Woman found guilty of arson in 2001 University of Washington fire
Jurors weighing the fate of Briana Waters struggled with a charge that would have sent the 32-year-old mother and violin teacher to prison...
Seattle Times staff reporters
The defendantsU.S. prosecutors say five people participated in the 2001 arson at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture:
Briana Waters, 32, Oakland, Calif., served as a lookout and helped obtain 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 could face at least five years in prison for each arson count.
Lacey Phillabaum, 33, 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, 34, 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, 40, considered one of the top organizers of the Earth Liberation Front, 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 committed suicide in an Arizona jail.
Justin Solondz, 28, who 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 — Jurors weighing the fate of Briana Waters struggled with a charge that would have sent the 32-year-old mother and violin teacher to prison for 30 years.
Their verdict, delivered Thursday in a packed federal courtroom, recognized her participation in the 2001 arson at a University of Washington research center, but also her limited role in the crime and the modest prison sentences expected to be given to others involved. The arson was committed in the name of the Earth Liberation Front.
While jurors convicted the Oakland, Calif., woman of two counts of arson, they deadlocked on three other charges, including the most serious, which would have sent her to prison for a minimum of 30 years. Afterward, some in the jury said they were sympathetic because Waters has a 3-year-old daughter.
"It's fair to say that for a lot of us, it was very emotional," said one male juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I mean, here was a mom with a kid. It certainly played into the deliberations."
In convicting Waters of arson, the jury agreed with federal prosecutors who said she served as a lookout for a team of Earth Liberation Front saboteurs who firebombed the UW's Center of Urban Horticulture because they believed, mistakenly, that a researcher was genetically engineering trees.
Each count carries a mandatory minimum five-year sentence, with a cap of 20 years. Prosecutors said they will ask the court to impose "substantially more" than the five-year minimums when Waters is sentenced May 30.
Jurors, who deliberated four days, were unable to reach unanimous verdicts on conspiracy and two charges involving the firebomb used to set the fire.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Bartlett said the decision on whether to retry Waters on those charges will be made within the week.
Another juror said "more than one" of his colleagues were reluctant to hammer Waters with a 30-year sentence, since her role in the fire was limited to securing a car for the saboteurs and watching out for police.
"On the other hand," the juror said, "it wasn't an issue for everyone."
Waters seemed stunned when the clerk read the verdict, and wept into her hands when U.S. District Court Judge Franklin Burgess ordered marshals to take her into custody. Her attorney, Robert Bloom, argued that she should remain free pending her sentencing.
Bloom said Waters posed no flight risk and no danger to the community.
"Indeed, this is a woman who has lived an exemplary life ... A life to which we all should aspire," Bloom said.
"I beg to differ," countered Bartlett, the prosecutor. "She is a felon. She committed perjury, she told lie after lie. She has shown an incredible inability to deal with her own actions."
Burgess said a further detention hearing will be held Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kelley Arnold in Tacoma.
Late Wednesday, jurors had sent a note to the judge indicating 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 on Thursday morning agreed to accept the partial verdict.
The trial in U.S. District Court in Tacoma unfolded over three-and-a-half 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 unsuccessfully moved 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 responsibility on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front.
Eighteen people were eventually indicted on charges involving one or more of the attacks, as well as what federal prosecutors say was a broader conspiracy in attacks that caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.
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," Phillabaum said 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 Bloom played up inconsistencies in Kolar's and Phillabaum's testimonies, branding Kolar 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 on the verdict Thursday.
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 affected faculty and staff even to this day."
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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