Until this week, the federal government officially considered Eric Taylor McDavid a threat to the nation, a radical eco-terrorist who plotted to bomb or torch the Nimbus Dam, a U.S. Forest Service lab and cellphone towers in the Sacramento region.
The former college student and house-framer from Foresthill was so dangerous that, after a 10-day trial in Sacramento in 2007, he was sentenced to nearly 20 years in federal prison in a case touted by the FBI as a shining example of its success in fighting domestic terrorism.
Then, the government changed its mind, conceding that thousands of pages of evidence that should have been given to McDavid’s defense attorney years ago – including love notes to a young woman who turned out to be an FBI plant – had instead been secretly held in an FBI file in Sacramento until recently. The best course of action, the government ultimately decided, was to set McDavid free.
The result was an extraordinary hearing in federal court Thursday morning in Sacramento, during which a judge ordered McDavid released from custody after demanding answers from prosecutors about how such a lapse could have occurred.
Never miss a local story.
“I’ve never heard or seen of anything like this,” said U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr., who originally sentenced McDavid. The judge ordered him released in accord with an unusual agreement between prosecutors and his appellate attorneys.
McDavid, now 37, spent three days shy of nine years in custody and agreed Thursday to plead guilty to a lone conspiracy count that would have earned him, at most, a five-year prison sentence.
In essence, the deal was crafted between the two sides to make the whole mess go away, and England reluctantly signed off on it.
McDavid had been housed at the Sacramento County Main Jail since Tuesday night, after being brought from his prison cell at the Terminal Island federal prison near Los Angeles in anticipation of England approving the settlement. His first taste of freedom came about 4 p.m. as he emerged from the federal building downtown and fell into the waiting arms of his parents, George and Eileen McDavid; his sister Sarah; and his girlfriend, Jenny Esquivel.
McDavid left custody looking far different than the young man who stood trial while his two alleged accomplices took plea deals and testified for the government at his trial. He is gaunt, most of his hair is gone, and he has grown a bushy orange beard.
He left without speaking to reporters.
His mother said she had asked him earlier if he wanted to sleep in his own room at home.
“He goes, ‘Mom, I don’t care, I will just sleep on the front lawn or something,’ ” Eileen McDavid said.
Despite Thursday’s guilty plea, his supporters say McDavid was never guilty of anything more serious than falling for a comely 18-year-old woman he met at an Iowa meeting in 2004, a woman who later prodded him to take violent action against government targets with promises that they would later consummate a romantic relationship.
The woman, named in court documents and at the trial only as “Anna,” turned out to be an FBI informant and played a critical role in McDavid’s arrest, as well as his release Thursday.
Although her identity was never formally confirmed, some activist websites have posted her name and she once posed for photos for an Elle magazine piece on the case. Court documents spell out in detail how “Anna” provided money, transportation, housing and food to McDavid and his two co-defendants over an 18-month period, evidence his lawyers say shows the entire case was about entrapment rather than stopping terrorist attacks.
Sacramento attorney Mark Reichel, who represented McDavid at his trial and was given the informant’s true name during the case, sputtered outside court Thursday when asked about her.
“I hope she’s not ruining someone else’s innocent life,” said Reichel, who joined with McDavid’s family to wait for his release.
For years, federal prosecutors have rejected claims that McDavid was wrongly convicted or that critical evidence was withheld.
But in recent months, as McDavid and his appellate attorneys, Mark Vermeulen and Ben Rosenfeld, continued fighting for documents they say should have been turned over long ago, the government began producing some of that evidence, and talks began about how to deal with the explosive disclosure.
Despite the deal worked out, England insisted he be given details of how the materials could have been kept from defense lawyers in the first place.
“I sat through the 10-day trial of Mr. McDavid,” a clearly exasperated England said, sometimes stopping to hold his head in his left hand.
“I know he’s not necessarily a choirboy, but he doesn’t deserve to go through this, either. It’s not fair.”
McDavid, who stood between his two attorneys in an orange jail jumpsuit with his hands shackled to his waist, listened quietly as the judge persisted.
“This is huge,” England said. “This is something that needs to be dealt with, and I want to know what happened.”
The hearing drew top brass from the U.S. attorney’s office to the courtroom to advise Assistant U.S. Attorney André Espinosa as he tried to satisfy an unrelenting England.
Espinosa, who joined the office in August and had nothing to do with the case until it was dumped on him in September, said the documents were not included in the case file or the discovery material handed over to the defense, and added that he had questioned the two trial prosecutors, who both said they had never seen the documents.
Espinosa and John Vincent, chief of the U.S. attorney’s criminal division, said the documents had remained in the FBI’s possession in a file in Sacramento.
“We don’t know exactly why they weren’t turned over,” Vincent told the judge.
The government contends that, even if the documents had been handed over, McDavid might still have been convicted.
But prosecutors and McDavid’s attorneys fashioned an agreement that allowed McDavid to walk free after pleading guilty to the conspiracy count.
Reichel insisted, as he has for years, that his client was not guilty of anything. The attorney said McDavid entered the guilty plea Thursday to get out of prison.
Reichel added that he fought for the materials that were withheld, but was rebuffed. “I asked for this stuff,” he said. “They said, ‘Mark Reichel’s crazy, it doesn’t exist.’
“I knew they had to have more on the informant, but they just denied it and there was nothing I could do. It’s a great day to be alive.”
Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.