By Hal Bernton Seattle Times staff reporterBriana Waters could get 35 years if convicted.
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
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
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 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
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
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
"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
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.