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FBI Searches Computers at Caltech in Hummer Probe

September 20, 2003|Greg Krikorian, Jia-Rui Chong and Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writers

FBI agents searched computers at the Caltech library Friday in their investigation of last month's vandalism and arson fires at four car dealerships in the San Gabriel Valley.

Authorities are seeking the identity of a self-described member of the Earth Liberation Front who in three e-mails and two telephone calls told The Times this week that he had participated in the attacks. The man, who did not give his real name or say where he lived, said he had spray-painted a math theorem on one of the SUVs, one of several details that authorities said were known only to investigators and the perpetrators.

The e-mails appear to have originated from computers at Caltech and Pasadena City College. FBI agents recovered hard-drive data from computers at Caltech's Sherman Fairchild Library, said a source close to the investigation. Caltech spokeswoman Jill Perry would not comment.

Students at Caltech said no one can log onto the school's computer network without being issued an account by campus officials.

Pasadena City College officials said Friday they were cooperating with the agents who arrived Thursday night to look for the computers used to send the messages. It did not appear that agents themselves had searched data at PCC or retrieved any evidence. Campus officials speculated that the e-mails may have come from the library or the school's career center. Both are open to the public.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Bosley would not comment on the FBI searches. "It is part of an ongoing investigation that we are not at liberty to discuss," she said.

A man describing himself as a high school dropout between the ages of 20 and 25 said he contacted The Times to draw attention to the pollution caused by SUVs and to exonerate a Pomona man arrested a week ago by the FBI in connection with the crimes. On Friday afternoon, a day after Times reporters questioned Caltech officials, a man who identified himself as an FBI agent was working at a bank of three computers behind the reference desk on the first floor of Caltech's library. About 2:30 p.m., three agents left the library carrying several small bags.

Perry, the school's spokeswoman, would not say what had brought the FBI to the campus. "I just don't know.... This is much bigger than Caltech. It's the FBI's game," she said.

While the FBI agents examined the computers, Caltech security officers asked patrons without campus identification cards to leave the library.

Steve Meyers, 39, a home inspector from Los Angeles, was reading a book on the second floor of the library when Caltech security approached. "They were clearing away anyone who wasn't a student," he said.

The search at the campuses came one day after The Times reported that a man claiming membership in the ELF said he and others had vandalized and set fire to Hummers and other SUVs on Aug. 22, causing more than $1 million in damage. The ELF has claimed responsibility for numerous such acts of arson across the country, including an early morning blaze Friday in San Diego that destroyed four homes under construction.

Authorities last week arrested -- and later released -- 25-year-old Josh Connole in connection with last month's car dealership attacks. Connole denied any involvement in the crime, and since his release has denounced ELF's actions.

West Covina police, who are working as part of a joint local and federal task force, say Connole remains a suspect.

FBI agents arrested Connole after receiving a tip about suspicious activity on the night of the arson fires at the home that he shares with five friends, a source said. After several days of surveillance, the source said, federal agents focused on Connole. The source did not say why the focus fell on Connole.

Connole and his attorney said he was targeted because of his criticism of the Bush administration and participation in demonstrations against the war in Iraq.

The man who e-mailed The Times and claimed credit for the attacks used the name Tony Marsden, which he said was a pseudonym. The man also said that one of his hobbies was math and that he and his accomplices had painted Euler's Theorem on the side of one of the cars.

The man said he used the name Tony Marsden because he had known people named Tony and Marsden.

There is a Caltech professor named Jerrold E. Marsden who co-wrote a textbook titled "Vector Calculus" with Anthony J. Tromba.

Jerrold Marsden was on vacation in Northern California this week. On Friday, he told The Times that he had not been contacted by the FBI or Caltech.

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Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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