about what you did, what you saw,” Anna recalled them saying. “Would you mind coming in this afternoon?”
When Anna arrived, she was greeted by two police officers and an FBI agent who asked if she’d be willing to monitor protestors at the upcoming G8 forum in Sea Island, Georgia, as well as the 2004 Democratic and Republican national conventions. She’d be undercover, they made clear. She signed up immediately.
For the FBI, Anna was a great find — an informant young enough to look the part of the environmental and animal-rights activists she would be infiltrating. As in Muslim communities after 9/11, the FBI created undercover stings that provided the means and opportunity for left-wing activists to cross the line into violent action. While far fewer in number than the stings against Muslims, the stings on left-wing activists have been just as egregious. For example, an FBI informant led five members of the Occupy movement — at least one of whom had been treated for mental health issues — in a plot to bomb a bridge in Ohio. The FBI came up with the plot and financed it. An undercover informant provided the purported bomb.
The government’s interest in McDavid appears to have begun in February 2005, when the FBI arrested a man named Ryan Lewis for his role in planting five incendiary devices in Auburn, California, near Sacramento. Lewis, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison, was a friend of McDavid’s. After Lewis’ arrest, FBI agents went to McDavid’s parents’ house — but McDavid, something of a drifter at the time, wasn’t there.
Anna provided the FBI with a way to gather information about him. Anna and McDavid exchanged emails after meeting at CrimethInc in Iowa. In one email Anna sent — which was among the newly released documents — Anna explicitly suggests the promise of a relationship. “I think you and I could be great,” she wrote on June 27, 2005, weeks before the next CrimethInc in Indiana. “But we have a LOTS of little kinks to work out … I hope in Indiana we can spend more quality time together, and really chat about life and our things.”
In his reply, McDavid didn’t miss the “our things” cue:
hey cheeka, so far as us B’n great, that i think is an understatement … along w/the ‘LOTS of little kinks 2 wk out’ … but if u aint learning, u aint live’n … & I do think we could learn a lot from eachother … ido think that indiana will B a good space 2 start some of that but i’d like 2 look N2 do’n some independently from the scene N the future 2, i think that it’d throw a different light on the subject wich could B helpful … but that’s 4 a future discussion : ) … now so far as plans, u know I don’t have those things anymore, only ideas …
In another email leading up to their Indiana meeting, McDavid made his feelings clear: “Totally miss you. You’re never far from my thoughts or heart. Guess I’ve been fighting that last part a bit. Okay, a lot.” He signed it, “Much love, me.”
“They said if he makes another advance at you, what you need to say to him to calm him, to mollify him,” Anna testified. She was instructed not to “shoot him down outright.” Instead, she was advised to tell him, “We need to put the mission first. There’s time for romance later.”
Anna and McDavid saw each other again in 2005 at the next CrimethInc. Anna told her FBI handler, and later said on the witness stand, that McDavid expressed his interest in violence then. “He said that he had gotten a bomb recipe for C4 from an individual in West Virginia. And his plan was to make little C4 bombs,” Anna testified.
But this alleged conversation was not recorded. Anna was the only source. McDavid has denied he said it.
Could Anna be trusted?
Among the documents released years after McDavid’s conviction were FBI reports that requested a polygraph examination for Anna, to make sure she was telling the truth. It’s unclear why the FBI scuttled Anna’s polygraph. The bureau declined to comment for this story. Anna also told her handler that McDavid had two co-conspirators in his supposed bomb plot. Anna claimed that Lauren Weiner, a Philadelphia art student who was 20 years old and went by the nickname Ren, told her that McDavid invited her and Zach Jenson, a 20-year-old sometime travel companion of McDavid’s who went by the nickname Ollie, to join the plot.
Yet the plot, or whatever it really was, was going nowhere by the time Anna told the FBI about it. McDavid had returned to the West Coast and dropped out of contact with her. The FBI decided to jumpstart the plot. “We formulated a plan to get me out to the West Coast under the guise of a sick aunt that I was visiting,” Anna recounted at trial.
USING FBI MONEY, Anna bought a plane ticket for Weiner to fly to Sacramento in the fall of 2005. They met up with Jenson and drove to McDavid’s parents’ house outside Sacramento. It was November 18, 2005. As they arrived, McDavid told them: “Just so everybody’s on the same page, you’re walking into a house of a known anarchist.” He was joking about his friendship with Ryan Lewis and how FBI agents had come to his parents’ house after Lewis’ arrest. They hung around McDavid’s house, smoking marijuana, talking and eating dinner, before finally moving into the backyard to sit around a fire pit, where they discussed the alleged plot. Anna led the conversation, pressuring the group to come up with a concrete plan.
“We could practice shooting, we could do reconnaissance, we could even test something tomorrow and Sunday,” Anna said.
“Hm-hm,” McDavid mumbled, not committing to any ideas.
If McDavid had told Anna that he was planning a C4 bomb attack, as she reported to the FBI, his conversation at the fire pit suggested that his dedication had been momentary at best.
“What do we need to do over winter? What do we need to improve? What do we need to train more on?” Anna badgered.
They spoke vaguely about targets. McDavid talked about pouring sugar into the underground tanks at gas stations. They wondered aloud if dropping a lit cigarette into those tanks would cause an explosion. McDavid described how he met a guy in West Virginia who told him how to make homemade explosives.
Nothing was specific. It was all talk, most of it encouraged by Anna.
McDavid maintains that everything he said was part of an effort to impress Anna, because he wanted a sexual relationship with her. The next morning, as Anna and McDavid drove in the Chevy wired by the FBI with cameras, McDavid made clear that he wanted more out of their relationship. The undercover video of their conversation was among those obtained by The Intercept and Field of Vision.
“So did you want to keep our relationship just professional through this?” he asked.
“You’re right,” she admitted. “We have not talked about this.”
“And we haven’t talked about this, and it’s just been something that’s—” McDavid started, before being interrupted.
“Um, I honestly don’t know how I feel right now,” Anna said, then added a few minutes later: “I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that just yet.”
“We ended up sitting down with some bomb technicians from the Philadelphia FBI office, and we put together a recipe that could be sent to him that was basically a safe bomb,” Anna said at the trial. “It wasn’t a bomb. It wasn’t an explosive. But it was the initial initiator part of an explosive.”
In January 2006, the FBI rented a two-bedroom cabin in Dutch Flat, a wooded area between Sacramento and Reno, Nevada. The bureau also leased a maroon Chevy for Anna. Both the cabin and the car were wired with recording devices. Weiner and Jenson were both back on the East Coast as well. Anna had arranged to pick them up and drive straight through to California. Anna told them that she’d rented the car and cabin using money she’d made from being a stripper in Florida.
During the ride out West on January 7, 2006, Jenson told Anna, in one of the undercover recordings, that he was suspicious of her.
“I had a really silly paranoid thought last night while I was really stoned,” Jenson said.
“Oh, what?” Anna asked.
“That you were still, like, mentally fucked up from being in the National Guard — ” Jenson started.
Anna laughed. “No,” she said.
“And you were, like, going crazy and, like, leading us all into this,” Jenson finished.
“Oh, no,” Anna said. “Are you kidding? I’m fucking not your leader.”
She told him that McDavid was the leader.
“If you want to look for someone who’s been leading or coaxing, you gotta look at D,” Anna told Jenson, referring to McDavid. “It was his idea. He’s the one that brought it up to me.”
“No shit?” Jenson responded.
“Oh, yeah,” Anna said. “Driving out from CrimethInc — ”
“Wow,” Jenson interrupted.
Anna continued: “He said, ‘Hey, I’m going to do this. Wanna join?’ ”
“D’s also a bit crazy,” Jenson added.
“Um, yeah, you kinda need to be crazy,” Anna said, then followed a few minutes later: “So if D’s crazy, is it OK that he’s kind of our leader?”
“He’s not our leader,” Jenson responded.
Of course, the government’s case revolved around the idea that McDavid was the leader, not Anna. She had told the FBI that McDavid had invited Weiner and Jenson into the plot. Yet Jenson was expressing surprise at the idea that the plot was led by McDavid. (Jenson would later testify against McDavid, but following the trial, he stated in a sworn affidavit that the government had bullied him into supporting its narrative.)
Anna, Weiner and Jenson picked up McDavid the next day, on January 8. Having driven 3,000 miles, the trio already had developed a sort of common language. Anna, a Stars Wars fan, had been calling Weiner a “jawa” for how she appeared when she wore a hoodie.
This was the government’s supposed eco-terrorist cell on the make, and they were arguing not about bombs and attacks, but about Star Wars characters. For Anna and the government, it was difficult to get the group beyond meaningless conversation like this. At every attempt, McDavid, Weiner and Jenson rebuffed Anna’s encouragement to come up with a timeline, a plan, anything that required a commitment. On January 10, 2006, after two days of hanging around the cabin together and smoking marijuana, Anna expressed frustration that they weren’t moving forward or translating their talk into action. “I would like to one day stick to a plan,” Anna said.
Anna encouraged the group to drive with her to potential targets in Northern California. They visited the Nimbus Dam, an enormous hydroelectric facility on the American River, as well as the Institute of Forest Genetics. They also shopped at Wal-Mart for supplies for the bomb recipe Anna provided — canning jars, a car battery, coffee filters, bleach, ammonia, mixing bowls, a single-burner hotplate.
AT THE CABIN, McDavid began mixing the bomb recipe — the fake one the FBI had written. He combined bleach and ammonia and boiled the liquid on the hotplate, as instructed. He turned off the burner to let the chemical mix cool, also as instructed. What no one accounted for was the weather. It was January 12, cold outside, and the Pyrex bowl cooled too quickly on the metal burner. It cracked, spilling the chemicals onto the ground.
The tension began to grow. Anna was having trouble getting the group to commit to more than playing around with the bomb recipe and talking big about things they might do one day.
“I don’t like this amorphous crap,” Anna said. “I wish one day we could keep the damned plan. I wish one day you guys could stick to a list. I don’t like how I always have to bend to fit your schedules.”
“We’re all bending,” Weiner said.
Anna, frustrated, walked out of the cabin, and down to where the FBI agents were monitoring what was happening. Torres, her handler, met her on the road, a short walk from the cabin. At McDavid’s trial, he recalled what she told him.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “I’m going back to Philadelphia. I’m done.”
Torres then made the call: They’d arrest the group the next day.
Anna returned to the cabin.
“All right, tomorrow, we’re just going to go into town, get another Pyrex bowl, come back up here,” Anna said, setting the agenda.
The next morning, the four went to K-Mart to purchase more supplies. They split into two groups: Weiner and Jenson, McDavid and Anna. Weiner and Jenson were still in the store by the time McDavid and Anna returned to the car. McDavid hopped onto the trunk and lit a cigarette. Anna sat down in the driver’s seat. As Weiner and Jenson were walking back, McDavid heard the car’s automatic locks engage. A swarm of black vehicles surrounded them. It was the FBI.
Weiner and Jenson agreed to testify against McDavid in exchange for plea deals and reduced sentences. McDavid did not testify but his lawyer stated that Anna was the driving force of the plot and had entrapped him by suggesting that they would have a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, McDavid’s lawyer did not have any written evidence to back up his romantic assertion — because the FBI and federal prosecutors failed to disclose the evidence and specifically denied that it existed.
McDavid’s trial attorney, Mark Reichel, questioned Anna about whether McDavid had written letters.
“You believe he had written you love letters?” Reichel asked.
“A few, yes,” Anna conceded.
“Okay. And we don’t have those anymore, correct?”
“No,” Anna answered. “Correct.”
“And you were still working for the FBI when those disappeared, though.”
Anna conceded only that the letters contained a “slight indication that he might have been interested in me.”
In closing arguments, one of the federal prosecutors, Ellen Endrizzi, even poked fun at McDavid’s claims of budding romance and missing love letters.
“Romance? A bit of a red herring,” she told the jury. “There are supposedly love letters. We’ve got evidence of one. Supposedly Mr. McDavid is falling all over himself for Anna. But you have testimony that Anna rebuffed him.”
McDavid was convicted and sentenced to 19.5 years in federal prison. The missing evidence — and the extent of the government’s misconduct in not producing it for trial — would not be revealed until earlier this year.
McDavid’s lawyers, friends and family continued to fight for him, filing multiple FOIA requests with the federal government in what seemed a futile effort. Until one day, in late 2014, the records that the government had said didn’t exist were provided to his lawyers. They included the emails McDavid had sent to Anna professing his desire for her and a paper trail of the FBI referring those private messages to behavioral psychologists.
When McDavid and his lawyers discovered that the FBI and federal prosecutors had withheld approximately 2,500 pages of discovery, they negotiated a settlement that allowed for McDavid’s release with time served in exchange for changing his conviction to a lesser charge of general conspiracy. In January, during a hearing to approve the plea deal to release McDavid, U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr., who presided over the trial, asked the government to explain its failure to produce key evidence.
“This is something that needs to be dealt with, and I want to know what happened,” England said. “I mean, this is something I never thought I would have to ask the question ‘how did this happen?’ This is something that I don’t expect to have happen in my courtroom.”
“Your Honor, unfortunately, we’re not, the government is not in a position to offer clarity to the court at this point,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andre Espinosa said. “Disappointingly for all of the parties, Your Honor, I can’t provide an accurate explanation for that other than to say that these documents were in the FBI file.”
McDavid’s lawyer in July filed a motion asking the court to force the government to explain how the evidence was withheld and to compel the government to produce new documents, such as the Behavioral Analysis Unit’s report on McDavid’s letters, the instructions Anna was given on how to handle McDavid’s romantic advances, and any memos and correspondence related to the FBI’s decision to schedule, and later cancel, a polygraph examination of Anna.
In a surprising turn that has not been reported previously, the government responded by making what seemed to be a threat to throw McDavid back in prison. In a reply to the lawyer’s motion, federal prosecutors alleged that McDavid’s request “is likely a breach of the terms of his plea agreement.” The prosecutors added that the government would review “potential remedies” for the breach.
There was yet another twist to come: Judge England, who was outraged in January about the missing evidence, backed down in September, denying McDavid’s request to force the government to explain how it withheld evidence. England wrote in his order that he conducted his “own inquiry into that precise question” and concluded that “the failure to turn over documents in this case was inadvertent, an anomaly, and an incident not likely to be repeated.” According to the order, England’s inquiry consisted only of questioning prosecutors during the January hearing when they said they couldn’t “provide an accurate explanation” for what happened.
In a written statement to The Intercept, Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip A. Ferrari said that of the 2,500 pages of documents not provided to McDavid before his trial, only 11 documents were required to be turned over under the federal rules of evidence. “We don’t know why these documents were not produced, but we have no information indicating that the failure to do so was anything more than a mistake,” Ferrari said. He also maintained that prosecutors’ language, in the motion opposing McDavid’s request for the government to explain why evidence went missing, “contained no threats, veiled or otherwise.”
ANNA TESTIFIED THAT SHE was paid about $65,000 for her undercover work with the FBI. Since McDavid’s arrest, she has changed her given name and surname multiple times and moved around the country, public records show. She now lives in a Texas suburb, where she purchased a home this year with her new husband, a software engineer. She did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.
On her Facebook page, Anna recently posted a photograph commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks as well as pictures of herself dressed as a Stormtrooper from Star Wars, the movie series that a decade earlier she had discussed with the targets of the FBI sting.
In what appears to be a honeymoon picture, Anna and her husband are standing on the beach. He’s wearing a blue, tropical-themed buttoned-down shirt and khaki pants. She’s in a white wedding gown. They’re embracing each other, and both are donning Stormtrooper helmets. Behind them, in the cloudy blue sky, is not the moon but the Death Star.
McDavid, now 38, is resettling in northern California, where he lives with family, attends community college and is attempting to rebuild a life after nearly a decade in prison for a crime that Anna helped the government create. McDavid is adjusting to the newness of telling his life story in front of cameras and crowds. If he holds any anger toward Anna, he doesn’t express it, even when invited during the recent interview with The Intercept.
Last month in San Francisco, McDavid addressed a crowd of activists interested in assisting political prisoners in the United States. Dressed in a tight-fitting T-shirt and baggy blue jeans, he talked about the mounds of mail he received while in prison and how those letters helped him get through nine long years.
“All it takes is a little card,” McDavid told the audience. “That’s all it takes — a smiley face, a heart, 25-cent stamp. That’s it.”
“Or is [a stamp] more than that now?” he asked, to laughter.
Research: Sheelagh McNeill
Additional reporting: Kelly Duane de la Vega