Urban cavers fight over turf and free speech
Greg Brick's home is a museum of subterranean artifacts. A collection of maps and filing cabinets decorates the living room, along with so many stacks of books that he recently had to install an extra support beam in the basement to keep the floor from buckling.
Brick, a 50-year-old with red hair and wearing a heavy plaid shirt, produces a manilla folder and begins rifling through the papers inside, landing on a wrinkled map pocked with dirt spots and scribbled annotations.
"It gives you a good idea of the length of the passages," says Brick, a geology research assistant and doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota, as he places it on a coffee table.
The map depicts sand mines underneath the recently closed Ford Auto Plant. Built in the 1920s, the caverns run for miles beneath the factory and the surrounding area in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. Ford miners used the tunnels for decades to extract the silica needed to make glass at the plant.
Since the mining stopped in the mid-20th century, the tunnels have been an alluring draw, but they are kept under close watch by security guards and surveillance cameras. Attempting access is treacherous, and explorers tell stories of those who have tried and failed.
But in 2000, Brick sneaked in and used this map to navigate through the tunnels, he says. He describes the trip in his 2009 book, Subterranean Twin Cities, including how he narrowly escaped after finding a security guard awaiting him in a truck outside the mines, apparently asleep at the wheel.
"There was a guy leaning back in his seat," Brick says. "And that truck was not there when we came in, and it just scared the bejesus out of us. So we just ran off into the woods."
On this winter morning, the map is more than just a nostalgic artifact from an old adventure. It's likely to be submitted as evidence in a complicated libel case against a fellow urban explorer named Gabe Carlson, who runs a popular website called the Action Squad.
At the core of the lawsuit is a vicious rivalry more than a decade in the making, and an accusation that Brick vehemently disputes — that he stole the Ford mines story from the Action Squad.
"This whole thing is just a tempest in a tea cup," says Brick. "But he wants to make the Ford mines like a subterranean Waterloo for me, and try to ruin me with it."
The Twin Cities was seemingly designed for urban exploration. The earth deep below Minneapolis and St. Paul is mostly sandstone, a material ripe for excavation, which has left a vast network of underground catacombs. There are also steam tunnels that run for miles under the University of Minnesota campus, and the ruins of mills and factories.
"There are countless tunnels in St. Paul, and caves and crazy tangled labyrinths," says Mark Vollath, who has been exploring the cities since 2004. "People have compared it to Paris's catacombs."
Brick's interest in urban exploration began in the early 1980s when he was studying biology at the U of M. On a trip to London, he noticed a drainage pipe dumping water into a pond in Hyde Park, but no stream carried the water back out. He found himself mesmerized and became curious about what went on in the underground parts of cities.
After finishing his biology degree, Brick decided to go for a second major in geology. He began exploring natural caves like Mystery and Niagara in southeastern Minnesota, but eventually turned his focus to the urban underground.
Urban exploration often involves illegal trespass, but Brick says scientific discovery — not danger — has always been the draw.
"I always would think that my time had been wasted if I went into a cave or a tunnel and I didn't come back with some sort of geological or historical insight," he says.
Brick left Minneapolis to pursue his master's in geology in the mid-'90s at the University of Connecticut, then spent time in St. Louis, and returned home a few years later to work for an environmental consulting firm. He continued exploring, chronicling his trips in academic articles. He had a series in the Ramsey County History periodical investigating places like Fountain Cave and Cascade Creek in St. Paul.
Among his most popular articles was a piece in a magazine called NSS News about Chutes Cave in Minneapolis. No one had documented entering Chutes in decades at the time, and some thought it was a myth before Brick wrote about it.
Through his scientific approach to urban exploration, Brick built a reputation as an esteemed explorer and researcher among the geology community, says Dave Gerboth, board member of the Minnesota Speleological Survey.
"I see Greg as unique," says Gerboth. "He's taken that scholarly approach, and I don't think there's anybody else doing that."
Throughout the '80s and early '90s, Brick had the caves and tunnels mostly to himself, he says. But around the mid- to late '90s, that began to change. He noticed more and more people getting into the scene. On the emerging internet, websites dedicated to exploring began appearing — some, he thought, gave away too much information about the locations of hidden cave entrances. Once-pristine caves like Chutes were suddenly littered with empty bottles of Jack Daniels and other trash. He wasn't alone anymore.
"For the first 10 years, it was like an empty world," says Brick. "You gotta put yourself in my shoes. I've been caving here for 10 years. Nobody else is doing this. And now all of a sudden you have these people show up and start their own websites and start acting like they're experts. It's like, who are you guys?"
For Gabe Carlson, the allure of the underground had nothing to do with science. His inspiration for exploring was seeing the movie The Goonies. Growing up in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities, he entertained himself by finding his way onto rooftops, into storm drains, and into the attic and bomb shelter at his grandmother's house.
Years later, as a student at the U of M, he expanded the adventures with his friends to the steam tunnels and Mill District. At the time, they didn't have a name for what they were doing.
"There was no reason for it, but it was an activity that we actually got together and did. Like, 'Hey, let's go out Adventure Squadding,'" says Carlson. "It was a decent way to pass the time. It was more interesting than the college bar scene."
After years of exploring, Carlson found an online zine called "Infiltration" dedicated to the urban exploring scene in Toronto. It wasn't until then that he realized he was actually part of a vast network of people all over the world doing the exact same activity.
Carlson decided to start his own website to record his trips and connect with other explorers. He called the site "Action Squad." Because much of what they did involved illegal trespass, he and his friends came up with aliases to use online; Carlson dubbed himself "Max Action."
The Action Squad explored all over the Twin Cities: Cobb's Cave in St. Paul, the abandoned Hamm's Brewery, inside the Wabasha Street Bridge. They chronicled the trips, which they called "Missions," on the website.
The philosophy behind Action Squad is hard to articulate, says Carlson. Part of the fun was the historical context of where they were going, but the missions were also about the excitement of being in places they shouldn't be, and they'd often use photos without permission to illustrate the trips on their website.
"We never pretended to be scholars," says Carlson. "We'd blatantly just go steal picture from the Minnesota Historical Society database, or whatever we wanted. We had that kind of punk-rock attitude about it."
Among their greatest triumphs were the Ford mine missions. Carlson had heard the mines were all but impossible to access, but he wanted to see for himself, so he and a fellow explorer rode their bikes to the plant one October night in 2000. They climbed over a barbed wire fence and attempted to sneak through the woods, but they were making too much noise. Fearing someone would hear them, they turned back and decided their best option was to simply ride as fast as they could past the security cameras. The plan worked, and they spent four hours roaming the tunnels.
"'Holy shit,' I heard myself whisper involuntarily," Carlson later wrote on his site. "We'd made it: We were in the tunnels. And damn, it felt good."
Carlson took it upon himself to show the entrance to other explorers, and brought groups back a handful of times. It was on their fourth trip to the Ford mines that the Action Squad encountered the security guard.
They had spent a total of five hours in the mines and the adjacent hydro plant. When they came out, they saw a truck in the driveway next to the entrance, says Eric Sutterlin, one of the explorers with Carlson that night.
"I recall a large, full-sized, gray pickup truck sitting directly in front of the exit door," he says. "And it was idling."
The group made a run for it, and no one chased them. Carlson wrote about the experience on the Action Squad site, and speculated that the guard had most likely fallen asleep. A few years later, the suspicion was confirmed when someone identifying himself as the guard wrote a message on the Action Squad's guestbook.
"Just noticed your web site, you guys don't know just how close you came to resembling a june bug on a bug zapper," he wrote. "Even we don't go into the cable tunnel without taking extra precautions."
"And you're right," the message ended. "I fell asleep waiting for you."
Perhaps it was inevitable that Action Squad and Brick would one day clash. But for years they coexisted, albeit with little interaction. Both subscribed to "Under-MN," an early listserv for explorers to communicate and exchange tips.
"There used to be some sharing of information back and forth between the two of them," says Dan Dockery, an explorer and friend of Carlson's. "Even though I doubt they ever really spent any time hanging out in person, at least online they were cordial."
A rift began after Brick placed a lock on the gated entrance to the old Heinrich Brewery Caves, to which only he had the key. Then in October 2001, City Pages published a profile on Brick, called "Notes from the Underground." The story followed Brick on several outings, including the North Minneapolis Tunnels — a sewer stretching from Brooklyn Park to downtown Minneapolis — a spot known as Satan's Cave on Nicollet Island, and Chutes Cave.
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.
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."
For Brick, the most troubling part has been people contacting the University of Minnesota Press, his book's publisher, to accuse him of plagiarism.
Longtime Action Squad member Jeremy Krans says he's called multiple times asking them to investigate.
"I think anybody that read those two passages could see why someone would feel that way," says Krans. "Maybe he did and maybe he didn't. Nobody knows. You can't prove it, but I can see why someone would feel that way. I feel that way."
Carlson also emailed the publisher about the Ford mines passage, but never filed a formal complaint. Asked why, he says he worried about the objectivity of the review and didn't feel the need to push the allegations beyond publishing them on his website.
Despite the accusations, the publisher has seen no reason to believe Brick plagiarized the passage, says Doug Armato, director of the University Press.
"My sense was this: If you read the book cover to cover, which I've done, Greg has done so many insane things," Armato says. "Why you would think he would need to make up anything just doesn't make sense to me."
Above all, Brick fervently argues that the anecdote is true, and was not borrowed from the Action Squad. In addition to the map, he presents as evidence a photo taken inside the Ford mines and his notes from the trip. Paula Laudenbach, a friend of Brick's who accompanied him to the mines, also signed a sworn affidavit affirming that Brick's account is accurate.
In September 2010, Brick hired noted First Amendment attorney Mark Anfinson to help silence the accusations, which he says have left him with a black mark as an academic, damaging his professional career and ability to find work in the field.
An attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, Anfinson is not accustomed to arguing the limits of free speech; he's represented most of the local media outlets in the Twin Cities, including, at one time, City Pages. Before taking Brick's case, he had never in more than 30 years of practice found himself on the other side of the First Amendment.
But Anfinson believes this case is representative of a much larger problem: How the internet has created an unprecedented forum for anonymous defamation. He believes Brick's account of the Ford mines is accurate — if a guard fell asleep on the job once, he says, it's plausible he'd do it again. And even if it wasn't, the damage to Brick's reputation and career in academia would still be grossly disproportionate, given that the dispute is over three sentences in a 212-page book.
"This has been a pure and simple nightmare for Greg," Anfinson says. "He's lost an enormous amount of sleep. It's affected his personal relationships. It's been this dark cloud around his head."
After Brick hired Anfinson, he filed the lawsuit in summer 2011, alleging libel and emotional distress.
"Greg never really wanted to go to trial," says Anfinson. "He wanted to get Carlson's attention. And nothing else worked."
A year after Brick filed his lawsuit, Carlson hired media attorney John Borger. Along with Anfinson, Borger is among the small group of prominent First Amendment lawyers in Minnesota, having represented clients in many high-profile cases over the years, including several in the U.S. Supreme Court. He agreed to take Carlson's case pro bono after being contacted by the Online Media Legal Network, a group based out of the Harvard Law School whose mission is to protect the First Amendment.
In an interview in Borger's downtown Minneapolis office, Carlson argues that Brick has been the instigator throughout the dispute.
"I've actually tried to keep this down, to keep it from being a big deal," he says. "After I posted that first post on my site, I've never kept stirring the pot."
Aside from the original post, Carlson says he's written one negative review about Brick's book on Amazon, and signed it with his real name. He admits to sending Brick an email with a picture of a plaque created by other explorers, labeled "Biggest Drama Queen." In the email, sent after the lawsuit was filed, he also calls Brick a "craven, whiny little bitch," which Carlson now concedes was "ill advised." But he's adamant that he never instructed anyone to harass Brick.
"It's not been my goal to harass or ruin this guy," he says. "I just wanted to say what I thought had happened, and I did."
At this point, it remains to be seen if the lawsuit will ever see a courtroom. Brick and Carlson entered into mediation last fall, but couldn't come to a deal. Their attorneys have since been trading settlement offers.
On March 4, it appeared a settlement had finally been reached. Borger proposed a deal in which Carlson would remove any variation of the word "plagiarism" from his accusation and non-index the post, meaning it wouldn't be cached by a search engine and would be more difficult to find. In exchange, Brick would drop the lawsuit and post an alternate version of the Ford mines chapter on his website absent any references to the security guard or other explorers.
"From my perspective, it's really imperfect," Brick said after first reviewing the offer. "But I just need to move on, and I don't have the money to go up against [Borger], so I'm pretty sure I'm going to settle."
But hours later, Brick had a change of heart. The clause he couldn't accept stated that if he ever came out with a second edition of his book, he would have to omit any references to "urban exploration websites/groups."
Brick says he still hopes to come to an out-of-court agreement of some kind with Carlson, but he won't sign this one.
"It's real heavy-handed censorship in return for him not calling me names," says Brick. "I'm not ceding control of my book to him."
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