Firebombed UCSC researcher speaks out

Santa Cruz Sentinel/August 4, 2008

Santa Cruz - The FBI today is expected to take over the investigation of the Saturday morning firebombings of a car and of a Westside home belonging to two UC Santa Cruz biomedical researchers who conduct experiments on animals.

Santa Cruz police officials said Sunday the case will be handed to the FBI to investigate as domestic terrorism while local authorities explore additional security measures for the 13 UCSC researchers listed in a threatening animal-rights pamphlet found in a downtown coffee shop last week.

"The FBI has additional resources and intelligence into groups and individuals that might have the proclivity to carry out this kind of activity," police Capt. Steve Clark said. "The FBI has a whole other toolbox of tools for this kind of investigation."

The front porch of a faculty member's home on Village Circle off High Street was hit with a firebomb about 5:40 a.m. Saturday, police said. The bomb ignited the front door of the home and filled the house with smoke, police said. About the same time, a Volvo station wagon parked in a faculty member's on-campus driveway on Dickens Way was destroyed by a firebomb, police said.

Clark described the bombs as devices, which he said investigators have seen used by animals rights activists in the past, as "Molotov cocktail on steroids."

No suspects have been identified, Clark said.

UCSC biologist David Feldheim, whose Village Circle home was targeted, performs research on mice to understand how brain connections form during development. Feldheim and his wife and two young children escaped their house on a fire ladder from a second-story window.

That bombing is being investigated as an attempted homicide because the family was home, Clark said.

"Obviously, I am upset and worried for my family's safety in the future," Feldheim wrote in an e-mail to the Sentinel on Sunday. "This incident came close to doing some real harm."

Feldheim, a UCSC researcher of six years, said he had installed a security system and motion lights at his home in response to a previous threat.

"Once we rebuild our house and move back in, I don't know what more we can do," he wrote. "I don't think the university can do too much to prevent these kind of attacks. I would like to see the citizens of Santa Cruz and our elected officials including the mayor step up and condemn this kind of violence."

Feldheim said he badly bruised his feet while getting out of his house and was taken to the hospital for X-rays. He said he didn't break any bones, but will have to walk with crutches for a few days until the swelling subsides.

While a spokesman said he didn't know who committed the act, the Woodland Hills-based Animal Liberation Front called the attacks a "necessary" act, just like those who fought against civil rights injustices. Spokesman Dr. Jerry Vlasak showed no remorse for the family or children who were targeted.

"If their father is willing to continue risking his livelihood in order to continue chopping up animals in a laboratory than his children are old enough to recognize the consequences,'' said Vlasak, a former animal researcher who is now a trauma surgeon. "This guy knows what he is doing. He knows that every day that he goes into the laboratory and hurts animals that it is unreasonable not to expect consequences."

Clark, the Santa Cruz police captain, said it was "unconscionable'' for anyone to defend such acts: "To put this on par with any of the human rights issues is an absolute insult to the integrity of the people who fought and went through the human rights movement. This is what people do when they have an inability to articulate their point in any constructive way. They resort to primal acts of violence. Any reasonable person would need a logic transplant to begin to understand this level of degraded thinking."

Brian Israel, a UCSC senior pursuing a legal studies degree, lives a block from Village Circle on Moore Street. The 21-year-old checked out his neighbor's house Sunday. He called the attacks "hypocritical."

"If you're against killing animals, but you're trying to kill humans, there's no logic to it," Israel said. "It doesn't make sense to hurt people. I'm just thankful no one got hurt."

Israel's roommate Daniel Wood, also a UCSC senior, called the bombings "cowardly and stupid. It's totally not acceptable. I don't agree with any of it."

Authorities would not identify the researcher whose car was destroyed but said that person's name was not listed in the pamphlet.

The firebombings appear to be the latest in a string of incidents targeting UCSC researchers and others in Santa Cruz whose work involves animals.

Fliers identifying 13 UCSC scientists, some of whom use mice, fruit flies and other nonprimate creatures in their research, were discovered at Caffe Pergolesi on Tuesday. The fliers say, "Animal abusers everywhere beware; we know where you live; we know where you work; we will never back down until you end your abuse."

The names, home addresses, home phone numbers and photos of researchers were published on the fliers.

In February, masked demonstrators rattled the front door of a UCSC breast-cancer researcher during her young daughter's birthday party; her husband chased the intruders away -- one of the masked intruders took a swing at him, police said -- while the researcher protected her children in the back of the family's Westside home.

Hours after that incident, authorities raided a Riverside Avenue house where several students live. No arrests have been made in that case, but police say the hard drive of a laptop confiscated at the house had been cleaned several times, increasing suspicion among investigators. Those students are still considered "people of interest," Clark said.

He said Saturday's bombings are likely related to an attempted firebombing of a police car in March 2007, and the firebombing of an electrical closet six years ago on Delaware Avenue near Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Inc.

More recently, masked protesters targeting UC Berkeley have scrawled graffiti and broken windows at scientists' homes.

FBI investigators say the incidents at different universities are probably not centrally coordinated. But authorities said the attacks do share similar tactics, including the public posting of researchers' personal information and the type of firebomb used.

The Associated Press and MediaNews contributed to this article.

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