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Originally published March 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 4, 2008 at 4:55 PM

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Hunt is on: Who torched the Street of Dreams?

Working with few clues, federal investigators face a daunting task as they try to determine whether a shadowy group of radical environmentalists...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Working with few clues, federal investigators face a daunting task as they try to determine whether a shadowy group of radical environmentalists torched three multimillion-dollar homes along a Street of Dreams in Snohomish County on Monday.

Although a spray-painted banner left at the scene contained the initials of the Earth Liberation Front, it took nearly a decade of groundwork in a previous case before investigators cracked a Pacific Northwest cell of the ELF responsible for more than a dozen arsons beginning in 1996.

The homes gutted in Monday's inferno had drawn tens of thousands of people last summer who paid to gawk at their architecture, interiors and sheer size.

The fires left law-enforcement officials questioning whether they were timed to coincide with jury deliberations in the federal trial of an alleged ELF member accused of helping set the 2001 fire that gutted the UW Center for Urban Horticulture.

"I guess you could say we're not surprised," said Mark Bartlett, a senior federal prosecutor involved in the UW-related trial.

The pre-dawn fires in the Maltby area of Snohomish County destroyed the three homes and damaged a fourth, and investigators were looking into the possibility that an attempt was made to torch a fifth house. None of the homes was occupied, and no one was injured in the three-alarm fire that shot flames 100 feet into the air.

The FBI is investigating the fires as a possible "domestic terrorism act," said FBI spokesman Fred Gutt in Seattle. The Snohomish County sheriff's Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives also are participating as part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The fires were reminiscent of what FBI officials said was the last arson in the region possibly linked to the ELF. In January 2006, a luxury home under construction on Camano Island was burned and a pink-dyed sheet with a spray-painted message -- which investigators would not reveal -- was left at the front gate.

The Camano Island incident, as well as a string of Snohomish County arsons and attempted fires set to new, unoccupied homes in 2004, are still under investigation, Gutt said. No arrests have been made.

ELF and a similar organization, the Animal Liberation Front, have been linked to politically motivated arson and sabotage around the Western United States. Between 1996 and 2001, attacks caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to targets including a timber-company headquarters and a Vail, Colo., ski lodge.

Part of the challenge, Gutt said, is that ELF is "not really an organization."

"It's a leaderless ideology," he said. "Unlike traditional organized crime, it's a different animal. So anyone inspired by their message who commits violence against people or property ... that's an ELF act."

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The FBl considers such acts terrorism, Gutt said, because "you're committing an unlawful act to further a political or social cause."

At the end of the day, Gutt said, "We look at, 'What motivates the crime?' "

Officials said Monday's fires did $7 million in damage to the Street of Dreams, a row of luxury model homes that some 90,000 people toured last summer. The homes were touted as including environmentally "green" features such as formaldehyde-free materials, energy-efficient appliances and landscaping that included native plants.

But the banner left at the scene, shown in a KING-5 video, challenged builders' assertion that the homes featured environmentally responsible construction methods.

It read: "Built Green? Nope black! McMansions in RCDs r not green. ELF"

The initials "RCD" refer to "rural cluster development."

The damaged homes, part of the Quinn's Crossing development near Highway 522, were between 4,200 and 4,750 square feet in size, with prices close to $2 million.

The devastation was a blow to the owners of the properties, which were for sale.

"It's sad. It's just a shock. I don't know what to tell you," said Grey Lundberg of CMI Homes, based in Bellevue, as he looked at the smoking remains of an award-winning home built by his company.

Lundberg said the homes had video-surveillance systems, but the one at his property had been turned off, since it was believed it wasn't needed.

Lundberg said he and other developers at the site had worked hard to build homes that were as environmentally friendly as possible, filled with such features as high-efficiency insulation and recycled materials.

"We're just trying to make a statement that we can do better," he said.

Even so, Quinn's Crossing had earlier drawn opposition from neighbors who said its septic systems could damage critical wetlands needed to protect an aquifer used by about 20,000 people in the area and could harm streams used by chinook salmon.

The Snohomish County Council approved the project in March 2007.

Link to UW arson trial?

Monday's fires, reported about 4 a.m., had reverberations hours later at the Tacoma trial of Briana Waters, 32, who testified last week that she had nothing to do with the UW arson. Her attorneys asked the judge for a mistrial, arguing that news of the fires could influence the jury. If convicted she faces 35 years in prison.

Jurors were called in as a group by U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess and told there was a news story that could potentially influence their deliberations in the case. They were asked whether anyone felt they could no longer continue as jurors. No one spoke up, and Burgess denied the defense request.

The jury, which is to resume deliberations this morning, was told by Burgess at the end of the day to avoid broadcast and print news.

The spray-painted banner with the ELF's initials left at the scene Monday made no reference to Waters' trial.

But Bartlett, the senior federal prosecutor, noted that in a 2001 incident, ELF members torched 35 SUVs at a Eugene, Ore., car dealership to support a Eugene anarchist about to go on trial in an earlier arson case.

Neighbors' concerns

At the site of Monday's fires, neighbor Kim Quenzer said she and her husband suspected ELF when they saw the magnitude of the flames.

"We worried about that when we built this place," she said of her home, because similar arson acts had been claimed by the ELF. "You just wonder what they're thinking. They're not helping their cause."

Builder Todd Lockie, who lost his Craftsman home, fumed about the possibility ELF was responsible, calling the group "evil."

His house featured an entryway waterfall with recirculating water, an outdoor living area with fireplace and a powder room with custom leaf-print Venetian plaster walls.

The $1.9 million house, dubbed Copper Falls, had an alarm system, but Lockie said he turned it off because real-estate agents didn't want to set it off while they were showing the house.

"I'm kicking myself," he said.

Seattle Times reporters Peyton Whitely, Jack Broom, Sonia Krishnan, Nicole Tsong, Amy Roe, Hal Bernton and Mike Carter contributed to this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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