Wednesday, June 15, 2011

California violin teacher pleads guilty to 2001 UW arson

Briana Waters, the California violin teacher who was facing retrial for her role in the 2001 arson at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture, pleaded guilty Tuesday to several charges related to the attack.

By Mike Carter Seattle Times June 114, 2o11

TACOMA — For six years, Briana Waters has proclaimed her innocence of allegations that she was part of a group of domestic terrorists responsible for the $6 million arson at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture in 2001.

Even after her conviction and six-year sentence in 2008, Waters vowed to appeal and insisted she was a peaceful woman who had once directed a documentary about environmentalists and loggers working together in a small Washington town.

Last year, a federal appeals court — citing judicial misconduct — granted her a new trial, and Waters, 35, was released from prison pending a new trial after serving 37 months.

Waters' defiance was gone Tuesday, replaced by a monotone of resignation as she pleaded guilty to charges of arson, conspiracy to use a destructive device, possessing an unregistered destructive device and the use of an explosive device in a crime of violence, a crime that could send her to prison for 30 years.

Waters' plea is part of a deal with federal prosecutors, according to documents filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, who have promised they will recommend she serve no more time behind bars providing she fully cooperate — and provide new, useful information — with the government's ongoing domestic-terrorism investigation into the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front.

Later this summer, Justin Solondz, Waters' former boyfriend and the purported leader of a cell of radical environmentalists known as "The Family," is expected to be returned to the United States from China, where he's been serving a three-year sentence for drug possession. Waters has agreed to testify against him, according to the plea documents.

Members of The Family and others are believed to have participated in a string of arsons and other sabotage responsible for $80 million in damage in Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle set sentencing for Sept. 23, but Waters agreed she would not object to likely continuances by the government as the Solondz case — and others — move forward. Waters, a violin teacher in Northern California, will remain free on bond until sentencing.

During Tuesday's plea hearing, Waters admitted she had lied under oath when she testified to her innocence during her 2008 trial. She said she was among a group of people who planted firebombs in the office of UW professor Toby Bradshaw at the Center for Urban Horticulture.

Bradshaw was targeted because they believed, mistakenly, he was genetically engineering trees.

Waters on Tuesday also agreed to pay the UW and the state more than $6 million in restitution.

She also admitted, for the first time, that she participated in the October 2001 arson at the Litchfield Wild Burro and Horse Corrals in Susanville, Calif. California prosecutors have agreed not to charge her in that case as long as she continues to cooperate with federal authorities in Washington.

Solondz also has been linked to the California arson.

Waters declined to comment after the hearing in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

Waters is one of five activists alleged to have participated in the UW arson, which prosecutors say caused more than $6 million in damage while destroying rare plants, books and years of research. Prosecutors had said Waters helped procure a car and acted as a lookout.

Jurors had deliberated for four days before convicting Waters of the two arson charges after her 2008 trial. But the jury could not reach unanimous verdicts on conspiracy and two charges involving the firebomb used to set the fire.

Two other women, Lacey Phillabaum and Jennifer Kolar, pleaded guilty to the UW arson and were sentenced to three and five years, respectively. Both testified against Waters.

Also charged in the UW arson were William C. Rodgers, who committed suicide in an Arizona jail in December 2005.

A 1999 graduate of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Waters was among a group who in 1999 perched in Douglas fir trees on Watch Mountain, near the Lewis County town of Randle. The tree-sitters refused to descend from their 150-foot-high perches until they received written assurance the land wouldn't be traded to Plum Creek Timber.

Months later, the boundaries of the land exchange were reconfigured. About 28,000 acres — roadless lands and old-growth timber — were saved from logging.

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