The FBI, ALF and ELF
Feds question vegans and peaceniks about March bomb threats
Three months after someone claiming connections to radical environmental groups left incendiary devices at two local McDonald’s restaurants and another under an SUV at the Wittmeier Auto Center, and two weeks after a commercial building and a private home under construction were torched, an FBI investigation continues, apparently targeting those whose diets favor vegetable over animal matter.
The Animal Liberation Front has been connected to the first two incidents and the Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for the other three.
On the evening of June 9, Chicoan Rebecca Watkins was house-sitting for friends when there was a knock on the door. Watkins said she was a bit surprised because no one, to her knowledge, knew she was there.
When she answered the door, she was greeted by two G-men, who produced their identifications and asked to come in.
“They said my name had come up in their investigation,” said a somewhat startled Watkins. “They were fairly polite but stayed about two hours. I felt like I was a major suspect because they just kept asking me questions over and over.”
Among other things, the agents asked Watkins if she was a vegan, if she hung out at a certain local bar, information about local health food stores, what her father does for a living and what sites she and her friends visit on the Internet. They also knew that her car had been stolen a few months earlier and asked her about that.
Watkins said she is not a true vegan but shops at Chico Natural Foods and works across from S&S Produce, two places she was questioned about.
Watkins, 24, said the length of the interview caused her to miss a dinner date with friends.
“This was so bizarre,” she said. “I don’t have any friends who are really politically outspoken.”
Watkins was given a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury two days later but was excused when she explained her car would overheat on the drive and that she wasn’t too keen on telling the people at her new job that she had to miss work so she could testify in the case of a suspected terrorist act.
About a week and a half ago, someone scribbled graffiti on the wall in the women’s restroom in Duffy’s Tavern on Main Street in downtown Chico. Police were tipped off and took photos of the misspelled message, which said “Earth Liberation Frount” and was written in black marker. Below that were the anarchists’ symbol next to a heart, a circle with cross-hairs and the symbol for infinity. And below that was a drawing of an Earth with eyes and the message, “Be kind to our Earth.”
One source suggested the Duffy’s incident suggested a suspect-profile of a woman (restroom used), who is at least 21 years old (bar patron) and a Chico State University graduate (misspelling of “Front").
ALF and ELF are organized similarly—separate cells operating independently—and seem to have similar missions: use of extreme measures to send messages demanding the protection of Earth and its creatures.
A few days after the message in the Duffy’s restroom was washed off, it reappeared.
Nick Rossi, spokesman for the FBI in Sacramento, said there has been some progress in the investigation and that agents had talked to a “large number of people, but not any one segment of the community.”
He said those interviewed are people who may have some pertinent information, “those who may have been in a position to hear or see something.”
Rossi said ELF and ALF have links to each other on their Web sites but that tracking and finding the creators of those Web sites does not justify making arrests.
“They have First Amendment protections,” he said. “While they may give instruction on how to create [explosive] devices, they don’t encourage such action. We have to walk a fine line because we don’t want to infringe on people’s rights.”
Rossi said these were difficult crimes to investigate because, unlike with other criminal organizations, the agency is “dealing with groups that encourage independent activity.”
Another person connected to the local health food community and an acquaintance of Watkins said he, too, was approached and interviewed by the FBI for about an hour.
“I really didn’t feel they considered me a suspect,” said the man, who asked to remain anonymous for this story. “They just wanted names and information and kept asking me over and over again if I knew any radical people who came into [Chico Natural Foods].”
Agents also asked the man if he ever went to the Chico Peace & Justice Center.
The man said he is an avid bike rider and vocal opponent of SUVs and that maybe some of the comments he’s made in the past condemning the popular vehicles may have triggered the FBI’s interest in him.
“I think they were desperate," he said, "because at one point they asked, ‘If you were at a dead end, who would you want to talk to?' "