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Suspect in Firebombing at Hummer Dealership Released

Police say they lack evidence to charge the activist but they are still investigating.

September 16, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong, Greg Krikorian and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

An environmental activist whom police suspected of firebombing a West Covina Hummer dealership was released from custody Monday after authorities said they lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime.

Josh Connole, 25, thrust his arms toward the sky, leapt from the ground repeatedly and shouted, "Yeah!" and "I'm free!" as he left the lockup of the West Covina Police Department at 4:30 p.m. The solar panel installer was immediately swarmed by half a dozen teary-eyed friends who had gathered for a vigil outside the station.

"I feel awesome," said Connole, who was dressed in a white jail-issue paper jumpsuit.

"The FBI was doing everything they could to intimidate me," he said, and to make him "confess to something I didn't do."

Since his arrest early Friday morning, Connole had insisted that authorities had the wrong man. An active anti-war protester and a resident of a solar-powered cooperative home where residents drive electric cars and grow their own vegetables, Connole said he participated in peaceful actions only and would never set fire to an auto dealership.

"The only thing I've done is stand on a corner, with a sign," Connole said. "And as far as I know that's free speech."

Connole's arrest had come three weeks after vandals 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 had been intended to take the profit motive away from those responsible for pollution.

Law enforcement officials have not publicly disclosed any evidence they collected in the case. But sources have alleged that Connole had been seen on an enhanced version of a videotape shot at one of the dealerships the night the vandalism occurred.

Federal authorities followed Connole for days before the arrest. Sources said FBI officials and West Covina detectives had been at odds with federal prosecutors about the level of proof needed to charge Connole with the crimes. Then, early Friday morning, FBI agents monitoring Connole's activities arrested him, setting in motion a chain of events that was supposed to lead to charges. It's unclear why the agents decided to arrest him at that point.

By the time today's release deadline arrived, authorities determined, they would still lack the necessary evidence to charge Connole.

In releasing Connole, West Covina police stressed that their investigation would continue.

"We want to make clear he remains a suspect. It is just that he won't be in custody," said Cpl. Rudy Lopez, a West Covina police spokesman.

Connole's friends and his attorney said Monday that Connole had been targeted for his political activism, particularly in protests he had helped organize in Brea, where he once lived.

"What this case was really about was an anti-Bush administration activist who has been protesting the invasion of Iraq," said defense lawyer William Paparian.

"If they had had an eco-terrorist, they would have had their ducks in a row," Paparian said. "They didn't. They had a profile, and they were trying to make Josh fit it ....They were trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. These are idealistic environmentalists who don't bear any resemblance to the kind of craziness of the ... eco-terrorists."

FBI spokeswoman Cheryl Mimura said her agency had not targeted Connole for political reasons, and she defended the agents' actions.

"I believe the agents made the appropriate decision at the time. They believed there was probable cause to take him into custody," she said. "And after consultation with the U.S. attorney's office, the district attorney's and other investigative agencies ... the determination was that the evidence was not there to immediately file charges."

Friends and relatives described Connole as a young man who had undergone a political awakening before becoming an activist.

Growing up in the Orange County suburb of Brea, Connole lived in an area that was "hard-core conservative," said longtime friend Lief Lorenzen. Connole graduated from Brea Olinda High School and went on to study computers at the Computer Learning Center in Anaheim. During this period, Lorenzen said, Connole was not deeply involved in politics. He landed a job at the Experion credit reporting agency in Orange, friends said.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks marked something of a turning point, friends said. He became active in peace demonstrations and practiced a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

"He has always been a compassionate, caring individual," Lorenzen said. "Seeing others suffering would personally motivate him to do everything he could" to help.

Lorenzen was among the friends who cheered and beat drums Monday as word of Connole's imminent release spread outside the police station.

Connole's friend Katie McMillan leapt into his arms. "We're going camping -- forever," the pair said when a reporter asked what they would do now.

Connole said he had been surprised by his release, because he had expected to appear in court this morning.

"They said, 'Come with me. Take all your stuff.' I said, 'Am I being transferred? I've got to call someone.' They said, 'You're being freed.' "

In the excitement of being reunited with friends, Connole lost one of the paper slippers issued by the jail as he ran. He stood talking to friends with one bare foot.

Nearby, friends held a sign reading, "The truth will prevail." Connole pointed to the sign and said, "You should cross that out and say the truth has prevailed."

*

Times staff writer David Rosenzweig contributed to this report.

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