San Diego -- A sabotage campaign by the nation's most radical environmental group has moved from the countryside to the doorstep of the nation's biggest cities.
The Earth Liberation Front, a movement that originated in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and has been active in Eugene, has claimed responsibility for a string of arsons in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Detroit, San Diego and Philadelphia in the past 12 months. No one has been charged in any of the attacks.
The attacks, which included the costliest act of environmental sabotage in U.S. history, have targeted luxury homes and sport-utility vehicles, the suburban status symbols that some environmentalists regard as despoilers of the Earth.
"Their actions used to be aimed at `out in the country' industries," said Ron Arnold of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, who has written several books criticizing the environmental movement's radical wing. "Now they're moving from a save-the-wilderness focus to an anti-capitalist focus."
This summer, environmentalists in Southern California turned six-figure luxury homes under construction into charred sticks of wood, destroyed an unfinished 206-unit apartment complex and firebombed brand new Hummers, the mammoth SUVs that start at $50,000.
Rod Coronado, a legendary figure in the underground movement who is serving as an ELF spokesman and has drawn scrutiny from the FBI, said the group is being transformed by a new generation of activists.
"When I got involved in the mid-'80s, tree-spiking" - pounding spikes into trees to prevent loggers with chain saws from cutting them down - "was a big deal," said Coronado, 37, who played a part in sinking two whaling ships in Iceland and served time in prison for an arson attack at a Michigan State University animal-research lab. "What that's morphed into is a more urban environmental movement, whereby people are fighting for the last wild places in urban areas."
ELF has made similar urban forays in Lane County, where investigators linked the group to arson fires in Eugene that caused millions in damage at a car dealership and another that damaged a police substation. But the group also has been connected to acts in the forest, when officials linked ELF to a tree-spiking incident at a logging site in the Willamette National Forest.
The arsons in Eugene included a Sept. 6, 2000, fire at the West University Police Substation and a March 30, 2001, fire at the Romania Chevrolet dealership.
The Romania truck dealership fire damaged or destroyed 35 sport utility vehicles, causing $1 million in damage.
In the substation incident, a firebomb shattered a window and blackened a brick wall at the police office west of the University of Oregon. A second firebomb that didn't ignite was found hidden in bushes nearby.
In addition to the Eugene fires, investigators contend that ELF set fires in 2001 at Glendale's Superior Lumber and near-simultaneous fires on May 21 at the Jefferson Poplar Farm near Clatskanie and the University of Washington's horticulture lab in Seattle. Just Wednesday, the University of Washington broke ground on a replacement lab.
Other acts of eco-vandalism in the region linked to ELF include a fire in 1999 at the Boise Cascade office in Monmouth that caused $1 million in damage and tree spiking at the Robinson-Scott timber harvest site in the Willamette National Forest, also that year. ELF was also connected to a four-day rash of vandalism to numerous McDonald's restaurants in Eugene, Cottage Grove, Myrtle Creek and Grants Pass as well as a Chevron gas station and the public relations office for Weyerhaeuser and Hyundai in Eugene.
No one was arrested for setting an Oct. 30, 1996, blaze that burned down the Oakridge Ranger Station. The fire came two days after vandals torched a pickup truck and spray-painted anti-logging, anarchist and Earth Liberation Front graffiti on walls at the Detroit Ranger Station east of Salem.
ELF never claimed responsibility for the Oakridge arson, and federal investigators have said they have not established a clear motive for the fire.
The FBI has identified ELF as its No. 1 domestic terrorism priority. The organization has done more than $100 million damage - but caused no deaths - since it split off from the radical environmental group Earth First! and surfaced in the United States five years ago.
ELF first took aim at urban sprawl in 2000, when it burned luxury homes and condos under construction on New York's Long Island. But Phil Celestini, the agent in charge of the FBI's domestic terrorism operations unit in Washington, noted that the San Diego fires "are taking place in more densely populated areas than in the past."
On Aug. 1, a fire destroyed a five-story, 206-unit apartment complex under construction in San Diego's University City neighborhood.
The damage estimate of $50 million made it "the single largest act of property destruction ever committed by one of these groups in the history of the country," Celestini said. "It's sheer dumb luck and providence that someone has not been killed. You set a fire that big, there's no way of predicting what the ultimate consequences will be."
In the wake of the attacks, other San Diego developers have beefed up security, said Russ Valone, of the California Building Industry Association, which has offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the apartment complex arson.
"Let me tell you who the other victims of this are: you and me," Valone said. "Our insurance pays a price. The more claims an insurance company put out, the more they more they have to raise their premiums. So, everybody in the city, everybody in the county, everybody in the country pays in some small way for the damage created by these maniacs."
Guidelines posted on the ELF's Web site stress the need to take "all necessary precautions against harming life." But the group's message has been mixed.
In a communique issued after a U.S. Forest Service research center in Pennsylvania was attacked last year, the ELF said: "While innocent life will never be harmed in any action we undertake, where it is necessary, we will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice."
The ELF operates in a series of anonymous cells and uses the Internet to communicate and broadcast its message. But it has little organization, no fees and no membership list, frustrating FBI efforts to penetrate the group.
The recent case of an Oregon college student serving time in prison for a firebombing in 2001 opened a window into the ELF.
Jacob Sherman, a student at Portland State University, said he fell under the spell of Michael J. Scarpitti, known as Tre Arrow, a forest activist who is now the FBI's most-wanted "eco-terrorist."
According to court documents, Arrow "groomed" Sherman and slowly introduced him to radical protesting. Sherman stopped bathing, refused to wear shoes and began eating a strict vegan diet to imitate Arrow.
Sherman was no James Bond of the forest: His father called the FBI after his son drove home reeking of gasoline the night three logging company trucks were attacked. Sherman, 19 at the time, also blabbed to his girlfriend, who in turn told her father, a deputy state fire marshal, said Sherman's attorney, Andy Bates.
In the San Diego attacks, the FBI has focused on Coronado, the ELF's self-described spokesman. Search warrants obtained by The Associated Press show FBI agents raided the homes of two local activists in a search for videotaped copies of a speech Coronado delivered in San Diego on Aug. 1 - the same day of the $50 million apartment arson.
Coronado has said he had nothing to do with the fire.
Mainstream environmental groups have taken pains to distance themselves from the ELF.
"The ELF are not environmentalists. They are arsonists," said Carl Pope, head of the Sierra Club.