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Man Held in SUV Firebombings

Pomona commune dweller allegedly seen on surveillance tape before attack

September 13, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong, Greg Krikorian and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

Federal authorities arrested a Pomona solar panel installer Friday in connection with the firebombing of a West Covina Hummer dealership last month, an attack linked to the radical environmental group Earth Liberation Front.

Josh Connole, 25, was taken into custody outside a Craftsman bungalow that he and five friends had converted into a self-styled co-op dedicated to veganism, conservation and the quest for world peace. Friends said Connole had nothing to do with the vandalism and describe him as a pacifist who is committed to change without violence.

Sources close to the investigation said that Connole could be seen on surveillance tape shot just before the fire at the Hummer dealership.

Federal investigators followed Connole for three days before arresting him on multiple counts of arson and felony vandalism. He is being held in lieu of $825,000 bail and will appear in court Monday, authorities said. FBI agents and local police began a search of Connole's home and other buildings late Friday night. They said they hoped that the arrest would lead to additional suspects, according to FBI spokesman Matt McLaughlin.

The arrest came three weeks after vandals acting in the name of radical environmentalism struck four car dealerships and several individual car owners in the San Gabriel Valley. They set fire to one Chevrolet dealership and destroyed or defaced dozens of Hummers and other sport utility vehicles, painting many with the word "polluter."

The Earth Liberation Front, a loose association of militant environmentalists, claimed responsibility for the attacks, which it said were intended to take the profit motive away from those responsible for pollution.

Federal and local authorities declined to comment on Connole's arrest, other than to say that he was being held at the West Covina Police Department.

In a phone call from his cell, Connole said that agents had the wrong man.

"I didn't have anything to do with that," he said. "I didn't know what Earth Liberation Front was about. Someone mentioned to me the Hummer incident when it happened, but I don't watch TV or read newspapers. I know nothing about it.... I'm no more involved in causes than standing on corners with signs. I'm not an active member in any organization."

Connole said that he was shown the surveillance photos while he was being interrogated and that they bear no likeness to him.

"It's obviously not me. The hair is short, the goatee is short. The guy was wearing sunglasses. I'm always wearing my prescription glasses." Connole also said the man in the photographs was wearing Nike-type tennis shoes, while he said he only wears Vans slip-ons.

Friends also said they could not believe Connole could be guilty.

"He's a low-key, nonviolent person," said Lisa Rosen, Connole's boss at the solar business and the "manager" of the commune, which its residents call Regen.v5. "He's a pacifist. I don't think he's any great threat to national security."

Other friends described Connole as a "dorky" and "clumsy" idealist who enjoyed arguing social and political issues with those who disagreed with him.

"He doesn't have a car; this is ridiculous. It would be impossible for him to even get to the dealership," said Katie McMillan, 22, Connole's girlfriend.

McMillan said unmarked cars had been following Connole since last Wednesday. He was arrested while en route to a nearby video store.

Sources said that authorities acted Friday out of concern that Connole might flee. He was later turned over to the West Covina Police Department and remained in its custody as federal and local authorities sought search warrants in the case.

It remains unclear whether the case will be handled by state or federal authorities.

"There is an ongoing investigation of last month's incident," said U.S. attorney's office spokesman Thomas Mrozek. "And we will see how things develop."

Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, also said it was not clear how the case will progress. "We have been talking to federal officials ... but at this point in time, no one has presented a case to our office."

ELF, which claimed responsibility for the dealership vandalism on its Web site, has also taken responsibility for a $50-million arson fire that destroyed an apartment construction site in San Diego. The incidents have raised the group's profile significantly. Federal authorities say they view the group as a domestic terrorist organization.

Working before dawn, the vandals hit car dealerships in West Covina, Duarte and Arcadia, as well as residential streets in Monrovia.

The targeted vehicles were apparently chosen for their relatively poor fuel efficiency. By far the most serious attack was on the Clippinger Chevrolet dealership in West Covina, which sustained an estimated $1 million in damage after two fires were set in the car lot.

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