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Burning Words

Ex-City Paper Freelancer Admits To 2001 Arson

Association Of Alternative Newsweeklies
HOT STORY: This photograph of Lacey Phillabaum was taken at an Association Of Alternative Newsweeklies convention in 2004, three years after she helped burn down a building at the University Of Washington.

By Van Smith | Posted 10/11/2006

Lacey Phillabaum freelanced two stories for City Paper in 2005, a cover feature about motorcycle stunt riding ("Crash Course," Oct. 12) and a news article about reduced federal pollution-reporting requirements ("You Don't Wanna Know," Mobtown Beat, Dec. 7). In May 2001, she took part in setting fire to the University of Washington (UW) Institute of Urban Horticulture in Seattle.

Phillabaum's part in this notorious crime, which destroyed a facility that had to be replaced at a cost of $7.2 million, and two other prior destructive acts, came to light Oct. 4, when Phillabaum, 31, pleaded guilty in a Tacoma, Wash., federal courthouse to arson, conspiracy to commit arson, and use of a destructive device in a violent crime in connection with the incidents. The motive in all three acts was to protest bioengineering.

Phillabaum is the most recent defendant in an ongoing federal investigation into extensive property destruction committed by a group of saboteurs known as Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which took credit for the UW arson about a week after it took place. Due to her assistance to prosecutors, she faces three to five years of imprisonment instead of the 30 years the counts could have brought, and is scheduled for sentencing in January. The investigation has secured indictments against well over a dozen people to date, and only a handful of them have contested the charges. One committed suicide in jail shortly after his arrest. Several are already serving time in federal prison.

Reached by phone two days after her plea, Phillabaum explained that "I can't talk at all until I'm sentenced." Her father, Spokane, Wash., attorney Stephen Phillabaum, was quoted earlier in The Seattle Times, saying that his daughter is "bright, articulate, and passionate about what she believes in," adding that "everybody realizes that Lacey made a mistake years ago and we're proud of her for acknowledging that, and dealing with what she did openly, honestly, and appropriately."

Prior to the UW arson, Lacey Phillabaum and her co-conspirators in 2001 destroyed "what they believed were genetically engineered poplar trees grown by Oregon State University at two locations near Corvallis, Oregon," according to the U.S. Department of Justice press release about Phillabaum's guilty plea. The release also states that in 2000 she and others "destroyed five acres of canola plants being grown by Monsanto in Dusty, Washington."

The UW arson became infamous in its aftermath, according to Alan Pittman, the news editor at Eugene Weekly, which has covered the eco-saboteur phenomenon in depth. Some of ELF's targets have been seen as morally legitimate in some circles, such as freeing wild horses that were destined for slaughter, instead of promised livestock sales, and destroying the corrals where the federal government kept them. But the UW fire has been widely received within the movement as ironically and tragically misdirected.

In addition to bioengineering research intended to produce fast-growing trees that would supplant the use of virgin forests by the timber industry, the damaged UW building housed academic pursuits such as wetlands restoration, conserving rare and endangered species, chronicling the ecological rebound on Mount St. Helens after its 1980 eruption, teaching backyard gardening, and basic genetic research into the mechanisms of species development, according to a 2001 article in the journal Science. Many rare and out-of-print books were destroyed, the article explained, as well as a tissue culture collection of about one-quarter of the world's known population of an endangered plant, the showy stickseed.

Among the many other ELF-connected eco-sabotage incidents were the 1998 arson at Vail ski resort in Colorado, which wrought about $12 million in insured damages. The Vail incident failed in its goal of stopping the resort's expansion into mountain lynx habitat. According to an August Rolling Stone article, "The Rise and Fall of the Eco-Radical Underground," ELF and a related group called the Animal Liberation Front were responsible for at least 15 arsons between 1996 and 2001 causing approximately $45 million in damages across the West, targeting "meatpacking plants, forest ranger stations, animal research facilities, university bioengineering labs, three logging company headquarters and two wild-horse corrals-anything they could think of to defend the natural environment."

Phillabaum, who in the late 1990s was an editor at Earth First! Journal, a radical environmental magazine published in Arizona, appears to have entered a career in alternative-weekly journalism after the UW arson. After a stint editing In Good Tilth, an organic farming newsletter, she worked as a staff writer for Source Weekly in Bend, Ore., and C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., a job that C-Ville Weekly editor Cathryn Harding says Phillabaum left about a year and a half ago, after three months on the job.

Harding says she's "surprised" about Phillabaum's arson plea and considers the former staffer's "secret past" a "breach of trust." Phillabaum covered development and government news at the paper, Harding adds, and she now wonders whether Phillabaum had "a dual agenda" as a reporter and an activist. "It's always problematic when journalists go from covering the news to becoming the news," Harding concludes.

After leaving C-Ville Weekly, Phillabaum freelanced one story in September 2005 for Washington City Paper about dirt-bike thefts. "I was completely surprised" by the news of Phillabaum's guilty plea, says Mike Debonis, senior editor at Washington City Paper. "I knew she was very interested in environmental stories from the clips she had," he continues. "But I didn't have any inkling she had any radical tendencies." Also last fall, Phillabaum did research on access to government information for two nonprofit media advocacy groups, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government.

Phillabaum's work for City Paper occurred after editor Lee Gardner met her at a 2004 Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference, and she later pitched stories. CP managing editor Erin Sullivan says that Phillabaum described her past as an activist, but only vaguely, as someone who in college protested the timber industry.

Now that Phillabaum is a convicted eco-arsonist, some of what she was quoted as saying during her activist days as editor of Earth First! Journal appears sage in retrospect. "As long as species can go extinct without anyone speaking up," she told The Christian Science Monitor in 1998, "as long as Earth Firsters can be killed in the woods [as one had been recently, by a falling tree while protesting old-growth redwood logging], there are going to be individuals so enraged by that, they're going to take action in their own hands." Phillabaum ended up doing just that, and is preparing to pay for it with a stint in federal prison.

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