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Originally published Tuesday, March 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Arson group retreats even more into shadows

ELF has been quiet at least since March 3, leaving some to wonder if the blazes really are the Earth Liberation Front's work or someone else's.

Seattle Times staff reporters

In the past four years, firebugs with a flair for the dramatic have burned at least seven homes in the northern Puget Sound region. They've tried to torch at least six others, and monkey-wrenched construction equipment in several other sites.

All the acts, according to the FBI, were claimed by a group of radical ecosaboteurs called the Earth Liberation Front, or the ELF.

That much is known.

But the group, which once loudly touted its actions, has become even more shadowy and enigmatic than ever, and so have the cases — including the human-set blaze that engulfed three luxury "green" homes built on the Street of Dreams near Maltby on March 3.

Until a few years ago, ELF would routinely issue fiery "communiqués" with specific details, to prove it was responsible and sway the public to its ideology. But through a string of arsons, culminating with the Street of Dreams fires, ELF has been essentially silent, except for simple messages scrawled on bedsheets and cardboard box tops.

FBI agents working the case are all but convinced the fire is ELF-related, according to a federal law-enforcement source close to the Maltby probe. Yet the silence has even ELF's sympathizers wondering whether it's really the work of the group. And federal agents say they have to investigate all possibilities.

Agents from the local offices of the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) met Friday to divvy up investigative tasks. And that includes steps such as checking out transients in the area and considering other motives such as "revenge and arson-for-profit," said Doug Dawson, the assistant special agent in charge of the Seattle ATF.

"This could be insurance fraud; it could be something to do with the housing market," said Charles Frahm, the FBI's deputy assistant director for counterterrorism operations in Washington, D.C.

At the Street of Dreams, a bedsheet painted with "ELF" and a message rejecting "green" building practices was left. Although such signs are an "ELF" calling card, federal agents are not assuming there is an active ELF cell in the area, Frahm said.

"You can't assume it, and we don't assume it," he said.

So at this stage, they can't rule out any possibility, including "that ELF is being used in an attempt to misdirect the investigation," said David Gomez, the FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge.

7 unsolved arsons

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The Street of Dreams fires, causing $7 million in damage, are among the seven unsolved arsons that the FBI says have been claimed by the Earth Liberation Front.

In 2006, ELF allegedly spray-painted an undisclosed message on a pink bedsheet after torching a 9,600-square-foot mansion on Camano Island. A year earlier, in April 2005, an incendiary device and a message on a bedsheet — "Where Are All The Trees? Burn, Rapist, Burn." — were left at the site of a garage fire in Sammamish. And in April 2004, two homes burned to their foundations in Snohomish in an ELF-claimed arson.

The FBI tallies four other arsons at construction sites. In addition, several other apparent home-arson attempts went awry in the same time frame and area as the Sammamish, Snohomish and Street of Dreams arsons.

But none of the latest fires have been followed by news releases or Internet announcements bragging about the fires or even attempting to explain them.

In fact, one of the last ELF "communiqués" was back in 2001, when arsonists destroyed the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture.

Lauren Regan, a Eugene, Ore., attorney who has represented several ELF defendants, said the lack of communiqués is among several reasons she is skeptical that the latest arsons are actually ELF.

"Anyone with a few brain cells could take a bedsheet and spray ELF," said Regan, who runs the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene.

No membership lists

The FBI, which has labeled the Earth Liberation Front their top domestic-terrorism target, officially says the group is responsible for about 100 arsons across 20 states since 1995, according to Special Agent Fred Gutt. Nineteen of those have occurred in Washington.

But the FBI also acknowledges that ELF, a radical splinter ideology of animal-rights and environmental movements, has no membership lists or leaders.

On its now-defunct Web site, believers were exhorted to educate the public by inflicting economic damage on natural-resource extractors, but never to harm humans or animals.

The only way to join ELF was to commit an ELF action, a past spokesman once said.

From the mid-1990s until about 2002, a Northwest-based ELF cell called "The Family" targeted sites that would hurt corporate profits — such as slaughterhouses or SUV dealerships — or research facilities like the UW that supposedly were engaged in genetic engineering.

A federal investigation led to a series of prosecutions; the most recent of those cases, against Briana Waters in the UW arson, was ongoing at the time of the Street of Dreams arson. Waters was convicted of two counts of arson in federal court.

In 2004, just as federal agents were closing in on "The Family," the string of residential home arsons began.

"I will build"

If the latest arson fires were meant as warnings to developers, the message was ignored.

The Camano Island house was rebuilt at the same size, and is worth around $3.4 million.

The lack of communiqués has left Mark Marzolf, who built and then rebuilt the two homes torched in Snohomish, to wonder what his attackers really wanted. He never heard from anyone representing the group again.

"I'm afraid to build anymore, and they know it. But I will build, and I will have a security guard."

By contrast, after the UW fire in 2001, a communiqué explained that the fire was because a forestry professor "continues to unleash mutant genes into the environment that is certain to cause irreversible harm to forest ecosystems." It turned out the professor was not doing the kinds of research ELF thought.

Since the UW fire, the ELF press office in Portland — which frequently issued the communiqués — has closed. Its two primary spokesmen firmly assert they no longer speak for the group.

Even so, one of those former spokesmen, Leslie James Pickering, said in an e-mail this month that although no communiqués was issued on the Street of Dreams fires, they were consistent with other ELF arsons against residences on New York's Long Island, in Indiana and San Diego.

Will Potter, a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., who has covered the fringe environmental movement since 1999, said it may be a mistake to take the lack of communiqués as a sign that ELF isn't alive and well. In fact, the silence may represent an evolution in the group.

In the past, prosecutors used the news releases and manifestos to argue for boosted prison sentences under terrorism laws, Potter said.

"Activists may be realizing it's just one more fingerprint tying them to the crime," he said.

"Or it means there it is not an ELF action."

Gomez, the FBI supervisor in Seattle, speculates that ELF sympathizers might be learning lessons from the cases of other ecosaboteurs who have been caught.

Among lessons learned, Gomez says: "The ELF media people started to worry about being linked to crimes."

Gomez also points out that the Street of Dreams fires lacked another past ELF signature: the use of timing devices to ignite firebombs. Instead, the Maltby fires appear to have been set with "available materials," suggesting ELF might be learning, Gomez said.

Such timing devices would constitute using a destructive device during commission of a violent felony, and would expose the arsonists to heavy federal prison sentences, including a 30-year mandatory minimum.

Even so, a fear of prosecution is not likely to deter the ELF activists, say Potter and others.

"They're not going to be motivated by their fear; they're motivated by the ideology," Potter said.

"It's almost like a martyr mentality kicks in."

But federal law enforcement isn't so sure.

Mark Bartlett, the first assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle who prosecuted Waters in the UW fire, says the lack of communiqués indicates a crippled organization.

"I'd read it as their movement is severely damaged by prosecutions," Bartlett said.

"I'd read it as they went further underground."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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