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Friday, February 15, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Witness tells of "panic" during 2001 arson at UW

Seattle Times staff reporter

TACOMA — A participant in the 2001 University of Washington arson attack testified in U.S. District Court Thursday about a sabotage effort filled with tense moments, including the getaway sedan sideswiping a parked car.

"It was slight contact, but it felt huge to me," said Lacey Phillabaum, in the first public testimony about the events surrounding the arson attack. "... There was panic."

Phillabaum, a Spokane native, is a key prosecution witness in the trial of Briana Waters, 32, accused of being part of a five-person Earth Liberation Front team that caused more than $1.5 million in damages to the UW's Center for Urban Horticulture.

Waters is a former student at The Evergreen State College who now lives in Oakland, Calif., where she teaches music and plays violin in a band.

Defense attorneys have said Waters was nowhere near the UW in the predawn hours of May 21, 2001. She has pleaded not guilty to federal charges that could result in a mandatory sentence of 35 years.

Phillabaum testified that Waters attended several planning meetings in early May and helped lease the sedan that took the team from Olympia to Seattle.

Phillabaum said Waters also served as a lookout while others broke into the building and set two incendiary devices fashioned out of alarm clocks, water bladders filled with fuel and other items.

In a plea agreement that will likely result in a three- to five-year prison sentence, Phillabaum has pledged cooperation with federal prosecutors. She has already begun serving time.

Phillabaum said cooperation has been "excruciating," and that she has "a lot of sympathy" for Waters and others indicted in what the Justice Department has portrayed as a wide-ranging conspiracy that carried out more than a dozen acts of arson and sabotage.

Phillabaum, a former University of Oregon student and writer for several publications, said group members had at one time vowed never to turn one another in. But Phillabaum felt "like the truth was going to come out and didn't want to spend 35 years in prison."

Phillabaum gave these details in her testimony:

Beginning in 2000 the group held a series of five meetings in different states that were a mix of philosophical talk about the need for direct action mixed with hands-on training on how to solder wires for incendiary devices.

These meetings were organized by Bill "Avalon" Rodgers, a key figure in the underground who committed suicide in an Arizona jail after being taken into custody there.

Despite some division over the strategy, the group eventually chose to target the office of UW professor Toby Bradshaw, who they mistakenly believed was genetically engineering poplar trees.

The UW arson, which destroyed valuable research, was planned as part of a double hit that included burning buildings at a poplar-tree farm in Oregon.

Phillabaum recalls driving in early May to Olympia for a series of weekend meetings that took place at a Denny's on The Evergreen State College campus and in an outbuilding behind what she believed to be the home of Waters.

During one discussion, Jennifer Kolar, another participant in the arson, wanted to reduce the amount of fuel to try to confine the spread of the blaze.

But Rodgers pressed for using more fuel to make sure fire extinguishers couldn't put out the blaze. He won out in that debate, Phillabaum said.

The blaze would later destroy the building and its contents, including rare plants and a wide range of scientific work that had nothing to do with Bradshaw's poplar research.

Phillabaum said she was unnerved by a bike parked outside the UW building as they prepared their break-in. Rodgers assured her the building was empty.

Phillabaum also was surprised by the contents of a plastic tub that Rodgers passed out of the building. She opened the lid to find snakes, creatures Rodgers did not want harmed.

Phillabaum said Waters kept watch in the bushes with a radio to relay any security threats.

After the incendiary devices were set, everyone piled into the leased car. Phillabaum said she wanted to just leave the area, unnerved by the car accident. But Rodgers wanted to park nearby and pick up the chatter of first responders on a scanner.

"I remember a firefighter trying to decide whether to continue fighting from the roof," Phillabaum said. "It was terrifying to hear him in this dangerous situation."

But Rodgers had a different reaction. "Avalon [Rodgers] seemed excited," Phillabaum said.

Phillabaum is scheduled to resume her testimony this morning, with the defense scheduled to cross-examine her.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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