You Wanna See Some Real Terror?

The travails of Hummercide suspect Josh Connole

Photo by Jack GouldThe reason terrorists are called terrorists is their acts cause terror, right? So tell me which is more terrifying: some lunkheads spraying graffiti on vehicles and torching a few on a deserted lot, or armed men dragging you off at gunpoint in the dead of night for no good reason, holding you captive for days while pressing you to confess to a crime you didn't commit and also ransacking and seizing not only your property but also the property of 13 people whose only crime is that they're your roommates?

You want a cup of instant dread? Have someone knock on your front door unexpectedly at 12:30 a.m. Even if it's your hottie girlfriend, it will creep you out. It's that much worse when it's guys leveling the muzzles of very real guns at you. It's just not a civil hour. It's when storm troopers show up, not the guardians of our democracy; at least that was generally the case before the war on drugs eroded our freedoms, now further washed away by the war on terror. It's not a good time of day for cops either, considering all the cases of kids and granddads they've mistakenly blown away on their nocturnal missions.

So, no, it was not a welcome knock when some 50 FBI and ATF agents and local police showed up at Josh Connole's Pomona home in the wee minutes of Sept. 12 and took him away at gunpoint. The 25-year-old solar-panel installer says he wasn't entirely surprised by it, though, since four cars with tinted windows had been following him around for weeks. He has been active in the anti-war and pro-environment movements, and exercising your rights can draw attention from all the wrong sorts of people these days.

But he was utterly taken aback, he said, when FBI agents accused him of the million-dollar vandalism and arson of Hummer SUVs on several West Covina auto lots on Aug. 22. They had him on video, they told him. Over the course of three and a half days of interrogations, they told him they had other evidence and knew it was him, so why didn't he just confess and make it easy on himself?

Connole was of a differing opinion, since he says he had nothing to do with the crimes and is ardently opposed to such actions. "I'm not a violent person," he said. "I condemn the acts of whoever did the burning. They'll eventually hurt somebody, and in the meantime, they're burning rubber and plastic and other things harming the environment."

There was no convincing the FBI of that, though.

"The first couple of days weren't bad, but then they got more threatening and started swearing," he said. "It was frustrating. The questioning kept going in circles, about how I had paint speckles on my pants and other things they said proved I did it, while I knew I didn't."

After being held in legal limbo for 14 hours, he was booked on suspicion of arson, with bail set at more than $800,000. He remained in jail, being questioned through the weekend. Then, on the afternoon of Sept. 15, he was released without being charged, due to a lack of evidence. Though a person with inside details of the Hummercides has since contacted the LA Times, claiming responsibility and saying Connole had no connection to the crimes, authorities say he remains a suspect.

You've quite possibly seen Connole. He grew up in Brea and returns there for the weekly anti-war vigil, and he's also a fixture at the Friday night Costa Mesa anti-war protests and other activist events. I inadvertently wrote a speck about him in this column in August because he was among the protesters outside President George W. Bush's Irvine fund-raiser and was carrying a sign calling Bush a fascist and a Nazi. I opined that wasn't exactly the way to go around changing minds in Irvine. But what seemed rude hyperbole then may merely have been prescient.

The FBI and ATF typically don't get involved in vandalism or arson cases, but destroying or defacing a Hummer now evidently qualifies as "domestic terrorism." So the finance company or insurer that has lost some money on the charred SUVs gets the full weight of the U.S. government on its side, while that weight came down on a houseful of Pomona environmentalists.

Connole lives in an environmental co-op called Regen V, where they use only solar electricity, raise their own vegan food and do similarly unpatriotic things. For the crime of having Josh as a roommate, residents couldn't come or go for some 20 hours while authorities embargoed the property, waiting for a warrant. The FBI subsequently carted off their computers, address books, Utne Readers, bed sheets and even underwear. A search was also made of Josh's mom's house. Many of the 13 roommates are college students, who now have no access to their thesis papers and other vital intellectual or real property.

Connole's attorney, William Paparian, says the government's actions fall in the shadow of the Patriot Act, noting some authorities have claimed that protesting the war is itself cause to be suspected of terrorist ties. "Our concern is that Josh is being singled out for his activities opposing the war in Iraq. Another of the things the authorities cited was [the co-op's] electric car with a bumper sticker reading, 'No dependency on foreign oil.' They said that raised a reasonable suspicion."

Next Page »