Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2003

San Gabriel Valley Car Dealerships Vandalized

Hummers, SUVs are destroyed in West Covina; other SUVs damaged in Duarte, Monrovia and Arcadia. Earth Liberation Front calls incidents "ELF actions."

From Associated Press

Apparent arson fires destroyed or damaged dozens of Hummers and other SUVs early today at a car dealership vandalized by anti-pollution graffiti, and similar slogans were found spray-painted on SUVs at three other dealerships in neighboring cities.

The press office of the radical Earth Liberation Front issued an unsigned e-mail calling the incidents "ELF actions" but adding that it had received no communication from the persons responsible. The ELF claimed responsibility earlier this month for burning down a San Diego apartment construction site.

Agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene.

"Since they're (ELF) considered an extremist movement, by definition it falls under possible domestic terrorism violation," FBI spokeswoman Cheryl Mimura said.

Investigators found slogans such as "SUVs suck," "I (heart) pollution" and "Fat, Lazy Americans" spray-painted on several Hummers at the dealership. The initials "ELF" were also found.

"With all the evidence that you're already seeing on the vehicle, it's highly likely it's an arson fire," said Rick Genovese, the assistant fire chief and fire marshal.

The 5 a.m. blazes caused more than $1 million worth of damage at Clippinger Chevrolet in the eastern Los Angeles County suburb. About 20 vehicles, mostly Hummers, were destroyed and more than 20 others were badly damaged, Genovese said. A warehouse also burned.

SUVs at dealerships in Arcadia, Duarte and Monrovia were also vandalized, though there were no other fires.

The ELF has claimed responsibility for a slew of arson attacks against commercial entities that members say threaten or damage the environment. It is suspected in a $50 million arson Aug. 1 fire that destroyed a five-story housing complex under construction in San Diego's fast-growing northern edge.

In an e-mail sent Monday to reporters, ELF's news office said it appeared that San Diego-area fire was targeting "rampant urban development," but said it had not been in contact with the persons responsible. No one was injured in the fire.

The group has also taken responsibility for vandalizing sport utility vehicles at dealerships in Santa Cruz and Erie, Pa.

Hummer-maker General Motors denounced today's destruction.

"We are thankful that nobody was hurt," said GM spokesman Brian Akre. "This was a reprehensible criminal act and is under investigation by federal authorities. We will not speculate on who may be responsible; we need to let the investigators do their job. If this was some kind of misguided attempt to make a political statement, those responsible should know that committing arson and putting property and people in danger is not the way to gain public support for their position."

Brian Levin, an associate professor of criminal justice at California State University, San Bernardino, and an expert in domestic terrorism, said the incidents were indicative of a trend toward more violent confrontations by radical environmentalists.

"This movement is increasingly becoming more brazen, and has crossed the line, particularly in Europe, toward physical violence," Levin said.

The Earth Liberation Front operates as a sort of headless umbrella group, Levin said, encouraging individuals to commit acts of "liberation" and credit them to ELF.

Genovese said whoever set the fire may have been trying to protest vehicles that pollute the air because of their poor fuel economy. But he said their approach was misguided.

"There's a lot more pollutants from the fire than the vehicles would pollute during their lifetime," he said. "There's hundreds of tons of pollutants that were spilled off."

Bernie Schonder, 40, of Covina, has worked for the West Covina dealership for 12 years.

"It's pretty messed up for the little guy that has to make a living," Schonder said. "It's my livelihood. Definitely, it's not right."