Published August 13, 2008
This is a weekly series that profiles America's most wanted criminals.
Under the cover of darkness on an October evening in 1996, Josephine Sunshine Overaker began her life as an eco-terrorist, officials said.
The long-haired, vegan activist, sporting a slight moustache, worked at times as a midwife, sheep tender and firefighter, but this night she ignited her own dangerous blaze, officials said.
Along with several other environmental extremists, Overaker slipped into the Willamette National Forest and struck the U.S. Forest Service's station in Detroit, Ore., officials said.
Clad in black, they allegedly left graffiti and burned several Forest Service vehicles before disappearing into the night. Overaker and her cohorts broke the law for a branch of the Earth Liberation Front that called itself "the Family," investigators said.
"Once they did an action, they never went back to that place," FBI Special Agent Timothy Suttles said. "And the people involved in that action would never talk about it, ever."
Two days after the attack in Detroit, investigators said Overaker and fellow extremists struck 140 miles away in Oakridge, planting within another ranger station an incendiary device crudely fashioned from milk jugs and sponges with fuses made of incense sticks. It was designed to ignite the accelerant long after they'd gone, and it worked; they succeeded in burning the Oakridge Ranger Station to the ground.
"They would pick their targets sometimes a year in advance and do significant surveillance, getting the timing down of the guards — if there are any — if there are people there," Suttles said. "Their main thing was that they always claimed they didn’t hurt anybody, so they were very vigilant to make sure they watched a place so that nobody was in there."
It was just by luck, Suttles said, that the forest ranger who often slept overnight at the station was not home at the time of the second attack.
Over the next few years, Overaker took part in seven more actions through 2001, Suttles said — including a massive 1998 blaze at the Vail ski area in Eagle County, Colo., that caused about $12 million in damage, as well as the toppling of a high-voltage tower in Oregon's only Y2K-related disruption.
"They would steal their clothes or get them out of Goodwill, secondhand-type stores — all black," Suttles said. "[They'd] go in at night with police scanners and radios and then afterwards, they’d get rid of their clothes, even sometimes going as far as getting new tires for whatever vehicles they used."
With each arson attack, investigators said, the technology became more and more sophisticated. Five-gallon pails replaced milk jugs and digital timers took the place of incense sticks as members of the Family honed their terrorism skills with weekend seminars on computer encryption and lock-picking, Suttles said.
"They have these small autonomous groups that don’t know each other, and they just go out and commit acts and usually the groups are four or five max," Suttles said. "They don’t use their real names; they use made-up nicknames — codenames — and that’s the way they always refer to each other, and they do that supposedly so when they get arrested, even if they try to cooperate, they can’t."
That silence made it difficult to track down the members, but after a nine-year investigation, federal detectives were able to begin rounding up members of the group. Overaker, however, has managed to elude authorities.
Raised on the West Coast and fluent in Spanish, Overaker is believed to be living abroad.
"Spain has a huge commune-type area and so, at least we’ve been told from the National Police there, it would be a good place for her to be if she was [wanted] anywhere in the world," Suttles said.
Officials said the non-meat-eating activist still may be a vegan and may have gone back to her work as a firefighter, midwife, sheep tender — or even masseuse, officials said.
"She’s a very good shoplifter, which all these people were," Suttles said. "That’s how they got all their material to build these devices, by shoplifting."
Overaker is 5-foot-3, 130 pounds with brown hair and eyes. She has several distinctive tattoos, including a large bird across her back. Her aliases included Lisa Rachelle Quintana, Maria Rachelle Quintana, "Osha," "Jo," "China," "Josie" and "Mo."
She faces numerous federal and local arson-related charges in connection with the destruction of government and private property and her alleged participation in eco-terrorism. If convicted, she could face life in prison.
Anyone with information on her whereabouts should contact the FBI at 202-324-3000.