Burning Suburbia

Long Island is the perfect place to wage war against suburban sprawl--for New York's Long Island, as Robert Wieboldt says, is home to Levittown, and Levittown is where suburbia really began. Wieboldt is executive vice president of the Long Island Builders Institute, which is offering a $10,000 reward for information on a spate of arson directed against new residential-construction projects--three incidents in the month of December, all within a 20-mile stretch of the mostly upscale North Shore. if you build it we will burn it, someone scrawled on the wall of a partly completed house damaged on the night of Dec. 30. The graffiti was signed "ELF" for Earth Liberation Front, a loose confederation of ecosaboteurs already well known out west. "In no way do we regard these people as members of a legitimate environmental group, but rather as terrorists," Wieboldt says ominously. "This time they've gone too far."

Whether they will go even further depends on the ability of the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies to crack the case. NEWSWEEK has learned that the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force has taken charge of the Long Island investigation, which may improve the chance for an investigative breakthrough. Over the past three years ELF has taken responsibility for two dozen acts of vandalism, arson and sabotage, including a spectacular blaze that destroyed a $12 million mountaintop restaurant and ski-lift facility in Vail, Colo., in 1998. The group has recently set fires at construction sites in Colorado and Indiana, as well as in New York. Another group, known by the mystery acronym CSP, is waging an arson campaign against sprawl development in Phoenix. Over the past two years CSP has taken credit for nine fires that caused $5 million in damage. ELF, better known, is a spin off from Earth First!, an '80s environmental-action group that is now mostly defunct. Some law-enforcement officials see links between ELF and the Animal Liberation Front, which is believed to be responsible for a lengthy list of petty crimes directed against animal-research labs and the meat industry. ELF and ALF seem to have similar agendas: in addition to its Long Island arsons, ELF on Dec. 8 vandalized a McDonald's corporate office in the town of Hauppauge, N.Y., breaking windows and decorating the building with the slogan MEAT IS MURDER!

Their motives include most of the familiar refrains of the millennial left: rage against global capitalism, vegetarianism as ideology, anarchism, animal rights and a deep contempt for politics and the law. The organizational style is "leaderless resistance," which in practice means that ELF cells are autonomous and isolated from each other. That makes it difficult for police to infiltrate the group or link one cell to another and, so far, investigators have had virtually no success in identifying suspects or making arrests. ELF nevertheless has a designated media spokesman, Craig Rosebraugh from Portland, Ore., a 28-year-old activist who operates a vegan bakery. Rosebraugh says ELF cells send him messages but he says has no knowledge of who the members are or what the next "direct action" is going to be.

It was Rosebraugh who announced ELF's new campaign against suburban sprawl. He said the war began last January with the arson of a luxury home under construction outside Bloomington, Ind., and continued with another arson outside Boulder, Colo., on Nov. 27. The idea, he said, was to dramatize the sprawl issue while causing "as much economic damage to the developers as possible." He said ELF members "are upset that more and more of nature is being destroyed for the sake of profit," adding that he thinks "this sort of direct action has a clear and important place" in the environmental movement. (Many environmentalists disagree.) In Boulder, ELF took responsibility for burning a $2.5 million mansion, connecting the act to the defeat of a no-growth initiative in the November election. "We know that the real 'ecoterrorists' are the white male industrial and corporate elite," the Boulder ELF cell said in a statement issued through Rosebraugh. "They must be stopped."

The $12 million ski-area arson in Vail is still the crime that put ELF on the map. NEWSWEEK Special Correspondent Dan Glick says the case may never be solved, in part because the FBI pulled virtually all of its agents off the investigation to run down leads in the Columbine High School massacre. The Long Island fires are likely to be just as tough to solve. In the town of Miller Place, 31-year-old Joseph Miletti Jr. is still trying to figure out why his dream house was torched on the night of Dec. 19. "I just don't understand it," he says. "I'm not a big developer. I'm just one guy, building a house."