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Originally published March 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 4, 2008 at 2:02 PM

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New houses becoming popular targets

The Earth Liberation Front has its roots in the militant opposition to logging of old-growth forests. Beginning in 1996, an underground...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Earth Liberation Front has its roots in the militant opposition to logging of old-growth forests. Beginning in 1996, an underground group launched more than a dozen arsons against targets that included the U.S. Forest Service, timber companies, a horse slaughterhouse, a car dealership and a University of Washington researcher believed to be genetically engineering poplar trees.

But in recent years, new housing developments popping up on the urban fringes have become the most high-profile targets claimed by the ELF.

Those attacks include a 2002 arson that destroyed a San Diego apartment complex and caused $50 million in damage, and a 2000 torching of a luxury housing development in Mount Sinai, N.Y. "If you build it, we will burn it," was the graffiti left at the scene of the New York fire, according to The New York Times.

Other arsons claimed by ELF include fires that destroyed two houses under construction in a Snohomish County subdivision in 2004 and the torching of a house in Sammamish in 2005, according to Fred Gutt, an FBI special agent in Seattle. Those cases remain unsolved.

The early Monday morning arsons that destroyed three multimillion-dollar houses in Snohomish County appear to fit the pattern of targeting housing developments. A banner bearing ELF initials left at the scene attacked "McMansions" in rural areas.

Federal investigators believe that these house arsons, like an earlier wave started in the 1990s, are carried out by small, secretive and very elusive cells.

"Unlike a traditional crime family, there is a lack of hierarchy to penetrate," said Fred Gutt, an FBI special agent in Seattle.

In the late 1990s, the first ELF cell sounded downright cocky as they issued news release after news release claiming responsibility for attacks and explaining the perceived sins of the targets.

After a March 2001 arson that burned 35 SUVs at a Chevrolet dealership in Eugene, Ore., an ELF communique announced the arrival of a new, more militant era, when the sins of the "rich who parade around in their armored existence" would no longer go unchallenged.

The FBI had few solid clues in these arsons until 2004, when they were able to pressure Jacob Ferguson, a key member of the early cell, to wear a recording wire to his meetings with other activists.

That investigation, known as "Operation Backfire," eventually resulted in the indictments of 18 individuals. An alleged ringleader of that group was Bill "Avalon" Rodgers, who committed suicide in Arizona after being taken into custody.

Rodgers was also a committed animal-rights militant, and carried out some of his actions on behalf of the Animal Liberation Front. The ALF in recent years has become much more visible and carried out several attacks against companies and individuals.

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On Feb. 3, an incendiary device was left at the house of Edythe London, a UCLA scientist involved in primate research. An ALF message warned her, "We won't back down, ever."

Jerry Vlasek, who speaks on behalf of the ALF, said his group's actions have been on the upswing in recent years.

The ELF's tactics have drawn criticism from more established environmental organizations. "These people aren't environmentalists. They're criminals," said Trevor Kaul, director of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club.

In 2003, after ELF attacks on a car delaership and construction site in Southern California, the Sierra Club's national executive director Carl Pope, said his organization "condemns all acts of violence in the name of the environment." He pointed out that the Sierra Club contributed to a reward fund to help track down those who set fire to a Forest Service building in the Willamette National Forest.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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