More Details Emerge in UW's Eco-Arson Case

What's this about the Mafia-like "Family"?

When a group of radical environmental activists burned down the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture in 2001, it turned out to be a big mistake. Contrary to what the perpetrators believed, there was no genetic engineering going on at the professor's office they targeted. Now, one of the approximately 20 defendants indicted in twin cases (which tie together a string of other arsons in Washington and Oregon) is trying to prevent what she claims would be another mistake: her conviction. On Monday, 32-year-old Briana Waters will be the first of these defendants to actually go to trial. Some of the rest are fugitives; most have taken plea bargains. Waters, who claims she was home in bed at the time of the crime, was fingered by one of those who pleaded. Last week, Waters emerged from a pretrial hearing in the Tacoma federal courthouse wearing a purple scarf and looking weary, her long blond hair pulled back from her face. She had traveled here from Oakland, Calif., where she and her lanky, blond male partner, who was by her side, are raising their 3-year-old and where, according to Waters' attorney Bob Bloom, she gives violin lessons to children and plays in Balkan bands. Waiting for her outside the courtroom were nine supporters, including a dreadlocked woman in a flowing turquoise robe. Many of these supporters decried as excessive the mandatory minimum sentence Waters faces should she be convicted: 35 years. Bloom, a feisty attorney from Oakland, along with local co-counsel Neil Fox, insists Waters is not only innocent but the victim of government misconduct and dirty tricks. For example, they believe prosecutors improperly moved the case to Tacoma in order to find jurors who would be less sympathetic to the environmental movement. Prosecutors counter that the "center of gravity" of the charges is actually further south, since Waters and others in the underground movement were in Olympia at the time the plan was allegedly hatched. (The judge has ruled the change of venue to be acceptable.) "Here's my situation," said the wise-cracking, gray-haired Bloom over sandwiches at a cafe across from the Tacoma courthouse where Waters, who declined to be interviewed, was having lunch with her supporters. "I'm [originally] from New York. I've practiced in a lot of political cases." Past clients have included members of the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, and the Puerto Rican independence movement. Call Bloom's voice mail and you'll be greeted with the following: "Hey, Britney's sister is pregnant and there's 151,000 dead people in Iraq. Leave a message." Meanwhile, in hundreds of pages of documents both sides have already filed, a fascinating picture is taking shape: of an underground environmentalist cell that the government says was known among its members by the weirdly Mafia-like tag of "the Family." In Olympia lived the head of "the Family," a man named William Rodgers who went by the moniker "Avalon," according to government briefs. He was eventually arrested in Arizona and died in his jail cell, an apparent suicide. According to the government, the cell was part of the Earth and Animal Liberation Fronts. Rodgers led divisions located in both Olympia and Eugene, Ore. In gatherings sometimes referred to as "book club meetings," members fixated on the genetic engineering of poplar trees. Genetic engineering has inflamed the passions of some environmentalists who believe it to be interfering with nature's biodiversity. The "Family" cell, the government says, staged arsons to stop it and even, at one point, "discussed whether it would be necessary to 'up the ante' and resort to assassinations." Although prosecutors don't suggest any assassinations were carried out, they say cell members, including Waters on at least one occasion, engaged in target practice. Waters denies it. At the time of the UW arson, Waters was, by her account, finishing up her degree at Evergreen State College in Olympia. Her briefs say she was "spending hundreds of hours" on a school project: a documentary she was making about a tree-sit in the town of Randle, Wash., aimed at protecting old-growth forests. In a student report on "personal achievement" she submitted to Evergreen, she talked about taking part in a related protest at the Seattle offices of Plum Creek Timber Company. She was then dating a fellow Evergreen student named Justin Solondz, who is also charged in this case and remains a fugitive. But Waters says she was a law-abiding environmental activist. In the early morning of March 21, 2001, when the Center for Urban Horticulture burned to the ground, Waters was asleep in bed, she says. Prosecutors, however, say she borrowed a rental car from a family member on March 20 and drove with her boyfriend, Rodgers, and two others to the Greenlake Bar & Grill in Seattle. They ate dinner, then, sometime after midnight, headed to a dead-end street near the Center for Urban Horticulture, which is just outside the tony neighborhood of Laurelhurst, in the shadow of Husky Stadium. According to the government, Waters hid in the bushes with a walkie-talkie to alert the rest of the group if anyone was coming. Two of the others got into the Center and planted plastic tubs filled with gasoline, which were ignited by a switch triggered by an alarm clock. When Waters returned the rental car to her relative in Olympia, the government says, she told them she had traveled to Seattle to find an open emergency room because she needed treatment of some sort. Much of the government's case hinges on the testimony of a woman who has pleaded guilty to a role in torching the center, and whose sentence is pending. In the months leading up to the arson, Jennifer Kolar worked as a software engineer with a Seattle company called Singingfish. She owned a yacht—yet was caught shoplifting at Whole Foods in the Roosevelt district, later explaining to an FBI agent that she did so for the cause, according to defense documents. A fellow member of the underground movement had complained of always being the one who had to steal food and supplies, and Kolar said she was trying to rectify that situation, according to the documents. In a Dec. 16, 2005, meeting with FBI agents, Kolar identified four others as participants in the UW arson: Rodgers, a woman known as "Capital Hill Girl," Capital Hill Girl's "punk boyfriend," and "Crazy Dan." Just shy of two weeks later, she informed the government that she remembered another participant: Waters, who served as the lookout. "We know Kolar is lying," Bloom says. He cites as proof the fact that Kolar has never named Oregon activist Lacey Phillabaum as a participant in the UW arson, yet Phillabaum has also pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against Waters. "If [Kolar] is lying about that, she's lying about other things as well," Bloom says. The defense for that reason moved to bar Kolar from testifying. Judge Franklin Burgess denied the request at last week's hearing. Kolar is also at the center of the defense's claims of government misconduct. Waters' attorneys claim that the FBI report they were provided, describing the original interview with Kolar, did not list the four people she had named. Instead, the report attested that Kolar named herself, Rodgers, and a few others—a vague statement that leads the defense to believe that the FBI agents wrote a real, more specific report other than the one provided to the defense. The government says the report was authentic, and that the agents understood Kolar to be sure of the identities only of herself and Rodgers. Burgess found no evidence of misconduct and refused to hold oral arguments on the subject. Indeed, the defense has gotten little love from Burgess, who also ruled that it cannot present testimony that equipment used in the arson does not constitute a "destructive device." This is an important matter for the defense because Waters is charged with using a destructive device during a crime of violence, and that charge by itself carries a heavy penalty: a 30-year mandatory minimum. nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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