East Lansing - Four people with ties to an ecoterrorism network have been indicted on charges connected to a 1999 fire at genetic-engineering research offices and the burning a day later of logging equipment elsewhere, federal authorities said Tuesday.
The Earth Liberation Front - an underground organization that has been listed among the FBI's top domestic terrorism targets - claimed responsibility for the fire at Michigan State University shortly after it was set, saying it targeted the school because it was conducting genetic engineering research on crops.
"This was an act of domestic terrorism, plain and simple," said Charles R. Gross, a U.S. attorney from Grand Rapids. "There's no two ways about it. The use of violence and the destruction of property to make a political statement cannot be tolerated in a civilized society."
Charged with conspiracy to commit arson are Marie Jeanette Mason, 46, of Cincinnati; Frank Brian Ambrose, 33, of Detroit; Aren Bernard Burthwick, 27, of Detroit; and Stephanie Lynne Fultz, 27, of Detroit. The charge is punishable by five to 20 years in prison. Mason and Ambrose are also charged with arson, which is punishable by seven to 40 years.
The indictment says that Mason and Ambrose entered Agriculture Hall in the early evening and that while Mason remained in building, Ambrose went and bought gasoline. He then returned and lit a fuse, and fumes from the dumped gasoline began to explode. That interrupted Mason's spray-painting of "No GMO" - shorthand for "No Genetically Modified Organisms" - on a nearby wall.
None of the defendants has been arraigned. Mason remained in custody Tuesday afternoon, but authorities said the others had been released on bond.
An attorney for Ambrose declined to comment Tuesday. A message was left seeking comment from an attorney for Burthwick, and as of Tuesday afternoon, lawyers for Mason and Fultz were not listed on a federal court Web page.
As part of the same indictment, the four defendants also are charged with arson in the Jan. 1, 2000, burning of commercial logging equipment near Mesick, Mich., in Wexford County. Those charges are punishable by five to 20 years.
The Michigan State fire caused $1 million in damage to the East Lansing school's historic Agriculture Hall, including offices that housed a project aimed at enhancing the use of crop biotechnology in developing countries. No one was injured in the blaze.
The FBI and other law enforcement officials would not discuss what led to a break in the case more than eight years after the fires.
It was the second major Michigan State fire in less than a decade. A 1992 arson at a mink research center and other research offices caused damage estimated at more than $2.5 million. A radical environmentalist, Rodney Coronado, served more than four years in federal prison for his role.
The Earth Liberation Front has been connected to several ecoterrorism cases. Last week, a federal jury found a woman guilty of two counts of arson for being the lookout in the 2001 burning of the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture by ELF members.
A fire last week near Seattle destroyed three luxury homes and damaged two others; a spray-painted sheet found at the scene bore the initials of the Earth Liberation Front.