Activist Gets Nearly 22 Years in Prison for Michigan State University Arson

An activist who committed arson at Michigan State University as a radical protest against crop research was sentenced Thursday to nearly 22 years in prison in a case that was prosecuted as domestic terrorism.

Through fire and destruction, Marie Mason decided to "elevate her grievances beyond the norms of civilized society," U.S. Chief District Judge Paul Maloney said.

"This case is about an abandonment of the marketplace of ideas," he said.

The explosion and fire caused more than $1 million in damage to Michigan State's Agriculture Hall on New Year's Eve 1999. No one was injured.

It was the most serious incident in a series of fires and tree spikings committed by Mason and ex-husband Frank Ambrose from 1999 to 2003. The Cincinnati woman acknowledged the other acts in her plea agreement, and the judge could consider them in setting a sentence.

The investigation was cold until spring 2007 when a man looking for scrap cardboard found gas masks, an M-80 explosive, maps and anti-government writings in a suburban Detroit trash bin.

They belonged to Ambrose, who apparently was trying to shed remnants of his past. The FBI subsequently searched his home, and he became an informant, blowing the whistle on himself and Mason and going undercover to record 178 conversations with other activists.

Federal prosecutors had recommended 20 years in prison for Mason — a punishment that would have been "the most onerous sentence imposed in a case of this sort," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Hagen Frank, referring to crimes by environmental activists in the Pacific Northwest.

Maloney, however, went higher: 21 years and 10 months. He described Mason, 47, as a "high risk" to repeat her crimes and said it's "beyond the pale" for her to list Rod Coronado as a "hero" on a MySpace page.

Coronado was convicted of a 1993 arson aimed at animal research at Michigan State.

Mason, a Detroit-area native, acted on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front, a radical group known as ELF. Speaking near the end of a three-hour hearing, she said she was "wrong" and "misguided."

"I am genuinely sorry to those who were personally frightened by my actions. ... I meant to inspire thought and compassion, not fear," she told the judge.

Defense lawyer John Minock said he would appeal the sentence.

"I'm shocked," he said outside court. "It's grossly out of proportion to other cases."

Mason and Ambrose targeted a campus office that held records on research related to moth-resistant potatoes for poor parts of Africa. Computers, file cabinets and desks were doused with a flammable liquid. Vapors contributed to an explosion, and the fire got out of control.

The explosion burned Mason's hair and prevented her from finishing the message, "No GMO," on a wall, a reference to genetically modified organisms.

"Pure luck" prevented the couple from being killed, Frank said. "Did that deter Ms. Mason? Not one bit. She celebrated it. Her community celebrated it."

Mason and Ambrose admitted destroying homes under construction in the Detroit area and in Indiana, among other acts. Their spree began in 1999 when they traveled to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to set fire to two boats owned by a man who formerly raised minks.

Total damage: $4.1 million.

"A good cause does not justify the worst means. That's not how society works," the prosecutor said.

Mason said she fears the long-term impact of genetically modified crops and wants forests protected to cool the planet. But those views, she added, do not justify violence.

She said she wants to "preserve the natural world from destruction. ... I have failed to bring about the changes I sought."

Ambrose, 34, of Detroit began serving a nine-year prison sentence in December. His punishment was less severe because of his cooperation with the FBI.

In an interview, U.S. Attorney Don Davis tipped his hat to Andy Wishaw, the man who unwittingly jump-started the case by finding unusual things in the trash bin.

"This case, like many other cases, was resolved through citizen interaction with law enforcement," Davis said.