Urban cavers fight over turf and free speech

How an exploration dispute between academic Greg Brick and Action Squad's Gabe Carlson became a vicious legal battle

In the piece, Brick makes a jabbing reference toward "point-and-click kids" that Carlson took as a personal insult to his group. He also confirmed that he was the one who locked the Heinrich Brewery.

"I thought that was kind of — pardon my French — but kind of a dick move," says Jeremy Krans, another Action Squad member. "It's not his place. None of us go locking things up trying to keep other people out."

Brick says his intentions were misinterpreted. The gated entrance leads to part of the cave where bats hibernate during the winter, and he was afraid that if too many people had access, the animals would be disturbed or killed.

The Action Squad atop Abbot Surgical Hospital, overlooking the city.
courtesy of Gabe Carlson/Action Squad
The Action Squad atop Abbot Surgical Hospital, overlooking the city.
Carlson, a.k.a. Max Action, on a trip the Ford mines.
courtesy of Gabe Carlson/Action Squad
Carlson, a.k.a. Max Action, on a trip the Ford mines.

No matter the reason, the damage was done, recalls Dockery. "That was the beginning of the end."

Eight years after the article came out, an urban explorer named Nick Johannes unknowingly walked into a signing for Brick's book, Subterranean Twin Cities, at Common Good Books in St. Paul.

Johannes was a regular on the Action Squad website during his more active exploration days, so he was well aware of the rivalry. But he didn't have any personal qualms with Brick, and he decided to introduce himself.

After they exchanged pleasantries, Brick gave him a book to pass on to Carlson. "To Max Action," Brick wrote on the title page. "With Best Regards, Greg Brick."

He hadn't seen Carlson in months, but Johannes decided to head straight over to his house to give him the book. "Wait until Gabe gets a whiff of this," he remembers thinking.

When he arrived, Carlson was sitting in his living room with a few friends, all explorers, already talking about Brick. Another friend had called to tell them about the signing, and that Brick wanted Carlson to "come pay your respects."

As they collectively flipped through the book, they immediately discovered critical passages that appeared to refer to the Action Squad, and took turns reading them aloud. In the book's introduction, Brick laments how "would-be explorers" began revealing the locations of caves, leading tourists and vandals to the once-secret locations.

"I believe that many urban exploration websites are ultimately self-defeating, unwittingly destroying access for fellow explorers," he writes.

Later in the book, he chastises "careless urban explorers" for exposing the entrance to the Ford mines online, "thus wrecking it for everyone including themselves."

When Johannes came upon the passage about the security guard, he silenced the group to read it.

"On one occasion we did have a close call," writes Brick. "After spending hours exploring the mines, we exited to find a Ford security vehicle parked smack across from us. But the driver was asleep, so we were able to make good our escape."

Carlson was speechless, he says. "I thought he was just messing with me, and said that to get a rise out of me. I made him actually hand me the book so I could see it myself and read it. I was in disbelief."

Everyone in the room agreed it was too similar to be a coincidence. Over the next few days, Carlson spoke with others in the community who also shared his opinion, and he drafted an open letter on the Action Squad website accusing Brick of stealing the story. In a post titled "Pedantry and Plagiarism," Carlson rehashed the sordid past between Brick and the Action Squad, and the story about Brick locking the cave.

"UN. FUCKING. REAL," the post ends. "Sometimes you just have to laugh. I have no idea what the hell he could have been thinking, or why he did it — but I'm glad he did, and showed his true colors. Hey Greg Brick — I think you owe Action Squad an apology."

On a recent afternoon, Brick doesn't want to meet in public. He's afraid talking about the case could draw stares, and if the wrong person overheard, it could be used against him. So he arranges to be interviewed in an empty classroom in the geology department at the U of M.

Brick doesn't deny the legitimacy of Carlson's story about going to the Ford mines. He believes they both shared a similar experience, and Carlson's accusations are merely an attempt to ruin his reputation.

"It's such an absolutely trivial event," Brick says. "It's a red herring, and what he's trying to do is just distract attention away from other things. If he can discredit me as an author, then he doesn't have to answer other arguments I make in the book."

Since the book came out, Brick has experienced what he describes as constant harassment. Someone started a Facebook page under the name "Craig Blick," designed to mock him, as well as a bogus LinkedIn account for "Osama Bin Laden," listing under the employment section, "Pig Farmer at Greg Brick Homo farms." Dozens of negative reviews were posted to his book's page on Amazon, some accusing him of plagiarism (many of which Brick has gotten Amazon to delete).

"People get to come in anonymously and say whatever they want — the nastiest things," Brick says. "And then he can claim that he's not responsible for that, but he's the one who initiated this whole thing."

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