The FBI’s “Operation Backfire” and the Case of Briana Waters

Photo by Dave Newman | CC BY 2.0

Smoke billowed as a wing of the University of Washington’s Center of Urban Horticulture burned in the early morning hours of Monday, May 21, 2001. It was not the result of a science experiment gone awry — it was arson.

Situated under a tree, safe from the heat of the blazing inferno, were boxes of little snakes stacked neatly on top of one another, prompting former UW researcher Valerie Easton to wonder “who would torch 20 years of research and plant and book collections, yet take the time to save a couple of pet snakes?” They must have been amateurs she thought, not entirely certain why anyone would want to burn the research center to the ground.

The group of five men and women, associated with the covert Earth Liberation Front (ELF), broke into the building through a window, connected a digital timer to a 9-volt battery, which in turn was hooked up to an igniter that was positioned to spark tubs filled with gasoline. When the timer went off the igniter clicked and the gasoline blew. The result was a small, yet fierce explosion that spread fast through the University’s modern science facility.

The flames, first spotted by campus security, were so intense that it took fire-fighters two hours to quell, but the damage was done. UW claimed over $3 million in loses. Botany labs burned and decades of scientific research was lost. Investigators had no leads and only suspicions of who was behind the mysterious arson.

Five days after the fire investigators got their first tip in the form of a press release dispatched by Craig Rosebraugh in Portland, which claimed the ELF was behind the attack. The target was UW professor Toby Bradshaw, who received funding from the timber industry to develop fast-growing cross-pollinated poplar trees, which are used to produce paper and lumber products. The genes Bradshaw identified through trial and error cross-pollination experiments were used by Oregon State University professor Steve Strauss who took the genes, often resistant to specific diseases, and inserted them into poplar seeds creating genetically engineered (GE) organisms. Bradshaw in turn grew these poplar trees in greenhouses at UW.

Many environmentalists believe GE trees are, as the ELF’s communiqué stated, “an ecological nightmare.”  The development of GE applications in nature, in the absence of environmental safeguards, is a recipe for disaster. Wild trees can interbreed with GE trees causing problems scientists can only speculate about. Genes from GE poplar trees, for example, are free, just like pollen or seeds that blow with the wind and can invade forests, spreading fast and disrupting the genetic diversity that allows forest ecology to evolve naturally over time.

The ELF activists targeted Prof. Bradshaw’s lab for this reason, but they missed their mark. The fire did not damage the majority of Bradshaw’s actual scientific research. He made backups of all of his work, which was previously targeted by anti-GE activists during the WTO protests in 1999. Bradshaw was not happy about being on placed on the ELF’s shitlist.

“It’s very hard to have a discussion with [these types of environmentalists]. The most vocal critics don’t know very much about the science,” Bradshaw publicly bemoaned.  “They don’t have the ability to distinguish good science from bad science or even non-science. They just don’t have the background … In order to support (the) ELF, you have to espouse terrorism as a tactic which after Sept. 11, I think is pretty untenable.”

And just like that the radical environmentalists who besieged Bradshaw’s work at UW were deemed a terrorist threat even though they were meticulous in the execution of their act, making sure nobody would be injured. Their target was property, not human life. They did their homework, ensuring that janitors were not on duty that night, and despite what the mainstream media reported about Bradshaw’s research, they knew exactly what type of science the professor was practicing and where his research funds originated.

“[These people are] anti-intellectual bigots incapable of making a reasoned argument in a public forum, but capable only of throwing a firebomb in the dead of night,” Bradshaw wrote in a sternly worded opinion piece for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shortly after the incident.

The ornery professor remained undeterred, but it was clear the ELF act had struck a nerve.


The UW research facility was just one in a string of attacks by the nebulous group, and as a result in 2004 the FBI merged seven of its on-going investigations into “Operation Backfire” in an attempt to round up the eco-bandits who allegedly struck a Vail ski resort, a horse slaughterhouse, and even an SUV dealership.

“Investigating and preventing animal rights and environmental extremism is one of the FBI’s highest domestic terrorism priorities,” said then-FBI Director Robert Mueller. “We are committed to working with our partners to disrupt and dismantle these movements, to protect our fellow citizens, and to bring to justice those who commit crime and terrorism in the name of animal rights or environmental issues.”

Until the FBI coordinated efforts with local authorities and other agencies, they didn’t have much to work with in regard to the UW fire. No real evidence was left behind, and any that did exist went up in smoke. They needed someone on the inside to come forward, who would name names and point fingers. The FBI found the informant they needed in late spring 2003, heroin addict Jacob Ferguson.

Ferguson was a tattooed strung out drifter who traveled across the country, apparently leaving nothing but ashes behind. He admitted to over a dozen arsons, mostly in Oregon where he spent the majority of his time. He claimed to know almost every member of the ELF, and became the FBI’s go-to guy in amassing hours upon hours of tape recordings of conversations he had with his friends. As a drug abuser, Ferguson likely came forward ready to tell all, or make up stories, in order to cash in the reward of $50,000 the FBI announced in May of 2004 that they would offer anyone with information about the UW blaze.

Ferguson’s drug use may have made him vulnerable to the FBI’s persuasive ways, and money is usually a great impetus for junkies with heroin habits. Over the course of almost two years Ferguson was showing up in places he had not been seen before. He’d been sighted at environmental law conferences and Earth First! outings, events he avoided in the past, likely wired the entire time, recording conversations that had nothing to do with the FBI investigation.

When news broke in late December 2005 that Ferguson was a “government witness”, anger spread like an ELF fire across the Pacific Northwest environmental community. Acquaintances turned to enemies, and some even left responses about their former ally on Portland’s Independent Media webpage in contempt for his actions.

“The entire [investigation] … seems to rest on the words, actions and credibility of this one man, a man we now learn has lived a double life. In a community where there is consensus distrust, even disgust for the federal government and especially its law enforcement operatives, Jake pretended he was one of us. He was and is one of them,” commented a poster named Mongoose.  “How long has Jake been a federal narc? The reason this issue is critical turns on the fact that some of the alleged arsons may actually have been planned or implemented with federal law enforcement help. That could well constitute entrapment.”

It wasn’t long after Ferguson turned informant that the FBI began rapping on doors of environmental activists across the country, picking up where Ferguson left off. He was leading them straight to his friends, people who welcomed him into their homes and around their dinner tables. It seemed as if Ferguson would do whatever it took to keep himself out of prison, even if that meant losing those people who were closest to him.

The chase started by Ferguson eventually led to the front stoop of a wholesome violin teacher living in Berkeley, California in 2004. Briana Waters, 32 at the time, was not someone you’d peg for a terrorist. She simply didn’t look the type. A strung out Ferguson, on the other hand, with a pentagram tattoo sprawled across his balding head, fit the stereotypical profile a bit better. He looked like an arsonist. Waters looked like a young mother, which she was.

Raised in suburban Philadelphia, Waters came from an upper-middle class household and left her family behind to attend college at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington in the late 1990s. Evergreen is a bastion of progressive activism and has a strong reputation for turning out radical students, with the list including Rachel Corrie who lost her life while standing up to an Israeli Defense Force bulldozer in an attempt a spare a Palestinian home from demolition in 2003. Waters and Corrie were Evergreen students at the same time, and like Corrie, Waters was a committed, well-known activist on campus.

Waters headed up the animal rights group at Evergreen and was committed to naturalist education, leading hikes through the nearby forests on weekends teaching people about the native flora. By her senior year Waters was becoming a seasoned environmental activist, cutting her teeth as a tree-sitter in an effort to stop the logging of Watch Mountain, an old-growth preserve in the Cascade Mountain range in Washington.

Tree-sitting was a frequent tactic of environmentalists in Oregon and even British Columbia, but Washington state was not accustomed to this type of direct action:

“These tree-sitters, calling themselves the Cascadia Defense Network, don’t like the government’s plan to give 25 square miles of heavily forested mountain land on the west slope of the Cascades to the timber company in exchange for 75 square miles of prime hiking land near Snoqualmie Pass,” reported Robert McClure for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in August 1999. “Loggers for generations, many local residents have stood by as the local mill closed and timber companies began shipping timber overseas for processing. Like the protesters, they are not happy with big timber companies.”

Waters and her green comrades were not only confronting the logging industry and the government, they were also tossing dirt in the face of big environmental groups in Seattle who signed off on the deal let Plum Creek Timber Co. log Watch Mountain, near the small town of Randle, Washington.  It may have been Waters’ first real brush up with the radicals of the Northwest environmental movement, one that would later be used to discredit her true intentions.

“We just want to sit up there in those trees and be a spectacle for you,” fellow activist Tim Ream told local Washington residents about the protest his group organized. “We’re going to sit up there until there are chainsaws buzzing all around us and they take us to jail. And we’re not going to make it easy for them.”

The direct action worked, after five long months the Cascadia Defense Network was victorious and Waters caught the victory on film for his senior project at Evergreen. Her heartfelt footage documented the struggle with the timber barons as well as friendly relationship between the activists and the local townsfolk. Over 28,000 acres of prime wilderness was ultimately saved and the public land was never handed over to Plum Creek Timber.


The FBI was out to track down the perpetrators of the UW fire and they were more than ready to use the testimony provided by cooperating witnesses to do so. Two of the government’s key informants in the UW case were 31 year-old Lacey Phillabaum, a former editor of Earth First! Journal, and Jennifer Kolar, 33, a millionaire yacht enthusiast with a master’s degree in astrophysics. In order to shorten their own sentences, Kolar and Phillabaum agreed to testify against Waters, claiming she was the lookout for the arson and borrowed a car to drive to the campus that night. They even insisted Waters lived on the property where the explosive device was assembled by her boyfriend at the time, Justin Solondz.

On February 11, 2008 at Western U.S. District in Tacoma, Washington, the government’s case against Briana Waters began with U.S. District Judge Franklin D. Burgess presiding. The location of the trial was moved from Seattle, as prosecutors believed she’d have a less sympathetic jury outside the Emerald City. The jury was selected during the first day and at 9:00am the on February 12 the courtroom theatre began, with a packed room full of Waters’ friends, family, and supporters.

The prosecution was led by Assistant United States Attorney Andrew Friedman and First Assistant United States Attorney Mark Bartlett. The duo’s opening remarks to the jury painted Waters as a dangerous environmental extremist who was willing to do whatever it took to terrorize their target, Prof. Toby Bradshaw.

“What the defendant and her accomplices did that night was wrong in every way,” Friedman told the 12-person jury as he described Waters as the lookout that night. “… If there was one building in Seattle that helped the environment, it was probably the Center for Urban Horticulture. They plotted [their attack] for weeks and built complicated firebombs at a house the defendant rented,” Friedman continued. “She had her cousin rent a car to use in the action and they drove it to Seattle, ate dinner, drove to the Urban Horticulture building, near a residential area, parked on a hill in the residential neighborhood a block away from the building. Waters stayed in the bushes with a radio while the others broke into an office [and planted the firebomb].”

The defense team, made up of attorneys Neil Fox and Robert Bloom, claimed the federal prosecutors were barking up the wrong tree and the hunt for the real perpetrators led them to an innocent woman. They argued that the evidence was simply not there to support the prosecutor’s claims.

“Not only has Briana Waters pleaded not guilty, she is not guilty … She is completely innocent, not involved in this or any other arson. The government’s proof is what is on trial,” Bloom asserted to the jury. “The government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt … Ms. Waters is innocent not because of some technicality, but because she was not involved with this group of people in any arson, in any discussion of arson … that’s not what happened.”

While prosecutors seemed to draw on guilty by association tactics, Waters’ defense cautioned jurors to look at the facts of the case, not just the illegal actions of her former acquaintances. Both Kolar and Phillabaum began cooperating with the FBI shortly after their initial roundup along with five other environmentalists for a separate Oregon arson in 2005. In exchange for helping the government build its case against fellow activists by wearing a concealed wire, prosecutors promised to cut them a deal. Minimum sentences for arson alone carry a statutory minimum of 30 years with the threat of a maximum life term. It’s little wonder why Kolar and Phillabaum felt pressured to name names, even if those people were close friends and legitimate fellow activists.

Problem was, Kolar, when first interviewed by the FBI in December 2005, only fingered four other participants in the UW arson. Kolar even told the FBI what each of their aliases were. Briana Waters was not on her list. A surprising lapse in memory considering Waters supposedly drove to the site of the arson that night. It was only later, after being pressured by government prosecutors, that Kolar named Waters as the lookout. According to the FBI’s notes provided to Waters’ defense team, Kolar was interviewed five or six times before identifying Waters as the lookout.

As Jennifer Kolar sought to strike a plea bargain with the feds she abruptly “remembered” who the lookout was that night. In mid-January 2006 Kolar was shown a photo of Waters, which she recognized by name, but did not say Waters was involved in the incident. It was almost a full month later, in March 2006, that Kolar informed the FBI of Waters alleged participation.

Aside from the testimonies of Kolar and Phillabaum, the FBI had little to work with. Their original informant, Jacob Ferguson had a drug problem, which would certainly dispel any legitimacy he would have on the stand, plus he was not even directly involved in the UW incident, he only led the FBI down Kolar and Phillabaum’s trail. Anything he confessed would be hearsay. The alleged ringleader of the UW arson, argued the prosecution, was Bill Rodgers, known to others as Avalon, a man who committed suicide by wrapping a plastic bag over his head in his jail cell shortly after being arrested in Arizona in December 2005. There was simply no hard evidence that tied Waters to the crime scene that night. No fingerprints were left behind, no minuscule strain of DNA. Nothing. All the prosecutors had were suspicion and the testimony of two activists who struck plea deals in order to save themselves from decades in prison.

Lacey Phillabaum’s fiancé, Stan Meyerhoff, a friend of Jacob Ferguson, was a cooperating witness in other ELF cases. While Meyerhoff didn’t participate in the UW arson, he attended secret Book Club meetings leading up to the event and said Waters was not involved in the UW arson. The Book Club, hosted at different locations, served as the organizing nucleus for the group’s covert actions. Meyerhoff even ratted on the love of his life, Lacey Phillabaum. He did not seem to be holding any information back from the FBI.

“Within twenty-four hours [of being arrested], with no deal of any sort on the table, Stan was supposedly squealing like a pig,” said Lauren Regan, a lawyer with the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Oregon. “Given that Jake had a heroin-riddled mind; Stan was able to fill in a lot of blanks for the prosecution.”

But apparently when the blanks weren’t filled in to the Justice Department’s liking, they simply invented scenarios based on innuendo and stories told by cooperating witnesses who were copping plea deals.  On March 17, 2006, Stan Meyerhoff, handed over to the FBI by his pal Jacob Ferguson, was questioned by the feds and shown pictures of people who were under investigation for numerous ELF actions. One of those photos was of Briana Waters. Meyerhoff told investigators that the woman in the photo looked familiar but stated that she was not involved in any action. He was sure of it. The case, according to Water’s defense, should have ended right there. Meyerhoff admitted to being intimately involved in numerous ELF acts and knew all the players, but stated outright that Waters was not one of them.

This little bump in the road didn’t stop the prosecution, however. Waters did know Bill Rodgers, which was the cornerstone of the FBI’s case against her. Rodgers, like Waters, was also an above ground environmental activist who was often strapped for cash and had credit problems. As a result Waters purchased a cell phone for him and paid his phone bills to help him out. Prosecutors argued that Rodgers and ELF were cautious and meticulous in all of their crimes. They left no trail, absolutely nothing that could lead authorities to their whereabouts.

So why would Briana Waters purchase a cell phone for Bill Rodgers if she was worried about being caught? Rodgers, according the FBI’s profile, would not have asked Waters to buy him a phone if she was in anyway connected to any illegal activities. They weren’t that careless. That was the case Waters’ defense attempted to make: purchasing a phone and paying its monthly bill is not a crime, and in no way put Waters at the scene of the crime that night. But what did, the prosecution countered, was the vehicle she had her cousins rent for her that Waters allegedly used to drive from Olympia, Washington to UW’s campus in Seattle.


On February 15, 2007 Lacey Phillabaum took the stand. Expressing sympathy for all involved, Phillabaum was still clear why she was testifying against Briana Waters. “I had regrets and did not want to spend 30 years in jail,” she told the prosecutor.

An entire day on the stand and Phillabaum did her job in implicating Waters in the UW arson.

She claimed Rodgers vouched for her since she never attended any of the underground Book Club meetings. Phillabaum said that Waters and her saw the “clean room” where the bomb device was constructed by Rodgers and Waters’ boyfriend, Justin Solondz. Waters, according to Phillabaum, was put in charge of procuring a car for the drive to the UW campus. On her second day of testimony, Phillabaum told of regret for what she did and her tumultuous transition back into ordinary life with Stan Meyerhoff,

“[Stan Meyerhoff and I] got to know each other and began reintegrating back [into] mainstream [culture], it was hard to do,” Phillabaum said. “First part of getting uninvolved [with the ELF] was admitting to each other that we didn’t want to be involved. Which was hard to do having met in this context … After 9/11 I decided it was intolerable to be involved with anything like this. We shared a mutual reinforcement of values.”

Phillabaum, whose parents are both lawyers, was certainly primed for the barrage of questions the defense peppered her with. Phillabaum, insisted the defense, slept with Waters’ boyfriend Justin Solondz. Phillabaum told Waters’ defense attorney Robert Bloom that she did not remember Waters ever confronting her, where Waters yelled, “how dare you have an affair with my boyfriend!”

“I think the implication is that we had a sexual interaction. That is not correct,” Phillabaum told Bloom. “I never gave him a blowjob either if that’s what you’re implying.” To which Bloom replied, “It is about whether you bear ill-will toward Briana … Briana called you all kinds of names.  ‘Disrespectful, unprincipled, not fit to be involved with the movement’.

“I bear no ill-will toward Briana Waters,” she protested.

Later Bloom asked, “If you stay with your deal, the best sentence for you is three years, the worst is five years right?”

“Yes,” Phillabaum responded.

“…One of the inputs of the sentence is what the prosecutors tell the judge about how well you do on the stand, right? It’s fair to say you have an incentive to please the prosecutors,” defense attorney Bloom asked.

“I am not particularly motivated by my plea deal,” Phillabaum explained to Bloom. “I am committed to fulfill it, but emotional and moral commitment which drives me to be honest is to the researchers who I victimized. I would rather do three years than five, but I will do no more than five no matter what I say.”

Overall Bloom’s questions to Phillabaum were not overly interrogating. She held her composure and stuck to her story. Briana Waters, Phillabaum recalled, was involved in obtaining the vehicle for the night and met with all involved for dinner at the Green Lake Bar: Justin Solondz, Bill Rodgers, Jen Kolar, Briana Waters and herself. Had she not implicated Waters, claimed defense attorney Bloom, Phillabaum would face up to 35 years in prison.

The real linchpin in Waters’ trial was not Lacey Phillabaum, but Waters’ cousin Robert Corrina. On February 19, Corrina was called to testify against his cousin. He was repeatedly interviewed by the FBI, with varying stories leading up to the trial. At first Corrina said he did not know Waters, who even lived with he and his wife when she first moved to Olympia. In preceding interviews he said he did, but didn’t know anything about a rental car which was in fact rented by his wife on Waters’ behalf and even deposited $200 cash the week before.

Defense attorneys insisted that since Corrina told contradictory stories to the FBI on numerous occasions that “now the feds hold your life in their hands.” To which Corrina responded, “Not true.” The FBI even went to his wife’s place of employment and threatened them both with the possibility of a perjury charge, a felony offense. Like their case against Briana Waters, the feds also had Corrina cornered.

As Corrina squirmed in his seat while he was grilled with questions, the Waters defense seemed to be unraveling. The jury did not seem to be buying the fact that Corrina was bullied by the FBI to indict his cousin in order to save both him and his wife from prison. What the jury was presented with by the prosecution was a soft man who was telling the truth after having initially lied in an attempt to protect his cousin. Corrina’s early statements to the feds only portrayed Waters as having done something wrong.

On the Sunday night of the arson, recalled Corrina for the first time under oath, her boyfriend Justin Solondz drove Waters in the rental car to the Emergency Room because Waters was having abdominal pains. Olympia’s hospital wouldn’t allow her, so she drove to Seattle, said Corrina. It was the first time Waters was said to have been with Solondz on the same night as the arson. It was damning testimony, and it sent the defense’s case for a tailspin. Now they didn’t only have to argue that Phillabaum was lying to save herself, they had to say her cousin was too.

Waters’ ER story also didn’t hold up well under the prosecution’s scrutiny. Neither hospital Waters reportedly sought treatment at had any records of her visit.

Jennifer Kolar was up next, whose testimony, despite the fact that she had at first not included Waters as involved in her FBI interrogation, did not help Waters’ cause. When questioned about her memory trouble, Kolar replied, “I contradicted myself and my memory.” The defense backed off right at the very moment they should have pounced. They painted Kolar as a cold-hearted rich girl who, unlike Phillabaum, had little remorse for the actions she committed as a clandestine member of the Earth Liberation Front. But however cold Kolar was on the stand, the defense did not attack her truthfulness in such a way that would convince the jury that she was lying to reduce her own sentence.

Waters’ case was falling apart at the seams. Her cousin Robert Corrina put her in the car he helped obtain and Phillabaum and Kolar put her at the scene of the arson as a lookout. Despite a lack of hard evidence, Waters did not have a solid alibi. As for boyfriend Justin Solondz, the one person who could have either corroborated or confirmed Waters’ whereabouts that night – he was long gone, having fled after the initial arrests and was a fugitive on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

On February 25, FBI Special Agent Tony Torres took the stand as a witness for the prosecution. Torres was the note-taker for Jennifer Kolar’s interview on January 12, 2006 where she was shown a photo of Briana Waters and recognized her, but did not say she was in any way involved in the UW arson. After a long, evasive testimony, Torres was forced to admit that Kolar never named Briana Waters as a participant until well after the FBI already fixed on her as a suspect.

According to Torres’ interview with Jennifer Kolar, she recalled events that were in direct contradiction to Phillabaum’s testimony. Not only did Kolar not originally recall Waters being involved, she also thought that Budget rental car used for the night’s event was obtained by Bill Rodgers, not Waters. Also, Phillabaum testified that the car was scrapped while speeding out of the neighborhood where they parked near UW, but Kolar did not recall this happening, nor could Special Agent Torres provide any evidence from Budget that the car returned by Robert Corrina sustained any damage. Torres also testified that Phillabaum told the FBI that both Briana Waters and Justin Solondz acted as lookouts during the UW arson, in contrast with the government’s allegation that Waters alone acted as a lookout.

The big gap in Torres’ testimony was that the FBI did not record Jennifer Kolar’s questioning, even though it is FBI protocol to do so. He also admitted he stopped taking notes in the middle of the interview in an attempt to avoid the “confusion” that resulted in major discrepancies between him and Special Agent Ted Halla’s notes from their interview with Jennifer Kolar’s on December 16, 2005. Defense attorneys accused Torres of falsifying documents in order to set up their case against Waters.

It wasn’t a smoking gun, but Torres was perhaps the weakest link in the prosecution’s case against Briana Waters. He confirmed that the FBI’s two main witnesses’ stories did not match up with one another and had not from the inception of the FBI’s investigation. Kolar changed her account of events numerous occasions. She didn’t recall a scrap on the car, nor did she even remember that they used a rental car, as she told the FBI originally that they drove a van to UW, a much more realistic vehicle given the number of people allegedly involved in the arson and the equipment they had to bring along.

Both Phillabaum and Kolar also said that Waters and crew met at the Greek Lake Bar on the night of the crime. Kolar said they met “around 9 at night, 8 at night,” while Phillabaum testified they met in the “early evening”.  Defense lawyers challenged both Kolar and Phillabaum’s recollection and presented a bank card receipt which put Waters 60 miles away in Olympia at 7:12 p.m, and given that their was a Seattle Mariners game and construction that evening, it was unlikely, with even normal traffic on Interstate 5, that Waters would have been able to drive to UW in time to meet the others at the bar.

While Briana Waters took the stand in her own defense, a wave of trepidation filled the air, even sending Judge Burgess into an afternoon siesta. Supporters in the courtroom were convinced there were simply too many conflicting testimonies and evidence to convict Waters of any crime. It was now Waters’ turn to speak in her own defense. She denied any involvement whatsoever in the UW arson, or any arson for that matter. She did not attend any Book Club meetings. She knew Bill Rodgers, but only for his above ground activities. Waters did not believe that arson was a legitimate form of environmental activism, something she realized during her time on Watch Mountain as she worked with others to organize local communities against proposed logging.

As the defense and prosecution laid out their final arguments for and against Briana Waters, a fire erupted in a posh Seattle development project called Street of Dreams and the ELF claimed responsibility. Perhaps it was more than poor timing. Or perhaps it set by contractors in an attempt to cash in on some insurance money before the housing boom reached their cul-de-sac. Regardless, it certainly did not help Waters.

The prosecution went first, admitting that Jennifer Kolar’s memory was suspect, but that she was certain Waters was a lookout for the arson. They cautioned the jury to see past Waters’ soft veneer and to see her as a domestic terrorist willing to use the threat of violence to spread her anti-establishment message. It was their duty, prosecutors insisted, to put Waters behind bars where she belonged, even though all they really ever accused her of was holding a walkie-talkie as a lookout. But domestic terrorism is serious, they contended, and she must be punished for her actions, no matter how minor they may seem.

The defense believed they provided the jury with numerous examples that ought to lead to reasonable doubt. Enough that would set Briana Waters free. They pointed out Kolar’s mangled testimony and Special Agent Torres’ bad note taking habits. They said the fact that they had a receipt from Waters in Olympia made it virtually impossible to meet at the Green Lake Bar with the rest of the arsonists. They pointed out that cooperating witness Stan Meyerhoff, second only under Bill Rodgers, said Waters was never involved in any actions. They said that the cell phone payments and her cousin’s rental car was not evidence that she committed the crime. There were just too many unanswered questions and too much innuendo to find Briana Waters guilty, the defense argued. Lastly there was no hard evidence that put Waters at UW that night.

On June 2, 2008, Waters’ defense attorneys filed a motion which they claimed revealed that Jennifer Kolar patently lied and deceived the FBI and jury, and that an investigation was required to determine what action needed to be taken in light of such a disclosure. The defense motion was based upon documents the government disclosed after the trial. The new information, the defense attested, should have resulted in a mistrial.

Unfortunately, Judge Burgess didn’t agree and jurors were unable to convict on all counts, but they did find Waters guilty on two counts of arson. While awaiting her sentencing, Waters’ lawyers asked that she be released until her sentencing so she could spend more time with her partner and 3-year-old daughter. The U.S. attorney’s office opposed the request, and claimed they had new evidence that Waters was involved in more than one arson, insisting that Lacey Phillabuam’s fiancé Stan Meyerhoff, who said before that Waters was never involved, claimed that Waters participated in an attack at the Litchfield Wild Horse and Burro Ranch in Susanville, California.

On Thursday, June 19, 2008, Briana Waters was sentenced to 6 years in prison. Letters of support and a tearful plea by her own mother could not keep her out of prison. Lacey Phillabaum and Jennifer Kolar dramatically reduced their sentences, with Phillabaum received 36 months and Kolar 60 months.

“Prosecutors used scare-mongering to get the jury to convict an innocent person,” Waters’ lawyer, Robert Bloom, told Salon shortly after the trial ended. “This is really a study in American prosecution. It was an absurdly slanted American prosecution.”


Waters’ conviction was later overturned on appeal in 2008, but in June 2012, when faced with a retrial, Waters signed a plea and was sentenced to four years in prison. With the plea, she agreed to testify against Justin Solondz and claimed she perjured herself during her 2008 trial. She also admitted UW wasn’t her only firebombing. She said she helped torch the the Litchfield Wild Burro and Horse Corrals in 2001. In return for her plea, the feds agreed not to charge her with the arson in California. Did the feds force Waters into the plea deal in an attempt to get Solondz? We’ll never know for certain. Waters was released from prison in 2013.

Justin Solondz was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2012, this after spending two years in a Chinese prison on local charges. Solondz was released from prison in the US in early 2017.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at: and trolled on Twitter @JSCCounterPunch. Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter @joshua__frank.