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ELF members gained nothing by the UW arson, and so much was lost

Weekend Essay.

It was probably the little boxes holding the snakes, stacked carefully under a tree far from the inferno, that made me think the arsonists were amateurs. As I watched the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture (CUH) burn the morning of May 21, 2001, I wondered who would torch 20 years of research and plant and book collections, yet take the time to save a couple of pet snakes? Anyone who would attack a horticulture building devoted to ecological research and public education must be confused or acting on a deranged whim, I thought. But I was wrong.

Any such illusions, except perhaps of Earth Liberation Front’s naiveté on choice of target, were dispelled last week. On the seventh anniversary of the burning, FBI agents and federal prosecutors assigned to the case met with those of us who had worked at CUH on the day our building was burned down.

After Briana Waters’ conviction for the crime, Special Agent Ted Halla called UW Associate Professor Sarah Reichard “out of the blue,” she says, and offered to meet with staff, faculty, and students for a de-briefing. More than 30 people crowded into one of the classrooms at CUH this May 21 to hear what he had to say. Afterward, we gathered together for a survivors’ party in the new Merrill Hall Commons.

If the idea of a survivors’ party years after the fact seems a little much, you have to picture the violent destruction of May 21 and the long and demoralizing aftermath. I woke up to a radio news report of the fire. I called my staff as I was driving in and had to park blocks away, beyond police barriers. As I walked to the scene of the fire, I fretted that one of us had left a teapot plugged in and caused an electrical fire. What else could have caused it?

Those few on staff who knew ELF had broken into CUH during the WTO protests, cutting down raspberry canes in a clumsy attack on UW professor Toby Bradshaw’s research, immediately suspected arson. Soon enough, with FBI crime scene tape draping the building and an accelerant-sniffing Rottweiler on the scene, we understood, however shocking the idea, that the fire had been deliberately set. It took several more days before it sunk in that this was domestic terrorism — 9/11 was still four months away — and terrorism of any sort was a distant notion, particularly on a sunny May morning on a college campus.

Here’s what I wrote in my column “Plant Talk,” published shortly after the fire in The Seattle TimesPacific Northwest magazine:

One of the most difficult moments of the week was going back into the glass-littered, soaked and horribly smoky library, garbed in a hard-hat to protect from the falling ceiling, and realizing, finally, that all the library shelves, tables, chairs, desks and computers were ruined. There is nothing to be saved.

Little did I know at that sad moment that it would take three years for UW to re-build Merrill Hall, and that the tepid and sometimes even obstructionist response from UW administrators would cause me to leave my job managing a library I’d started eighteen years earlier.

As faculty, graduate students, and current and past staff gathered together last week to watch Agent Halla’s PowerPoint presentation of events leading up to the arson and the subsequent investigation, I’m sure we all felt like survivors of a plot more carefully planned than we could ever have imagined. Halla explained that ELF decided to concentrate its efforts on genetic engineering after the WTO protests, for they felt that messy event was a victory for them. The irony is they believed popular sympathy would be on their side in a fight against genetic engineering, although the destruction of a university outreach facility, built with private funds, earned them negative press. A couple of cell members were passionately against genetic engineering, the rest just went along, and the tragic result was that they burned down an entire public horticulture center because a Forestry professor working in the building did research into the genetics of fast-growing hybrid poplars. One of the many ironies is that the goal of Bradshaw’s work was to save old-growth forests, and that his research trees grown in a nearby greenhouse were undamaged by the fire.

Agent Halla’s depiction of ELF’s careful planning made me see that the arsonists were no amateurs. The group held many pre-planning meetings in Olympia, the meetings euphemistically called “Book Group.” From the beginning, they carefully covered their tracks, shielding their e-mail and using a communication code that Agent Halla said was “as complicated as any Al-Qaeda uses.” There were at least two times in the months before the arson that members of the group traveled to Seattle for reconnaissance of CUH buildings. The ELF cell members took an oath of silence in their final planning meeting — some held to it, but others did not.

Most of the specifics of the night of May 21, 2001 — investigated over several years and several states — came out at Briana Waters’ trial. I was struck by several of the scenarios, like the group of five responsible for burning CUH having had dinner at the Green Lake Bar and Grill before dropping off the incendiary devices near our building, packed in Tupperware and carried in backpacks so if spotted they’d look like students.

Early on I’d heard that the arsonists lit open buckets of gasoline to start the fire. It turns out they used complex incendiary devices that they’d built in Olympia and brought to Seattle in a rental car. The devices were constructed of digital timers, model rocket igniters, and road flares wrapped in matches. When Jennifer Kolar cut the glass out of a downstairs window, it dropped and noisily shattered. Once inside, they stole some of Toby Bradshaw’s papers, hoping to find names of more potential targets, removed the snakes, and lit the incendiary devices. The group of five waited out the night (after sideswiping a car as they fled) at Green Lake, where they listened to the firefighters’ response on police scanners. When ELF blamed the destruction of the building on the fire department’s slow response, I for the first time in my life had an inkling of how the sociopathic mind works. They must have been surprised as they waited in the darkness at Green Lake to learn how destructive their mission had been. Always cautious, the group waited until traffic picked up in the morning before driving back to Olympia.

The FBI agents and prosecutors answered all our questions willingly and openly, yet mysteries remain. Agent Halla expressed frustration that the elusive, man-of-mystery Bill Rodgers, older than the rest and probably the leader of the group, committed suicide in his jail cell before he could be questioned. Others involved have fled the country, while Jennifer Kolar and Lacey Phillabaum cooperated with prosecutors in return for reduced sentences.

The most-asked question from CUH staff and graduate students was whether someone from the UW aided ELF. We’d always suspected as much because of how well the perpetrators seemed to know the building and how effortlessly they got in. Both FBI agents and prosecutors originally thought the same thing, but through the course of the investigation came to believe no one from the UW was involved. Yet Agent Halla told the story of several UW lab buckets found at the site of an unsolved arson in Olympia — could they be the missing link between an inside informer and ELF? We’ll probably never know.

In the end, only Briana Waters stood trial; she was convicted and is scheduled to be sentenced soon. She and her cohorts wrought great destruction on the lives of so many, their extremism incurring great human and financial costs. I left the survivor’s event grateful for the generosity of the FBI agents and prosecutors in trying to help us lay the ghosts of ELF to rest. Yet, while many questions were answered, larger ones remain, questions about the nature of zealotry, the effectiveness of both crime and punishment. I’ll never understand how a group so meticulous in their planning could be so misguided in their choice of target. Toby Bradshaw’s work was unscathed by the fire, for his main office was up on campus, and he wasn’t working on what they suspected anyway. It was the rest of us who were put out of business, and saving the snakes doesn’t begin to balance out ELF’s karma for a crime that remains, despite all the explanations, inexplicable.

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