Investigators blame arsonists in $50 million apartment fire

Associated Press/August 7, 2003
By Seth Hettena

San Diego -- Investigators said Tuesday that arsonists were to blame for a fire at an apartment complex under construction that caused $50 million in damage.

The Earth Liberation Front, linked to arson incidents across the West, claimed responsibility for setting fire to a five-story apartment complex Friday in San Diego's fast-growing northern edge.

A 12-foot banner found at the scene read "If you build it, we will burn it" with the initials ELF. The group, which only communicates with the news media by e-mail, issued a brief statement in response to media inquiries, saying the banner "is a legitimate claim of responsibility by the Earth Liberation Front."

"The intent was to burn the structure to the ground," said San Diego Fire Capt. Jeffrey A. Carle, an arson investigator who called the fire one of the costliest in city history. He declined to say what was used to start the three-alarm blaze.

No arrests have been made, but the FBI's local counterterrorism task force said several suspects had been developed. Anyone with strong ties to the Earth Liberation Front or its sister organization, the Animal Liberation Front, will be closely examined, said Josefina Regula, an FBI spokeswoman.

The fire, reported at 3 a.m., destroyed a massive five-story structure, underground parking garage and a construction crane. About 400 people were evacuated from nearby complexes. No one was injured.

The San Diego arson would be by far the costliest action ever by the Earth Liberation Front, a radical, underground environmental group that, since 1996, has claimed responsibility for arson attacks against commercial entities that members say threaten or damage the environment.

"This one fire did more dollar damage than all of the other vandalism they've done put together," said Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in Bellevue, Wash., which tracks ecoterrorism and vandalism.

Arnold said that until now, the ELF's most costly crime was an October 1998 fire that swept through part of the Vail ski resort in Colorado and caused $12 million damage. The group said it was protesting the resort's expansion into lynx habitat.

Arnold noted that the attack in the nation's seventh-largest city also marked a shift from ELF's past targets in rural areas and out-of-the-way places.

Barry Clausen, a researcher in Redding who tracks environmental crimes, said more than 3,000 ecoterrorism crimes have been documented in a dozen or so years, including arson and bombings.

Clausen said those kinds of crimes, which declined after the Sept. 11 attacks, have become increasingly common lately. The group claimed responsibility for an arson in June that destroyed two homes under construction in Macomb, Mich., a Detroit suburb.

The San Diego fire coincided with an "animal liberation weekend" in the city. The day of the fire, Rodney Coronado, a former ALF member, delivered a lecture in San Diego on "militant animal and earth liberation."

Coronado, who served four years in federal prison for a 1992 fire at a Michigan animal research facility, said he had no role in the attack and arrived in San Diego several hours after it broke out. He learned of the fire, he said, from reporters who showed up at the lecture to ask him about it.

But Coronado said he sympathized with those who acted to protect a sensitive canyon where the complex was being built and he insisted that the ELF's core principal was to take all actions against harming anyone.

"I believe that place was targeted at the stage it was was because any further along it would only have been more dangerous to destroy it," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

"It doesn't seem to be a coincidence that in this many years that nobody's gotten injured. Everybody keeps on saying 'One of these days, one of these days.' Well, one of these days has never gotten here," Coronado said.

The FBI said it would be taking a close look at anyone with Coronado's past.

"Certainly, anybody previously convicted in arson cases are going to be looked at as a possible suspect," Regula said.

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