A decade later, hunt continues in UW eco-terror arson

A decade after radical environmentalists torched a University of Washington horticulture building, recently unsealed court documents show federal agents continue their search for those who helped those who set the fire.

In search warrant documentation filed with the U.S. District Court in Seattle, law officers involved in the long-running investigation into the 2001 fire at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture are seeking evidence related to one of three alleged arsonists who’ve so far avoided facing the federal indictment filed against them.

The alleged Earth Liberation Front member — 31-year-old Justin Franchi Solondz — in question has had legal troubles entirely unrelated to the UW fire. Convicted on drug offenses while on the run abroad in 2009, Solondz is currently serving a three-year sentence in a Chinese prison.

Tn a search warrant affidavit unsealed earlier this week, FBI Special Agent Ted Halla said he believes electronics seized from Solondz by authorities in China will show he received assistance from others during his years as a fugitive. Halla noted that evidence may also be recovered related to the activies of the ELF and Animal Liberation Front, two radical environmentalist organizations who’ve taken responsibility for numerous acts of sabotage and arson around the United States.

“Since 1996, ELF and ALF have claimed responsibility for numerous arsons, and other crimes, that ostensibly were committed to further the causes of the environment and animal rights,” Halla told the court. “Damages from the arsons total tens of millions of dollars.”

Included in that crime spree was the May 21, 2001, arson at the UW Center for Urban Horticulture. The fire destroyed the building, causing more than $6 million in damage.

The arsonists incorrectly believed the center to be working in genetic engineering. In fact, the professor targeted by ELF was studying fast-growing poplar trees planted as an alternative means of producing wood fiber; the center itself supports teaching and research of biology in the urban areas.

Three years later, an FBI informant told investigators that a joint ELF-ALF cell referred to as “The Family.” In the months that followed, the informant recorded several conversations with members of “The Family” during which they discussed the arsons.

An indictment followed in 2005, which was later expanded to include 13 individuals suspected in nearly 11 arsons. Some ELF supporters named the action as the “Green Scare,” an apparent reference to the anti-communist Red Scare; authorities called it Operation Backfire.

Solondz was indicted along with his then-girlfriend Briana Waters, an Evergreen State College graduate who procured a rental car used in the UW arson. Waters was living in the Bay Area and working as a violin teacher when the indictment was handed down.

Of those charged in the UW arson, Waters received the most severe sentence — six years in federal prison. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals voided Waters’ convictions and remanded to U.S. District court for retrial, scheduled to begin in June.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Wallace Tashima faulted the government for playing up anarchist literature introduced at trial that Waters apparently gave another defendant around the time of the arsons.

“It endorsed attacks on symbols of American culture — symbols that many jurors likely held dear — such as the Capitol Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Disneyland,” Tashima wrote in the Sept. 15 opinion. “Rather than contributing to any issue in the case, it played to the jury’s emotions, encouraging it to convict because it believed Waters held loathsome views that threatened the jurors’ way of life.”

Tashima also faulted the trial court judge on a number of issues, including the allowance of the anarchist literature.

“While the evidence against Waters may have been sufficient to sustain her conviction, our review of the record does not leave us convinced that her conviction was fairly obtained,” Tashima wrote.

With her conviction vacated, Waters was released on Oct. 14, according to Bureau of Prisons records.

Waters was among six defendants indicted in the UW arson. Two saw their charges dismissed; Solondz and two others remain on the FBI Most Wanted list.

According to the FBI, authorities believe one, Josephine Sunshine Overaker, may have fled to Canada. Another, Joseph Mahmoud Dibee, is suspected to have moved to Syria.

Solondz, who is also suspected in an arson at the Bureau of Land Management coral in Susanville, Calif., traveling in Europe in December 2005 when the indictment came down. Though he was scheduled to return the following year, he instead traveled though Russia and Mongolia before entering China in March 2006.

There, he emptied his bank accounts and stopped communicating with friends and family in the United States, at least by means accessible to law enforcement, according to the search warrant affidavit.

Writing the court, Halla said Solondz mother was stopped at the Blaine border crossing in February 2008 while attempting to return to the United States. A search of her car uncovered several e-mails from Solondz — who was then, as now, a fugitive — along with names and numbers of attorneys representing other ELF-affiliated defendants.

One handwritten note appeared to be a letter she had penned to her son in which she encouraged him to contact an attorney and return to face the indictment, the FBI agent told the court. Another e-mail appeared to describe how she would be able to deliver money to Solondz without the funds being traced.

The following year, Chinese authorities contacted an FBI legal attaché to pass word that Solondz had been arrested in Yunnan Province during a drug sting.

Solondz offered a fake id, then refused to give his real name. Halla said he reviewed a photo provided by the Chinese Public Safety Bureau and immediately recognized Solondz.

Solondz was subsequently convicted of manufacturing and possessing drugs, according to the search warrant. Authorities there also seized several computer devices.

Following a request from the FBI, Chinese authorities provided American law enforcement with copies of three hard drives, a flash drive and other items seized during Solondz’s arrest.

Writing the court, Halla said he believes data contained on those devices will show that others had been helping Solondz during his years on the run. The special agent also asserted evidence found on the hard drives will also shed light on Solondz’ involvement in the arsons.

Search warrant returns show agents copied the devices last month. No details were offered as to what the search uncovered.

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