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Man Claims Role in SUV Firebombings

Times Staff Writers

A man claiming membership in the Earth Liberation Front has told The Times that he helped firebomb a San Gabriel Valley car dealership and vandalize three others last month and said the Pomona man arrested by the FBI last week had nothing to do with the crimes.

Communicating via three e-mails and in two telephone interviews over the last three days, the man provided details of the attack that authorities said were known only by investigators and those involved in the incidents. He refused to give his name, say where he lives or agree to be interviewed in person.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 19, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
SUV firebombings -- A headline in Thursday’s California section incorrectly characterized a man who claimed a role in the firebombings of sport utility vehicles as an “environmental activist.” He described himself as a member of the militant environmentalist group Earth Liberation Front, but because he made the claims anonymously via e-mail and telephone, his identity and affiliations have not been confirmed.

The caller said that he and others vandalized and set fire to Hummers and other SUVs Aug. 22 to draw attention to pollution caused by the vehicles. The ELF is a loose association of militant environmentalists that has taken responsibility for vandalism across the country costing millions of dollars.

“Even if this does turn many people off, it gets many people talking and debating the issues. This is all we really want,” he wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. He described himself as a high school dropout with a passion for math as well as Greek and Roman history. He gave his age as between 20 and 25.

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The caller said he contacted The Times on Monday by e-mail to make sure that Josh Connole was “not unfairly convicted.” Connole, 25, an employee at a solar panel firm and an active antiwar protester, was released later Monday after authorities said they did not have enough evidence to charge him with last month’s vandalism and arson fires that caused more than $1 million in damage.

Connole, who has denied any involvement or knowledge of the attacks, remains a suspect, according to West Covina police.

The FBI’s Los Angeles office, which is leading a federal and local task force in the case, had no comment about the caller’s claim of responsibility. “We are not going to discuss evidence in the case,” said spokeswoman Cheryl Mimura. “But if this individual believes he has information about these incidents, we would ask that he come forward and contact the FBI.”

Law enforcement sources, however, said details of the attacks match previously unreported evidence. Details obtained from the man in the telephone interviews include:

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* A math formula -- Euler’s Theorem -- was spray painted on one of the SUVs as a way of distinguishing the participants’ work. “We thought it would be nice to have something a little kooky just in case this happened,” he said, adding that he finds the formula “beautiful.”

* Corona beer bottles were used for most of the Molotov cocktails, he said.

* Only the side windows of the Hummers were smashed because the windshields are shatter resistant. He and the others “tried to break through the front window,” he said. “It turned out to be too difficult.”

* Red, white and blue spray paint was used to vandalize the vehicles. “Patriotic colors,” he said. “The cheapest possible brand.” The nozzle broke off the white spray paint, he said, so mostly red and blue were used.

The caller also said he misspelled the word American -- accidentally writing “Ae, and then the ‘e’ was crossed out and I wrote the ‘m’ over the ‘e’ ” -- when spray painting “Fat Lazy American Pigs” on one of the SUVs.

Authorities are skeptical of the caller’s claim that he does not know Connole and speculated that the man may be trying to shield Connole and throw investigators off the track, according to one source close to the investigation.

“I did it,” the caller said Tuesday night. He claimed he was calling from a pay phone in Los Angeles County and identified himself as Tony Marsden, but said that is not his real name.

His words were interrupted during the roughly half-hour conversation by whistles and clanks of passing trains. The caller said he had never heard of Connole before reading about his arrest in the newspaper.

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The man said he contacted The Times after consulting with accomplices because “we all agreed that it was necessary.... Initially for the sake of rescuing Josh, although he’s out now, but more importantly to try and get some of the message across, and hopefully also to bring more people to our cause.”

The caller said he was willing to provide details of the overnight attack to support his claim, at times seeming to taunt the FBI for its failure to find him.

“I’m not particularly worried,” he said in a telephone call Tuesday. “It seems like they really don’t know what they’re doing at all.”

He said in a telephone call Wednesday that they picked the night of Aug. 22 for “no particular reason, except for the fact that everyone was available that night.” The attacks began around midnight, and finished around 5 a.m., he said. He did not say how many people had participated, who they were or provide any description of them.

The San Gabriel Valley dealerships were chosen for convenience, he said. “There wasn’t an actual plan,” he said. “We were just driving.”

The first car lot hit was the Rusnak Mercedes-Benz dealership in Arcadia, where police said nine SUVs were vandalized.

“That was just to try things out and see how long it would take to do how many cars,” he said. After leaving, they passed an SUV in the neighborhood and broke its windows to “see how easy it would be to smash.”

Next, he said, “We tried smashing and throwing a Molotov cocktail later into one of the SUVs down the road.”

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From there, he said, they arrived at two adjacent dealerships in Duarte. “That was just spray painting, and that’s where the surveillance footage was from.”

The caller said he was not alarmed when he later learned that he had been videotaped. “You wouldn’t recognize me,” he said, adding that he has since cut his hair.

Authorities reported that 30 SUVs were vandalized at a Mitsubishi dealership and 20 others were hit across the street at the Advantage Ford Lincoln Mercury, where authorities recovered a surveillance video. Spray painted on the cars were the words “polluter,” “I {heart}pollution” and “elf,” an acronym for the Earth Liberation Front.

After leaving Duarte, he said, the vandals found Clippinger Chevrolet, a Hummer dealership in West Covina. Authorities said they inflicted an estimated $1 million in damage.

The caller said the dealership had “very low security,” with “a nice wall guarding the view from anyone.” The vandals scaled a wall and began spray painting Hummer H2s, vehicles that dwarf most SUVs and have a base price of $49,000. They also prepared and set out 10 or 15 Molotov cocktails along their planned exit route, he said.

Then they began smashing windows, he said, and tossing Molotov cocktails into the vehicles at the dealership.

As they prepared to leave, he said, they threw the remaining Molotov cocktails as well as a canister of fuel intended for refilling camping stoves. They spent about 15 minutes there, he said, adding that bottles of gasoline “did a lot more damage than I thought it would have done.”

“I’d have to say it’s a bit of a rush,” he said of the destruction they caused. In a phone conversation Wednesday, the caller said, “It’s kind of funny, reading some of the papers, which talk about a well-funded terrorist organization. We bought $5 worth of gasoline. That’s it.”

As the fire raged, he said, they drove away. The caller expressed no remorse for the arson.

“We support destruction of property as a means of bringing attention to important issues, and to directly hurt the profits of those who gain wealth at the expense of all others living on this planet,” he wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. “The ELF is opposed to harming any form of life, much less human life.

But the caller said he felt “incredibly bad” when he heard that Connole had been arrested. “We left plenty of clues, none of them pointing at Josh,” he wrote in his first e-mail to the Times on Monday.

If Connole had been wrongly convicted, he later said in a telephone interview, he would have found another SUV dealership and “tried to repeat the action, just to make it obvious that it was not him.”

As a last resort, the caller added, he would have confessed to authorities. Federal convictions could result in five to 20 years in prison for every count of arson. He acknowledged the sentence he faces is severe. “Yeah,” he said, making a sound that was part laugh, part sigh.

Authorities would not say why they initially suspected Connole. They first focused on the house he shares with five friends that operates as a co-op for environmental activists. Within 48 hours after the arson fires, one source said, FBI agents had the two-story bungalow under surveillance.

Later, the source said, analysis of a videotape from a security camera at the Ford Lincoln Mercury dealership in Duarte, as well as other undisclosed evidence, led authorities to Connole.

Agents arrested Connole early Friday. Twenty hours later, search warrants were issued at his residence and other locations, including the home of his mother. More than 50 local and federal agents scoured two properties owned by the co-op where Connole has lived since June. They left with two SUVs filled with clothing, computers, books, bedsheets, a Utne Reader, a stuffed animal, pamphlets, a pair of women’s underwear and lamp oil. While in custody, Connole surrendered a paint-stained pair of slacks that are now being analyzed by FBI forensics experts in Quantico, Va.

Connole said the FBI questioning began with agents telling him he was suspected in the Hummer case. “A tremendous wave [of relief] came over me. Whoo,” Connole said. “ ‘That wasn’t me. Thank God. It’s all some sort of mistake.’ So I didn’t care if I was talking to the FBI then.”

Agents focused on four issues, he said: a cigarette lighter found at the Hummer dealership, possible paint speckles on his pants and shoes, an alleged accomplice whom agents claimed they were close to finding and digitally enhanced photographs from the surveillance video.

On Monday afternoon, West Covina police released Connole after the U.S. attorney’s office and the L.A. County district attorney’s office declined to file charges.

The government’s handling of the case drew criticism after Connole’s release. FBI officials in Los Angeles and in Washington, D.C., said the case has been handled properly.

“This is not a closed book by any means,” said a Justice Department official in Washington, who asked not to be identified because of the nature of the investigation. The official also dismissed the notion that the arson fires are insignificant in the context of international terrorism.

“Some people say this is minor, that you shouldn’t be spending your time on these kinds of cases,” said the official. “Our view is that we have seen increased rhetoric, we have seen increased activity, and while we haven’t seen any deaths or injuries so far, we think it is inevitable we will.... So we are attacking the problem now.”

ELF has claimed responsibility for at least 36 attacks in the last few years, including a $50-million fire at a San Diego apartment complex that was under construction and the burning of four ski lifts and three buildings at a Vail, Colo., ski resort.

The caller defended the attacks on the car dealerships and other attacks he would not specify. “No one got hurt,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons why explosives weren’t used. They’re dangerous.”

On Wednesday afternoon, three FBI agents used a dog to search a red Oldsmobile convertible belonging to Connole’s friend, Katie McMillan. McMillan said agents did not take anything.

*

Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.


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