EAST LANSING – In the early morning hours of Feb. 28, 1992, Rodney Coronado crept onto Michigan State University‘s campus. He wiggled his way through a first-floor window of Anthony Hall before kicking down the door to the office of Richard Aulerich. The MSU researcher spent decades studying nutrition and the decline of the natural mink population. Coronado believed Aulerich‘s research was funded by the commercial fur industry.
Inside Aulerich‘s office, Coronado built a pyre using wooden desk drawers, research papers and a makeshift firebomb. He recorded his actions on video, donning a mask to protect his identity.
Coronado set the timer on his makeshift bomb before walking out. He had confidence in his work; he‘d perfected the technique while carrying out half a dozen prior attacks against other universities and fur farms on behalf of the Animal Liberation Front.
“I won’t sugar coat it; we were about psychological warfare,” Coronado, who was in his mid-20s at the time, said. “We wanted researchers like Aulerich never to know when they came to work and opened their office door whether there had been an attack. We wanted them to live in fear.”
Around 5:30 a.m., the firebomb detonated, and flames overtook Aulerich’s office, spreading to three nearby offices. Two students who were inside the building at the time fled unharmed but alerted officials to the fire. Decades of research by Aulerich and others turned to ash as firefighters made their way to the building.
The front page of the Lansing State Journal Feb. 29, 1992. A firebomb attack the day before caused significant damage and destroyed decades of animal research. (Photo: Courtesy / Lansing State Journal Archives)
“If it hadn’t been discovered, the fire would have spread and easily could have burned the whole building down,” said Fred Poston, who was the dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the time.
Coronado denied for years he’d ever been to East Lansing, let alone on MSU‘s campus or inside Anthony Hall. When he pleaded guilty in 1995, Coronado maintained he wasn’t the person who carried out the attack.
Twenty-five years later, Coronado admits he was solely responsible. He said he has no reason to lie anymore.
“There are no looming criminal charges against me, “Coronado said. “I’m as free as any person in this country can be.”
He was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison for the attack and was ordered to pay $2.5 million in restitution, including $1.3 million to MSU. The rest was assigned to go to the other universities or farms damaged by Coronado and his fellow Animal Liberation Front members.
“There is a price to be paid for this kind of terrorist activity,” U.S. District Judge Richard Enslen told Coronado during sentencing on Aug. 11, 1995.
Coronado has paid back $2,375 in restitution, according to court records.
Karen Chou, an MSU researcher who lost a decade of work as a result of the firebombing attack on MSU in February 1992. (Photo: Courtesy / Michigan State University)
Inside a bustling coffee shop in Grand Rapids last month, Coronado spoke unabashedly about his past. The braided, jet black hair he sported in the 1990s is now cropped short with a scattering of gray. The ecoterrorist spent four years in prison for his crime and claims to have no interest doing something today that would send him back.
The attack was catastrophic for Aulerich and another animal researcher, Karen Chou. Aulerich lost 32 years’ worth of research, while Chou lost a decade of her work studying the use of animal sperm as a substitute for live animals in toxicology testing. Neither Aulerich nor Chou would discuss the incident.
It also left emotional and institutional scars at MSU. The fire caused more than $1 million in damages, according to the State Journal archives. MSU Police Chief Jim Dunlap, who worked for the department at the time of the incident, declined to comment. MSU Police say disclosing the location of MSU‘s mink farm, which still operates today, is a security risk and declined to allow the State Journal to visit the facility.
‘An emotional kind of response‘
Debra Pozega Osburn learned of the attack via a radio newscast early on the morning of Feb. 28. Her boss called shortly after, asking that she come into work as soon as possible. She‘d been the head of MSU‘s news bureau less than a month prior to the attack.
“We knew right away the severity of what had happened,” Pozega Osburn said.
The smell of oil and smoke permeated the hallways after the attack, even after the smoke stopped billowing from the building.
“We felt very much that this was an attack on what our university stands for: to be a free and open place where all kinds of ideas have value,” she said.
University officials learned later that day the mink farm MSU maintained had also been hit. Cages were opened, animal tags were destroyed and graffiti deriding the mistreatment of animals was emblazoned on the walls.
Coronado now admits he carried out that attack, as well. He went to the farm before he broke into Anthony Hall and freed two mink from their cages. He came back after setting up the firebomb to retrieve them, setting them free in a nearby wooded area.
Pozega Osburn and her staff spent the day relaying what information they had by phone calls and faxes. The fax lines were disrupted by animal rights activists, she said, who clogged the machine with pages upon pages of propaganda.
At least one of those came from Coronado. That morning, the Animal Liberation Front, or ALF, claimed responsibility in a press release. ALF was designated a domestic terrorist organization by the FBI. Coronado admits he wrote the press release, and a half dozen others in the six months before he targeted MSU claiming responsibility for attacks from Oregon to Montana.
Poston had just arrived at work when he first learned of the fire. He remembers the attack gave pause to researchers, who themselves worried about being targeted by radical activists.
“They became more interested in locking their doors and battening down the hatches, but it was an emotional kind of response,” Poston said.
MSU held a news conference in the afternoon. Pozega Osburn met with Aulerich to prep him for talking to media.
“We feel we‘re doing nothing wrong. If the university desires, we will go on,” Aulerich said at the news conference. The former researcher has rarely publicly discussed the incident in the years since.
On the run
(Use the map below to follow Coronado‘s path to MSU and where he went after. Story continues below the map.)
In the months that followed, federal authorities joined MSUPD in attempting to track down Coronado, according to Tim Verhey, a prosecutor with the U.S. Western District Court in Grand Rapids. He’d only been on the job about 18 months prior to the attack.
“We quickly realized it was an organized group hitting places across the U.S.,” Verhey said.
Coronado was suspected in an attack on June 10, 1991, on animal research facilities at Oregon State University where a fire was started. Touting it the launch of Operation Bite Back, ALF threatened in a press release to continue “until the last fur farm is burnt to the ground.”
Between June and December 1991, five other sites, including private fur farms and research facilities at Washington State University, were hit by ALF. Those attacks ranged from vandalism and burglary to firebombing. One attack completely destroyed the Malecky mink farm in Yamhill, Oregon.
Federal authorities raided a storage locker rented by Coronado in Oregon in the spring of 1992. Authorities found a typewriter inside that helped tie Coronado to ALF and past attacks.There were other clues that led authorities to Coronado as well, Verhey said.
In attempting to ship a package containing documents from Aulerich’s office plus the tape of him setting the explosive, Coronado used a fake routing number. Once authorities had the package, they were able to trace it back to Coronado with the help of a handwriting analyst. And the typewriter’s ribbon helped them identified a letter written by ALF claiming responsibility for a prior attack, cementing Coronado as the group’s spokesman.
Coronado spent the next two years evading federal authorities while living on Native American reservations as far north as the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in portions of North Dakota and South Dakota and as far south as Tuscon, Arizona. It was in Arizona where authorities ultimately caught up with Coronado, who was arrested on Sept. 28, 1994.
The front page of the Lansing State Journal on Aug. 12, 1995 following Rodney Coronado’s sentencing. Coronado was sentenced to 57 months in jail and $2.5 million in restitution for his role in the attack on Michigan State University. (Photo: Courtesy / Lansing State Journal archives)
Coronado was indicted on July 15, 1993, on seven counts, ranging from conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States to malicious destruction and arson. He faced up to 50 years in federal prison. After an unsuccessful attempt to flee, while handcuffed, from federal authorities in Grand Rapids, he cut a deal. In exchange for pleading guilty for arson at Anthony Hall, charges for the attacks in other states were dropped.
He now admits participating in all six attacks and his role as spokesperson for ALF.
“I had to ask, could I live with myself with what I had seen and move on, or would I answer the call of my heart to do more?” Coronado said about his frame of mind at the time. “In 1991, at 25 years old, feeling invincible like 25-year-olds do, I decided to go for it.”
A different kind of activism
Now 50, Coronado said he no longer considers himself a radical activist. He doesn’t regret doing what he did in the early 1990s, saying his motivations came from a genuine belief in the need to fight animal abuse.
Rodney Coronado continues his activism through Great Lakes Wolf Patrol, a non-profit that seeks to hold hunters accountable when tracking and hunting wolves. (Photo: Courtesy / Joe Brown)
“In my heart, I was deeply troubled. I wanted to do everything I could to try to stop it.”
A descendant of the Pascua Yaqui tribe of Native Americans, Coronado’s love for animals started early in life. PBS documentaries on wildlife and commercial whaling convinced him of the importance of animal welfare. At 19 years old, the Southern California native joined the Sea Shepherds, an organization with a mission of fighting commercial whaling.
In November of 1986, Coronado and another member of the group boarded two whaling ships docked near Iceland and opened valves inside, allowing water to pour in and sink the ships.
Upon returning to the United States around 1990, Coronado turned his attention to fur farming. His initial project was working undercover on a fur farm, capturing video of animal abuse he later turned over to “60 Minutes” for a story. That project was successful, Coronado said, but left him feeling like he needed to do more. That led to Operation Bite Back.
“I felt we had to do something more to impact business, but I knew it would be at a high cost of public acceptance,” Coronado said. “The public was not ready to accept destruction or economic sabotage in peace time.”
Much of his time in the 2000s was spent on animal rights causes. He was arrested twice, once for demonstrating how to build an explosive device like the one he used at MSU, and for violating parole by sending a friend request to another activist on Facebook. His profile had grown too large, he said, and anything he did was scrutinized by authorities who knew his past.
Coronado moved to Grand Rapids a few years ago to be closer to his son. While he was active in promoting animal rights causes, he still felt the itch to be involved directly.
In 2013, Coronado founded Great Lakes Wolf Patrol, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring people followed the rules when it comes to hunting wolves and other species in the region. He goes into the woods in Wisconsin and Minnesota, often alone, and occasionally comes face-to-face with gun-toting hunters, many of whom aren’t interested in hearing from the convicted felon.
“I’m very much into moving forward and finding sustainable ways to address very real conflict in society preventing us from evolving and changing,” Coronado said.
Coronado said attacks like those he planned and executed in the 1990s run counter to his mission as an activist today. He teamed up with Joe Brown, a film professor at Marquette University,.
“Changing attitudes is done with communication,” Coronado said. “Our efforts are damaged when you push someone against a wall and antagonize with direct action.”
Despite the new outlook, Coronado said he‘d still release every single mink from its cage at MSU if he could get away with it.