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Firebombing Suspect's Home Searched

September 14, 2003|Steve Hymon and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

More than 50 investigators scoured the Pomona home of a 25-year-old environmental activist arrested in connection with the firebombing of a West Covina Hummer dealership, departing Saturday with seized items that included hair brushes, anarchist literature and lamp oil.

Josh Connole remained in jail in the West Covina Police Department on $825,000 bail. He was arrested early Friday morning by FBI agents, three weeks after vandals acting in the name of a radical environmental organization struck four car dealerships in the San Gabriel Valley, setting fire to one Chevrolet dealership and destroying or defacing dozens of Hummers and other sport utility vehicles.

William Korthof, the co-owner of the house where Connole lives, offered an alibi for his friend on Saturday in a telephone interview. "I saw him between those hours at the home, so it's clear to me that he couldn't have been there," said Korthof, 24. "It's certain to me that he couldn't have been at the dealership."

The fire at the West Covina dealership was reported at 4:58 a.m. on Aug. 22.

Connole, a warehouse worker at Korthof's solar panel business, is expected to be arraigned this week in state court, and he could also face federal charges, authorities said. The case is being handled by a task force of federal and local authorities. Two search warrants were issued Friday night, one signed by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge at 6 p.m. and another by a federal judge at 9:15 p.m.

Authorities declined to comment on the searches. It took more than 50 federal and local law enforcement agents about seven hours to search the two homes that make up the co-op where Connole has lived since June. Agents drove off at about 5 a.m. with two SUVs full of property, leaving several bedrooms in disarray. Piles of clothes, books and other belongings were heaped on the floor.

"I asked one of the police officers from West Covina how the search was going to work: I was concerned about losing a bunch of stuff," said resident Helena Koelle, 22. "He said, 'The FBI isn't going to come in and take all your things and trash your room,' but that's exactly what they did."

According to the search warrants, copies of which were left with the residents and given to The Times, investigators appeared to be looking for items that showed Connole was interested in politically motivated acts of vandalism or arson as well as for items that could link him to the crime scenes.

Among the items agents were authorized to seize: any literature having to do with the Earth Liberation Front, a loose association of militant environmentalists who claimed responsibility for the attacks. Agents also sought literature on Earth First!, another activist environmental group, and "any depictions pictorial or written, memorializing the arson and graffiti incident."

In addition, the warrants gave them permission to look for weapons, bombs, switches, timers and ignition sources, as well as beer bottles, glassware and containers that could be used to hold liquid accelerants.

Sources said Connole was caught on a surveillance tape at a Hummer dealership shot moments before the fire, but investigators remained tight-lipped Saturday about other evidence they might have.

In the warrants, agents were authorized to take any items of clothing "containing microscopic paint residue" or "upon which an accelerant detection dog alerts." Also on the warrant list were Reebok or Adidas tennis shoes, blue jeans with tears near the bottom, light-colored khaki pants, a green long-sleeved shirt, and any human hair fibers.

Authorities were also interested in Connole's personal financial records, cell phone bills and transcripts for math classes.

According to a receipt officials left with residents, among the belongings law enforcement personnel took from the residence were butterfly knives, anarchist literature, an anarchy patch, a 22-ounce bottle of fuel, two hair brushes, bed sheets and a pair of women's underwear.

They seized Connole's resume, but left behind a bong, a water pipe commonly used to smoke marijuana, which sat beside his bed Saturday.

Also remaining: a rifle and several boxes of ammunition sitting in plain view in the corner of another bedroom, which residents said were owned by another tenant.

Connole lived in a converted garage on Bradford Street in a quiet neighborhood near Cal Poly Pomona.

Residents said the co-op is dedicated to conservation and an environmentally-friendly lifestyle. Most are in their 20s and are either students or recent graduates. They maintain a vegetarian kitchen, recycle and grow their own vegetables.

Inside, the homes had the typical trappings of young adults: mismatched furniture, event fliers taped to the refrigerator alongside pizza coupons.

About eight residents interviewed Saturday said they are proud to be environmental activists who shun consumerism and waste. But authorities, they said, have made a mistake.

"You got the wrong man," said Jessie Dowling, 22, a co-op member. "This is framed. And everyone in this household wants to do everything in their power to show that we are people who are nonviolent. Although we do have extreme political views, all we do and all we have ever done is exercise our 1st Amendment rights."

In a phone call from his cell on Friday, Connole said he had nothing to do with the vandalism and the figure in the surveillance photos is "obviously not me."

The Earth Liberation Front issued a statement on Saturday saying Connole's arrest had been made "on what appears to be nonexistent grounds."

"We believe this arrest is part of a pattern of harassment the FBI has been visiting on activists in Southern California," the group said in an e-mail response to a Times e-mail inquiry.

Co-op residents said no one at the co-op is affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front.

"This is really sad that this can happen to students, to kids

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