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REDFORD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- A business owner checking a trash container for scrap cardboard was alarmed by something else: gas masks, maps, an M-80 explosive, arson photos and anti-government writings.
"It was kinda scary," Andy Wishaw recalled. "Some of my employees said it's nothing. I thought, 'What's it going to hurt to call the police?'"
The discovery turned out to be a big break for the FBI.
Agents on the trail of eco-terrorism used the contents to help solve more than a dozen acts of arson and tree spikings in Michigan and Indiana committed in the name of a radical group, the Earth Liberation Front, known as ELF, from 1999 through 2003.
Details on the trash and other evidence against two key figures are in search warrants in federal court in western Michigan. The warrants and affidavits are sealed, but they've landed on the Internet, offering a look at how the FBI closed in on Frank Ambrose and Marie Mason.
"There's no question that the discovery in the Dumpster was the catalyst that caused this thing to move forward," said Greg Stejskal, a retired FBI agent who was involved in earlier phases of the probe.
Ambrose, whose financial records and e-mail were in the trash, has admitted to 13 acts, including a New Year's Eve 1999 explosion and fire that caused more than $1 million in damage at Michigan State University. He faces up to 20 years in prison when sentenced next month.
The Detroit man also fingered Mason, his ex-wife. He recorded their phone conversations after agreeing to cooperate with the FBI, her attorney says. She pleaded guilty Sept. 11 to the Michigan State arson and admitted working with Ambrose in other incidents.
Ambrose's cooperation is causing a buzz among activists and on the Internet, where the home page of ecoprisoners.org declares "Frank Ambrose: Informant." There's a sympathetic Web site for Mason called freemarie.org.
"There is a lot of anger and resentment," said Craig Rosebraugh, a law student in Arizona and former spokesman for ELF. "Frank was an above-ground activist involved in the national environmental community for a number of years."
Lauren Regan, lawyer and director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Ore., said there's a fear that Ambrose may have been wearing a wire at activist gatherings.
"Once a snitch, always a snitch," she said.
Defense lawyer Michael Brady declined to comment on Ambrose's work for the government. But in a recent court filing, he said his client's "substantial and rather extraordinary cooperation" with investigators will emerge at sentencing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hagen Frank declined to discuss Ambrose's role. He does not contest the authenticity of the search warrants posted on ecoprisoners.org but declined to comment on the contents.
Ambrose's "cooperation to the government will be addressed at sentencing. The judge will decide how much weight to give it," Frank said.
Ambrose, 33, a former Big Ten swimmer at Purdue University, is no stranger to police. In Indiana, he was accused of spiking trees in 2000 to damage logging blades, but the charge was dropped.
In 2003, after he moved to Detroit, four homes under construction in Washtenaw and Macomb counties were destroyed by fire to protest urban sprawl. The FBI had Ambrose under surveillance, Stejskal said, but no charges were filed.
That same year, someone tried to set a fire at a pump station owned by Ice Mountain, a water bottler, in Michigan's Mecosta County. A grand jury demanded fingerprints and DNA from Mason and Ambrose, but again no charges followed.
The trail seemed to turn cold until March 2007 when Wishaw went hunting for scraps in a commercial trash container here in suburban Detroit and found stuff that seemed straight out of an international plot.
"With an airport map and the gas mask with 'No U.S.' written on it -- it seemed like something," Wishaw told The Associated Press. "It was not so much the things; it was the writings. ... It didn't look right."
There was an M-80 explosive, a large block of candle wax and a 10-foot-long canvas strap _ all "common components of incendiary devices," FBI agent James Shearer wrote in a sealed court affidavit.
Ambrose had a job in the area and tossed his possessions in the garbage, even a rock collection.
"He had been completely inactive for a long time," Brady said of Ambrose's acts for ELF. "Every once in a while you clean out your garage, I guess."
The cache was used to justify a raid of their Detroit home, eight miles away.
In March, federal prosecutors charged Ambrose and Mason in the New Year's Eve 1999 arson at Michigan State's Agriculture Hall, a fire committed in the name of ELF to protest genetically modified crops. The fire was so intense that it burned Mason's hair.
"Domestic terrorism, plain and simple," declared U.S. Attorney Charles Gross.
Ambrose pleaded guilty to conspiracy and also admitted 12 other acts, including six arsons of boats and new home sites in Michigan and Indiana. Value of property destroyed: more than $2.5 million.
Mason, 46, recently pleaded guilty to the campus arson and also admitted to the same list of acts with one addition, the attempted arson at Ice Mountain, something she had long publicly denied.
When Ambrose pleaded guilty in March, U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh Brenneman Jr. asked about decisions made by ELF activists as to "what's good and what's bad and what's beneficial and what's not beneficial."
"Essentially judge and jury," Ambrose replied, "yes."