Federal authorities in New Jersey and three other states charged members of an animal rights organization yesterday with domestic terrorism after a probe into what they said has been a surge in crimes by militant activists fighting to stop product testing on animals.
The defendants, six men and one woman, belong to Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, a group that claims supporters worldwide.
For five years, the group has targeted employees, clients and associates of Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British research company that uses a Somerset County lab to test chemicals and drugs on thousands of animals each year.
The activists had long made public their desire to close down the company, and staged regular protests outside the Franklin Township lab, including one three years ago that led to a violent clash with police. But in a five-count indictment unsealed yesterday, federal prosecutors say SHAC had crossed the line from civil demonstration to domestic terrorism.
They said the group posted an online list of "Top 20 Terror Tactics" that encouraged vandalism, threatening letters and phone calls, e-mail "bombs" to crash computers, home invasions and physical assaults.
"Their business, quite frankly, is thuggery and intimidation," U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said during a news conference yesterday.
The indictment outlined several incidents in the past three years, primarily vandalism against Huntingdon employees, clients or associates. In 2002, it said, two Seattle office buildings were evacuated after protesters set off smoke bombs within them.
That same year, prosecutors say, activists overturned a Huntingdon employee's car in his New Jersey driveway and carved "puppy killer" and the name of a Huntingdon associate into the greens at a golf tournament where the person was playing.
In most of the cases, prosecutors say, the defendants did not commit the actual crimes but rather posted rhetoric or took steps to incite others. They also allegedly published personal data about a target, including addresses and children's names.
The indictment signals the government's increasing desire to crack down on what it says are fanatics who use the anonymity and reach of the Internet to gather followers, plan and attack their targets.
Last week, a senior FBI official told a U.S. Senate committee that the bureau had more than 190 investigations pending nationwide into crimes by animal rights or ecological activists. John Lewis, the deputy assistant director, read from an anonymous letter of responsibility issued last September after a nail bomb exploded outside the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of a company with ties to Huntingdon.
"All customers and their families are considered legitimate targets," the letter said. "You never know when your house, your car even, might go boom. ... No more will all the killing be done by the oppressors, now the oppressed will strike back."
Huntingdon uses thousands of animals each year to test products for its clients, primarily pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturers. Most tests are conducted on rats, but rabbits, dogs and monkeys are also used.
In 1997, U.S. regulators fined the company after Huntingdon planned to break the legs of 36 beagles to test an osteoporosis drug. The experiment was called off. Four years later, 21 dogs were stolen from the lab.
SHAC was formed in 1999 in England to pressure not just the company, but its clients and associates. The most serious incident occurred when protesters in London severely beat a Huntingdon executive. A half-dozen notable companies, including Citicorp and Merrill Lynch, have since halted their ties with the company after being targeted by the group.
The defendants arrested yesterday in New Jersey, New York, California and Washington state are charged with conspiring to commit animal enterprise terrorism, an offense punishable by three years in prison.
They include Darius Fullmer, 27, a paramedic from Hamilton who once called himself the head of the New Jersey chapter of SHAC, and John McGee, 25, of Edison. Three other defendants, Kevin Kjonaas, 26, Lauren Gazzola, 25, and Jacob Conroy, 28, had recently moved from central New Jersey to Pinole, Calif., where agents arrested them yesterday.
Also charged were Joshua Harper, 29, of Seattle, and Andrew Stepanian, 25, of Huntington, N.Y. They will be transferred to New Jersey.
Fullmer, McGee and Stepanian appeared in handcuffs before U.S. Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo in Newark and left without commenting after being released on $50,000 unsecured bail.
Their attorneys also declined to comment on the allegations, but the brief hearing might have offered a glimpse at the defense they will mount.
John Whipple, representing Stepanian, called the prosecution strategy "creative" and said the case would raise First Amendment issues.
Donald McCauley, an assistant federal public defender representing Fullmer and McGee, said the government was "playing to the press" with such charges. Specifically, he challenged an attempt by prosecutors to limit the defendant's online activity while awaiting trial.
Christie acknowledged the case could touch upon some "very complicated" issues, but said prosecutors were prepared. One of his ranking prosecutors, Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna, began building the case more than a year ago.
In April 2003, FBI agents raided the Franklin Township home Kjonaas had rented and used as SHAC's local headquarters. Agents also served warrants and subpoenas in Washington and California.
Huntingdon Life Sciences issued a statement yesterday saying it was "heartened" by the indictment.
But news of the indictment sparked concern among other activists. Theirs is a small community, and some of the defendants were well known.
"Most of us were shocked," said Angi Metler, leader of the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance and a friend of Fullmer's. "He is a peaceful person, living a nonviolent lifestyle."
Lisa Lange, a spokeswoman for the People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said, "We suspect the government's motives and wonder if the right of freedom of association and free expression is now being stripped away in this country."