Feds acknowledge Mich. arsonist was FBI informant

Associated Press
October 12, 2008

DETROIT - Federal prosecutors are seeking a major sentencing break for an activist who committed arson at Michigan State University, publicly acknowledging for the first time his wide-ranging undercover role in investigations of eco-terrorism.

Frank Ambrose of Detroit recorded 178 conversations with other targets, putting himself at risk as he traveled out of state to help the FBI, the government said.

His cooperation "has been nothing short of remarkable, both in terms of the time and effort he put into it and in terms of its value to federal law enforcement," Assistant U.S. Attorney Hagen Frank said in a court filing Friday.

Frank is asking a federal judge in western Michigan to cut Ambrose's sentencing range to roughly eight to 10 years in prison, well below the 20-year maximum. A hearing is set for Oct. 20.

An explosion and fire caused more than $1 million in damage at MSU's Agriculture Hall on New Year's Eve 1999. It was a protest against genetically modified crops in the name of a radical group, the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF.

In March, more than eight years later, Ambrose pleaded guilty to conspiring to set that arson, as well as another fire that damaged logging equipment in northern Michigan.

He also took responsibility for many other acts committed from 1999 to 2003, including six arsons of boats and new home sites in Michigan and Indiana. The property he destroyed was valued at more than $2.5 million.

Ambrose, 33, became an informant in 2007, a few months after making a critical mistake: He dumped personal records, writings, a gas mask, an M-80 explosive and other possessions in a Detroit-area trash bin. A man foraging for scrap cardboard called police, and the FBI subsequently raided Ambrose's home.

He turned on a co-defendant, ex-wife Marie Mason, who has pleaded guilty to the MSU arson, but his cooperation with the government goes beyond Michigan.

Ambrose traveled outside the state seven times "for the purpose of gathering intelligence and recording conversations," Frank wrote.

"At times, defendant was with groups of other extremists in isolated locations while wearing FBI recording devices, and he was therefore at risk of physical harm if discovered," the prosecutor said.

Ambrose's assistance "enabled the FBI to significantly enhance its intelligence base concerning not only extremist activity in the upper Midwest but also concerning the methodology, the security culture and the psychology of ELF and related movements," Frank said.

There is no indication in the document whether Ambrose's undercover work has led to convictions outside Michigan, but he is credited with bringing "long-stymied eco-terror investigations back to life."

Defense lawyer Michael Brady said the government's description of Ambrose's cooperation was accurate. He declined to comment further.


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