- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — The torching of four town houses in this rapidly growing western Maryland city highlights the spread of a radical environmental movement associated largely with the western United States.

The Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which claimed responsibility for the weekend fires, is growing through exposure via the Internet to its philosophy and methods, said Kelly Stoner, executive director of Stop Eco-Violence, which monitors vandalism linked to environmental and animal rights groups.

“Without question, we have seen the radical environmental movement spreading across the United States,” Miss Stoner said Tuesday in a telephone interview from her office near Portland, Ore.

ELF, linked to a 2003 blaze that destroyed a nearly finished $23 million apartment complex near San Diego, recognizes arson as a tactic to protest suburban sprawl and gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.

Miss Stoner said ELF also is suspected of firebombings in Alabama, Connecticut, Michigan and Pennsylvania since 2003.

The fires set early Sunday at the Hager’s Crossing subdivision destroyed one nearly finished town house and damaged three others under construction, causing losses estimated at $225,000 to $235,000, according to Rachuba Group, the Eldersburg, Md.-based developer.

Rachuba and the project’s two builders, Ryan Homes and Patriot Homes, announced a $25,000 reward Tuesday for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

A team of investigators including the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is pursuing a number of leads, Hagerstown Fire Department Chief Gary R. Hawbaker said.

Authorities have not disclosed how the fires were set, but both Miss Stoner and an ELF sympathizer said the nature of the incident and the language in the e-mail claiming an ELF connection were consistent with ELF attacks.

For example, the subdivision was new, the homes were not occupied and the message declared war on developers by the Ents, a race of giant treelike beings featured in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” novels.

“That definitely sounds like someone who knows their issues,” said Rodney Coronado of Tucson, Ariz., a former Animal Liberation Front (ALF) member who served more than four years in prison for a 1992 fire bombing of animal-research laboratories at Michigan State University.

Mr. Coronado, a shipping manager for a fossil company, said he now serves as an unofficial spokesman and defender of ALF and ELF, a 1992 spinoff that, like ALF, is a loose-knit group with no public leadership or membership.

Several local groups publicly have opposed the development of open space near Hagerstown, a city of 38,000 about 70 miles northwest of the District.

Leaders of two such groups, the Save Historic Antietam Foundation and the Frederick Regional Action Network, said Tuesday that they condemn the use of arson to fight sprawl.

“Whether it’s someone’s home or just a shell under construction, vandalizing or destroying it is criminal, period. It’s reprehensible on so many levels,” said Kai Hagen, executive director of the Frederick Regional Action Network.

Thomas G. Clemens, president of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, said ELF hurts the environmental movement.

“The advocacy of these criminal acts gets attributed to anybody who wants to influence or have a voice in the regulating of the growth. It embarrasses the rest of us, and it’s detrimental,” he said.

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