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Vegans taking a stand through silence

Federal case against an arson advocate may have been in trouble from the start because of three young animal activists' refusal to testify.

September 24, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- It was big news last week when a federal jury deadlocked in the trial of arson advocate Rodney Coronado, charged with encouraging local environmentalists and animal rights activists to throw firebombs.

The case that federal authorities had once touted as a bold blow against home-grown terrorism now may be on the verge of collapse -- especially since the jury voted 9 to 3 to acquit.

Lawyers on both sides are poring over transcripts from the three-day trial to see if it merits a retrial.

But the first sign that it was not going to be easy to prosecute Coronado may have come long before the trial -- with three young vegans' stubborn, principled refusal to talk. To these devout believers in vegetarianism and compassion for all animals, Coronado is a kind of patron saint.

Prosecutors wanted to know who attended Coronado's Aug. 1, 2003, speech in which he discussed how to make firebombs, and what he had said.

Rather than testify to a grand jury about Coronado's speech, the three -- Nicole Fink, Danae Kelley and David Agranoff -- went to jail for contempt in the summer of 2005.

Finally, despite prosecutors' pleas that their testimony was crucial, a judge released the three, figuring that they meant what they said: They were never going to talk.

Fink and Agranoff had spent 80 days in federal prison, Kelley 74. They had not been your average prisoners.

Fink and Kelley refused to take a mandatory TB test in jail because eggs were used in the testing. Agranoff spent his days talking to a fellow prisoner who was a Vietnam veteran and writing what he describes as a passionately antiwar novel (as yet unpublished). All three ate a lot of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

In his speech, Coronado had shown how he made the firebomb that gutted an animal testing laboratory at Michigan State University, a crime for which he spent four years in prison.

Coronado didn't explicitly urge audience members to throw firebombs, but prosecutors argued that the overall context of his speech, and his past statements condoning arson for political purposes, constituted a call to action.

A dozen vegans attended the San Diego trial to provide emotional support, sitting opposite the FBI agents and assistant U.S. attorneys in the audience.

When the jury conceded it was hopelessly deadlocked, the vegans said they were relieved -- although they would have preferred an acquittal.

"I was worried he'd be found guilty just because it's conservative San Diego," said Kelley, 23. She makes a living selling ice cream and has on her right arm a tattoo of half an avocado next to the words, "Viva la Vegan Revolution."

Of the three grand-jury resisters, she was the only one in attendance at the trial.

Fink, 29, got married and moved to Arizona, and has lost touch with the local vegan community.

"She's a conscientious Midwestern girl, the type you'd find working in a bookstore," said her attorney, David Zugman. "But she had core beliefs, and one of those is that when The Man is trying to stomp on you, you don't help him."

Agranoff, 33, now lives in the Pacific Northwest, but he prefers to not name the city lest the feds be tipped off. He writes fiction in a genre he calls "punkhorror," basically science fiction with slasher scenes and radical politics.

For a writer, he said, 80 days in jail was a bonanza, introducing him to people he was not likely to meet and providing him with time to write and read. He said that during his stay, he started reading the work of Los Angeles sci-fi writer Octavia Butler.

"They put me on the 10th floor with the killers and gangsters," Agranoff said in a phone call arranged by intermediaries. "The guards thought I was crazy, but the prisoners were OK with me. I had their respect because I had refused to testify."

Although he had lived in San Diego for several years, Agranoff never gave the Metropolitan Correctional Center much thought until he was a prisoner.

"I don't think people realize there's a virtual Death Star in downtown San Diego surrounded by malls and condos," he said.

Agranoff's opposition to testifying, he said, was not about discussing Coronado's speech, which he helped arrange. He objected to talking about it, without a lawyer, in a closed federal grand jury session.

"People can say they're revolutionary all they want, but if you're not willing to take risks to defend liberty, then it means nothing," he said.

During her incarceration, Kelley read Kurt Vonnegut novels and Drew Barrymore's autobiography, and made small animal figures out of potatoes.

"Jail really isn't all that bad, not like in the movies," she said. "I was only in with a few murderers. Mostly it was women arrested for coming across the international border."

More jail time may be in Kelley's future. She was arrested recently while picketing outside the La Jolla home of a major investor in a business that uses animals for testing. She was held briefly in the county lockup for women before posting bail.

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