News and Press Releases

United States Attorney Jenny A. Durkan
Western District of Washington

Former Evergreen Student Secured Car, Served as Lookout in Firebomb Conspiracy

June 14, 2011

BRIANA WATERS, 35, of California, pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to Conspiracy, Arson, Possession of an Unregistered Destructive Device and Using a Destructive Device During a Crime of Violence. WATERS admitted today that a co-conspirator built the incendiary bombs for the arson at WATERS’ Olympia residence, that WATERS obtained a rental car that was used to transport the bombs to the arson, and that WATERS served as a lookout during the 2001 blaze at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture.

WATERS previously was tried in a three-week trial in 2008. WATERS testified during that trial that she was innocent, and that she had not participated in the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture arson or any other arson. At the conclusion of that trial, the jury found WATERS guilty of arson. WATERS’ conviction was overturned late last year after an appeals court held that a folder of documents containing anarchist materials was improperly admitted into evidence at her trial.

With today’s guilty pleas, WATERS abandons her prior claim of innocence. WATERS also admits that she participated in a September 2001 arson of the Litchfield Wild Burro and Horse Corrals in Susanville, California.

“We are pleased that Briana Waters finally admitted and is taking responsibility for her crimes,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. “Her crimes had nothing to do with helping the environment. She put lives at risk, caused millions in damages and destroyed rare and endangered plants. She now pays a high price and will be separated from her family, spend more time in prison and carry a restitution burden that will follow her for years.”

According to charging documents, four other persons participated in the arson of the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture. The leader of the arson cell, William C. Rodgers, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle in connection with another arson, and committed suicide December 22, 2005, while being held in the Coconino County Jail in Prescott, Arizona.

Two other defendants, Jennifer Kolar, of Seattle, Washington, and Lacey Phillabaum, of Spokane, Washington, each pled guilty to the arson. Kolar was sentenced to a 60-month term of imprisonment for the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture and other arsons. Phillabaum was sentenced to a 36-month term of imprisonment.

The final person charged with participating in the arson, Justin Solondz, has been serving a prison sentence in China for drug crimes. Solondz could be returned to face charges in the U.S. as soon as this summer.

In all, fifteen people have been convicted of crimes related to a string of fires across the western United States investigated under “Operation Backfire.” Three others remain fugitives: Joseph Mahmoud Dibee, Rebecca J. Rubin and Josephine Sunshine Overaker.
“This plea agreement closes one more chapter in this multi-agency investigation of a series of ELF/ALF-claimed arsons that terrorized the citizens of the Northwest for many years. The FBI continues to pursue the remaining Operation Backfire fugitives and we ask for the public’s assistance in locating and bringing these individuals to justice,” said Laura Laughlin, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Seattle office. The FBI is offering a $50,00 reward for information leading to the arrest of any of the remaining fugitives.

Under the terms of WATERS’ plea agreement, both parties will recommend a sentence of 48 months in prison for WATERS when she is sentenced on September 23, 2011. WATERS and the other defendants in this case share a restitution obligation of $6,092,649.

This case is the result of a nine-year investigation by law enforcement. U.S. Attorney Durkan said, “I want to thank the firefighters and other first responders who battled this dangerous fire and the investigators and prosecutors who toiled many years to ensure justice was done.”

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.
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