Investigators say a Federal Express shipment, telephone records and a trail of other evidence led them to the capture of fugitive animal rights activist Rodney Coronado.
Coronado, 29, was convicted of starting a fire that destroyed 30 years’ worth of research records at Michigan State University. He begins a four-year, nine-month sentence Sept. 11.
He has been linked to arson attacks on mink farms in Yamhill, Ore., and at Oregon State University in 1991. He also is suspected of vandalizing a Washington State University animal lab in August 1991.
Under a plea agreement with federal authorities, Coronado has been ordered to pay $2.5 million in restitution for fires in five states, including Oregon.
“The reason he got caught is he was too cheap to pay Federal Express,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy VerHey told the Lansing State Journal.
Michigan State University detectives and U.S. prosecutors say the Tucson, Ariz., man was an Animal Liberation Front insider who fueled a two-year campaign of terror.
“He was the guy out there making it happen, scaring people into believing what he believed,” said campus police Sgt. John McCandless, who worked for 18 months on the case.
The Animal Liberation Front had been involved in a nationwide pattern of terrorist activities the group said was aimed at ending exploitation of animals.
In 1991, it began targeting businesses and university research centers.
The group claimed responsibility for arson attacks on an OSU mink research farm near Corvallis, Ore., and the Northwest Farm Food Cooperative in Edmonds, Wash., in June 1991.
In February 1992, fire destroyed the offices of Michigan State Professors Richard Aulerich and Karen Chou, turning 32 years of mink research into ash and causing $1.3 million in damage.
The investigation involved the university, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Investigators learned that before and after the fire, two Federal Express packages were sent to Bethesda, Md., by a man identifying himself as Leonard Robideau.
The second package was intercepted by FedEx employees after a false account number was used to ship it.
The package contained documents stolen from Aulerich’s office during the attack and a videotape of a ski-masked person who committed the attack.
The handwriting on the freight bill was analyzed and found to be Coronado’s.
McCandless said once he and other investigators found out the package was sent from a drop box in Ann Arbor, they began checking records at a dozen area hotels.
“Lo and behold, we found that Rod Coronado had stayed on the night of the arson at the last hotel we checked 300 feet from the Federal Express box,” McCandless said. “That was a big break.”
“We found out that every time there was an ALF action in a town, he was in the neighborhood,” VerHey said.
After the Dec. 21, 1991, attack at the Malecky mink ranch in Yamhill, Ore., Portland television station KGW got a call from a man claiming responsibility. He said he was an Animal Liberation Front member.
Phone records suggest Coronado made the call.
Investigators then seized a typewriter from a storage locker rented by Coronado in Talent, Ore. Forensic experts examined the ribbon and reconstructed a letter that had been written on it.
The letter revealed that two Montana fur farms were targeted for arson.
At his sentencing Friday, Coronado pleaded for leniency. He said his involvement with the Michigan State arson was limited.
U.S. District Judge Richard Enslen said he did not believe Coronado.
“It’s the court’s suspicion that that was not the end of his activity,” Enslen said.
Coronado eluded authorities for more than a year before he was arrested last September on an Arizona Indian reservation, where he had been living under an alias. Since his arrest, Animal Liberation Front activities have stopped.
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