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by Mike Weiss, SF Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, Feb. 04, 2002 at 2:48 PM
In the latest twist to define dissent as terrorism, the FBI has stated that use of stickers now constitutes "eco-terror." In more honest times, unlawful placement of stickers was termed graffiti or vandalism. While public space has been invaded with more and more corporate billboards and advertising, grassroots movements worldwide have made use of stickers with slogans to circumvent the diminishing opportunities to be heard. The FBI has stuck the label "eco-terrorist" on the environmental movement, singling them out from the countless groups using stickers to spread their message.
errorEco-terrorists frustrate FBI
Sentencing of The Santa Cruz 2 marks a rare victory for the agency
Mike Weiss, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2002
When a pair of activists known to compatriots as The Santa Cruz 2 were sentenced to prison in federal court in San Jose last week, it marked a rare victory in the hunt for the underground Animal Liberation Front.
Identified by the FBI as a terrorist group, the ALF and its sister organization, the Earth Liberation Front, claim their members committed 137 illegal eco-terror actions last year -- including 10 in California -- that caused $17.3 million in damage.
The actions ranged from plastering stickers on a Los Angeles bank to setting a $5.6 million fire at the University of Washington. Just last week, ALF/ELF said members had sabotaged a biotech park under construction in Maine and set fire to a new genomics research center being built at the University of Minnesota.
But "few individuals associated with the ALF and ELF have been apprehended, " the FBI acknowledged in its most recent report on domestic terrorism.
"They're a loosely knit organization," says FBI domestic terrorism spokesman Steven Berry in Washington. "The bulk of their communication is via the Internet and computer. There's no real structure and hierarchy such as we see in other criminal organizations."
On Feb. 12, the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health is scheduled to hold a hearing about eco-terrorism. Environmental activists have called for nationwide protests against the hearings.
The subcommittee's chairman, Scott McInnis, is a Republican from the Vail, Colo., area, where the eco-underground set a series of spectacular fires that caused $12 million in damage to a ski resort in October 1998. A photo of that fire flickers on the ELF Web site's home page.
"There's growing frustration some of these attacks are not being solved, that people are not being brought to justice," says Josh Penry, the subcommittee staff director.
"The reason they have proved so elusive is . . . largely a function of their invisible nature," says Penry. "They're structured into loose cells that work independent from each other, and each individual element or member of the organization is not aware of the activities of the others."
Another difficulty is that law enforcement information is dispersed among a variety of agencies. "I'm not aware of any central clearinghouse for ALF/ELF events," says the FBI's Berry.
The FBI had intended to issue reports in 2000 and 2001 on domestic terrorism, but, Berry says, it has not yet done so. The FBI's last comprehensive look at the eco-terrorists was compiled for 1999.
Meanwhile, on its Web site, the ALF/ELF boasts that only three of its activists are in prison and another five awaiting trial or sentencing.
Among the latter were Peter G. Schnell, 21, and Matthew Whyte, 18, who were sentenced Monday to 24 and 14 months in prison, respectively, a year after a police patrol happened upon them assembling one-gallon Molotov cocktails just past midnight in a parking lot near Capitola City Hall in Santa Cruz County.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Frewing contended that Schnell and Whyte were associated with the ALF. He described Schnell as having "a pattern of terrorizing people." The slim redhead from New Jersey is the son of a computer consultant and a social worker for disturbed teenagers, according to court records.
Schnell was on probation when he was captured and had seven outstanding warrants, including one for resisting arrest during an animal rights protest in New York and another for assault during an attack on a McDonald's during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999.
Whyte grew up in Orange County, the son of a civil engineer. At 16 he was detained in San Francisco by University of California police who caught him and others trying to storm a lab where animals were kept. He is receiving mental health counseling, his attorney Mark Vermeulen told the judge.
They pleaded guilty to one count of possessing an unregistered firearm, while charges of making an unregistered firearm were dismissed.
But they disclosed little to federal agents. Schnell and Whyte said they bought material for their firebombs at Kmart, that they reconnoitered their intended target the day before and that they had been planning to firebomb dairy trucks.
"The implication was that they felt dairy cows were mistreated," said Frewing.
If the federal government seems to have a dearth of information about the eco-underground, the ALF/ELF itself produces reams. The ALF's recently posted 2001 annual report has enough charts, statistical analyses and appendixes to be a government document itself.
The report has a taunting humor. Its action-of-the-year award went to the October release of about 2,000 mink from an Iowa ranch. After 800 had been recaptured, the culprits returned and re-released them. Among the animals released in 2001, the ALF includes not only thousands of mink and ducks, hundreds of chickens and horses, but one snail.
The ALF/ELF also churns out press releases when actions are claimed by their underground brigades.
LEGAL, PUBLIC VOICE
David Barbarash operates the ALF press office out of Vancouver. His role resembles that played in years past by Gerry Adams for the IRA in Northern Ireland. Barbarash is the legal, public voice for an illegal underground organization.
The action communiques that reach him are anonymous and untraceable, says the 37-year-old activist, who won't discuss his personal life beyond saying that he was arrested three times and convicted in 1992 for releasing 29 cats from a breeder. After that, he says, "I couldn't continue as an active ALF member."
The organization has four stated guidelines. To free animals from "places of abuse" such as fur farms and biomedical laboratories. To inflict economic damage "to those who profit from the misery and exploitation of animals." To make public "the atrocities committed against animals." And to take "all necessary precautions against hurting any animal, human and nonhuman."
"No people have been killed or injured as a result of an ALF activity," Barbarash says, a statement the FBI acknowledges to be true.
The ALF also defends its continued actions, even after the events of Sept. 11.
"To compare the horrific actions we witnessed on Sept. 11," Barbarash says, "to the actions of people who work to save animal lives and our planet while not using violent means is, frankly, ridiculous."
That claim of nonviolence is, of course, rejected by law enforcement. "Each and every one of these actions are violations of federal law," says the FBI's Berry. "Generally their actions are arsons, and arsons are difficult to investigate because not much evidence is left behind. They plan their acts well. That does not deter us from going after them. We are determined to bring to justice these individuals who commit acts of eco-terrorism."
Since Sept. 11, the ALF/ELF has claimed eight actions, including two in California. On Oct. 15, a hay barn was burned at a wild horse and burro facility operated by the Bureau of Land Management in Lassen County near Susanville, and an unsuccessful attempt was made to free about 160 wild horses that BLM adopts out to ranchers and others. The ALF claims that almost all the adopted animals are slaughtered for meat and other products.
On Nov. 13, some $50,000 damage was done to files and equipment at Sierra Biomedical, a La Jolla laboratory.
Among the other actions were an attack on a primate research facility in New Mexico; a fire bomb detonated at another wild horse corral in Nevada; and beagle pups released from a breeder in upstate New York.
In federal court Monday, Frewing asked for a stiff sentence for Schnell and Whyte. The prosecutor noted that the firebombs they were assembling were similar to ones described in a primer of the ALF.
Whyte and Schnell were contrite. Pausing frequently to keep his composure, Whyte told the court, "I have a lot of regret for what I've done. . . . I know now there's better ways to go about creating change."
Schnell told the court: "I still definitely believe in compassion toward animals. . . . I'm ready to make a change in my life, ready to take responsibility. . . . I have much regret."
Taking into account their age and saying he believed they would not commit such crimes again, U.S. District Judge James Ware imposed minimum sentences. Their possible affiliation with ALF, Ware said, "is not of great moment to this court."
Here are the "direct actions" in California last year claimed by the Animal Liberation Front and its sister group, the Earth Liberation Front:
-- Lab equipment and records destroyed at Sierra Biomedical in La Jolla (San Diego County), Nov. 11.
-- Hay barn burned at Bureau of Land Management wild horse and burro facility near Susanville (Lassen County), Oct. 15.
-- Attempted sabotage at Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, July 25.
-- Bank stickered in Los Angeles, June 21.
-- Crops uprooted at DNA plant technology research facility in Brentwood, May 16.
-- Graffiti spray-painted on boarding kennel in unspecified location, May 8.
-- 28 rabbits released from ICRC Co. in Castroville (Monterey County), April 28.
-- 468 chickens released from Sunny-Cal Eggs in Beaumont (Riverside County), March 17.
-- Cotton gin burned at Delta and Pine Land Co. in Visalia (Tulare County), Feb. 20.
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