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Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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First trial begins in '01 arson at UW facility

Seattle Times staff reporter

TACOMA — The federal trial of an alleged Earth Liberation Front arsonist got under way Tuesday with prosecutors and defense attorneys offering starkly different portraits of the 32-year-old violin teacher accused of helping plan and carry out the May 2001 fire that caused more than $1.5 million in damage to the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture.

U.S. Assistant Attorney Andrew Friedman, in opening statements, said Briana Waters was part of a team that attacked the building in the mistaken belief that a UW professor was conducting genetic engineering of poplar trees. They built firebombs and in the pre-dawn hours used timing devices and a bucket of fuel to set off a blaze.

"What the defendant and her accomplices did that night was wrong in every way," said Friedman, who described Waters as a lookout who hid in the bushes and watched for police while others set the fire. "... If there was one building in Seattle that helped the environment, it was probably the Center for Urban Horticulture."

Defense attorney Robert Bloom said his client has been falsely accused, and portrayed the government's prosecution as a travesty that would wrongly imprison Waters and separate her from a family that includes a 3-year-old daughter.

"Ms. Waters is innocent not because of some technicality," Bloom told a 12-person jury. "But because she was not involved with this group of people in any arson, in any discussion of arson ... that's not what happened."

The trial is expected to take up to a month. Waters is charged with arson and using a destructive device in a crime of violence, crimes that carry a combined mandatory sentence of 35 years. Congress in 1998 approved a 30-year mandatory sentence for use of a destructive device as part of anti-drug-abuse legislation.

Waters is a former Evergreen State College student who lives in Oakland, Calif. She teaches music and plays in a band.

This is the first trial for any of the 18 men and women indicted on charges of involvement in the militant Pacific Northwest underground that between 1996 and 2001 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, and targets included a slaughterhouse, timber-company headquarters and a ski lodge at Vail, Colo.

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. Bill Rodgers — an alleged ringleader of the attacks — committed suicide after being taken into custody in Arizona in 2005.

The May 21 UW arson coincided with an arson at roughly the same time on an Oregon poplar plantation, and prosecutors say it was an attempt by the Earth Liberation Front to pull off a "double whammy" to reflect the movement's strength. The group split into two five-person teams, and prosecutors alleged Waters rented a car used to drive some of the UW arson team to Seattle.

Prosecutors say that two other participants in the UW arson — Lacey Phillabaum and Jennifer Kolar — both allege that Waters served as a lookout, carrying a radio to communicate news of a policeman who had passed in the vicinity as the attack was under way.

Prosecutors also told the jury that the FBI took from Kolar a folder filled with newspaper articles about the Earth Liberation Front, including an account of the UW fire.

"Hey girl, take a look at this," said a note with the folder, along with a heart and the letter B, according to Friedman.

An FBI analysis indicated that a fingerprint on the folder belonged to Waters, he said.

Bloom, the defense attorney, said the government case was built on informants who have pledged cooperation in order to receive reduced sentences, with Kolar expected to receive from five to seven years and Phillabaum from three to five.

Bloom, in his opening statement, sought to cast doubt on the reliability of the prosecution witnesses. He said that the evidence will show that Kolar — in an important initial FBI interview — named herself and four other participants in the arson but didn't mention Waters. Only later did Kolar say that Waters was a participant.

"What kind of person are they relying on to convict Briana Waters, who had nothing to do with it?" Bloom said.

In a lengthy run-up to the trial, defense and prosecutors sparred repeatedly. Defense attorneys allege that FBI agents and prosecutors engaged in misconduct by intentionally crafting a misleading summary of Kolar's initial interview.

Prosecutors have denied that allegation, and Judge Franklin Burgess — in pretrial decisions — did not find any misconduct. Defense attorneys have indicated that they may bring up the FBI conduct during the trial.

On Tuesday, before the jury arrived, prosecutors said the FBI had obtained statements about Waters from Chelsea Gerlach, who pleaded guilty to participating in numerous ELF arsons and other sabotage.

Gerlach alleged that Waters helped write a press statement for another ELF attack that girdled poplar trees at an Oregon State University research plot.

Gerlach, however, is not expected to testify at this trial, nor are those charges included in the federal indictment.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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