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ELF Defendants Plead Guilty to Arson Charges

By Ray Estrada

A 22-year-old Newcastle man, linked to an environmental terrorist group, pleaded guilty in federal court in Sacramento on Friday to three felonies in the February arson that damaged the Pine Woods apartment complex in Sutter Creek and earlier attempts to burn two buildings in Placer County.

Ryan Daniel Lewis initially faced up to nine counts of arson, attempted arson and conspiracy. However, in a plea bargain he admitted to one count of arson and two counts of attempted arson, said U.S. Assistant Attorney Steven Lapham.

Lewis also faced three counts of attempted arson for his alleged role in the intentionally set fires in Lincoln and Auburn. He remains in Sacramento County Jail pending his Jan. 13 sentencing in U.S. District Court for Eastern California. Lapham is recommending to Judge Edward J. Garcia that Lewis be sentenced to 72 months in prison.

Lewis´ attorney, Timothy Zindel, said he had hoped the recommended sentence would be five years. “He admitted his involvement early on, and we´re just been waiting for this to get resolved,” Zindel said.

Lewis was arrested Feb. 8 on suspicion of arson and attempted arson of a commercial building. Five fire bombs were found in the Park Hill office building under construction in Auburn on Jan. 12. Lewis was indicted on charges of planting “almost identical devices” found at the Twelve Bridges development in Lincoln on Dec. 27 and the burning of apartments in Sutter Creek on Feb. 7, 2005.

The Earth Liberation Front, an eco-terrorist group that has been known to use arson and sabotage in an effort to send its message, claimed responsibility for the Auburn and Lincoln firebomb attempts in a letter to the Auburn Journal on Jan. 19

When investigators raided Lewis´ home, the search turned up surveillance footage of a commercial office complex under construction in Auburn where firebombs failed to ignite, according to court affidavits. Investigators also found accelerants and materials similar to those used in the incendiary bombs found at all three locations.

Police said a written passage found on Lewis´ computer was the same as one in letters sent to newspapers claiming responsibility for the first two attacks on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front. Another phrase in the letters was from a song Lewis had written, according to FBI testimony.

The Sutter Creek bomb used plastic containers filled with gasoline placed inside large black plastic bags. Scouring pads were used as wicks for the devices. Sprinklers in the buildings put out six of the seven fires, while firefighters extinguished the other blaze.

At 3:16 a.m. on Feb. 7, Sutter Creek police and firefighters heard a fire alarm at the Pine Woods apartment complex on Bowers Drive. They found smoke coming from many buildings. Sutter Creek Police Chief Rob Duke said firefighters were quickly able to get seven fires under control with the building´s sprinkler system. The FBI said seven incendiary devices were later found and thought responsible for the blaze.

“We Will Win – ELF” was spray painted on a nearby metal storage unit, which indicated the arson could be the work of the Earth Liberation Front.

The group was called the No. 1 domestic terror threat in a speech to Congress by former FBI Director Louis Freeh.

Earth Liberation Front formed during the 1980s in Brighton, England, by members of Earth First! that refused to abandon violence as a means of achieving goals. The group became infamous in 1998 after causing nearly $12 million in property damage to a ski lodge in Vail, Colo., which threatened an endangered lynx habitat.

Since then, ELF has been implicated in other incidents, ranging from vandalism of several sport-utility-vehicle dealerships in Los Angeles County and the destruction of a 206-unit condominium in San Diego over which a 12-foot banner was displayed that read: “If you build It, we will burn it.” Since 1996, it is estimated that the ELF has caused more than $100 million in damage, the FBI reported.

Since Lewis´ arrest two bombing attempts in Auburn have occurred.

A pipe bomb was found Feb. 15 behind the Department of Motor Vehicles in Auburn. No one was hurt when authorities detonated the bomb hours later. An incendiary device was found on the steps of the Placer County Historic Courthouse in Old Town Auburn on Feb. 13. That device, found by a passerby, appeared to be a fertilizer bomb, although FBI officials have declined to comment on specifics.

Also in court Friday with Lewis were co-defendants, Eva and Lili Holland, who are sisters. Lapham said they pleaded guilty to one count each of attempted arson and face up to 39 months in prison when they are sentenced Jan. 13. They admitted involvement in the Lincoln attempted arson. A fourth co-defendant in the case, Jeremiah Colcleasure, is scheduled for trial March 13 on attempted arson and conspiracy charges.

Kindly reprinted with permission from: The Ledger Dispatch