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Six Homes Torched in Protest Act

San Diego blazes destroy four upscale houses under construction and damage two more. Environmental group takes responsibility.

September 20, 2003|Tony Perry and Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — In what the police chief branded "an act of domestic terrorism," four upscale homes under construction were destroyed and two damaged early Friday by arsonists who left banners bearing the name of a radical environmental group that has claimed responsibility for two other recent fires.

The blazes occurred six weeks after an arson fire destroyed an apartment complex under construction in San Diego, causing $50 million in damage. Last month, the Earth Liberation Front also claimed responsibility for an attack on Hummers and other sport utility vehicles at several San Gabriel Valley car dealerships.

The San Diego fires erupted within hours of each other at two sites in the Carmel Valley community in the northern portion of the city. No one was injured.

At both sites, banners were left mentioning the ELF, a group that says its actions are aimed at drawing attention to environmental damage being done by polluters and land developers. One of the banners read: "Development Equals Destruction. Stop Raping Nature. The ELFs are mad."

Police Chief William Lansdowne said officers will begin patrolling construction sites, and expressed hope that detectives would soon make an arrest in the case.

"Domestic terrorism has no place in this great country of ours and will not be allowed in the city of San Diego," Lansdowne said.

Finding those responsible for ELF attacks has proved difficult, because the group is made up of loosely linked cells that operate independently. The group has taken responsibility for hundreds of fires and acts of vandalism from Colorado to Pennsylvania. The FBI arrested a Pomona man in connection with the fire at the West Covina Hummer dealership but released him without filing charges.

Some experts believe the recent incidents represent an escalation on the part of radical activists, possibly caused by a sense of desperation after more traditional protests have failed.

"If it turns out these fires were done in the name of ecological protection, it will be a stupid, cowardly, outrageous act," said City Councilman Scott Peters, who represents Carmel Valley.

Lansdowne, at a news conference near two of the homes, said: "We are very comfortable we can keep this from reoccurring.... We are very hopeful we have enough forensic evidence that will lead to arrests."

Fire Capt. Jeff Carle said investigators are looking at video from security cameras. He declined to say how the fires were started.

The first fire was reported at 1:56 a.m. at a development under construction by Shea Homes. Three homes were destroyed and one damaged. All were in the framing stage.

At 3:50 a.m., a fire was reported approximately two miles to the west in a subdivision being built by Pardee Construction, another of San Diego County's major land-development firms. One home was destroyed, a second damaged.

The sites are in canyons that for decades have been the subject of political wrangling between development interests and slow-growth advocates. Councilman Peters, a former Sierra Club attorney, noted that the housing developments were approved by voters in 1998 as part of a compromise under which some canyons and open spaces would be left untouched.

The destroyed homes already had been sold and the buyers were hoping to move in by Christmas, officials said. The homes ranged in cost from the low $600,000s to the mid-$700,000s.

Officials said they were pleased that the fires did not spread to nearby canyons with thick, dry brush. If that had occurred, they said, the blaze could have been much more destructive.

"The maniacs who set these fires not only endangered lives but also endangered habitat, the habitat they profess to be protecting," said Building Industry Assn. official Russ Valone. The group offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

No arrests have been made in the Aug. 1 blaze that destroyed a 206-unit complex being built in the nearby University City neighborhood of San Diego. At $50 million, it is considered the costliest action ever undertaken by the ELF if the group is found to have been responsible.

The FBI, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the San Diego Metro Arson Strike Team have joined San Diego police in the investigation.

Officials said that the timing, location and method of the fires, plus the presence of banners, appears to link Friday morning's fires and the Aug. 1 blaze, but no tie has been established.

"We want to see the persons caught, convicted and put in prison," said Peters. "This is terrorism, not activism."

FBI officials say they have charted roughly 40 separate attacks on the part of splinter groups associated with animal rights activism and the environmental movement this year. Fourteen of those were in California, though officials would not provide their details.

Experts said the recent string of incidents suggests radical environmentalists might be changing tactics.

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