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Terrorist group claims responsibility for fires

November 22, 2005|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN

erinc@herald-mail.com

An environmental terrorist group has claimed responsibility for four fires set early Sunday in Hager's Crossing west of Hagerstown.

The group - Earth Liberation Front - sent an e-mail to The Herald-Mail Co. saying they "put the torch to a development of Ryan Homes ... to strike at the bottom line of this country's most notorious serial land rapists."

Three town houses were damaged and one was destroyed just before 4 a.m. in the development near the Centre at Hagerstown on U.S. 40.

Hagerstown Fire Department Chief Gary Hawbaker said he believes this is the first time that Earth Liberation Front has taken responsibility for fires in the area.

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The Hagerstown Fire Marshal's office was investigating several leads, he said. The Hagerstown Fire Department, the Maryland State Fire Marshal, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Hagerstown Police Department and the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are assisting.

Hawbaker said officials completed an investigation at the scene Sunday and are following leads.

"There was obviously four separate set fires, so it's obviously arson," Hawbaker said Sunday.

He said investigators know how the fires were set, but he would not release that information.

"We had several leads before we received the e-mail (sent to The Herald-Mail Co.)," he said. "And part of the ongoing investigation is finding out if the e-mail is credible."

Barry Maddox, a spokesman in the FBI's Baltimore office, said it is too soon to say how involved the agency will be in the investigation. At least one FBI agent requested a copy of the e-mail allegedly sent by Earth Liberation Front.

Maddox said he would not comment on any evidence.

"It's still very early in the investigation," he said.

Stephen Kodak, a spokesman for the national FBI office, said he would not comment on Earth Liberation Front. He referred to the group as ELF and offered transcripts from FBI testimony about the group in 2002.

At the time, James Jarboe, domestic section chief for the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI, said ELF and a similar group, the Animal Liberation Front, have committed more than 600 criminal acts in the United States since 1996. In his testimony before the House Resources Committee, Jarboe estimated the damage caused by their actions to be $43 million.

ELF's most destructive practice is arson, according to the testimony. The group uses devices equipped with "crude but effective timing mechanisms," the testimony states.

The Hager's Crossing development is being built by Ryan Homes and Patriot Homes. When complete, the development will include more than 700 units on about 160 acres.

According to Washington County Emergency Services dispatchers, a fire at 12535 Atlanta Court was reported at 2:37 a.m.

Units from Maugansville, Halfway and Hagerstown responded to the scene, Hawbaker said.

Hawbaker said the damaged town houses had signs in the windows indicating they had been sold, but construction on neighboring homes is not complete. None of the homes on the street in the area where the fires occurred appeared occupied, he said.

One house in a cluster of four town houses burned to the ground. The fires caused minor damage to another house in that cluster and two to the west, Hawbaker said.

Hawbaker said Earth Liberation Front took responsibility for fires at a U.S. ski resort several years ago where development was a concern. Most recently, the group claimed it set a series of fires at homes under construction in Charles County, Md.

An investigation revealed the group did not set the fires.

Anyone who saw or heard anything suspicious in Hager's Crossing early Sunday may call the Hagerstown Fire Marshal at 301-790-2476.

Staff writer Marlo Barnhart contributed to this story.

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