Sweet Relief

After some youthful but tragically misguided decisions cost her almost four years in prison, a Crested Butte woman tries to rebuild her life—one scoop at a time.

August 2013

Kendall Tankersley fiddles with the knob on her propane torch. It’s a mild day in May, and she’s in her commercial kitchen in Crested Butte preparing for Third Bowl Homemade Ice Cream’s summer opening in two days. The torch is an odd tool for making ice cream; she needs it to blacken the habaneros for her pineapple-habanero concoction, a favorite among customers of her year-old shop, but the darn thing won’t light. As she leans forward, she says with a sideways glance, “For an arsonist, I’m bad with a torch, huh?”

It’s an offhand, but revealing, comment. In the past decade, this self-proclaimed worrier—with her wide blue-green eyes and freckled face, a dandelion tattoo peeking out from under her purple T-shirt—has learned a few things about handling stress. Tankersley, when she went by her birth name, Sarah Kendall Harvey, was a lookout, a conspirator, an aider and abettor—and according to the United States government, an ecoterrorist. Her adopted organization, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), wreaked most of its havoc from 1996 to 2001. For the record, Tankersley says today she never actually lit any of the group’s protest blazes—including the 1998 Two Elk Fire in Vail—which resulted in a total of more than $40 million of damage. 

In fact, she spent only six months with the Eugene, Oregon, group, thanks more to her romance with its ringleader, Jacob Ferguson, than to any violent revolutionary ambitions. In December 1998, after she heard the U.S. Forest Industries headquarters in Medford had been torched, she realized the organization was too extreme. She cut ties with Ferguson and ELF, changed her name, and eventually ended up in Tucson while ELF’s campaign continued without her.

Tankersley went on to earn a degree in molecular biology, and she worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic. It took seven years for her past to reappear. She’d been waiting to hear back about her medical school applications on that morning in December 2005 when she was awakened by a knock on her front door. The 28-year-old opened it to find five federal agents on her step. Tankersley had so successfully buried that part of her life—she became adept at pushing aside the queasy memories “like you would remembering an unpaid bill in the middle of the night”—that she says she honestly believed it when she told them, “You’ve got the wrong person.”

A mix of eggs, milk, cream, sugar, and a dash of xanthan gum sloshes inside a five-gallon steel pot as Tankersley hoists it onto her store’s kitchen stove. Other batches are pasteurizing, or chilling, or churning out frozen from a machine sitting in the corner. She tries to make 10 batches a day, six days a week, all summer long. The nasal-clearing chemical bouquet of capsaicin emanates from the freshly blackened habaneros and fills the small prep room. It registers first in Tankersley’s chest. “I think I’m more sensitive to peppers after all those protests,” she says between coughs. 
Eugene’s 1990s environmental movement stirred a passion in Tankersley that she couldn’t find at the University of Oregon, and she dropped out after one semester. The activists were initially nonviolent: She performed tasks such as helping file injunctions against timber sales and joining road blockades to delay loggers while the courts weighed the motions. Unlike some of her peers, Tankersley, a Cleveland native, had a keen sense of what a life bereft of nature could look like, and she quickly became protective of all unspoiled environments.