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NAME:
Sheila O’Donnell
NICKNAME:
“Dickless Tracy”
BIGGEST TURNAROUND:
From private girls school to private eye
CLAIM TO FAME:
Investigates attacks on environmentalists
IN HER LINE OF FIRE:
The anti-enviro “Wise Use” movement

Greenpeace U.S.A.’s Pat Costner was about to release a critical report on toxic incinerators four years ago when her Arkansas home was burned to the ground. After local authorities found nothing suspicious, Costner hired private eye Sheila O’Donnell. Her subsequent investigation revealed a fuel can and the trail of an accelerant. The arsonists have yet to be caught, but O’Donnell “saved my sanity,” says Costner.

O’Donnell began specializing in ecoterrorist attacks–ranging from the attempted assassinations of environmentalists to the poisoning and decapitation of their pets–five years ago. “When I saw how outrageously people were being treated, it didn’t make me retreat at all,” says the Bay Area detective. “It made me want to stand with them.”

O’Donnell, 50, is an unlikely candidate for private dick. She survived a Catholic girls high school near Boston before dropping out of several colleges–“It was the ’60s,” she explains. Her progressivism was shaped by a strong identification with Irish oppression, coupled with what she saw as the “blatant” class and gender inequity of the draft process. At 23 she moved to Washington, D.C., to work with an anti-war group.

The experience left O’Donnell deeply suspicious of the FBI and prompted her turn toward independent investigation. Her findings in a 1990 car bombing that injured two members of Earth First!, a popular FBI target because of its radical–some would say terrorist–tactics, contradicted the FBI and helped exonerate the pair. “Earth Firsters have gotten a bad rap,” she says, noting that many of its members have spoken out against tree-spiking, its most controversial operation. “They’re much more into theater. They do things to be in people’s faces.”

O’Donnell, featured in David Helvarg’s “The War Against the Greens,” worked at two detective agencies before joining Ace Investigations eight years ago. “Women are well-adapted to be investigators. We have to keep our wits about us when we walk down the street, because we know full well that some jerk can jump out from behind a bush, or a tree, or a car.”

It’s a fear shared by environmentalists like Costner. As attacks against them continue to rise, O’Donnell is busier than ever. “Most activists are infuriated by the fact that thugs are doing this,” she says, “and they don’t back down.” Lucky for her clients, neither does she.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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