ECHO LAKE — Torching multimillion-dollar homes has become a popular calling card for the Earth Liberation Front, a loosely connected environmental extremist group, and Snohomish County may have been visited once again.
While there was no official confirmation Monday that ELF was behind the destruction of three luxury homes and damage to two others, investigators found an anti-development message with the group’s initials scrawled on a sheet tied to a chain-link fence near the houses.
Explosive devices also were found inside the show houses, located southwest of Monroe, fire officials said.
The blazes caused an estimated $7 million in damage. That is equal to the amount of damage caused by the 2001 firebombing that destroyed the horticulture center at the University of Washington, one of the Northwest’s most notorious acts of ecoterrorism.
Monday’s arsons matched tactics ELF activists have used to further their campaign against urban sprawl, said Gary Perlstein, a criminology professor at Portland State University in Oregon who has studied and written extensively about the elusive extremist group.
“It doesn’t really accomplish their goal but it does get the word out to the public,” Perlstein said. “Whether it’s al-Qaida or ELF, terrorists attack symbols even if they’re not going to win the war.”
ELF and the Animal Liberation Front have claimed responsibility for thousands of acts of property destruction across the country, totaling more than $110 million in damage, said Fred Gutt, an FBI special agent with the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The most notorious was the destruction of a ski resort in Vail, Colo., in 1998.
ELF activists are believed responsible for repeated fires and attempted arsons in Snohomish County and on Camano Island since 2004. There have been no arrests. If Monday’s fires are the work of ELF, the group will have caused more than $10 million in damage here.
ELF activists, typically working in three- to five-person autonomous cells, have become increasingly more violent, said Nick Starcevic with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“That has been their defense — that they don’t target people or resort to violence,” said Jack Levine, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston and author of a book on domestic terrorism. “They’ve definitely become more destructive over the years and it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t resort to violent tactics in the future.”
Investigators are seeing more sophisticated, even time-delayed, incendiary devices, Starcevic said.
He declined to comment if that was the case Monday.
The houses were part of the 2007 Street of Dreams, an annual tour of state-of-the-art, multimillion-dollar homes. The project generated controversy, including concern it would pollute the local water supply.
ELF activists pay attention to local land controversies, Perlstein said.
“The real unfortunate thing is many citizens will empathize with ELF because their goal is the environment,” Perlstein said. “I call them terrorists.”
Monday’s arsons may be linked to recent prosecution of suspected ELF activists in Washington and Oregon, Perlstein said.
A jury resumed deliberations Monday in Tacoma in the case against Briana Waters, who is accused of helping firebomb the UW horticulture center. Also, Tre Arrow, accused of firebombing logging and cement trucks in Oregon, appeared in court in Portland, Ore., on Monday after being on the run for four years.
“It makes sense the attacks are from ELF,” Perlstein said. “They’re targeting urban sprawl, saying the Street of Dreams is not green enough. They’re also saying ‘We’re back.’ “
Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or firstname.lastname@example.org.