Four days after two defiant activists were freed from jail, another activist refused to testify yesterday before a grand jury investigating a huge fire and a lecture by a convicted arsonist two years ago.
A federal judge set a civil contempt hearing for Aug. 17 for animal rights activist Nicole Fink, 27, of City Heights after prosecutors granted her immunity from prosecution if she testified.
Before going up to the grand jury room, Fink said she was ready to go to jail. She said she quit her job in the insurance business, moved out of her apartment and gave Monkey, her cat, to a relative for safekeeping.
Fink, who attended the lecture by a spokesman for a radical environmental group, says testifying before the grand jury violates her First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.
That's the same argument advanced by David Agranoff and Danae Kelley, two activists who spent 17 days behind bars after refusing to testify before the same grand jury.
Despite a $100,000 reward, authorities haven't arrested anybody in an arson fire that caused $50 million in damage to the unfinished La Jolla Crossroads housing complex in University City.
The Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, claimed credit for the fire.
After Chief U.S. District Judge Irma E. Gonzalez found the two activists in contempt, they appealed.
The activists say the investigation into an Aug. 1, 2003, arson – and a speech later that same day by a convicted arsonist – amounts to harassment by government officials bent on destroying the animal rights movement.
Although the two animal rights activists disavow any connection to ELF, they say they have been followed, handcuffed, called terrorists, had their homes raided, their neighbors questioned and were relentlessly pursued by federal agents with whom they have vowed not to cooperate. Agranoff said he suspects his van was scrutinized by federal agents after it was stolen.
Prosecutors have told the judge the investigation isn't harassment, but is designed to gather information on two possible crimes.
An appeals court ruled Friday that Gonzalez should have set bail for Agranoff, 31, and Kelley, 21, while their appeal on the contempt is being heard. The judge then allowed them to go free on their promise to return to court if called.
Lawyers for the activists expect the appeals court to rule in the next 10 days on whether the First Amendment shields them from government scrutiny.
Gonzalez put off Fink's contempt hearing until after the deadline for the appeals court to decide the other two activists' case.
At least three other young people spent time with the grand jury yesterday, but left with their lawyers without commenting.
Grand jury proceedings are secret and prosecutors say they can't talk about the investigation, but witnesses are free to speak about their testimony.
Witnesses before the grand jury say prosecutors have questioned them primarily about a speech in Hillcrest by Rodney Coronado, an Arizona environmental activist who served prison time for torching a Michigan animal-testing lab in the 1990s. The arson fire in University City happened about 15 hours before Coronado's lecture.
In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Coronado said that during the speech, he demonstrated how he set the Michigan fire.
Prosecutors say they are investigating whether Coronado broke a law making it illegal to tell people how to make a bomb or destructive device if the person intends that his listeners will use the knowledge to commit a violent crime.