If the U.S. Attorney decides to indict animal-rights activist Rod Coronado, he'll be at home in Tucson, Ariz., waiting. A grand jury investigation of an early-morning Aug. 1, 2003, arson fire that destroyed an unfinished La Jolla apartment complex is focusing, too, on whether Coronado violated federal law when, at a public talk he gave the evening after the fire, he told an audience of roughly 100 that something as basic as a juice container could be used to build a crude incendiary device.
Under a post-Sept. 11 federal law, it's illegal to "teach or demonstrate the making or use of an explosive, a destructive device or a weapon of mass destruction... with the intent that the teaching, demonstration or information be used for... an activity that constitutes a federal crime of violence."
Coronado doesn't deny that near the end of his talk at the LGBT Center in Hillcrest, where he spoke mostly about his history as an animal-rights activist, he picked up a container of apple juice from a nearby food table to "show that weapons [animal-rights activists] use are very simple devices." It's something he's discussed in other public forums, he told CityBeat, to explain to his audience not only the "why" behind actions he's carried out, but also the "how."
"It's always been in the sense that this is the most aggressive and extreme our movement gets," he said. "It's for people to understand that as much as the FBI says we're a highly organized group, we aren't."
As to whether he encouraged others in the audience to construct similar devices, Coronado said that wasn't his intent.
"I know there could be one or two people out there who might be taking this into consideration as something that they might want to do themselves," he said, "just as much as somebody who watches Law and Order might see the perfect murder and choose to use it against someone. There's no controlling that; it's just freedom of information."
Coronado spent nearly four years in federal prison for his role in a 1992 fire at a Michigan State University lab that he said was conducting research to aid mink farmers. He's currently under indictment in Arizona for dismantling a mountain lion trap set by state Fish and Game agents.
Coronado's lawyer sent a letter to the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case here, letting him know that his client will cooperate if he's required to appear in San Diego. Coronado said he wants to make it clear to the judge that despite his past, he's not a flight risk-he's served his time, holds two jobs and is the father of a 3-year-old son. "We're trying to do whatever proactively we could to minimize the trauma of an indictment," he said. Since he's a target of the investigation, it's unlikely he'd be called to testify.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Parmley, who's handling the case, said he couldn't discuss any aspect of the grand jury proceedings, including whether he received a letter from Coronado's attorney.
So far at least seven San Diego activists have been subpoenaed by the grand jury. Two of them-David Agranoff and Danae Kelley-refused to testify and were jailed on July 12 for contempt. Last Friday the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the two released on a $1,000 bond until the court has the chance to rule on whether prosecutors' questions about who attended Coronado's lecture violated the pair's First Amendment right to free association.
Jeremy Warren, attorney for Agranoff, said he believes Coronado's indictment is imminent but worries that the grand jury investigation won't end there. A grand jury can hand down separate indictments at different times for the same case. "My concern is that [prosecutors] are never going to reach a resolution; they're going to keep this thing hanging for a long time," he said. "They're on a fishing expedition-they're just [hoping] they'll stumble into some information by putting people who are known activists in front of the grand jury and asking them who [they] know and what [they] know."
Former assistant U.S. attorney John Kirby said prosecutors have "the right to fish" as long as their focus is on suspected criminal activity. He also explained that although Coronado has freely admitted to demonstrating how to make an incendiary device, prosecutors will want to get from witnesses specifics of what Coronado said as opposed to his version, "to determine whether or not it was a crime.
"It sounds like a relatively simple question," Kirby said, "but given the facts, it might turn on small points."
In the two years since it happened, there have been no arrests related to the La Jolla fire. Agranoff and Kelley, as well as other subpoenaed activists, have denied any connection to the fire. Nik Hensey, who's acted as an informal spokesperson for Coronado and other subpoenaed activists, said an indictment of Coronado would be a smokescreen meant to obscure the fact that no progress has been made in the arson case.
Coronado, too, denies any knowledge of the fire and said he wasn't aware of it until local media showed up at his talk and began asking him questions. The FBI has never contacted him regarding the fire, he said, and even if they did, he has no information."If they were to torture me right now, there's nothing I can tell them," he said. "If there's anybody that's involved in the fire who I was associated with, they've done a pretty good job of not letting on. I have no idea who carried out these actions."