My latest article for VICE:
An animal rights activist with a long history of activism—and an equally long rap sheet—was sentenced to 30 months in jail for having bolt cutters in the back of his Prius.
Kevin Olliff and Tyler Lang were driving through rural Illinois on August 15, 2013, at about 1 AM when they were pulled over by police. The cops say they stopped them because the brand-new green Prius had only temporary dealer plates. But rather than let them off with a warning, police asked to search the car.
Olliff and Lang refused to consent to the search and quickly realized that this wouldn’t be a normal traffic stop. After police separated them into two squad cars, Lang heard one officer on the police radio say of Olliff, “He’s on the terrorist watch list.”
Police brought out drug-sniffing dogs, and not surprisingly, they say the dogs smelled something (Lang says “the hardest drug in the car was caffeine”). When police searched the car, they found, among other items, bolt cutters and wire cutters. The two were charged with “possession of burglary tools,” a felony.
The items in Olliff’s car certainly sound sketchy when police list them out: bolt cutters and wire cutters; duffel bags full of sweatpants, sweatshirts, gloves, and ski masks; spray paint; concrete stain; laptop computers; bear spray; head lamps; latex gloves; walkie-talkies; rags; bleach. Most of us can have those things in our cars and not worry about being charged with a felony. According to the FBI, Olliff and Lang are not most people, though: They’re animal rights activists.
FBI agents made their presence known at the bail hearing, telling prosecutors that there have been unsolved fur-farm raids in the region and other farms may be targeted. They specifically mentioned the Aeschleman fox farm in Roanoke, one of the largest in the country and the site of the historic PETA investigation in the 1990s, which revealed sick and neglected animals pacing in their cages and being anally electrocuted.
Bail was set at $100,000 for Lang and $200,000 for Olliff, or more than ten times the typical amount.
They were not charged with any fur-farm raid, or any other illegal activity. But the FBI and prosecutors hung the threat of additional charges over their heads, and they eventually accepted plea agreements. Lang, who accepted a plea deal for time served and was released in November, will only say that the items in the car were an “inconvenient circumstance,” and that they had no choice but to take a deal. Olliff was sentenced to 30 months in jail and is currently imprisoned in Vandalia, Illinois.
Lang says that although he received a much lighter sentence than Olliff, the FBI is clearly trying to send him a message. When he flew home from jail, he saw that he had four S’s on his boarding pass; he was singled out for additional security checks. Now, every time he travels he is searched by TSA and Homeland Security. Meanwhile, both his mother and step-mother have been visited by the FBI. Both refused to talk to the agents and have been supportive throughout the ordeal.
“The day after I got home [from jail], I went to a protest,” Lang says. “It was liberating for me, because I really did not want to let this make me afraid.”
Olliff continues to deny his involvement in the Animal Liberation Front, but is outspoken in his support for illegal direct action. In a statement from prison, he told supporters: “Get out into the streets. Better yet, get out into the countryside. Do what you know in your heart is right. You won’t regret it.”
His book list is like a giant middle finger to police, with Wireless Reconnaissance in Penetration Testing alongside Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion. He also asked for a subscription to VICE.
His father, Stacey Olliff, says he’s frustrated with his son’s vocal support of direct action, and the fact that he has been in and out of jail for protesting and shoplifting throughout his 20s. But police are “taking things that otherwise wouldn’t be illegal and criminalizing them,” he says, “in order to turn the screws and send a message.”
“It’s frustrating to see this kind of repressive response from authorities,” he says. “But their goal is shutting down this activity, and when they happen to catch somebody they know, they want to make an example of them.”