Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Two firebombs targeting UC Santa Cruz biologists appear to mark an escalation in violence by militant opponents to animal research, a transition from threats and harassment to acts of terrorism and attempted homicide, authorities said Monday.
"There has definitely been an increase in the volume of harassment, and now we've seen an increase in the stakes of the violence that they're willing to spread in the name of this cause," Santa Cruz police Capt. Steve Clark said. "This signals a new level of aggressiveness."
Early Saturday, and just minutes apart, firebombs destroyed a car outside the campus home of one researcher and torched the front door of another, who had to flee with his wife and two young children by lowering a ladder out a second-story window. A third researcher received a threatening telephone message around the same time, police said.
Federal, state and local investigators are checking for potential links between this weekend's attacks and other incidents of harassment against UC scientists in recent months. Those include a firebomb that exploded on the front porch of a UCLA researcher's home in January and six masked activists trying to force their way into a researcher's Santa Cruz home during a child's birthday party in February.
"There's clearly surface connections," FBI spokesman Joseph Schadler said. "But as far as who did it, and whether they're the same people, that's something that only time and investigation will determine."
Authorities were tight-lipped about details in the latest firebombings. Witnesses have said that more than one person was involved, Clark said, adding unspecified forensic evidence was recovered at the scenes.
"We do have some viable leads that we're working on," Clark said. "We hope that those become fruitful."
He described the bombs as "Molotov cocktails on steroids."
No one has yet taken responsibility for the firebombings, which Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty derided as terrorist actions.
Coonerty and Police Chief Howard Skerry announced a $30,000 reward Monday for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the people involved. The money is being put up by UC Santa Cruz, the FBI, the city, community donors and the national Humane Society, which said the bombing tactics are "reviled by mainstream advocates of animal protection."
"One cannot claim to be an animal protection advocate and threaten violence against other people, even if we disagree with what they are doing," National Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said. "This behavior is antithetical to the core principles of the humane movement."
Jerry Vlasak, a former animal researcher who now serves as a spokesman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which posts on its Web site communiques from activists taking credit for attacks, said peaceful protests have been ineffective in stopping "the torture and murder of animals."
"Violence then became a morally acceptable tactic," Vlasak said. "If animal abusers aren't going to stop perpetrating these types of atrocities, they ought to be stopped using whatever means necessary. What we're starting to see is the implementation of that type of strategy."
That appears to be evident around the 10-campus University of California, officials said, noting UC Berkeley recorded harassment against 24 researchers and seven other employees. There have been at least 20 reports of damage to researchers' homes in Berkeley, Oakland and El Cerrito since August.
In January, a Molotov cocktail exploded on the front porch of a UCLA researcher's home. Last fall, the same home was flooded when someone broke a window and inserted a garden hose with the water on full force. At UCSF, faculty have received death threats, and a researcher had a burning effigy left on the doorstep of his home.
The incidents prompted Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco, to introduce a bill in February that would allow UC officials to withhold names of animal researchers from public documents to prevent activists from harassing them. AB2296 has stalled in the Legislature.
It is unclear whether the incidents are the work of a cohesive group or the actions of individuals or small cells inspired by ideology and the online posting of each other's exploits, said those familiar with the activists.
Animal Liberation Front, a group that took responsibility June 16 for setting fire to a UCLA van as part of its effort to force the university to stop experimenting on primates, has historically operated as small groups that remain anonymous to each other, Vlasak said.
Clark, though, said such activists tried to appear independent of each other to avoid prosecution under racketeering laws that have been used to get lengthy sentences for organized crime and street gang members.
"They have a vast communication capability - texting, blogging and Web sites," Clark said. "They do have a communication network established and, I think, communicate not only locally, but nationally."
E-mail John Coté at email@example.com.