More than eight years after a New Year’s Eve fire at Michigan State University, four people have been indicted related to an arson incident federal authorities said Tuesday was an act of domestic terrorism.
The government said the defendants had ties to the Earth Liberation Front, an underground organization that has been listed among the FBI’s top domestic terrorism targets. Federal authorities announced the unsealing of the indictment Tuesday.
The defendants are Marie Jeanette Mason, 46, of Cincinnati; Frank Brian Ambrose, 33, of Detroit; Aren Bernard Burthwick, 27, of Detroit; and Stephanie Lynne Fultz, 27, of Detroit. They had not been arraigned on the charges as of Tuesday afternoon. Mason, who was being transferred from Ohio to Michigan, remained in custody Tuesday afternoon but authorities said the others had been released on bond.
An attorney for Ambrose declined comment Tuesday. A message was left seeking comment from an attorney for Burthwick. As of Tuesday afternoon, lawyers for Mason and Fultz were not listed on a federal court Web page.
The Dec. 31, 1999 fire caused roughly $1 million in damage to the university’s historic Agriculture Hall. Michigan State officials, along with federal authorities, have been working the case since.
“This was an act of domestic terrorism, plain and simple,” said Charles R. Gross, a U.S. attorney from Grand Rapids. “There’s no two ways about it. The use of violence and the destruction of property to make a political statement cannot be tolerated in a civilized society.”
As part of the same indictment, the four defendants also are charged in the Jan. 1, 2000 arson of commercial logging equipment near Mesick, Mich., in Wexford County.
Shortly after the Michigan State fire was set, the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the incident. ELF said Michigan State was targeted because of genetic engineering research related to crops.
It was the second major Michigan State campus fire in less than a decade. A 1992 arson at a Michigan State mink research facility and campus research offices caused damage estimated at more than $2.5 million overall. A radical environmentalist, Rodney Coronado, served more than four years in federal prison for his role in that incident.
Agriculture Hall was built in 1909 and is considered a landmark on the Michigan State campus in East Lansing. No one was injured in the fire, one of a string of criminal acts nationwide targeting universities, fur farmers, loggers and others.
The 1999 fire at Michigan State damaged offices for a project aimed at enhancing the use and commercialization of crop biotechnology in developing countries.
“It was an attack on the very essence of what a university should be,” said Catherine Ives, whose Michigan State office was damaged during the incident. Ives now works at Boston College.
Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon said incidents such as the arson could have a cost beyond the property damage if they have a chilling effect on research.
“There is an enormous ‘people’ cost to this,” Simon said.
The Earth Liberation Front has been linked to several eco-terrorism cases in the U.S. Last week, for example, a federal jury found a woman guilty of two counts of arson for being the lookout in the 2001 burning of the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture by ELF members.
In the Michigan State case, all four defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit arson. That is punishable by five to 20 years in prison if found guilty. Mason and Ambrose are each charged with arson, the most severe counts of which are punishable by seven to 40 years.
The indictment released Tuesday says Mason and Ambrose entered Agriculture Hall in the early evening of Dec. 31, 1999. It said that while Mason remained in building, Ambrose went and bought gasoline. He then returned and lit a fuse, and fumes from the dumped gasoline began to explode. That interrupted Mason’s spraypainting of “No GMO” _ shorthand for “No Genetically Modified Organisms” _ on a nearby wall.
The explosion burned Mason’s hair and prompted both to quickly leave the largely uninhabited building, according to the indictment. Mason’s hair was later cut to get rid of the damaged hair.
In 2004, a federal judge ordered palm prints and saliva swabs from Mason and Ambrose related to the attempted 2003 sabotage of a pumping station related to an Ice Mountain water-bottling plant in Mecosta County. Mason and Ambrose insisted they had no role in planting the incendiary devices, which were discovered and disarmed. ELF claimed responsibility for the attempt.
The Detroit Free Press reported on its Web page Tuesday night that no one has been charged in the case. The newspaper said Buck Davis, an attorney who formerly represented the pair but does not now, said they did not plant the bomb.
All four face arson charges in connection with the damage to equipment in Wexford County. Those charges are punishable by five to 20 years, according to the Associated Press story.