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In the Land of the SUV 

In the Land of the SUV Josh Connole meets the FBI

Thursday, Sep 18 2003
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Joshua Thomas Connole is a 6-foot-4 string bean of a man with a lilt in his walk that makes his chin-length brown hair, which turns up at the ends, bounce with every step. He’s 25, but seems younger, in part because he lacks a certain cynicism associated with maturity. After his arrest last week in connection with the August 22 arson fire at a West Covina Hummer dealership, he guilelessly invoked the style of his sneakers in his defense: The perpetrator captured on the car lot’s surveillance video was not wearing Connole’s trademark Vans.

Several people, including Connole’s lawyer, William Paparian, presented the sneaker defense as a political statement, claiming that Connole refused to wear any sneaker made by Nike, a company activists have targeted for its labor practices. (“That’s something the authorities wouldn’t understand, right?” said Paparian.) Connole’s own story, however, was much simpler. “I told them, ‘Look, that guy’s shoes have a rubber flap on the toe!’ And Vans never have a rubber flap on the toe.’”

On Monday night in front of the Citrus Municipal Court in West Covina, where Connole’s fresh-faced, patchouli-scented friends and supporters had gathered to protest his arrest amid burning sage and tribal drumbeats, Connole’s shoes once again became an issue. A conscientious vegan who objected to being served Salisbury steak while in custody, Connole borrowed a pair of leather loafers after losing the paper slippers he’d worn in his cell. When one young man with a shaved head and a “Screw the Patriot Act” T-shirt nearly tackled Connole with a hug, Connole felt compelled to comment on the shoes. “You made it! You’re a free man!” shouted the friend.

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“And I’m wearing leather shoes,” shrugged Connole cheerily, throwing his long arms in the air and smiling broadly. “What can you do? I’m just glad to be out.”

The release was unexpected: On that same morning, Connole had been given a new wristband and told he was being transferred to county. Then all of sudden, at 4:30 p.m., “they said ‘Grab your stuff, you’re out.’” The West Covina police stated they would not have sufficient evidence to present a case to the district attorney within 48 hours of Connole’s arrest, as required by California law. So here was their suspect, in his white paper jailhouse jumpsuit, working the crowd at the very rally organized to demand his release.

Among those celebrating were several members of the Regenerative Cooperative in Pomona, where Connole has lived since July. “Regen V,” as it’s called, along with the “Tortoise House” next door, is a community founded on the principles of the late Cal Poly Pomona Professor John T. Lyle, who came up with the name “regenerative” to denote a way of living that produces more natural resources than it consumes. Regen V generates enough electricity from solar power that it sells some back to the grid; its residents conduct workshops on composting and organic urban gardening.

The night of Connole’s arrest, the FBI “embargoed” the house and then ransacked it, emptied it of computers and documents and left it in shambles. “I don’t understand it,” said Emily Lutz, a soft-spoken young woman with straight brown hair and wide blue eyes, who is one of Regen’s original founding members. “Our politics are not extreme. We believe in promoting positive values. Many of us are students. Two of our members moved out recently because they’re going on to Harvard Law School.” Lutz also complained that the Los Angeles Times had made several erroneous claims about the Regen House, including a report that stated the FBI had found a gun and ammunition in their search. “It was a BB gun,” Lutz said dryly. “It’s Matt’s BB gun. Matt is one of our residents. It’s the BB gun he’s had since he was a little kid.”

 

Connole is known in activist circles as the man behind many of Orange County’s anti-war protests, including a recent one in which he carried a sign declaring George W. Bush “A Nazi Corporate Fascist Pig.” The rally crowd believed that Connole was targeted because of his history as a rally organizer. “It’s true and I’ll tell you why,” said Paparian. “In the Oakland Tribune on May 18, Mike Van Winkle of the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center gave a definition of terrorism that goes like this: ‘You can make an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that’s being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that protest.’” The article went on to claim that the organization has “quietly gathered and analyzed information on activists of various stripes since its creation.”

But if authorities were collecting evidence on Connole he didn’t know it: When a black Mustang began tailing him in late August, he still had enough faith in the system that he turned to the police for help.

“I drive an electric golf cart,” Connole told me. “It only goes 25 miles per hour, so it became really obvious what was going on — I mean, most of the time in L.A. if you’re going that slow people are like, ‘Get out of the way!’” At one point, Connole even had the Yorba Linda police run the offending vehicle’s plates. “But it turned out the plate number didn’t exist, which probably meant it was a government official.”

On the day of his arrest, Connole and his girlfriend Katie McMillan were on their way to rent a movie when the car got behind them again. Connole called 911. The operator put him on hold, and he drove in circles as he waited for the police to show up. “Then all of a sudden there were like five of them,” Connole recalled. “There were black Mustangs everywhere.” He drove to the local police station, “where I felt safe,” and got out of the car only to find himself restrained in an arm lock. “I was saying, ‘No, no! I’m the one being followed! I’m the victim here!’” The police informed him that his pursuers were agents of the federal government, and sent him home.

Twenty minutes later, an FBI agent was at his door with a gun. “I’d never had a gun pointed at me before,” Connole laughs. “I had my hands in the air with these people going whoa, this is intense! But as soon as I got in the car and they said the words — when they told me what they thought I was the Hummer guy — I immediately felt a wave of relief. I just thought ‘Of course they’ll figure it out that they’ve got the wrong guy, because I’m innocent.’”

Connole initially agreed to talk to the police without his lawyer present, even while authorities insinuated that they had his “friend” in custody — there were two men on the videotape — and suggested the other man was prepared to rat him out. “It didn’t scare me, because I knew it wasn’t true,” Connole insisted. But he stopped cooperating on the second day, when an FBI agent got nasty. “He called me a ‘fucking liar’ and told me he wasn’t ‘fucking around’ and warned me not to fuck with him. I’m not kidding — it was like fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!’ After that kind of treatment, I told them that personally, I knew they didn’t have any evidence, and I would no longer answer their questions without my lawyer.” The next day, he was out.

West Covina authorities said that the investigation will continue. And even though Connole and all his friends insist that none of them had previously even heard of the Earth Liberation Front, which took responsibility for the fire, he’ll remain in the FBI’s crosshairs for the time being.

Connole, standing on the street corner waving to the cars honking in his support, was clearly not too concerned. “Hello officers!” he yelled to a West Covina squad car stuck awkwardly at a red light. “It’s me, Josh! Hi! I’m out! I’m innocent!” The officers were not moved to smile.

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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