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When the Feds Locked Up Jonathan Paul for Refusing to Testify, the Animal Rights Movement Gained an . . . : Accidental Hero

May 10, 1993|ANN JAPENGA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SPOKANE, Wash. — For most of its existence, the modern animal rights movement has often been dismissed as extremist and ineffectual. But now, movement leaders say, there is a sign they are finally being taken seriously: The feds are after them.

In what some regard as an unprecedented government siege against animal rights activists, federal grand juries in five states are investigating a string of break-ins and animal "liberations" at research facilities in 1991.

No indictments have yet been handed down, but the inquiries may have inadvertently furthered the movement's legitimacy by creating a new animal rights hero: 27-year-old Santa Cruz resident Jonathan Paul.

For five months, Paul was locked up for refusing to testify regarding a break-in at an animal research lab near Spokane. The inmate, who was not a suspect in the raid, had just hunkered in for a possible nine more months in jail when, unexpectedly, he was freed last month.

Shortly after vacating his cell at the Spokane County Jail, Paul sat down to savor his first self-selected lunch in 158 days--an avocado sandwich, spinach salad and fresh orange juice. A muscular man with a dark ponytail and the stylish good looks of a Calvin Klein model, he interrupted his meal to take congratulatory calls on a cellular phone and respond to reporters clustering around his table.

Freedom doesn't seem to have hurt Paul's celebrity: He still has the distinction of being the longest-jailed animal rights activist in the country. Adding to his renown is the high profile of his twin sisters, who campaigned for his release in People magazine wearing "Free Jonathan Paul" T-shirts.

"I am not a dangerous criminal," Paul says, spearing a forkful of spinach. "I always felt from the beginning that I was being used to put pressure on other activists. They were using me to send a message."

Although the underground Animal Liberation Front took credit for the 1991 string of break-ins, grand juries convened in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Michigan and Louisiana have subpoenaed activists--even relatives of activists--who apparently have no direct connection to the group. (Because grand jury proceedings are secret, information on the proceedings comes from the activists themselves.)

"These are serious crimes we're investigating," says Jim Provencher, spokesman for the Seattle field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, one of the agencies involved in the investigation. "If you commit crimes that fall within ATF jurisdiction, we're going to pursue you.

"We are not investigating people for their beliefs," Provencher contends. "We are not going against people for who they are. We're talking tenacious investigation of serious felonies."

Yet Paul argues: "Grand juries have always been used against political movements to squash us. They were used in the 1800s to bring slaves back to the South. They've been used against the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the American Indian movement, the women's movement.

"This is not," he warns, "the first or the last time this will happen."

After lunch, the new mascot of animal rights is in a hurry to get to the airport and put some distance between himself and Spokane. His parting words: "I'm out of Dodge. I'm out, but the issue's not over."

*

On Aug. 12, 1991, vandals broke into buildings at Washington State University in Pullman, freeing mice, mink and coyotes used in experiments that animal activists believed would benefit the fur industry. They also destroyed equipment and poured hydrochloric acid over computers and computer disks, causing as much as $150,000 in damages, according to Bill Hyslop, the U.S. attorney for eastern Washington.

The Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility, in a fax sent to news media in Spokane.

Fourteen months later, Jonathan Paul was served with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury investigating the raid. At the time, Paul says, he was living temporarily in Portland and studying to be a private investigator for environmental and animal rights causes.

Paul had been active in both movements and says he was especially dedicated to the Hunt Saboteurs, a California group he founded to disrupt events like the bighorn sheep hunts in the Mojave Desert.

But Paul was hardly famous as a militant activist and seemed an unlikely target for a grand jury subpoena. He had, however, lived briefly with Rodney Coronado, a legendary Animal Liberation Front warrior who has since gone underground. Paul assumes his connection with Coronado earned him his invitation to Spokane.

Last Election Day, Nov. 3, Paul went before the grand jury. His sisters, Alexandra, an actress on the TV series "Baywatch," and Caroline, a San Francisco firefighter, came along for support but were not allowed in the room during the proceedings.

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