Woman found guilty of arson in 2001 University of Washington fire
A 32-year-old violin teacher from California was found guilty this morning of two counts of arson for the 2001 fire at the University of...
Seattle Times staff reporter
U.S. attorneys say five people participated in the 2001 arson at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture:
Briana Waters: Oakland, Calif., served as a lookout and helped rent a car for the team that set the fire. She was found guilty Thursday of two counts of arson, but jurors couldn't agree on a verdict for three other counts. She faces at least five years in prison for each arson count.
Lacey Phillabaum: Spokane, pleaded guilty to participating in the arson in exchange for assisting in the prosecution of others involved, including Waters. She faces a prison sentence of three to five years.
Jennifer Kolar: Seattle, admitted she used a knife to cut glass so others could get into an office at the horticulture center. She also assisted the government's prosecution and faces a sentence of five to seven years in prison.
Bill Rodgers: Considered to be one of the top organizers of the Earth Liberation Front who allegedly help set the firebombs inside the horticulture center. Rodgers, a bookstore operator in Prescott, Ariz., was taken into federal custody in December 2005, but later committed suicide in an Arizona jail.
Justin Solondz: Once lived on the Olympic Peninsula, allegedly helped assemble the fire bombs in an Olympia garage and joined Rodgers in setting the devices inside the horticulture center. Solondz is now a fugitive.
TACOMA — A 32-year-old violin teacher from California was found guilty this morning of two counts of arson for the 2001 fire at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture.
A federal jury found that Briana Waters, a former Olympia resident, was among a group of ecosaboteurs who torched the center in the predawn hours of May 21, 2001, causing about $1.5 million in damage. The center was later rebuilt at a cost of about $7 million.
Waters faces at least five years in prison for each count of arson.
But the jury, which had been deliberating since Friday afternoon, couldn't reach a verdict on three other counts, including the most serious that would have resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.
In all, Waters faced five counts: two counts of arson, one count of conspiracy and two charges stemming from the possession and use of a homemade time-delayed gasoline bomb used to start the fire. Use of the device in a crime of violence carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.
The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the fire because it believed, mistakenly, that a UW researcher was genetically engineering trees.
Late Wednesday, jurors sent a note to U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess that indicated they were unable to reach a unanimous decision on all counts and asked how to proceed. The judge asked the jurors if they had reached unanimous verdicts on at least some of the charges, and the jurors responded "Yes."
Prosecutors urged the judge to accept whatever verdicts had been reached, but Burgess refused and sent the jury home Wednesday night. Burgess this morning agreed to accept the partial verdictThe trial in U.S. District Court in Tacoma unfolded over three weeks, with jurors hearing contradictory testimony from Waters and some of the people who participated in the arson. Two women who had earlier pleaded guilty to the attack testified that Waters was an accomplice, while Waters acknowledged friendships with some of those accused of the Earth Liberation Front sabotage, but denied participating.
The government alleged that Waters helped rent a car used by the arsonists and stood lookout while others set the device.
On Monday, the jurors' first full day of deliberations, arsonists destroyed three multimillion-dollar homes in Snohomish County and damaged a fourth in what federal officials are investigating as crimes that may be linked to the Earth Liberation Front.
Burgess called jurors into the courtroom Monday morning to ask if any of them had read or heard news of an event that might cause them to be unable to continue deliberations, a reference to the arsons. No one withdrew.
Defense attorneys made an unsuccessful motion for a mistrial.
The trial was the first to result from a lengthy federal investigation into a series of high-profile arsons at a ski resort, wild-horse corral, a slaughterhouse, timber-company offices, the UW and other targets. The militants who carried out these actions claimed credit on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front.
Eighteen people were eventually indicted on charges involving one or more of attacks, as well as what federal prosecutors claim was a broader conspiracy in attacks that caused tens of millions of dollars.
Twelve of those indicted opted to strike plea deals, with sentences ranging from probation to 13 years in prison. Four others fled and a fifth — Bill Rodgers, an alleged ringleader — committed suicide after being taken into custody.
Waters maintained her composure through the trial, which culminated in her taking the witness stand on her own behalf. Waters testified that she was never involved in planning or carrying out the UW arson and never supported arson as a militant tactic. She spoke of her fears of imprisonment and separation from her 3-year-old daughter.
The prosecutors had two key witnesses — Lacey Phillabaum and Jennifer Kolar — who had already pleaded guilty to being part of the five-person arson team that burned the UW building on May 21, 2001. Both testified that Waters acted as a lookout.
"There are days I thought I would rather kill myself than testify against Briana," said Phillabaum in testimony that stretched out over two days. But she then affirmed. "Until the end of time ... forever my recollection is that Briana Waters did it."
Phillabaum testified that Waters had obtained a rental car that was used to take the sabotage team to Seattle from Olympia. And in what prosecutors cited as strong corroborating testimony, Waters' cousin, Robert Corrina, testified that he and his wife had rented a car the weekend of the UW arson, and that Waters had then taken that car from them.
Defense attorneys tried to erode the credibility of prosecution witnesses. In closing arguments, defense attorney Robert Bloom played up inconsistencies in Kolar's and Phillabaum's testimonies, branding Kolar as a liar and Phillabaum as "someone who is not telling the truth, or at least she's a person whom you have to doubt about whether she is telling the truth."
UW professor Toby Bradshaw, whose work was the target of the 2001 attack, declined to comment this morning.
Bruce Bare, dean of the UW's College of Forest Resources, said he was pleased with the verdict.
"Somebody was held accountable. It will never cover the emotional anguish that some of our folks suffered," Bare said. "It impacted a lot of students because of the research that was lost. It effected faculty and staff even to this day."
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com
Seattle Times staff reporters Hal Bernton and Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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