“Ecoterrorist” Briana Waters gets six years

In a brief Associated Press account of the sentencing of supposed ELF operative Briana Waters, the New York Times June 20 uncritically uses the loaded term “ecoterrorist” in the headline. If you actually read the blurb, it turns out she is accused of serving as a look-out in an arson attack on a research center at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. Nobody was killed, nobody was injured. Was this an act of “terrorism”?

Washington: Ecoterrorist Sentenced to Six Years
A California woman convicted in an ecoterrorism attack at the University of Washington has been sentenced to six years in prison and to pay $6 million in restitution. A Seattle television station, KIRO, reported that the woman, Briana Waters of Berkeley, had asked for mercy because she has a 3-year-old daughter. Prosecutors had recommended a 10-year sentence. Ms. Waters, 32, was sentenced in Federal District Court in Tacoma after being convicted of arson on March 6. She was a student at Evergreen State College in 2001 when she acted as a lookout as others set fire to the Center for Urban Horticulture. The Earth Liberation Front, a loosely organized radical environmental group that has been linked to acts of ecoterrorism in the Northwest, claimed responsibility because it believed, mistakenly, that a researcher was genetically modifying poplar trees. The blaze, which destroyed the plant research center, was one of at least 17 fires set from 1996 to 2001 by the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. In all, more than a dozen people were arrested; four suspects remain at large.

In a story on the case in Salon March 27, “Is Briana Waters a Terrorist?”, writer Tracy Tullis quotes Lauren Regan, director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, OR: “There’s a question of whether burning property is really the equivalent of flying a plane into a building and killing humans.”

Well yes, that’s a question—but is it the question? 9-11, after all, is a pretty tough act to follow. On one hand, federal prosecutors are still milking outrage at 9-11 to paint with the broad brush of “terrorism” any act of physical sabotage or property damage in advance of a political cause. On the other hand, while arson may not be exactly terrorism, it isn’t exactly not terrorism either. It is in a gray area where the lines can be blurred. After all, there are plenty of things which we would all agree constitute terrorism (just check the daily headlines from Yemen, Algeria, the Philippines, Spain, India, Sri Lanka, etc.) that fall significantly short of “flying a plane into a building and killing [thousands of] humans.”

So there is a degree of disingenuousness on both sides of this particular rhetorical debate. Briana’s own support website, SupportBrianna.org, to its credit, avoids the whole rhetorical issue and uses the less loaded and more precise term “arson.” It also emphasizes:

Briana steadfastly maintains her innocence. She is a peaceful woman who believes in non-violence. In 2001, she directed a documentary, entitled Watch, which tells the moving true story of a peaceful campaign that built a coalition between environmentalists, loggers, and the residents of Randle, Washington to save the old-growth forest on Watch Mountain.

Briana’s family, friends, and supporters were heartbroken and left in disbelief when a federal jury found her guilty of two counts of arson on March 6, 2008. She is currently detained while awaiting sentencing. She faces a mandatory five-year minimum prison term, potentially subject to an enhancement of up to twenty years.

See our last post on the green scare.

  1. Fugitive “eco-terrorist” busted for cannabis in China
    From AP, Nov 28:

    The father of an American wanted for ecoterrorism attacks in the western United States said Saturday that his son was sentenced to prison in China after pleading guilty to drug charges in that country.

    Justin Franchi Solondz, 30, was sentenced Friday at a court in Dali, a city in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, according to Chinese and American officials. His father, Paul Solondz, said his son pleaded guilty last month.

    Solondz told The Associated Press that Justin was arrested in China during a drug sweep in March, and authorities later found 33 pounds of marijuana leaves buried in the courtyard of a home he rented.

    Justin, a former student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia who grew up in Randolph, N.J., was indicted in California and Washington state in 2006 in connection with a series of arsons attributed to “the Family,” a collection of radical environmentalists aligned with the Animal and Earth Liberation Fronts, from 1996-2001.

    Did they call themselves “the Family,” or is that what the FBI dubbed them? If the former, they need a new PR guy.

    Attacks by the group caused more than $80 million in damage, according to the FBI, which called Justin a domestic terrorist. Prosecutors say he used timers, plastic containers and fuel-filled bladders to build incendiary devices used in one of the most notorious blazes, the May 2001 destruction of the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture.

    Investigators heard little of Justin after his indictment, and the FBI issued a $50,000 reward late last year for information leading to his arrest. At the time, the agency said he might be in Canada, Europe or Asia.

    Early this year he surfaced in Dali, a city popular with Western tourists, using fake Canadian identification and an altered appearance, said Mark Bartlett, the first assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle.

    After Justin was arrested in the drug investigation in March, federal prosecutors in Seattle were contacted to help confirm his true identity, Bartlett said.

    The U.S. has no extradition treaty with China, and it’s not immediately clear when or how Justin might be returned to the U.S. to face charges, Bartlett said. The Justice Department has informed Chinese officials that it remains interested in prosecuting him…

    Paul Solondz said his son did not flee the U.S. to avoid prosecution…. He entered China with a valid visa and renewed it twice, his father said.

    Paul Solondz said that evidence at the trial in China suggested that his son had used chemicals to press the marijuana leaves into a liquid, but the result was an unusable, toxic mixture. Justin did not want to dispose of the liquid for fear of damaging the environment, but after his arrest, a friend tried to do Justin a favor by burying the leaves in the courtyard.

    Huh? Why would someone concerned with the environment be using toxic chemicals (presumably isopropyl alcohol) to process cannabis?

    Paul Solondz and Justin’s mother, Bianca Franchi, traveled to China last month and were allowed to see him for an hour. Solondz said his son seemed unclear on the nature of the U.S. charges and also did not know that his ex-girlfriend, Briana Waters, had been sentenced to six years in prison for her role as a lookout in the university fire.

    Solondz said he was “repulsed” that environmentalists are labeled as terrorists, adding: “No one has been injured. No animal has been hurt. The only credo I ever saw from this group was that they were not to hurt or maim or kill any people or animals.”

    Prosecutors in the United States say that Justin was involved in arsons at the Litchfield Wild Horse and Burro Corral in Susanville, Calif., and at a Monsanto Corp. canola field in Dusty, Wash. He was charged with girdling about 800 hybrid poplar trees on Oregon State University property, and with making incendiary devices used to destroy several buildings at a poplar farm in Clatskanie, Ore., the same night as the university fire.

    At Waters’ trial, prosecutors contended that Justin built his incendiary devices in a clean room behind her home in Olympia, Wash.

    Of 17 people indicted on charges related to the string of ELF and ALF attacks, 13 have been convicted. Three remain at large and are believed to be outside the U.S.: Josephine Sunshine Overaker, Joseph Mahmoud Dibee and Rebecca Rubin.

  2. Briana Waters’ conviction overturned
    From the San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 16:

    A federal appeals court overturned an Oakland woman’s conviction for taking part in a radical environmental group’s firebombing of a research center Wednesday and said prosecutors shouldn’t have been allowed to tell the jury she was reading dangerous literature.

    An admitted firebomber testified at Briana Waters’ 2008 trial in Seattle that Waters had given her a folder filled with anarchist writings. One article, read to the jury, reveled in the “intense pleasure” of “bashing in the skull of society.” Another article called for attacks on the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. Capitol and Disneyland.

    Prosecutors told jurors that the writings revealed the beliefs of the 32-year-old violin teacher and helped to prove that she acted as a lookout when other members of the Earth Liberation Front torched the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture in May 2001.

    No one was injured, but the fire caused $6 million in damage.

    Waters, an environmental activist, acknowledged knowing several other defendants but denied helping them or being a member of the Earth Liberation Front. She was convicted of arson and sentenced to six years in prison.

    In Wednesday’s ruling, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the articles did not bear Waters’ fingerprints and there was no evidence that she had read them.

    But even if she had, the court said, a defendant’s reading material seldom proves anything about her conduct and often inflames a jury.

    The articles’ “repugnant and self-absorbed embrace of destruction is likely to have swayed jurors’ emotions, leading them to convict Waters not because of the facts before them but because she represented a threat to their own values,” Judge A. Wallace Tashima said in the 3-0 ruling.

  3. Most-wanted “eco-terrorist” surrenders
    From Reuters, Nov. 28:

    PORTLAND, Oregon — A Canadian environmentalist accused of taking part in a campaign of arson attacks across the U.S. West surrendered on Thursday after a decade on the run to face charges in what authorities call the “largest eco-terrorism case” in U.S. history.

    Rebecca Jeanette Rubin turned herself in to FBI agents at the Canadian border in Blaine, Washington, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement. She is charged with helping set a wave of arson fires between 1996 and 2001 that were carried out by self-proclaimed members of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front.

    “Rubin’s arrest marks the end of her decade-long period as an international fugitive in the largest eco-terrorism case in United States history,” the Justice Department statement said of the arson spree…

    Rubin, 39, faces arson, destructive device and conspiracy charges in Oregon, California and Colorado.. The [federal] government indicted Rubin in 2006 of taking part in a conspiracy with 12 others involving 20 acts of arson.

    She is charged with participating in a 1997 arson fire at a wild horse and burro facility belonging to the Bureau of Land Management in Burns, Oregon, that was set to retaliate for what the group believed was poor treatment of the horses. Animals were set free and firebombs placed around the facility, according to a federal grand jury indictment.

    She is also accused of participating in a 1998 attempted arson at the Medford, Oregon, offices of U.S. Forest Industries.

    In Colorado, Rubin faces eight counts of arson for the 1998 firebombing of a Vail ski resort to stop an expansion that the group felt would encroach on a lynx habitat.

    She is also charged with conspiracy, arson and using a destructive device in a 2001 fire at a Bureau of Land Management horse and burro facility near Susanville, California.

    Ten of the other 12 defendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy and multiple counts of arson in 2007 in Eugene, Oregon, while two, Joseph Dibee and Josephine Overaker, remain at large.

    If convicted on all charges, Rubin could face a maximum penalty of hundreds of years in prison, although the other defendants were sentenced to between 37 to 156 months behind bars, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer said.

    1. SPLC on “eco-terrorist” bandwagon
      A report on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog (“Keeping an Eye on the Radical Right”) has an update about Jeanette Rubin’s surrender, playing up the creep “Family” moniker and noting that the charges against her were the fruit of a major federal investigation, “Operation Backfire.” One reader named Susan commented:

      Please stick to the real issues at SPLC, not eco-“terrorism” or animal rights folks. These people are hardly the problem in America.

      Really, SPLC. Whatever else the ELF may be, are they part of the “radical right”?

  4. Eco-militant Joseph Dibee to be freed

    Joseph Dibee was sentenced on Nov. 1 in federal court in Eugene to time served and could be also ordered to pay a portion of the $1.3 million in restitution other defendants in the case have previously been ordered to pay. In April, Dibee pleaded guilty to the 1997 arson of Cavel West, a slaughterhouse in central Oregon. He also pleaded guilty to the 2001 arson of a Bureau of Land Management wild horse corral in Litchfield, Calif. As part of his plea agreement, federal prosecutors dropped arson charges Dibee also faced in Washington state

    US District Judge Ann Aiken also included in Dibee’s sentence 1,000 hours of community service and supervised release. Aiken has overseen the decades-long case that has included more than 13 defendants.  (OPB)