Undercover mother: Who was Karen Sullivan?

Government agent was not really a peace activist

Prosecutors investigating more than a dozen Minnesota anti-war activists recently confirmed that the investigation relies on an undercover agent who spent two and a half years infiltrating their organization. Based on the subpoenas they have received, the activists believe the grand jury may eventually bring charges of providing material support for terrorism.

This is how the woman who called herself Karen Sullivan insinuated herself into the lives of local protesters, and how she mysteriously vanished just before FBI agents raided their homes.

In early 2008, the members of Minneapolis's Anti-War Committee were starting to plan their licensed protests against the upcoming Republican National Convention.

The undercover agents known to Minneapolis peace activists as Daniela Cardenas and Karen Sullivan
courtesy of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression
The undercover agents known to Minneapolis peace activists as Daniela Cardenas and Karen Sullivan
The agent at a dinner with other members of the Anti-War Committee
The agent at a dinner with other members of the Anti-War Committee

There were a lot of new faces getting involved at the time, and the Committee was holding meetings for new members.

Sometime in winter or early spring, Karen Sullivan came to her first meeting.

"She came with her girlfriend, whose name was Joy," recalls Meredith Aby, one of the founders of the Anti-War Committee. "We never saw Joy again. I don't know what happened to her."

But Sullivan came back, to meeting after meeting. A woman in her early 40s with short, sandy hair and a Boston accent, Sullivan was quiet and kept to herself for the most part. But she volunteered when tasks were handed out at the meetings, and always followed through.

"We were pretty excited that here was this person who seemed pretty reliable," Aby says.

It took a few months after Sullivan first started showing up before Aby really got to know her at all. The two went on a flyering run together, driving around to coffee shops to put the group's literature up on bulletin boards. They got into a conversation, asking about each others' lives.

"That was the first time we heard this story about her horribly tragic youth," Aby says.

The story Sullivan told Aby was the same she would eventually tell, with varying degrees of detail, to several members of the group with whom she became closest. In each case, it wasn't some polished biography. It came in dribs and drabs, a vague and tantalizing patchwork.

"The way she told it, she seemed like a real person with an actual backstory," Aby says.

Sullivan said she had grown up in Boston, but left home at an early age because her family couldn't deal with her being gay. She was homeless for a while, drifting over to the Twin Cities. She gave the impression that she might have been the victim of violence or abuse during this time.

Eventually, Sullivan said, she joined the armed forces to put a roof over her head and get her life in order. But she said she was kicked out for violating the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" provision.

After that, Sullivan became more politically aware, spending time in Northern Ireland working for the Irish Republican cause, she claimed.

Somewhere along the way, she and a woman named Lee, who lived in Minnetonka and had an art-framing store, conceived a daughter through in-vitro fertilization. But Lee was jealous, and didn't like Sullivan's politics. The relationship soured.

After more restless moving around, Sullivan had finally returned to Minnesota to be close to her daughter, Taylor, who was enrolled in seventh grade at Hopkins Jr. High.

Sullivan was working for a friend as a property inspector, and though her existence seemed tenuous, she drove an expensive black SUV that she said her boss let her use.

"I thought, 'Wow, your boss is cool,'" Katrina Plotz, another activist, remembered. "I hadn't thought that would be part of a gig like what she was doing."


AFTER THE REPUBLICAN National Convention, many of the short-term enthusiasts in the movement faded away, but Karen stayed on, becoming one of the most regular attendees of the group's meetings. Sullivan was becoming indispensable, and at the same time, she was expanding her connections beyond the Anti-War Committee. She volunteered to represent the group at various other coalitions, and attended the meetings of other activist groups.

Mick Kelly, whose home would later be one of those raided by the FBI, met Sullivan through his work on the Minnesota Coalition for the People's Bailout, fighting for a moratorium on home foreclosures. Then he started seeing her everywhere.

"She was definitely around," Kelly says. "She was always talking with a lot of people."

Dan Dimaggio met her when she started attending meetings of the Iraq Peace Action Committee.

"She was at every frickin' demonstration, she went all in," Dimaggio says. "It can be really exciting to find somebody like that, somebody who's a bit older, who seems like a working-class person. A lot of times the meetings are dominated by the same old faces."

In November 2008, Sullivan and other members of the group piled into a van for a road trip down to Columbus, Georgia, for the annual protest against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning. Aby, who has traveled several times to Colombia in support of trade unionists there, was giving a talk.

After the talk, she was approached by a Colombian woman who introduced herself as Daniela Cardenas, who thanked her for speaking. A few minutes later, Cardenas was back again, this time with Sullivan. They said they had struck up a conversation in the bathroom.

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