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Former Evergreen student sentenced for 2001 arson at UW Center for Urban Horticulture
More than 11 years after a devastating arson, Briana Waters, 36, now of Oakland, California, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Tacoma for conspiracy, arson, possession of an unregistered destructive device and using a destructive device during a crime of violence, announced U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan.
Waters was sentenced to 48 months, meaning she will return to prison for 11 months because of the approximately 37 months she has already served. One year ago Waters abandoned her claims of innocence and admitted the fire bomb devices used to destroy the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture were built at her Olympia residence, and that she helped transport them and served as a lookout during the May 2001 blaze. At today’s sentencing U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton told Waters, “you have had a corrosive effect on the respect for the law.” Judge Leighton said Waters’ perjured testimony and lies about federal agents at her 2008 trial was a serious crime. “Our courts are sanctuaries, we protect the pursuit of truth,” Judge Leighton said.
“Today’s sentencing closes a chapter on one of the most dangerous and damaging acts of domestic terrorism in our community,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. “The $6 million Ms. Waters and the rest of these defendants owe in restitution will never truly compensate the researchers who lost their life’s work, their sense of security and the endangered plants they were trying to propagate. We are fortunate no lives were lost in the fire. I commend the work of the first responders who controlled the fire and the dedicated agents and officers that tracked down these conspirators to hold them accountable.”
In 2008, a jury found Waters guilty of arson. However, Waters’ conviction was overturned after an appeals court held that a folder of documents containing anarchist materials was improperly admitted into evidence at her trial. During her trial prosecutors showed how rental car, telephone and bank records corroborated the testimony of two cooperating witnesses who put Waters at the scene, acting as the lookout the night of May 21, 2001, when arson destroyed the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle.
In their sentencing recommendation, prosecutors noted that Waters continued to obstruct the justice system through the lies she told at her trial. “Waters’ obstruction of justice and perjury were not only fresh crimes committed by Waters in 2007, they came at great cost to our system of justice. By falsely claiming to be innocent, and by making what she knows to be groundless claims of misconduct, Waters fueled perceptions of injustice…. The government does not believe that it is a coincidence that a major ELF arson -- in fact, the largest ELF arson in the State of Washington since the Center for Urban Horticulture arson -- took place in Snohomish County, Washington, while the jury was deliberating in Waters’ case. By falsely protesting her innocence, and by constantly claiming government and judicial misconduct, Waters fueled an environment in which such crimes continue to occur,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo.
The UW fire bombing was part of a string of 17 arsons across the west by the radical groups the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The arson spree caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. In all, fifteen people have been convicted of crimes related to a string of fires across the western United States investigated under “Operation Backfire.” All those connected with the UW arson have been ordered to share in restitution to the University of Washington and the State of Washington totaling $6,092,649.
Three other defendants, Jennifer Kolar, of Seattle, Washington, Lacey Phillabaum, of Spokane, Washington, and Justin Solondz have each pleaded guilty and been sentenced for the arson. Solondz was sentenced in March to seven years in prison, Kolar was sentenced to five years in prison for the UW Center for Urban Horticulture fire and other arsons. Phillabaum was sentenced to three years in prison.
In addition to the defendants who have been convicted, the leader of the arson cell, and the fifth participant in the UW Center for Urban Horticulture arson, William C. Rodgers, 40, of Prescott, Arizona, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle in connection with the case. However, Rodgers committed suicide in December 2005, while being held in the Coconino County Jail in Prescott, Arizona.
This case is the result of a ten-year investigation by law enforcement. The Seattle Fire Department battled the blaze. Participating in the extensive investigation were the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF), the Eugene Police Department, the Oregon State Police, the University of Washington Police Department and other state and federal law enforcement agencies.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Andrew Friedman and Thomas Woods.