Sentencing Friday for firebomb maker in 2001 UW arson

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are recommending Justin Solondz, 32, be sentenced to seven years in a federal penitentiary and pay more than $6 million in restitution in connection with the firebombing of the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture.

By Mike Carter
Seattle Times staff reporter
March 14, 2012

In the seven years since he was indicted in the 2001 firebombing of the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture, Justin Solondz has wandered the world as a fugitive, spent three years in a Chinese prison and long-since abandoned ties to the radical environmental community, according to documents filed in advance of his sentencing Friday.

Prosecutors and the defense are both recommending Solondz, 32, be sentenced to seven years in a federal penitentiary and pay more than $6 million in restitution. When first indicted, Solondz faced up to life in prison.

Solondz’s appearance before U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton in Tacoma will mark a milestone in the federal government’s dozen-year quest to dismantle the radical environmental group known as “The Family,” responsible for more than $40 million in damage through vandalism and arson in the name of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and its loose affiliate, the Animal Liberation Front.

Solondz was the last of the UW arsonists arrested — after he was expelled from China last year — and the last to accept a plea deal from federal prosecutors.

He has admitted he built a firebomb from digital timers and fuel, which was planted in the office of UW horticultural researcher Toby Bradshaw in May 2001.

While members of the group had intended only to destroy Bradshaw’s work — they wrongly believed he was genetically altering poplar trees — the fire roared out of control and demolished the structure and the work of dozens of other researchers and students, according to the sentencing documents released this week.

Damage was estimated at more than $6 million.

Solondz was just 21 when he came under the influence of older and more radical activists, including the mastermind of the UW attack and Family patriarch, William Rodgers, according to the defense documents.

The arson went unsolved for nearly five years, at which point federal agents investigating another ELF-related crime obtained information about The Family and cracked the UW case. Indictments followed in 2005, along with the arrests of several members of the cell in the U.S.

Solondz was traveling abroad when he learned of the indictments and the fact he had made the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted List, according to the documents. The New Jersey native spent nearly four years hiding in the backpacker haven of Dali, China, according to news accounts.

He was arrested in China for possession of about 45 pounds of marijuana that defense attorney Michael Nance says in sentencing documents Solondz was distilling into hashish for his personal use.

Nance said in court documents that Solondz’s imprisonment included being “chained naked in a glass-enclosed cell” by Chinese authorities. For much of his nearly three years in Chinese custody, he was forced to shell peas all day, and would not be fed unless he met a quota, Nance wrote.

Solondz “has long since abandoned his ties to the activist community,” Nance wrote. “His time since the arson — even his bad experience with the Chinese criminal-justice system — has largely been introspective, peaceful and nonviolent.

“His abhorrence at the destruction of his crime has forever deterred him from doing anything similar,” his attorney wrote.

His memorandum was accompanied by dozens of letters of support from family and friends.

Rodgers was arrested in 2005 in Arizona, where he killed himself in jail. Three others responsible for the UW arson — Lacey Phillabaum, Jennifer Kolar and Briana Waters — were also arrested.

Federal investigators are still looking for two members of The Family, Joseph Dibee and Josephine Overacker, who were allegedly involved in the conspiracy but not involved in the UW arson.

Phillabaum and Kolar took plea deals and testified against Waters, who was Solondz’s girlfriend. A jury rejected Waters’ claim that she was not involved, and convicted her.

She was sentenced to six years in prison; however, her 2008 conviction was overturned because of a judicial error. Waters pleaded guilty and was freed pending her sentencing in June.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Friedman, who has been with the case from its outset, noted that not only were Solondz and The Family mistaken about Bradshaw’s work at the Center for Urban Horticultural, the fire destroyed work and research conducted by others completely removed from their cause.

Victim-impact statements under consideration by the court show the fire’s impact was devastating on many levels.

One faculty member said the fire resulted in the “destruction of her lab research career,” forcing her to change jobs.

Another professor said she lost a year of work and “easily could have failed to get tenure” as a result of the fire.

Friedman pointed out that Solondz, despite his young age, played “a far more significant role in the offense than did anyone but William Rodgers” by constructing the bomb and serving as both a lookout and getaway driver that night.

“At the time of the offense, Solondz had great promise. By all accounts, he is a very bright and inquisitive person,” Friedman wrote. “Although Solondz clearly had the opportunity to be a productive member of society, his own choices to date have been anything but that.”

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or