United States Attorney Jenny A. Durkan
Western District of Washington
Final Defendant In UW Horticulture Center Arson Pleads Guilty
Student who Built Fire Bomb, Drove Getaway Car Faces 7 Year Sentence
The final participant in the 2001 arson of the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, announced U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. JUSTIN SOLONDZ, 32, entered a guilty plea this morning to conspiracy and arson. Under the terms of the plea agreement, both the prosecutors and the defense will recommend a seven-year prison term. Judge Ronald B. Leighton can impose any sentence allowed by law. Judge Leighton scheduled sentencing for March 16, 2012.
“This was a dangerous and cowardly crime. This defendant and his group damaged the environment far more than their activism ever protected it,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. “Not only did the UW blaze destroy endangered plants and important research, it posed a very real danger to the firefighters dedicated to fighting it. I commend the agents who tracked Mr. Solondz and brought him to justice.”
According to the plea agreement, SOLONDZ built the firebombs in a “clean room” behind an Olympia residence, transported them to Seattle, and remained in the car as a getaway driver during the arson. The plea agreement details how SOLONDZ left the country in 2005, and when he learned of arrests in the arson case, decided to stay abroad, traveling under a false name. In early 2009, SOLONDZ was arrested by Chinese authorities for manufacturing drugs. He was returned to the United States in July 2011, in the custody of the FBI.
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 Briana Waters, of Oakland, California have each pleaded guilty to the arson. Kolar was sentenced to a 60-month term of imprisonment for the UW Center for Urban Horticulture and other arsons. Phillabaum was sentenced to a 36-month term of imprisonment. Waters will be sentenced June 22, 2012. Under the terms of her plea agreement, both sides will recommend 48 months in prison. Waters served more than two-and-a-half years in prison following her conviction for the arson in 2008. That conviction was overturned in 2010. Waters entered a guilty plea in June 2011.
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 is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Andrew Friedman and Thomas Woods.