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Originally published January 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 21, 2008 at 12:21 PM

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Arson suspect facing trial

Briana Waters allegedly served as lookout while others from the Earth Liberation Front set fire to the UW's Center for Urban Horticulture in 2001.

Seattle Times staff reporter

In the predawn hours of May 21, 2001, Briana Waters says, she was nowhere near the University of Washington campus in Seattle and was most likely asleep in Olympia.

Federal prosecutors say Waters served as a lookout that morning for a five-person Earth Liberation Front team that set fire to the UW's Center for Urban Horticulture.

Next month, in a federal courtroom in Tacoma, the 32-year-old violin teacher is scheduled to face trial for her alleged role in an attack that caused more than $1.5 million in damage to the university's building.

Waters faces charges of conspiracy, arson and use of a destructive device in a crime of violence. If convicted on all counts, she faces a mandatory prison sentence of 35 years.

It would be the first trial for any of the 18 men and women indicted on a charge of their alleged involvement in a militant Pacific Northwest underground that carried out more than a dozen acts of arson and sabotage against targets deemed a threat to the environment or animals. The attacks caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.

Waters is not considered to be a ringleader of the underground cells. But because she has refused to accept a plea deal, she risks a courtroom verdict that could stick her with the harshest prison term of anyone sentenced to date.

Twelve other people have reached plea agreements, and, according to court documents, their sentences are expected to range from probation to 13 years. Four others have fled from federal authorities. And Bill Rodgers — an alleged ringleader of the attacks — committed suicide after being taken into custody in Arizona in 2005.

Waters now lives in California, where she is married and has a young daughter. She has hired two attorneys — Robert Bloom, of Oakland, and Neil Fox, of Seattle — who have been involved in a bitter run-up to the Feb. 11 trial.

Much of the dispute involves an initial FBI interview with Jennifer Kolar, one of those who made a plea agreement and a confessed participant in the arson. In that Dec. 2005 interview, the FBI notes indicate Kolar named four other participants in the UW arson, and that list did not include Waters. Only in later interviews, did Kolar name Waters, according to court documents.

Defense attorneys initially did not have access to the FBI notes. Instead, they were given a summary of the interview that said Kolar could not definitively remember all the participants, only herself and Rodgers.

Defense attorneys allege that federal officials intentionally crafted a misleading summary, and sought unsuccessfully to have U.S. Assistant Attorney Andrew Friedman removed from the case for misconduct.

Federal prosecutors in Seattle say there has been no misconduct and that they have fully complied with all disclosure laws. They, in turn, have accused defense attorneys of "a deliberate attempt to poison the jury pool" by seeking a pretrial court hearing earlier this month to address the allegations.

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The trial stems from a lengthy government investigation into the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front, groups which the U.S. Justice Department portrays as domestic terrorists with hubs in Olympia and Eugene, Ore.

During a six-year period that began in 1996, various members launched arsons targeting a U.S. Forest Service office, a Vail, Colo., ski lodge, a central Oregon slaughterhouse, a Eugene car dealership, a federal agriculture-research center in Olympia and other sites.

Water is accused of joining a "double-whammy" on May 21, 2001, intended to strike a blow against the genetic engineering of fast-growing poplar trees.

According to trial briefs filed by the Justice Department, separate five-person teams set two fires — one that burned buildings at a Clatskanie, Ore., tree farm and a second that targeted the Center for Urban Horticulture office of Toby Bradshaw, a University of Washington professor involved in poplar research.

The ELF mistakenly thought he was genetically engineering trees.

Federal prosecutors say that both teams launched their actions from Olympia and that the cell involved in the UW attack then drove north to Seattle in a rented sedan, which Waters had helped acquire. There, they ate at the Greenlake Bar & Grill and then headed out to the UW, where the fire was set with time-delayed devices that ignited buckets filled with a mixture of gasoline and diesel, the prosecution says.

An ELF news release issued five days later said the poplars posed an "ecological nightmare" threatening the biodiversity of native forests.

Waters, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, attended The Evergreen State College.

In the spring of 2001, she was finishing a documentary she had filmed and directed about the protests two years earlier to save old-growth trees on federal forestland outside of Randle, Lewis County.

Waters' boyfriend at the time was Justin Solondz, now a fugitive accused in federal indictments of participating in the UW attack. But defense attorneys say Waters and Solondz maintained separate households and that Waters was not involved in any of the planning or execution of the UW arson.

"Ms. Waters naturally has very little recollection of exactly what she was doing ... in the early morning hours of May 21, 2001, other than likely being asleep in bed," her attorneys wrote in a trial brief. "... She is, however, certain that the one thing she did not do is participate in the arson at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture."

During the trial, defense attorneys are expected to challenge the creditability of key prosecution witnesses who have pleaded guilty to participating in the arson and sabotage conspiracy.

Kolar is expected to come under some of the toughest questioning for her flip-flop in FBI interviews that first excluded Waters from the UW arson, then included her.

Defense attorneys also are challenging prosecutors' use of the term "fire bomb" to describe the delayed-timing devices and tubs of fuel that ignited the fire.

More than semantics are at stake. If they succeed in that challenge, then Waters could not be charged with "use of a destructive device in a crime of violence," the highest-penalty offense that carries a minimum mandatory sentence of 30 years. The arson count carries another mandatory sentence of five years.

Prosecutors, in trial briefs, have said that both Kolar and Lacey Phillabaum, who has pleaded guilty in the UW arson, will testify at the trial that Waters assisted in carrying out the UW arson.

Phillabaum is expected to testify that she was at Waters' home in Olympia during the weekend before the attack. There, Phillabaum observed Solondz soldering timers in a "clean room" in preparation for the arson attack, according to prosecutors' trial briefs. She alleges that the team drove to Seattle in a car that Waters arranged to rent.

Prosecutors say two team members involved in the Oregon poplar-farm arson will provide "corroborating details" about Waters' involvement.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581

or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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