The geekiest arsonist

Software engineer Jennifer Kolar is to be sentenced this week in federal court for her role in Earth Liberation Front arsons, including one at the University of Washington. Her time in prison will be reduced because she turned state's witness, but that doesn't mitigate the fact she is now regarded as a snitch by peers and could be labeled a terrorist by the government.
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Jennifer Kolar.

Software engineer Jennifer Kolar is to be sentenced this week in federal court for her role in Earth Liberation Front arsons, including one at the University of Washington. Her time in prison will be reduced because she turned state's witness, but that doesn't mitigate the fact she is now regarded as a snitch by peers and could be labeled a terrorist by the government.

"Don't hang up," FBI Special Agent Jane Quimby told Jennifer Kolar on Dec. 10, 2006. "There were arrests and there is a target letter for you." She gave Kolar the name and number of Andrew Friedman, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the Washington state indictments of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). "It's in your best interests to talk with him," Quimby warned.

In December 2006, Kolar was in New York for meetings concerning her then-employer, AOL. A friend called her in the middle of the night, telling her about the arrests of Stan Meyerhoff, William Rogers, Chelsea Gerlach, Kevin Tubbs, and Daniel McGowan in what later became known as "Operation Backfire," an FBI roundup of ELFers involved in arson and other vandalism of facilities deemed to be symbols of corporate or government damage to the environment. The friend also warned her that her former boyfriend, Joe Dibee, had been interviewed by the FBI in Seattle and that the FBI seemed to know a lot. The critical part of the message was that Kolar's name came up during the interview. It was after digesting that news that Kolar's cell phone rang with Agent Quimby on the line.

Kolar was well-versed in the security practiced by underground movements such as the ELF. After she hung up with Quimby, she turned off her cell phone, removed the battery, and used a landline phone in the hotel restaurant to call a travel agency and friends in Seattle. She decided to return home, contacted an attorney, and began talking with the FBI and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark Bartlett and Andrew Friedman. Those debriefings led to the indictment of Briana Waters. Kolar was a key witness in Waters' recent conviction in the 2001 arson of the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington in Seattle.

On Friday, July 18, in the same Tacoma courtroom where Waters listened to Jennifer Kolar testify against her, Kolar will be sentenced for her role in that arson and others. Her plea agreement calls for a sentence of five to seven years in prison plus more than $6 million in restitution to the University of Washington and Cavel West Slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore. To remain consistent with Waters' sentencing recommendation, the prosecution will also seek court determination that the three arsons Kolar participated in were acts of terrorism. While the so-called terrorist enhancement will not increase her sentence beyond the plea bargained agreement, it will have implications for Kolar. This look at her life is based on court testimony and documents from the case.

While many of the Pacific Northwest ELFers were highly educated, Jennifer Kolar's resume in particular stands out. She grew up in Spokane and attended the University of Colorado in Boulder. She became involved in animal-rights issues through her father but became active in college and while volunteering at Rocky Mountain Animal Defense. Kolar participated in chat rooms, attended conferences, and eventually become romantically involved with Jonathan Paul, known to Washingtonians as one of the spokespeople for anti-Makah-whaling activists. Meanwhile, Kolar also obtained a degree in applied mathematics and a master's in astrophysics, and completed coursework for a doctorate. Kolar is a geek.

But it was her romantic involvement with the swashbuckling and charismatic Paul that led her to ELF. Paul is one of four Oregon ELF defendants who assert they did not cooperate with the government, although they received significantly reduced sentences. He is serving 51 months. When Kolar met Paul, he was already a folk hero for refusing to testify to a grand jury in 1992 convened in Spokane to investigate property damage to animal labs at Washington State University. Paul became an instant martyr in the animal-rights movement for spending six months in jail for contempt of court. He then went on to acclaim in the movement in which Kolar eventually met him. Kolar and Paul corresponded via e-mail, and after a brief time, Paul invited her to visit him in Southern Oregon.

Kolar's visit led to her participation in the Cavel West Slaughterhouse arson in 1997. Among the security-conscious ELFers, Paul came under a lot of suspicion for bringing along a total stranger without any notice. But the arson provided Kolar a taste of "direct action," and within months of returning to Boulder, she and another student planned an arson at a gun club in Wray, Colo., that apparently used prairie dogs for target practice. None of the timed incendiary devices worked, however, and according to Kolar, she did not participate in any other direct action until she moved to the Pacific Northwest to begin her career in the software industry. By then, her relationship with Paul was over.

When Kolar moved to Seattle, she became involved in the protests outside of Neah Bay relating to the Makah Tribe's desire to hunt gray whales. Kolar's work on the whaling issue led her back to Jonathan Paul, who was the public face along with Josh Harper and Jake Conroy of an organization called Sea Defense Alliance, which owned a Zodiac and another boat named Bulletproof that monitored, harassed, and sometimes jeopardized the safety of the Makah whalers. Kolar was there with her then-boyfriend, Joe Dibee.

Dibee was also a geek, working at Microsoft and spending his money on private planes, diving equipment, and causes. While Paul was the charismatic charmer of the Sea Defense Alliance, Dibee did all the behind-the-scenes work. Dibee and Paul eventually clashed over ownership rights to the boats. During the prosecution of the Oregon ELF cases, evidence was presented that Dibee once drove to Southern Oregon with the intent of killing Paul. Dibee is a fugitive and is believed to have left the country shortly after the 2006 arrests.

After the whaling protests, Kolar continued making a nice living in the Seattle dot-com boom, working for a company called SchemaLogic, according to Kolar's online profiles. She broke up with Dibee after being introducted to William Rogers, who included her in so-called "Book Club" meetings, or the gatherings of the ELF cell.

While the FBI portrays Rogers as the "leader" of an ELF cell that ranged from Northern California to Colorado to Seattle, ELF doctrine holds that there is no leader of the groups. Rather, anyone who does the recon and research of a target can organize a direct action. In fact, of the 20 known actions attributed to the "group," Rogers only participated in seven. From the court documents and testimony in the Waters trial, however, it is clear that Rogers was a quietly effective collaborator-in-chief.

At the Book Club meetings, Kolar was instrumental in teaching the other ELFers how to use anonymizers and Internet proxy servers, as well as encryption technologies to disguise their e-mails, including codes based on novels by Leslie Marmon Silko. Kolar devised elegantly simple methods for ELFers to leave e-mails as drafts of a shared online e-mail account which were to be checked once a week. That avoided having digital transactions over the Internet which could be intercepted by the FBI. In the Book Club, Kolar found her outlet for direct action.

For all the vivid pain and suffering the victims of the Center for Urban Horticulture feel, Kolar remembers few details about the planning, the execution, or the ideology behind the target. In fact, she barely remembered that Briana Waters acted as the lookout for the four other ELFers the morning of May 21, 2001. By the time Kolar committed the UW arson, she was in a stable relationship with another computer geek who was unaware of her lawless activism. Together they owned a sail boat, moored at Shilshole Bay Marina, which they raced through membership in the Corinthian Yacht Club. During Briana Waters' trial, Kolar also testified that she traveled to Hawaii fairly soon after the arson. She also described her interest in "four-wheeling" on National Forest land (though not in protected areas). It is an understatement to say Jennifer Kolar lived a complicated life.

While Kolar's testimony pinpointing Waters was riveting, her description of walking into her office the next morning was mundane. She saw a Seattle Times headline about the Center for Urban Horticulture arson, but based on her testimony it does not appear that there is much introspection to reconcile two seemingly contrary lives. Even after her arrest became public, Kolar continued to race sailboats, was active in the yacht club, and moved up the career ladder in the dot-com world.

For all the compartmentalizing Kolar may be doing, though, the reality of being called a "snitch" has to be scary. Her picture and Lacey Phillabaum's — they were the two lead witnesses for the prosecution of Waters — are spread all over the Internet, with threats including this implied one from Animal Liberation Front activist Peter Young: "to snitch is to take a life. I call anything done to keep an informant out of the courtroom 'self-defense.'" Or statements from an anonymous poster who said: "they are snitches ... they sold out freedom fighters to the state. They should be rubbed out ... that is ... shot dead." It seems odd that such threats come from a community of people professing to care for the Earth. Aside from the obvious intent of frightening anyone from cooperating with the government, the threats must be scary for Kolar and Phillabaum.

After Kolar's sentencing on Friday, she will be designated to a federal woman's prison. But it is when she is released, five to seven years from now, that being labeled a snitch by peers and a terrorist by the government might haunt her. Her future work in the tech world may be hampered if security clearances are required. And as she well knows, it only takes a few moments on the computer to find her face and read the hyperbolic and angry testimony denouncing her choice to accept responsibility and the penalty for her role in the ELF arsons. Kolar is a traitor to her former friends and a terrorist to the federal government.


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