Feds target activists for animal rights

Terror task force agents raid leader's home in Somerset County

Friday, April 25, 2003
Star-Ledger Staff

Federal agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force raided a Somerset County house this week that served as the headquarters for an animal rights organization, authorities said yesterday. The raid on Wednesday was part of a nationwide investigation into possible criminal activities by the group, authorities said yesterday.

Investigators executed a search warrant on the home in Franklin Township, whose occupant is a leader of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, or SHAC, said Special Agent Steve Kodak, a spokesman for the FBI's Newark division.

The group has conducted a years-long campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences, a company whose laboratory in Franklin Township uses animals for research purposes.

Bill Strazza, an attorney for SHAC, said the house, on Home Street not far from Rutgers University, serves as the organization's headquarters and was rented by Kevin Kjonaas, who is considered the main force behind the group.

Kjonaas, who is in his mid-20s and also goes by the name Kevin Jonas, had packed his belongings and was in the process of moving when agents arrived at the 1 1/2-story, red brick single-family home on Wednesday morning. Investigators carted off "just about anything that wasn't nailed down" including notebooks, private journals and computers, Strazza said.

Kjonaas, who was not arrested, served briefly as spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front, a loose organization of radical animal rights activists, which the FBI says is responsible for more than 600 cases of ecoterrorism nationwide. Those cases range from spray-painting buildings and breaking windows to firebombing fur farms and research centers, according to the FBI.

Strazza, however, vehemently denied that Kjonaas or other SHAC members are involved in criminal activity. The group engages only in lawful campaigns and protests, he said.

"I have never come across a group of people, let alone a group of activists, who are more peacefully interested in the human condition, and the animal condition, than these people," Straza said yesterday. "They are pacifists and peace activists."

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark confirmed that the raid occurred, but declined to comment on the investigation. Kodak, the FBI spokesman, also declined comment on specifics of the investigation.

Strazza, however, said the raid was part of an ongoing investigation by a federal grand jury that has so far issued subpoenas in California, Texas and Chicago. The FBI has placed SHAC on a list of terrorist organizations, he said.

"I think we are unfortunately in a political environment where criminalizing dissent is becoming popular again," he said.

In another development Wednesday, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, comprised of both state and federal agents, raided a home in Seattle, Wash., as part of the same investigation, according to The Seattle Times newspaper, which cited a search warrant on file in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

According to the Seattle warrant, agents are investigating suspected arson, violations of federal interstate commerce statutes and "animal enterprise terrorism" -- terrorism against companies involved in animal enterprises -- by radical animal rights groups.

The occupants of the Seattle home have been linked to animal rights organizations, though it was unclear whether SHAC is among them.

Lawrence Lincoln, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle, declined to comment.

SHAC has targeted Huntingdon Life Sciences, its insurers and its financial backers in its efforts to end the company's use of animals in scientific research. Founded in the United Kingdom, Huntingdon tests pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals, mostly on animals. It has long been targeted by animal rights activists seeking to shut it down.

In 1997, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) lodged a complaint against Huntingdon after the group conducted an undercover investigation, which found that 36 beagles were to have their legs broken in order to test an osteoporosis drug.

The experiment was called off and the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined Huntingdon $50,000 for violating the Animal Welfare Act.

In April 2001, 14 beagles that were being used in tests were stolen during a break-in at the Huntingdon's lab in Franklin, hailed as a "liberation" by animal rights groups. In protests the next day, four animal rights activists were arrested on various charges, including resisting arrest, obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct.

Two months later, a judge ordered SHAC to stop holding protests of more than 50 people in front of the company's Franklin Park building, restricting larger demonstrations to a park several hundred feet away.

In a February interview with The Star-Ledger, Sidney Caspersen, director of the state Office of Counter Terrorism, said his office had assigned investigators to monitor hate groups and animal rights groups in New Jersey and elsewhere for alliances with foreign nationals.

Staff writers Matthew Reilly and Matthew J. Dowling contributed to this report.