the Merlin (lancashire) and coyotes of this world wanted something they could charge more for something with cachet
so the generic frame shops bought a pile of easton tubing...
I'd be interested to know what you mean by 'generic frame shops'. My understanding is that Easton only licenced certain factories to build with Easton Elite, so all Easton Elite frames were built in equivalent and high-standard factories. If there were cheap factories that worked to lower standards, Easton wouldn't have licenced them. However all factories made long runs of plain unbranded frames that were sold into the retail market and branded locally. They would be of the same quality as the factory's other produce and offer the same warranty to the distributor, but they'd just be plain designs - e.g., they wouldn't have had distinctive design features like this frame.
So you could pay £600 for a Kona Kula or £300 for a Handsome Dog Elite and they'd probably have been made in the same factory to the same standards. If you ever read contemporary tests of Handsome Dog, Merlin, Rock Lobster, Coyote, Ballistic etc, they all received high ratings, and there's no reason to doubt their quality. Of these brands, only Handsome Dog and Coyote made Easton Elite frames at that time, and this isn't a Handsome Dog, but it does look to me like a Coyote. If it was, I would expect it to show the Easton E (although they're very faint), but I don't know that for sure. There's nothing magic about Easton Elite though - it was just a guarantee of quality, but any other frame weighing 3.5lbs is likely to be built from db 7005 of similar tube profiles.