A message awaited the paving crew that arrived at the work site for a three-story house in Coweta County one winter morning three years ago.
The night before, someone slashed the tires, severed the hydraulic lines and jammed dirt into the fuel tanks of a dirt compactor and a grader belonging to Dan Kenobbie Construction. And the words "stop now" were scratched into the side of the compactor.
That didn't prevent Dan Kenobbie from finishing the house's foundation and driveway. Nor did it stop the framers, plumbers and electricians who worked on the structure after Kenobbie's crew.
But even before the house on Bethel Road near the Fulton County line was completed, it was burned to the ground. Then, it was rebuilt and burned again.
Since the "stop now" warning, as many as 16 nearly complete houses have been torched in or near a posh golf-course development in Coweta County, according to the state Insurance and Safety Fire Commission. At least one of them was destroyed by fire three times. In February, after three of the fires occurred within two weeks, state and county officials formed a task force to investigate the arsons.
Task force officials won't talk much about the ongoing investigation, but they say it's possible that the fires were set to deter development that's ramping up in the suburban county about 30 miles south of Atlanta. And a nationally known arson expert says the fires fit into a pattern of eco-terrorism.
"One of the first things the investigators need to consider is that they might have an eco-terrorist," says Dian Williams, president of the Philadelphia-based Center for Arson Research. "Eco-terrorists really have a particular mission. Their fires are largely to send a message: Don't build here, we'll make you sorry."
Taking their inspiration from The Monkey Wrench Gang, a 1975 novel by the late Edward Abbey, extreme environmentalists have sporadically hit sites that they believed were affronts to the environment. One of the more sensational attacks occurred last December when 10 unoccupied houses in Maryland were destroyed by fire in a single night. The homes were under construction near wetlands that locals had fought to protect from Washington, D.C.'s sprawl.
The most well-known eco-terrorist group, Earth Liberation Front, operates through a network of autonomous cells, much like many other terrorist organizations. At the same time, ELF and other eco-terrorists time their attacks and choose targets to maximize property damage and minimize harm to humans.
ELF has taken credit for burning down houses, SUV dealerships and a ski resort. The FBI credits ELF and its sister organization, the Animal Liberation Front, with causing more than $100 million in damages nationwide since 1990.
Could someone in Coweta County have taken inspiration from other eco-terrorists to target development in their back yard? For that matter, regardless of the grand schemes of extreme environmentalists, did one project simply get too close to a favorite fishing hole?
By no means are arson investigators ready to attribute the Coweta fires to an eco-terrorist or a militant group. State Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine says his office is investigating all possibilities, from rebellious teenagers to disgruntled employees of construction contractors.
"It's really hard for us to speculate as to the motive," says Oxendine, who mentions in the same breath last month's torching of an unfinished condo building in Midtown's Atlantic Station. "Some people aren't happy about the development at Atlantic Station. Some people aren't happy about the development at Coweta County. Does that mean development is the motivation for arson? You really don't know until you catch a person, they admit to it and say in court what their motivation is."
Each of the Coweta fires occurred within a five-mile radius of Arbor Springs Plantation, a 600-home subdivision with an 18-hole golf course and four lakes in north Coweta County. Houses there sit on one- to three-acre lots and sell for up to $1 million.
The development covers 1,500 acres in a part of the county that previously had been rural and heavily wooded. While the project didn't face public opposition, one Arbor Springs resident says the area's transition from rural to suburban has caused a tension that may have led to the fires.
"We have houses going up just right and left ... and there are a lot of people who have lived here forever who really are not thrilled about that," says Jan Geurtz, who moved into the development from Honolulu in 2000. "They don't like the changes taking place down here, so at first, we kind of wondered if it was someone who had been here a long time."
On the other hand, one resident noted that a group of teenagers was caught last year after damaging cars by stringing wires across a road.
Coweta officials only linked the fires together after three February arsons. "When we had several [fires] together in a close time, we went back and said, 'Look, this is the same thing that happened to this house two years ago,'" says Fire Chief Dennis Hammond. "So we kind of tied some of these other events back to this same [arson] situation now."
Mainstream environmentalists disavow eco-terrorism as counterproductive and even harmful to the environment. And if the Coweta arsons are in fact acts of eco-terror, they certainly haven't stopped development in Arbor Springs Plantation.
Mark Stamey of Renaissance Home Construction is rebuilding a three-story, 5,000-square-foot house there. When the $486,000 house was complete the first time and all that remained was some landscaping, someone burned it down to the foundation.
That was Feb. 13. Two weeks later, another fire destroyed a $200,000 house nearby, on Persimmon Drive. A tractor-trailer used to deliver building material also was torched.
The person or persons who started the fire at Stamey's house probably dumped gasoline, kerosene or diesel fuel in the garage. A neighbor spotted two cars leaving the driveway around midnight. An hour later, the house blazed into ruins.
One of Stamey's subcontractors had to patch two spots where the fire got so hot, the cement in the garage floor exploded. Now he's about a month away from completing the house a second time. He's so worried that it might be torched again that he's put two surveillance cameras in nearby trees and strung a chain across the driveway.
"It's caused the biggest hassle for everyone -- the insurance, the cameras, the security lights," he says. "We just want to know what's happening."
To report any information on the Coweta or Atlantic Station fires, call 800-282-5804. The line is always open. Tips that lead to an arrest and conviction are worth $10,000. Atlantic Station developers have offered an additional $50,000.
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