Ecoterrorism: ELF "targets" Hollymead Center

They burned a mountaintop restaurant in Vail. They released mink from a farm in Pennsylvania. They defaced SUVs in Richmond.

And now, members of the Earth Liberation Front– ELF– have taken aim at a controversial shopping center site in Charlottesville.

Developer Wendell Wood knew there was opposition to his Hollymead Town Center project. And he'd heard of the group that vandalized 30 SUVs in Richmond.

But he didn't think opponents of Target's future home would go so far as to torch two trucks and a piece of heavy equipment on the Rt. 29 site of his Town Center, and leave a banner boasting, "Your construction = long-term destruction– ELF."

The vandalism took place sometime between February 5 and February 8, according to police, who estimate the damage at $30,000.

"That won't even get near it," scoffs Wood. A new track hoe costs around $220,000 and then there's some question whether the two burned trucks can be repaired. In addition, he says, the ELFers broke gauges and glass in all the trucks and bulldozers on the site.

ELF is an underground movement made up of autonomous, anonymous cells whose members aim "to inflict economic damage on those profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment," according to its website.

ELF claims 75 illegal actions totaling $55 million in damages in North America during 2003, and $100 million in damages since 1997. Thanks to its website, wannabe ecoterrorists can submit press releases of their actions, as did the Hollymead Town Center perps.

The FBI puts ELF at the top of its list of domestic terrorists, and categorizes its followers as "special interest terrorists," much like the Animal Liberation Front. The Charlottesville attack has been turned over to the FBI.

Perhaps the group's biggest operation was burning the mammoth Two Elk restaurant and several smaller structures at a Vail ski resort on October 19, 1998. The FBI estimates the cost of that arson at $12 million.

Because ELF is a leaderless organization with anonymous members, infiltrating and prosecuting the cells has been a formidable task for the FBI.

But on January 13, three Richmond men became the first ELFers to be convicted in this country. Adam Blackwell, 20, Aaron Linas, 18, and John Wade, 18, pleaded guilty to federal charges of "conspiracy to destroy by fire."

Between July and October 2002, the trio poured sugar into the gas tanks of construction equipment, defaced windows of Burger Kings and McDonalds with etching cream, and tried to destroy a crane at Short Pump Town Center.

Their biggest assault was upon Universal Ford dealership, where the cell members etched anti-SUV slogans on 25 SUVs. The three face sentences of up to five years and will be required to pay restitution of over $200,000.

Mainstream environmentalists condemn ELF's ecoterrorism.

"I think it's pathetic," says the Piedmont Environmental Council's Jeff Werner. "If you look at their website, it looks like an eighth grader wrote it."

Although Werner opposed Hollymead Town Center, he says its approval was a public process. "If they had objections, they should have worked publicly."

The vandalism "is not what this community is all about," says Werner, who admits that he often disagrees with builders. "We get hot under the collar, but we still treat each other with a level of respect. This is not the way things should be done."

"Wackos" is how Wood describes the ELFers, and he compares the vandalism to a car: "You can go buy another. That's not going to slow anything down."

Wood's company, United Land, was recently fined by the Department of Environmental Quality for clearing an extra 17 feet along a stream on the site beyond the 2,500 feet authorized. Could that incident, reported in a local weekly, have anything to do with the vandalism?

Wood considers the possibility. "That could have been," he says.

Wood calls himself an environmentalist– "believe it or not"– and asks, "This is the sort of person who represents me?"

The sabotage will not slow the completion of Hollymead Town Center, he says. Rain has been more of a problem for the approximately $400 million project, but the Target and other stores are still scheduled to open in the spring of 2005.

"Obviously" says Wood, he wishes he'd already put a guard on the 163-acre property. "There will be now. If they come out there again, they better have a bulletproof vest."