A federal jury Thursday found a woman guilty of two counts of arson for being the lookout in the 2001 burning of the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture by members of the radical Earth Liberation Front.
The judge declared the jury deadlocked on three other counts against Briana Waters, including the most significant count, using a destructive device during a crime of violence, which carries a mandatory minimum of 30 years in prison.
For the arson convictions, Waters, 32, faces 5 to 20 years in prison.
The fire, which destroyed the plant research center, was one of at least 17 fires set by radical activists with the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front from 1996 to 2001.
Waters maintained her innocence on the stand, despite the testimony of two women convicted in the fire and records suggesting she obtained a rental car used in the crime.
Her lawyer, Robert Bloom, insisted during closing arguments that the women, Lacey Phillabaum and Jennifer Kolar, lied on the witness stand to frame her and win lighter sentences.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Bartlett argued that the women had no reason to identify Waters falsely.
Friends with leader of arsonist cell
Bartlett portrayed Waters as an environmentally concerned student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., who became convinced that “direct action” was the best way to protect the Earth and change corporate behavior.
She was also a close friend of William Rodgers, a leader of the arsonist cell who committed suicide after being arrested in the UW fire.
Waters first came to the attention of investigators in early 2006, when Kolar said she had found documents at her home with Waters’ name and remembered that Waters served as a lookout during the arson.
In all, more than a dozen people were arrested in connection with the arsons around the West. Waters was the only one who went to trial rather than plead guilty.
The university rebuilt the horticulture center at a cost of $7 million. It was targeted because the ELF activists mistakenly believed researchers there were genetically engineering poplar trees.
The radical group is suspected in a fire that scorched three model homes in a Seattle suburb earlier this week. A spray-painted sheet found at the scene of the fires bore the initials of the group, and appeared to protest claims the homes were environmentally friendly.
The fire is one of the most notorious in a string of arsons that investigators say were perpetrated from the mid-1990s to 2001 by members of the Earth Liberation Front, a loosely organized collection of radical environmentalists.
During her trial, Waters insisted she would never condone arson as a means to a political end.
"It's very dangerous to human lives," she testified. "I've always been someone who feels very strongly about not hurting people in any way."
Bartlett pointed to a 1998 New York Times Magazine article about radical environmentalists which quotes Waters, then a senior at The Evergreen State College, as saying she "totally" supported arson "as long as people don't get hurt." Tiffany Tudder, a fellow student at the time, testified that she remembered Waters making that statement.
Waters testified she could not remember whether she said it or not, but added that she would be surprised if she did, because she has always opposed politically motivated arsons.
Phillabaum, who has pleaded guilty in the case, told federal investigators that Waters had obtained a rental car from a relative for use in the arson, prosecutors said.
Records from a Budget Rental Car in Olympia show that Waters' cousin had rented a vehicle the weekend of the university fire, prosecutors said. Soon after, a $200 cash deposit appeared in the cousin's bank account — the only cash deposit he made all year. The money came from Waters to reimburse him for the rental car's cost, prosecutors argue.
Defense: She was framed
Waters' lawyers, Neil Fox and Robert Bloom, accused prosecutors of threatening draconian sentences to persuade those charged in the UW fire and other arsons to plead guilty or testify falsely.
Bloom said prosecutors pinned their case on the testimony of Phillabaum and Kolar, who are expected to receive more lenient sentences in exchange for their cooperation.
Waters claimed on the witness stand that the two are trying to frame her: Phillabaum because she had a relationship with Waters' boyfriend at the time, and Kolar because Waters spurned her sexual advances.
The former boyfriend, Justin Solondz, is a fugitive in the case.