federal bureau of investigation still attempting to solve politically-motivated arsons

by Tim Phillips

On August 1, 2003, an unfinished 206-unit condominium complex in San Diego, California, was the site of an Earth Liberation Front (ELF) arson. People had protested against the complex because it constituted expansion into a sensitive coastal canyon area. No one was injured by the fire, but the FBI is apparently still trying to identify who set it, perhaps because it caused $50 million in damage. According to yesterday’s San Diego Union-Tribune article,

These days, much of that investigation centers around the same network of activists, as agents interview and reinterview them year after year hoping something within has changed — an ideology, a relationship, a moral tug. … Maybe a fresh eyewitness detail. Or maybe an activist with a change of heart.

After the fire, Rod Coronado flew to San Diego to speak at a previously scheduled event sponsored by Compassion for Farm Animals, a group that advocated veganism. Coronado was never a suspect in the fire, but an undercover San Diego Police Department detective attended the event and took notes. In Coronado’s speech, he explained how the incendiary devices he used to firebomb an animal research laboratory at Michigan State University (MSU) in 1992 were made. (In March 1995, Coronado had pled guilty to one count of arson at MSU, for which he spent five years in prison.)

Seven weeks after the condominium arson and Coronado’s speech, the ELF destroyed four unfinished homes and damaged two others in San Diego. The August and September fires were accompanied by similar ELF banners and occurred at roughly the same time of day. The method and location of ignition also tied the fires together. The FBI has yet to identify who set the September fires and, as with the August fire, is still attempting to do so.

Two and a half years later, in February 2006, Coronado was charged for his August 2003 speech under an obscure antiterrorism statute, which made it illegal to demonstrate how to make a destructive device with the intent that someone would commit arson. He took the case to trial in September 2007. The jury hung eleven to one in favor of acquittal, as the jurors could not reach an agreement as to whether Coronado could have believed his speech would result in imminent action.

Yet prosecutors threatened to pursue other charges against Coronado. For example, they threatened to charge him for a similar speech he gave in Washington, D.C. in 2003. To avoid such charges, Coronado accepted a plea deal involving one year and one day in prison. He surrendered to federal custody on May 9, 2008.

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