Three men have pleaded guilty to vandalizing sport utility vehicles, construction sites and fast-food restaurants in the Richmond area to protest what they consider environmental abuse and suburban sprawl, a federal prosecutor said yesterday.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said Adam Blackwell, 20, Aaron Linas, 18, and John Wade, 18, admitted in plea agreements to conspiring to damage and destroy more than 25 SUVs, construction equipment and building sites in Richmond’s suburbs on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an underground movement dedicated to halting the destruction of the environment.
The men face up to five years in prison for crimes that caused more than $200,000 in damage. The vandalism took place between July and October 2002.
Prosecutor Brian Hood will recommend a sentence of three to four years in jail. Under the agreement, the men also owe $204,021.86 in restitution.
The men took axes to several SUVs at private homes in Henrico County, used glass-etching cream to deface 25 SUVs at a Ford dealership, and sabotaged vehicles and homes at construction sites. The men also defaced the windows of McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants.
The men identified themselves with ELF, which on its Web site opposes violence but advocates financial sabotage and property destruction as legitimate forms of protest.
ELF says its adherents have caused more than $100 million in damages in the United States since 1997. Because of the group’s decentralized, nonhierarchical structure, authorities have struggled to apprehend and prosecute ELF’s ecoterrorists.
“It’s pretty rare to solve these kinds of crimes. These may be one of the first,” Mr. McNulty said. Since 2001, four teenagers from New York and a man from Indiana have been arrested in ELF-endorsed incidents.
The Richmond crimes were investigated by a task force made up of FBI agents, Henrico County police officers and members of the Goochland County Sheriff’s Office.
“The FBI takes this category of criminal activity very seriously. For the Richmond field office, this was a priority,” Mr. McNulty said. He noted that an FBI agent traveled to Oregon to interview Blackwell, who attended college there.
“Property damage is a threat to human life. There is a fine line between damaging property and having that result in the loss of human lives,” Mr. McNulty said. “Such violent conduct is not an appropriate way to express discontent with environmental policy and will not be tolerated.”
Investigators first targeted persons known to have ecoterrorist leanings. As they narrowed their investigation to Blackwell, Linas and Wade, they found “a lot of cooperation in the community.”
The men attended Douglas Freeman High School in the spring of 2002 and belonged to the school’s Friends of the Earth environmental club, which did not encourage their violent behavior, Mr. McNulty said.
Mr. McNulty said the young men did talk about their behavior, but that they “weren’t running around school telling anyone who wanted to hear.”
“They didn’t have bad family background. They would all be considered children of advantage. They grew up in well-off homes. They went to a good school,” Mr. McNulty said.
Mr. McNulty credited exposure to books and information on the Internet as motivation. The young men were said to have read Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” a fictional account of four “environmental warriors” liberating parts of Utah and Arizona from “evil” road-builders and miners, according to “Abbey’s Web,” a Web site dedicated to Mr. Abbey’s life and works.
ELF has roots in a radical environmental group known as Earth First! and in 1992 began ecoterrorism in Oregon. In 1998, an ELF fire at a ski resort in Colorado caused $12 million in damage.
Last September, ELF ecoterrorists set fire — and destroyed — four homes under construction in San Diego, causing more than $1 million in damage, according to the group’s Web site. In March, ELF ecoterrorists defaced military vehicles. They spray painted antiwar slogans and the group’s initials on three Navy sedans and two Navy vans and set fire to a truck at Navy recruiting headquarters in Montgomery, Ala.