"We will...strap you into a monkey restraining device and use industrial pliers to crack your testicles like walnuts." That was the simple message that medical researcher Dr. Donal O'Leary received in October 2011.
The note, which threatened to kidnap O'Leary and went on to reference myriad tortures including dismemberment, disembowelment, Drano and napalm, was published on Negotiation Is Over (NIO), a website that acts as a one-stop shop for animal rights extremists looking to gather intelligence on potential targets. In addition to labeling O'Leary—a professor at Detroit's Wayne State University whose studies on congestive heart failure involve experiments on rodents and occasionally dogs—a sadistic animal torturer, it published his photo and home address.
In an email to O'Leary alerting him of the post, Camille Marino, who until last month ran NIO out of her home in Wildwood, Fla., told the professor that some of her "associates" would be paying him a visit to take pictures of his home.
"Then you can join ‘NIO's most wanted,'" she wrote. "I hope you die a slow and painful death."
In December, a Michigan judge sentenced Marino, 48, to six months in prison and three years probation for charges related to her off- and online stalking of O'Leary, who at trial called Marino a "clearly disturbed individual, who was threatening me personally, threatening my children, threatening my home."
While Marino has never herself committed any acts of violence or property damage, O'Leary and the judge feared that her words could incite unstable individuals to violence. After all, NIO doesn't just post wistful death fantasies about those who don't abide by their vegan ideals. In addition to posting the names and addresses of medical researchers who experiment on animals, NIO offers instructions on deactivating home security systems, lock-picking, and bomb-making, along with rhetoric that rationalizes the murder of its intended targets as nothing short of justifiable homicide.
Though Marino and her ilk are leftists—she has called herself a pro-choice feminist—these methods are drawn straight from the The Nuremberg Files, the far-right Christian website famous for publishing the home addresses of abortion doctors, along with "Wanted" posters showing their faces. One of the Nuremberg Files' targets was George Tiller, who was gunned down in cold blood four years ago by an anti-abortion extremist while he prayed in his local church in Wichita, Kan.
Dr. J. David Jentsch, a UCLA neuroscientist whose studies on addiction involve experiments on mice, rats and vervet monkeys, is all too familiar with the parallel. Around the same time that Tiller was murdered, Marino had made Jentsch a target on NIO and nicknamed him after the slain abortion doctor. Animal rights activists quickly showed up in front of his Los Angeles home, accusing him of torture and murder, and chanting, "David ‘Tiller' Jentsch."
"I think people like Marino have been unambiguous about the fact that murder is where this movement is going," said Jentsch, whose experiences with Marino and others in the animal liberation movement go well beyond just being called names.
Shortly before Marino started targeting him in 2009, Jentsch told me, he was roused out of bed at 4 in the morning by an explosion in his driveway. Jentsch found his car engulfed in flames, which threatened to spread to his house via a nearby tree. When the windows and tires of his car exploded, he ran back inside to safety.
While a group called the Animal Liberation Brigade took credit for the fire bombing—no arrests have been made—it was Marino who kept others in the movement updated on Jentsch's whereabouts.
In July of 2010, shortly after Jentsch moved due to growing concern about his safety, Marino posted an open letter to him on her website listing his new address.
"Everyone at NIO is most anxious to throw you a housewarming," she wrote. "A very very hot housewarming."
Demonstrators quickly appeared in front of Jentsch's new home. A short time later, when he opened up a letter that arrived in the mail, razor blades spilled onto the floor. "We follow you wherever you go," Jenstch recalled the accompanying note reading. "One day, we're gonna come up behind you and slit your throat."
Marino, for her part, openly published material saying Jentsch should have his blood "spilled," along with an image of the professor's security gate with directions on how to deactivate it. To this day, Jentsch is accompanied 24-7 by armed security guards.
Having studied law at Fordham and worked in the investment banking business, Marino is not a life-long extremist. In interviews before her sentencing, she told me she initially got into animal rights activism five years ago, after looking into vegetarianism for the purpose of losing weight. After coming across some articles about the horrors of factory farming, she immediately became a vegan and was shortly thereafter radicalized in her thinking.
Over the phone, Marino came off as the happy warrior, interspersing her convictions on animal rights with easy laughs about her then-impending incarceration, which had the potential to total ten years in prison.
"The joke among the prosecutors is that ‘negotiation is over,'" she told me, laughing at her adversaries' use of her credo against her.
Couple Marino's affable demeanor with the photographs online of her wearing Day-Glo-colored clothing and bleach-blond hair, and it's difficult to imagine this as the same person who encouraged readers to show up at O'Leary's home and take pictures of his "miscreant spawn" for publication on NIO.
Though Marino's objective is to frighten her targets into giving up researching on animals, when confronted with the very real prospect of her actions inciting violence, she denies any culpability.
"It's not publishing info that generates a reaction," she said. "The action is generated by what people do; If he was a baker, he would have nothing to worry about. I don't encourage or discourage anyone from any action that they feel is just."
As far as Marino is concerned, the notion that animal research has ever or ever will lead to health benefits for humans is a colossal lie. Through the use of laboratory animals, UCLA alone has had myriad medical breakthroughs for everything from cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and schizophrenia. If it weren't for animal research, we'd arguably still be without a vaccine for Tuberculosis, which was responsible for nearly 25 percent of all deaths in 19th century Europe.
But she sees no difference between the animal researcher trying to make a better shampoo and the one who is trying to cure cancer.
"They're not intending to cure cancer," Marino told me, incredulous that I'd even ask her to make a distinction. "Cancer research is a front for getting more money for their sadistic experiments. They're driven by getting tax payer money. Because you can't extrapolate results from one species to another."
It's this conspiracy theory that, in the mind of the animal rights extremist, allows for a Manichean perspective that places the animal researcher squarely in the category of heartless villain.
Perhaps just as troubling is that such rhetoric drowns out the more moderate voices advocating for technological advances that might some day make animal research obsolete. In the last decade, there have been major advancements in computer modeling of biological processes and the ability to grow cell and tissue cultures outside of living organisms, which have already spared an untold number of lab animals. Even a mainstream institution like Johns Hopkins boasts a Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing.
The charge that ultimately earned Marino her sentence—the unlawful posting of a message with aggravated circumstances—stemmed from the aforementioned NIO article about torturing O'Leary. Under Michigan law, an "unlawful post" is a message sent through an electronic medium without the victim's consent, which is intended to make the victim feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.
But Marino didn't stop there. The following day, she emailed O'Leary again with a link to another article on her website. It again included O'Leary's picture and home address, along with a video of the animal rights activist and University of Texas-El Paso philosophy professor, Steven Best, calling on others to break the law in service of the animal liberation movement. "Every motherfucker who hurts animals is gonna feel the fear," Best says in the video.
O'Leary got a restraining order against Marino—as Jentsch had before him—and when she persisted in referring to him on her website and showed up on Wayne State University's campus with a placard bearing O'Leary's picture and home address, Marino was arrested.
While it is easy to dismiss Marino as a harmless kook, Jentsch and others in the research community warn that her actions will eventually incite others to violence.
"It's how the anti-abortion community works," said Jentsch. "They are committed through their own statements to increasing the probability that an unstable person will do something like what happened to George Tiller.... They're doing everything within legal bounds to encourage this type of behavior."
In addition to celebrating violence against researchers on her website, Marino has forged a working relationship with Walter Bond, who's listed on NIO as the group's "Director of Militant Direct Action." Bond, who has the word "vegan" tattooed across his neck, is currently serving 87 months in a federal prison on arson charges for burning to the ground a leather factory and a restaurant that served foie gras in Utah. Last year, Bond published a post on NIO saying that the world would be a better place for animals if "non-Vegans were disposed of" because it's "difficult to harm an Animal if you're dead."
But despite her associations and regular threats of harm against researchers, Marino refuses to see herself as complicit in any violence that may be committed by her readers.
It's not how the U.S. District Court in Oregon ruled more than 13 years ago, when the anti-abortion extremists behind The Nuremberg Files were found guilty of unlawful intimidation, and ordered to pay $109 million to Planned Parenthood and a group of abortion doctors who feared for their lives because of their inclusion on the website. At the time of the verdict, three doctors on the Nuremberg list had already been slain, with each of their names appearing on the website with a line drawn through.
But only two years later, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict. As Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the decision, if the defendants "merely encouraged unrelated terrorists, then their words are protected by the First Amendment." In order for the verdict to hold, the judge said, the defendants themselves have to had "threatened to commit violent acts." (The jury award was ultimately reinstated by the full appeals court, which held that the "Wanted" posters were "not political hyperbole.... They were a true threat.")
It's the same defense that Marino has used to avoid more serious charges, but nevertheless, the federal government continues to move against animal rights extremism.
In 2006, George W. Bush signed into law The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which gives the federal government broad powers in prosecuting those who seek to harm animal-related businesses or institutions. While on the surface, AETA is meant to facilitate prosecutions against the likes of the Animal Liberation Brigade and the Animal Liberation Front—violent groups the FBI has labeled domestic terrorist threats—opponents of the law say it can unfairly punish anyone found to have caused an animal-related business to lose money, and as such is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.
"This statute is preventing animal rights activists from carrying out their peaceful activities," Matthew Segal, the legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, told me. "If you're a non-violent animal rights activist, and you trespass or protest on private property, under AETA you're treated as a violent terrorist."
The Center for Constitutional Rights currently has a complaint before the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts challenging the constitutionality of the law. In Blum v. Holder, the plaintiffs say AETA criminalizes such activities protected by the First Amendment as protests, boycotts, picketing and whistle-blowing. (One of the plaintiffs in that action, Lauren Gazzola, served more than three years in federal prison after being convicted of violating the AETA for her role in operating a web site that is strikingly similar to NIO.)
Even the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—who while no doubt bombasitc have never been known to be violent—have recently come under increased government scrutiny: Last fall, WikiLeaks made public Stratfor emails hacked by Anonymous, which revealed that the FBI had launched a criminal investigation into PETA as recently as 2009.
The FBI wouldn't comment on any specific cases involving animal rights extremism, but in an email to me, FBI spokeswoman Kathleen Wright said there's been an uptick in violent threats by animal rights extremist groups since 2005, and confirmed that the Bureau continues to view "animal rights extremism as a significant threat."
While Marino has yet to be prosecuted by the feds and calls her sentence in Michigan a "slap on the wrist," Jentsch is confident that the authorities are not taking these groups lightly. And he sees the fact that Marino took a plea deal—which forbids her from any future contact with, or writings about, O'Leary or Wayne State—as a sign that her convictions may not run so deep.
"If she truly believes her own lies about the animal abuse happening at Wayne State," he asked, "why did she decide to walk away, placing her own freedom above the lives of the animals in the labs there?"
But in a statement posted to NIO after striking her plea deal with the Wayne County prosecutor, Marino remained defiant. "I think it's time that we all stop using words and let our actions speak far more eloquently for who we are and what we represent," she said.
As for her website, Marino continues to post to it (via letters to collaborators on the outside) from the Dickerson Detention Facility in Michigan and, as recently as January 1, showed no signs of giving up her cause.
"I am looking forward to the evolving threat that we represent taking shape in the New Year," she wrote.
Jordan Heller is a journalist based in New York City. Most recently, he served as a news editor at The Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Image by Jim Cooke]