Radicals Target SUVs in Series of Southland Attacks

Dozens are destroyed or damaged. The Earth Liberation Front claims responsibility.

Los Angeles Times/August 23, 2003
By Julie Tamaki, Jia-Rui Chong and Mitchell Landsberg

Vandals acting in the name of radical environmentalism struck four car dealerships and several individual car owners in the San Gabriel Valley early Friday, setting fire to one Chevrolet dealership and destroying or defacing dozens of Hummers and other SUVs, many painted with the word "polluter."

The Earth Liberation Front, a loose association of militant environmentalists, claimed responsibility for the attacks, which it said were intended to "take the profit motive" away from those responsible for pollution.

The ELF also claimed responsibility recently for a $50-million arson fire that destroyed an apartment construction site in San Diego.

Working in darkness in the hours before dawn, the vandals hit car dealerships in West Covina, Duarte and Arcadia, as well as residential streets in Monrovia.

The targeted vehicles were apparently chosen for their relatively poor fuel efficiency. By far the most serious attack was on the Clippinger Chevrolet dealership in West Covina, which sustained an estimated $1 million in damage after two fires were set in the car lot and one in a warehouse where service parts were kept.

The areas of the lot that were set ablaze contained new cars, mostly H2 Hummers, the civilian version of the military Humvee.

"At least 20 are totally gone and a minimum of 20 have significant damage," said Rick Genovese, assistant chief of the West Covina Fire Department.

In Duarte, vandals painted tags and slogans - "polluter," "I {heart} pollution," and "elf," the acronym of the Earth Liberation Front - on 30 sport utility vehicles at a Mitsubishi dealership and 20 vehicles at the Ford Advantage Lincoln Mercury dealership across the street, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Harry Drucker.

Nine SUVs were similarly vandalized in Arcadia at the Rusnak Mercedes-Benz dealership, authorities said.

Among four privately owned cars hit in Monrovia was a black Ford Expedition owned by Boston Fields, 22, of Ventura. He said he was staying at his girlfriend's Magnolia Avenue apartment when authorities knocked on the door about 3 a.m. to tell him the news.

Fields said someone had used a beer bottle to make a Molotov cocktail, which had been thrown through a rear passenger-side window, badly burning the car's interior. A red smiley face was painted on the driver's side, along with "elf" in blue paint. On the front of the car, the word "pollution" was painted in blue.

"I had never heard of anything like this," Fields said. "I'm pretty mad, but I thank God I had insurance."

The vandalism marked the latest manifestation of a growing divide between SUV owners and environmentalists. Critics of SUVs point to evidence that the popularity of the vehicles, and the government's reluctance to hold them to stricter emissions standards, has set back efforts to clean up the nation's air.

The Hummer H2, which dwarfs most SUVs and gets an estimated 11 to 12 mpg, raises even stiffer hackles.

The ELF - which is not so much an organization as a name used by radicals who commit acts under its banner - believes in taking direct action, criminal if necessary, to protect the environment, said Bron Taylor, a professor of religion and ethics at the University of Florida who has studied the radical environmental movement.

Launched in Britain in 1992, the group claims to have inflicted more than $100 million damage in North America over the last six years to "entities who profit from the destruction of life and the planet."

The ELF has claimed responsibility for the 1998 torching of four ski lifts and outbuildings at a resort in Vail, Colo. It claims to have vandalized SUVs in the past, including an arson attack on a dealership in Erie, Pa., in January, that destroyed several vehicles.

"I was just waiting for them to go after the Hummers," Taylor said.

The ELF's Web site claimed responsibility for the attack on Friday.

The ELF's tactics are anathema to mainstream environmental groups, and even to many radicals in groups such as Earth First!

Taylor said ELF activists have essentially abandoned traditional forms of protest because their aim is not to change mainstream attitudes or policies, but to directly combat those they see as enemies of the Earth.

"I think many people in the ELF would probably say that the idea of classic civil disobedience to arouse the conscience of the wider community just isn't a high priority because it can't be aroused. It's too mired in the corporate juggernaut," he said.

Friday's vandalism aroused mostly anger and puzzlement, at least among those targeted and the officials who came to their aid.

"It really isn't the right way to get your message across," said West Covina Mayor Pro-Tem Mike Miller.

The city's fire chief, Richard Green, said the owner of the Clippinger dealership was "dismayed by it, disturbed by it, shaken up by it."

"This is the biggest fire we've had in the city in the last 10 years," Green said. "People walk up and down here at night and they feel safe doing so. The thing I'm really upset about: This endangers firefighters, reduces the quality of life in our community and interrupted our sales tax revenue."

The three-alarm fire at the dealership was reported by multiple 911 callers beginning at 4:58 a.m. and took more than an hour to extinguish.

Among those who called was Laura Hernandez, 34, of West Covina, who was walking by the dealership on her way to catch a bus to work.

"After I called 911," she said, "I heard three loud bangs." She said they sounded like the muffled sounds of balloons popping.

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are jointly investigating the incident, along with West Covina police.

Late Friday, the FBI released a videotape from a surveillance camera at the Duarte Ford dealership showing two men running across the parking lot, spray-painting cars. The men were described as young and thin, one wearing light clothes, the other dark clothes.

Randy Parsons, the FBI's assistant agent in charge, said the ELF is one of the "stronger leads." He said the two agencies would investigate the arson attacks as a case of domestic terrorism.

There is no specific federal crime of domestic terrorism. The term was incorporated into the USA Patriot Act, which was enacted after Sept. 11, 2001, to give federal law enforcement agencies sweeping new investigative powers.

The law defines domestic terrorism as criminal acts dangerous to human life that appear intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population or the government. Domestic terrorism also includes assassination, kidnapping or massive destruction of property aimed at affecting government conduct.

If any federal prosecutions result from the attack on the car dealership, chances are they would include arson, which is punishable by a term of five to 20 years in prison. If an explosive device was used - fire officials said it was not clear if one was - a defendant could face a life term, federal prosecutors said.

Testifying before a congressional committee last year about the threat of eco-terrorism in the United States, the head of the FBI's domestic terrorism branch described the Earth Liberation Front as one of a growing number of "special interest" terrorist groups that focus on specific issues rather than trying to bring about widespread political change.

"These groups occupy the extreme fringes of animal rights, pro-life, environmental, anti-nuclear and other movements," said James Jarboe, then chief of the FBI's domestic terrorism section.

The ELF, Jarboe told members of the House Resources Committee, advocates "monkey-wrenching," a euphemism for acts of sabotage against industries and businesses perceived to be damaging the environment.

As of 2002, Jarboe said, 26 FBI field offices had pending investigations involving the ELF and the associated Animal Liberation Front.

Shutting down the two groups has proved difficult, he said, because they have little if any hierarchical structure.

"Despite all of our efforts," he said, "law enforcement has a long way to go to adequately address the problem of eco-terrorism."

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