MADISON, Wis. – In 1997, two figures clad in black slipped through the northern Wisconsin pines and let hundreds of minks out of their cages.
Nearly eight years later, a man identified by authorities as one of those figures, Peter Daniel Young (search), is about to be brought to Wisconsin for trial on federal charges in a case that could open a window on the radical animal-rights movement, which federal authorities regard as a growing terrorist threat.
While his alleged accomplice was captured six years ago, Young was on the run for more than seven years before a San Jose, Calif., beat cop caught him in March for stealing CDs from a coffee shop. He pleaded no contest in the shoplifting case earlier this month, and is expected to be brought here by the end of the month.
According to investigators, Young, 27, is part of the Animal Liberation Front (search), a shadowy extremist group whose goal is to shut down animal research labs and other animal-related industries. ALF members have set fires and committed other acts of vandalism.
The case against Young "will put anyone else on notice if they engage in terrorism, we will investigate it and we don't care how long it takes. We're not going to stop," said Mike Johnson, supervisory agent in the FBI's Milwaukee office.
Authorities say Young and an accomplice set out on an odyssey in 1997 to cripple fur farms in three states and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Alex Ott's ranch, in Tomahawk, Wis., was their last stop, investigators say.
Vandals went to Ott's back gate, lifted the latch and crept inside. Before them stretched row after row of sheds, each one home to dozens of minks. Ott woke up the next morning to find 300 animals — worth upward of $350,000 — gone.
Ott said he nearly lost everything "because of some psychotic ideal."
Young's story elevated him to cult-hero status among some animal rights activists. Some supporters claim they mounted a raid on an Illinois fur farm in his honor, and an anonymous Web site seeks donations for his defense.
"He's a compassionate person. He doesn't want to take lives," said Dr. Jerry Vlasak (search), a Los Angeles doctor who serves as spokesman for ALF. "This is another way to save animals."
Young himself remains a mystery. He graduated from high school in 1995 in Mercer Island, Wash., a well-to-do Seattle suburb. Young, 19-year-old Justin Clayton Samuel and a Seattle woman, Allison Porter, were arrested in Mercer Island in 1997 for trespassing, authorities said. They carried bolt cutters, ALF literature, a vial of animal tranquilizer and a book titled "Free the Animals."
According to a court papers, Young and Samuel set out that October in Porter's red Geo Metro to disrupt mink farms. Working off an ALF list of addresses code-named The Final Nail, they allegedly freed about 7,000 minks in Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Word spread among Wisconsin fur farmers they were under attack. Several farmers told police they had seen a red car casing their ranches. On Oct. 28, a fur farmer saw a red Geo with two men in it coming down the road and followed it, dialing police on her cell phone. She followed the men into a parking lot, where they rummaged through Dumpsters, removing apples, she testified.
Police arrived and seized the car, but released two men identified as Young and Samuel because there was not enough evidence to hold them while authorities waited for a search warrant for the Geo. Investigators soon found maps, black clothes, binoculars and bolt cutters in the car. But by then, Young and Samuel were gone.
They were indicted in 1998 on federal charges that included interfering with interstate commerce by threat or violence. Federal authorities call it an animal terrorism charge.
Sympathizers scoff at the charges, the most serious of which carry up to 20 years behind bars.
"It's a funny terrorist who doesn't harm a single human being," said Steven Best, author of "Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals."
Samuel was captured in 1999 in Belgium. He traded information about ALF for a two-year prison sentence. But Young stayed underground, and as recently as March 8, a federal judge in Wisconsin sent a letter to prosecutors asking if they wanted to drop the case.
Then, on March 21, a police officer stopped at a San Jose Starbucks and saw a man lift eight music CDs from a counter and tuck them in his coat. A fingerprint check identified him as Young. During a pat-down, the officer discovered a handcuff key taped to Young's belt, apparently so that he could escape, authorities said.
As for where Young's whereabouts while he was underground, Portland State University professor Gary Perlstein, who studies eco-terrorism, said ALF cells probably hid him, with rich members helping him find jobs.
"He got moved like the Underground Railroad moved slaves," Perlstein said. "They would do it because he saved the animals."