LOS ANGELES MAYOR Antonio Villaraigosa may need to watch his back. On December 4, the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, a leading mouthpiece for animal-rights extremists in the United States, posted on its Web site a “communiqué” from a newly minted outfit called the Cat and Dog Liberation Army. It read: “Villaraigosa deserves to be bumped off like the dogs and cats we witnessed with their eyes wide, terrified before they were bumped off. He got off way to [sic] easy.”
The unknown writer of the menacing note also bragged about vandalizing the car and home of Deborah Villar, the mayor’s sister, in Rowland Heights.
The threat and attack once again establish Los Angeles as the “epicenter” of animal-rights extremism in the nation, according to Oren Segal, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism in New York City, an international watchdog monitoring hate groups. “The Los Angeles area is clearly experiencing a spike in this activity,” the expert says. Segal, who describes the extremists as “professional” and “hardcore,” believes law enforcement has a nearly impossible job in front of it.
“Historically, a lot of this type of activity remains unsolved,” Segal says. “It’s almost luck if someone is arrested, and these groups are very hard to infiltrate. You have to be able to talk the language, but people tend to smell a rat in this movement.”
In August, L.A.Weekly reported on the attempted firebombing of Dr. Arthur Rosenbaum’s car in front of his home — Rosenbaum performed animal testing for medical research at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. The Animal Liberation Front, an internationally known group of underground extremists, followed up that attack in October with another stealth mission at the Beverly Hills home of UCLA professor Edythe London, who also conducts research using animals. Extremists pumped water from a pool and flooded her residence, causing between $20,000 and $30,000 in damage.
The FBI deemed both attacks to be acts of “domestic terrorism,” according to spokeswoman Laura Eimiller, and they were just two of many attempts by above- and underground activists to intimidate UCLA medical-research staff in the past several years.
With no arrests made in the UCLA cases, extremists appear to be “empowered,” according to Segal, and they are now expanding their violent ways outside of Westwood. The expert says there’s “almost certainly a link” between the attacks on the UCLA professors and the mayor’s sister. “I don’t think there are competing underground cells, by any means,” Segal says.
The FBI, which is probing the UCLA incidents, and the Los Angeles Police Department, which, along with the Sheriff’s Department, is probing the vandalism against the mayor’s sister, have refused to comment about such linkage, citing the need to keep details under wraps as they pursue what they describe as active investigations.
A driving force behind the underground movement is Dr. Jerry Vlasak, a Los Angeles–based surgeon who co-founded the North American Animal Liberation Press Office in 2004. “By providing these communiqués to the public,” says Segal, “they’re trying to legitimize [the underground’s] actions.”
Vlasak has told the Weekly that his doctor title lends credibility to the larger animal-rights movement — and, as a result, he has become a very visible spokesman, appearing on television and testifying before the U.S. Senate. But Vlasak is not one of your good-humored, neighborhood doctors. In 2004, Vlasak told the London Observer, “I don’t think you’d have to kill too many [researchers]. I think for five lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million nonhuman lives.”
A year later, Vlasak engaged in a heated exchange with U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg — Vlasak was providing the activists’ point of view at a Senate hearing looking into ways to combat eco-terrorism. A visibly perturbed Lautenberg asked Vlasak where he practiced medicine. Vlasak vaguely said the “Los Angeles area.” The senator asked him to narrow it down. Vlasak, switching the locale, replied, “I practice at several hospitals in the Riverside and San Bernardino area.”
Lautenberg asked him to name one. Vlasak said, “Loma Linda University.” But that 2005 testimony to Congress, which lent Vlasak credibility with the media and others, is utterly untrue, according to Joy Jameson, a spokeswoman at Loma Linda University Medical Center. Jameson says Vlasak resigned from “general surgery” in 1998 — and hasn’t worked at that hospital since then.
Vlasak also claims he performs surgery at Riverside Community Hospital. “He’s always telling people he works here,” explains Norene Bowers, senior vice president of Patient Care Services. She says that while Vlasak retains medical-staff “privileges” at Riverside Community Hospital, he hasn’t performed surgery there in nearly two years.
In an e-mail, Vlasak addressed these discrepancies: “I have practiced at both Loma Linda University and Riverside Community Hospital in the past, and still have privileges at the latter location. Your focus on my employment record instead of the suffering of nonhuman animals is deplorable.”
THE RECENT PUSH TO RATTLE the mayor of Los Angeles and his sister comes after nearly three years of protests by aboveground activists against the treatment of animals at the city’s six shelters, according to North American Animal Liberation Press Office spokeswoman Lindy Greene. Greene, who has led demonstrations at UCLA, says the mayor’s sister Deborah Villar is now a “tertiary target,” meaning someone who does not have direct influence on city policy but may be pressured to talk to the mayor.
“It’s a brilliant concept,” says Greene unashamedly. “Even though Deborah is not entirely involved, the idea is that she would be very upset and she’ll call Antonio and say, ‘Why do I have to suffer for something you’re not doing?’ There’s a hope that she’ll apply pressure on him, or he would feel guilty for what’s happening to his sister.”
Greene, who lives in North Hollywood and describes herself as “one of the most prominent animal-rights activists” in Los Angeles, has marched in front of Villar’s home with others as they shouted their disgust into bullhorns. Villar never replied to e-mails seeking comment, but Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore confirmed that an unknown assailant or assailants poured a “corrosive” on Villar’s car and splattered red paint on steps leading to her home, creating total damage worth $3,500. The attack, says Whitmore, occurred sometime between midnight and 7 a.m. on November 13, and Greene believes the Cat and Dog Liberation Army is a “new [underground] cell.”
“It is probably a group that doesn’t want to call themselves Animal Liberation Front,” says Greene.
No one has been arrested in the Villar case, according to Whitmore, and the written threat against the mayor “has not been labeled a crime,” says Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Mike Downing, assistant commanding officer of the Counter Terrorism Intelligence Center Bureau. The City Attorney’s Office, which advised the LAPD, would not comment on the threat because of “potential litigation,” spokesman Nick Velasquez told the Weekly. The Mayor’s Office has remained silent as well.
Greene says the threat was merely someone acting out. “That, to me, is not advocating [violence]. The activists are just expressing their anger. They’re expressing their moral outrage.”
Segal doesn’t let her off so easily. “That sounds like somebody who doesn’t want to take responsibility for inciting violence,” he says. “Language is not just a way to spout off. People take language very seriously in this movement.”
Downing, who is working with the Sheriff’s Department, describes the attack on Villar’s home as an act of “domestic terrorism.” “They are striking fear into the hearts of innocent civilians by committing crime,” says the deputy chief.
Some weeks ago, activists picketed a home they identified as that of Villaraigosa chief of staff Robin Kramer, and a much more recent “tertiary” target has been Maria Blackman, the ex-wife of Villaraigosa’s deputy chief of staff, Jimmy Blackman, whose duties include overseeing Los Angeles Animal Services. Greene says activists have routinely protested at her home in the Valley over the past six months, unfurling a large banner that read “Animal Killer in Your Neighborhood.” On November 27, the Animal Liberation Front boasted in a communiqué, also posted on the North American Animal Liberation Press Office’s Web site, that they “paint strippered” a car in front of Maria Blackman’s residence four days earlier.
The LAPD says the solvent-pouring incident did not happen. “That’s a false claim,” asserts Downing. Jimmy Blackman has refused several requests by the Weekly to specifically comment on the alleged attack, and Greene says, “[Law enforcement] will lie about an action, saying it took place at the wrong address. They want to make the Animal Liberation Front look like idiots.”
Asked if the suspects in the various cases will be hard to find, Downing replies, “We have incredibly skilled investigators, and we have a very robust investigation. We are taking it extremely seriously.” Both Downing and Sheriff’s spokesman Whitmore, citing a need to be discreet, declined to say if police have beefed up security around the mayor, his sister’s home or Maria Blackman’s home.
Greene doesn’t expect the late-night attacks to end anytime soon. “If all of this abuse [of animals] continues and law enforcement keeps the pressure on us,” the spokeswoman says, “all indications show that these actions are not only going to continue but increase.”
Los Angeles, in other words, may be facing a very troublesome new year.