You Wanna See Some Real Terror?

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.”

People I spoke with who know Josh insist not only that the crime was not within his nature or modus operandi—that he's dedicated to nonviolence and wouldn't be caught dead wearing the Nikes the suspect wore—but also that it to a photographic certainty wasn't him. Though the FBI has had some 30 years to learn to tell its longhairs apart, the lanky guy they identified as Josh in the video simply doesn't look like him, friends say.

“The agents were bragging to me about the great face-mapping technology and other things they have,” Connole said. “You'd think that with all that technology, they'd be equal to anyone I know just looking at the photos with a magnifying glass and seeing it's obviously not me.”

One acquaintance convinced of his innocence is Jarret Lovell, one of the founding members of the Orange County Peace Coalition and a professor of criminology at Cal State Fullerton. Seeing the video footage cinched it, he said, “but it was the way they went about the arrest that first made me doubt he might be guilty. You don't behave in that fashion when you've got evidence. It's not just in the criminology textbooks; all you have to do is watch Law and Order to know they never make an arrest with one piece of evidence, and here they were going in with no warrant, not telling him what charges he was being arrested on—that all reeks of the PATRIOT Act.”

I do not like Hummers, though they are very useful: until all the assholes in the world start wearing signs that warn, “I am an asshole,” Hummers are the next best thing. But blowing them up is also an assholic thing to do. I would be very glad if the FBI caught the guys who did it, particularly if they did it the old-fashioned way, with evidence and respect for the law. But I'm worried a hell of a lot less about those chunks of metal than I am about the rights of our fellow Americans.

At two weeks after the raid, the residents of Regen V were still without their computers and other personal property. Witnesses, by the way, say the agents began searching through things well before the search warrant arrived, while attorney Paparian maintains that most of the search then was conducted outside the legal time frame of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. “The law recognizes that nighttime invasion is egregious,” he says.

And Connole is still branded a suspect. Paparian plans to file for a declaration of factual innocence.

He said, “Josh was arrested at gunpoint without probable cause. They denied his Fourth Amendment rights. They've taken his good name. They took every pair of pants he has! All he's done is exercise his First Amendment rights, and he's never violated the law.”

If Connole is indeed as innocent as he seems, I hope he sues the government's pants off and they'll have to give him lots of your and my tax dollars as recompense. But I have to agree with Paparian, who says, “The only real remedy would be to repeal the U.S. Patriot Act and fire John Ashcroft. We can't have lawless law enforcement like this.”

Lenny Bruce probably said it best back in the 1960s: that the Bill of Rights doesn't exist to protect criminals, but to protect us against the government becoming criminals.

If the Bush administration is hoping to use its newfound powers to silence dissent, it isn't working yet in this case. Connole said, “All this made me realize the blatant disregard the government has for our rights, and it's made me that much more committed.”

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