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SBV firm on `sabotage’ claim


Its lawyers also defend allegations of the plaintiffs’ involvement in a cult.

In closing statements yesterday, Biosphere 2 lawyer Glen Johnson told jurors that sabotage was the only appropriate word for the plaintiff’s actions, so their defamation claim was moot because the statement was not false.

“If the sabot fits, you must wear it,’ Johnson said, alluding to an O.J. Simpson trial quote.

Sabotage comes from the French for factory workers who threw their sabots, or wooden shoes, into machinery as a protest, the dictionary says.

Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo were fired by Space Biospheres Ventures in April 1994 after they broke into the 3 1/2-acre terrarium – days after a major management takeover. The two sued SBV for back wages and severance pay, and defamation after SBV issued a press release calling the break-in “sabotage.’

SBV lawyers also defended their use of newspaper articles that revealed the unconventional lifestyles of Biosphere 2 founders and the original management team.

Alling’s lawyer, William Walker, said in his closing statement that SBV “snarled’ and “sneered’ at the group’s communal living and theater practices to prejudice the jury.

The group had been living together for 30 years under the psychological control of John Allen, said SBV lawyer Mick Rusing.

Rusing called Allen a “violent, deranged, perverted cult leader . . . the Jim Jones of the environmental movement.’

Alling’s and Van Thillo’s association with the “cult’ reflects poorly on them, SBV lawyer Johnson said.

“If we have not destroyed the credibility of these two folks, then I don’t know what you’d have to do to do it,’ Johnson said.

The defense also came under attack for providing no concrete evidence that Alling and Van Thillo belonged to a cult.

In response, SBV lawyer John McDonald said their circumstantial evidence of newspaper articles is enough proof.

“If it’s got webbed feet, feathers, and a bill, there’s a good chance it might be a duck,’ McDonald said.

But that failed to sway the jury, which ordered SBV to pay more than $600,000 to Alling and Van Thillo.


September 1991 to September 1993: Eight people live inside Biosphere 2, a $200 million, 3 1/2-acre, self-contained ecosystem. Among the crew members are Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo.

August to December 1993: With the project running a possible $20 million deficit for 1994, Texas billionaire Ed Bass, who bankrolled the Biosphere, hires auditors to assess Space Biospheres Ventures’ finances.

Oct. 15, 1993: Alling and Van Thillo allegedly sign five-year contracts.

Oct. 28, 1993: Investment banker Steve Bannon, hired by Bass to stop the runaway costs, proposes a reorganization plan to remove top Biosphere managers who were inept in dealing with financial matters. The proposal fails.

February 1994: Alling’s and Van Thillo’s contracts signed in October 1993 – along with contracts of eight others to be replaced under Bannon’s proposal – show up on an SBV lawyer’s desk – months after the auditors requested all contracts.

March 6, 1994: The second Biosphere experiment begins, with Alling and Van Thillo serving as outside safety and technical consultants.

April 1, 1994: Alling and Van Thillo arrive in Japan for a business trip.

Bass accepts Bannon’s proposal, firing top managers and his longtime friends. Bass also serves a temporary restraining order against the ousted Biospherians. Bass hires off-duty Department of Public Safety officers as additional security.

April 2, 1994: Alling and Van Thillo learn of the takeover and decide to fly back to Tucson.

April 4, 1994: 4 a.m.: Worried about the safety of the project under new management, Alling and Van Thillo break into the system to warn the crew, their lawyer says.

SBV issues a press release calling the incident “sabotage.’

April 6, 1996: Off-duty DPS officers arrest Alling and Van Thillo.

April 7, 1994: SBV fires Alling and Van Thillo.

March 22, 1995: Alling and Van Thillo file suit against SBV for breach of contract and seven other claims.

January 1996: Columbia University takes over management of the Biosphere.

May 8: Civil trial begins at Pinal County Superior Court in Florence. The criminal trial is scheduled for July.

May 31: The jury deliberates on four of the claims: breach of contract, defamation, abuse of process and invasion of privacy. They also deliberate on counterclaims of trespassing and breach of fiduciary duties. The jury finds for Alling and Van Thillo, awarding them more than $600,000. The jury also rules that the two former crew members pay SBV $40,089 for damages and lost revenue the Biosphere incurred after the break-in.

- Eric Stern

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