If any San Diego church had the FBI's attention Monday evening, it would have been the unassuming Church of the Brethren, where roughly two-dozen peace, social-justice and animal-rights activists gathered to discuss federal grand jury subpoenas several of them had received. While most of the group seemed resigned to the fact that the meeting might be monitored by law enforcement, creeping paranoia compelled an older couple to leave after they failed to persuade the group that everyone in the room should introduce themselves and point to four people who could vouch for them.
"It makes people paranoid," long-time activist Carol Jankhow said of the grand jury process, "the way that it attacks this whole foundation we have here of freedom of association and freedom of speech."
The grand jury hearings stem from a two-year FBI investigation of an August 2003 early-morning arson fire at a half-built La Jolla apartment complex. A large banner left at the site claimed the arson on behalf of the underground environmental movement, Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Later that day, animal-rights activist and former self-proclaimed ELF spokesperson, Rod Coronado, was scheduled to speak at the LGBT Center in Hillcrest.
Of the dozen or so subpoenas handed out so far, all have gone to people who either attended Coronado's talk or who are believed to have been there. Colleen Dietzel, who runs The Green Store in Ocean Beach, said she was told FBI agents were taking down license plate numbers at the talk and hers was on their list. David Agranoff, who organized the talk and also received a subpoena, said he figures 120 people were there. A CityBeat reporter who attended the event said neither the arson nor the ELF were a focus of the talk.
At least four of those subpoenaed testified last week. One, software engineer Michael Cardenas, was called back a second time. Five people were expected to testify on Tuesday, June 28.
Cardenas and Elise Casby, a voter-rights organizer who was also subpoenaed, said prosecutors' questions focused on who they know and who was at Coronado's talk. Cardenas declined to answer, citing his right against self-incrimination. He also told prosecutors that the questions violated his right to free association. On Monday, Cardenas said he planned to again assert his right to remain silent, aware that doing so could mean he'd be held in contempt and possibly jailed. Agranoff said he planned to do the same.
Casby, who was unable to secure a lawyer prior to testifying (attorneys for grand jury witnesses can't be in the courtroom but can advise their client outside the courtroom), cooperated with prosecutors. At one point she was asked whether her voicemail had any messages on it advising her to refuse to cooperate. Both Agranoff and Cardenas had left messages for Casby saying as much. Prosecutors asked Casby to give them access to her voicemail, a request she said was invasive. They'd subpoena the messages regardless, prosecutors told her. "It was very intimidating," she said. "I was on my own.
"I'm not in a position where I can afford to tie myself up... fighting the grand jury," she added. With no one around to offer legal advice, Casby dialed into her voicemail box and played the messages for jurors. She knew there'd be fallout. "If I start blabbing this stuff, it's going to be bad for our community," she said. "We work so hard with so little resources that one of the best way to destroy our community is to take our political differences and use them against each other."
"Divide-and-conquer tactics," was how one activist put it Monday night.
Agranoff was extremely upset with Casby, telling her Monday that the information she provided-regardless of her intentions-could end up hurting others who'd been subpoenaed. The sort of intelligence gathering that was happening here, he said later, is something grand juries weren't set up to do-they were originally intended to fight political corruption, he said. He noted the intimidation factor inherent in the scattershot subpoenas. "You go to this lecture and you, too, can be on the list."
The grand jury summons revived lingering questions about the arson. FBI spokesperson Jan Caldwell confirmed there've been no arrests in the case and a $100,000 reward still stands.
The subpoenaed activists and their supporters have pointed out that the La Jolla development wasn't really an issue among local environmental groups, raising questions about why it would be an arson target. Longtime environmental activist Robert Nanninga wonders why anyone opposed to the development would burn it down, "knowing [it'll] be back up. There's no payoff," he said. Nanninga, who's familiar with ELF practices, said the language on the banner found at the site, "wasn't a way [the ELF] would distinguish themselves." And, he added, "San Diegans don't torch things."
A Senate hearing last month focused on the "growing threat" of environmental and animal-rights groups. Testifying at the hearing was Monty McIntyre, the lawyer representing owners of the torched La Jolla apartment complex. Since that hearing, a grand jury similar to the one here was convened in San Francisco. Nanninga suspects that environmental activism and its ire toward Bush administration policies is a target."Science is bearing out" environmentalists' concerns, he said. "So you take out the messenger."