Richmond -- On the night of Sept. 21, 2002, two high school students crept onto the site where Short Pump Town Center Mall was being built in suburban Henrico County.
Their goal: to blow up a construction crane in the name of a radical environmental group called the Earth Liberation Front.
The teenagers rolled up an American flag, soaked in kerosene, and shoved it into the crane's fuel tank.
They then lit their symbolic, makeshift fuse.
It didn't catch, but the youths eventually were caught - along with a friend and classmate who also considered himself a member of ELF's monkey-wrench army.
On that September night, the third teen stayed home; his parents had grounded him.
Earlier in the evening, however, he had helped compose a letter on his home computer, a warning of sorts for the company overseeing the mall's construction. The note was placed in the mailbox of the company's owner.
It read: "How can you sleep at night, in your house, with your beautiful wife, knowing that none of it was earned by the merit of your character, but by destroying the environment and contributing to urban and suburban decay by establishing revolting SPRAWL such as Short Pump? Think about it. ELF"
The trio, it turns out, had been pursued for weeks by local authorities and FBI agents, who consider the ELF one of the nation's most dangerous domestic terror groups. The teens were thus marked as "eco-terrorists."
The three former students at Douglas S. Freeman High School in Henrico County pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy earlier this year and, beginning Monday, are scheduled to appear in Richmond's federal court for sentencing.
The young men - Adam Virden Blackwell, now 20; Aaron Labe Linas, 19; and John Burton Wade, 19, all from families in the prosperous western suburbs of Richmond - face up to five years in prison.
They must pay more than $200,000 in restitution to the victims of their "direct actions," as ELF calls targeted vandalism, under a plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.
Federal agents compiled evidence that the three had vandalized the mall site as well as other structures around Richmond in the summer and fall of 2002 - targets that ELF often portrays as symbols of environmental harm and corporate greed: SUVs, new suburban homes, McDonald's and Burger King restaurants.
"By inflicting as much economic damage as possible, the ELF can allow a given entity to decide it is in their best economic interests to stop destroying life for the sake of profit," the group states on its Web site, which is its main source of communication.
Federal authorities say the ELF's actions do more than just disrupt businesses.
"This behavior is dangerous to human life," Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in announcing the plea agreement in January. "It is putting people at risk through the destruction of property."
The case is unusual on many fronts, beginning with the vandalism itself.
According to unsealed court documents, between July and October 2002, the teens used acid-like etching cream to deface the windows of at least 25 sport-utility vehicles, squirted glue into the door locks at one Henrico County McDonald's, and used an ax to smash doors, windows and wiring at newly built homes in Goochland County .
The actions were the first claimed by ELF in Virginia since the group's nebulous beginnings in America in the mid-1990s.
"They just made a mess everywhere," said developer Kevin Kittel, whose upscale Temple Heights subdivision in Goochland County was hit in August 2002. The teens caus ed $26,000 in damage and delay ed the project two months.
Among other damage, Kittel said, the activists attacked a flue on one home and burned real estate signs in the middle of the street.
The case has triggered debate in Washington about the proper role of the FBI in the war on terrorism. Some forces on Capitol Hill, including the Justice Department's Inspector General's Office and some lawmakers, have questioned whether federal agents should be spending time and money chasing activists bent on attacking store windows and Ford Explorers.
These critics suggest the FBI should instead focus on groups that espouse killing people and disrupting social order.
Because few ELF activists have ever been caught, the case also has shed light on how this and other extremist groups increasingly appeal to young people.
As with the Henrico County students, who became disillusioned with mainstream environmental groups, many young radicals today express frustration and anger with a political system they believe can only be changed through economic violence and civil disobedience.
On its Web site, ELF boasts that 2003 was a "record-setting year in terms of total property damage," estimated at about $60 million nationwide.
The underground group lists 75 attacks made in its name last year, most of which occurred in California and Texas. The group also says the upward trend is continuing this year, despite federal efforts to curtail actions.
In February, for example, activists set fire to a bulldozer and damaged other heavy equipment at a development site in Charlottesville.
They also hung a banner at the scene that read, "YOUR CONSTRUCTION = LONG TERM DESTRUCTION - ELF" Authorities are investigating an incident in the Richmond area where Molotov cocktails were hurled at SUVs, which ELF loathes for their air pollution and poor gas mileage .
The ELF North American press office, its whereabouts unknown, reachable only by e-mail, did not respond to a request for comment about recent events in Virginia.
In a statement published after the Henrico case was cracked, ELF said it "supports those who are facing repression at the hands of state and federal law enforcement."
The press office added that the arrests "will impact the individuals involved and the community in which they live," but that they do not "pose a problem for the Earth Liberation Front as a whole."
ELF has no leader, no formal structure and does not know how many members it has, according to its Web site.
Instead, "autonomous cells" operate "independently and anonymously" of each other.
When a cell strikes, the activists often send the press office an e-mail, which is posted on the Web site. This way, the press office can claim it is not culpable for direct actions, just announcing them.
Most mainstream environmental groups view ELF as misguided and extreme. Some even call ELF "wacko" and say it gives their cause a bad name.
"It's unfortunate," said Patti Jackson , executive director of the James River Association, based in Richmond. "They're probably mostly young and feel strongly about the environment. I'd like to see them do something more positive with their passion."
While authorities have not explained how they caught Blackwell, Linas and Wade, law enforcement officials said at least one of the teens was talking about the attacks to other students in the school's Friends of the Earth ecology club. Police were tipped off, and the FBI began its probe.
Years ago, before the attacks of September 11, 2001, cases such as the Henrico trio would have been handled in state court, government officials acknowledge. The punishment would likely have been probation and a fine.
But now the FBI considers eco-terrorism and animal-rights terrorism as two of the top domestic threats facing the country today, ahead of even violent right-wing radicals such as Timothy McVeigh , who was executed for his role in the 1995 deadly bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building .
The FBI estimates that ELF and its closely aligned counterpart, the Animal Liberation Front , have been responsible for more than 600 criminal acts in the past eight years, causing more than $43 million in damage. On several occasions, the two groups have attacked targets jointly, the FBI said.
That's why the FBI has assigned terrorism agents to hunt down these activists, despite criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Justice Department's own inspector general.
In a December report, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded that the FBI would do a better job tracking al-Qaida-type terrorists if more resources were diverted from the agency's domestic-terror program.
"We believe that the FBI's priority mission to prevent high-consequence terrorist acts would be enhanced if the Counterterrorism Division did not have to spend time and resources on lower-threat activities by social protestors or on crimes committed by environmental, animal rights, and other domestic radical groups," Fine wrote.
Nonetheless, Attorney General John Ashcroft has taken a no-nonsense stance with groups such as ELF.
According to court records, Blackwell and Wade face a minimum of three years in f ederal prison, restitution of more than $200,000 , and possibly a fine.
Linas might receive a tougher sentence, with a minimum of three years and 10 months in prison, mostly because he was found to be destroying evidence, including axes, gloves, masks and ELF paperwork, after learning the FBI was on to him, the records say.
The trio could have faced lengthier prison stays had prosecutors pursued federal terrorism charges. Instead, they offered the young men a chance to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge to avoid the expense and time of a terrorism trial.
None of the young men, their families or their lawyers would comment publicly on the case before sentencing this month. Their former ecology club adviser at Freeman High did not respond to questions about the youngsters.
Court documents describe how the three became disillusioned with how environmentalists were losing the battle to preserve nature against the forces of development and growth. They learned about ELF and its no-compromise philosophy from its Web site and, in the summer before Blackwell was to leave Virginia for Oregon State University , they decided to act.
Their first assault was on July 8, 2002, against a McDonald's at 1778 Parham Road in Henrico County. They scrawled "ELF" on the restaurant's windows, using glass etching cream to leave a permanent mark.
The next month, they damaged nine construction vehicles at a Goochland County development site by pouring brown and white sugar into their fuel tanks.
They also tore up the Temple Heights homes in Goochland that month, leaving a note behind with the word "SPRAWL" written on it, along with a monkey wrench left on the ground.
The monkey wrench is a symbol of radical environmentalism, borrowed from the group Earth First! and from a novel by naturalist Edward Abbey titled "The Monkey-Wrench Gang."
Blackwell and Linas hit Short Pump mall in September , while Wade stayed home. But later that month and into October, after Blackwell left for college, Wade and Linas used etching cream to print the phrase "ELF" on the windows of 25 SUVs parked at a Universal Ford dealership in Henrico County, as well as three SUVs in front of homes in the River Lake Colony subdivision.
In that attack, they left a long note with each vehicle that sought to assure victims that only their property was in danger.
"You made a decision to buy an SUV which affects more than you could possibly imagine," the notes read. "I would never bring this to your attention through hurting you physically. ... I am willing, however, to bring this to your attention through financial means."
"I am not crazy," the notes concluded. "I am reasonable. You are not. - ELF"