Lansing — The Ohio woman who pleaded guilty to setting Agriculture Hall on fire in 1999 was sentenced to almost 22 years in prison Thursday.
Marie Mason, 47, of Cincinnati, said she committed the arson with her then-husband Frank Ambrose on New Year’s Eve, 1999. She said the two set the offices of the Agriculture Biotechnology Support Project on fire to protest federally funded research on genetic modification of potatoes.
Hagen Frank, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said he found Mason’s sentence — 21 years and 10 months in prison and more than $4 million in restitution — appropriate though federal prosecutors had asked for a sentence of only 20 years.
Marie Mason — Pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit arson, aggravated arson and arson for the Agriculture Hall fire on New Year’s Eve 1999. Sentenced to 21 years and 10 months in prison and more than $4 million restitution.
Frank Ambrose — Pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit the MSU arson. Sentenced to nine years in prison and more than $4 million restitution.
Stephanie Fultz — Pleaded guilty to one count of misprision of a felony, which amounts to knowing about and failing to report the MSU arson. Sentenced to two years of probation and 100 hours of community service.
Aren Burthwick — Pleaded guilty to one count of misprision of a felony. Sentenced to 14 months of prison, one year supervised release and a $2,000 fine.
Source: Court Documents
“Eco-extremist groups may view (Mason’s) sentence as the government prosecuting an activist,” Frank said. “But we were prosecuting an arsonist.”
Mason and Ambrose were members of the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, when they committed the arson. ELF is a radical environmental group that uses violence as a means of protest.
Ambrose was sentenced to nine years in federal prison in October. He had agreed in 2007 to be an informant to the FBI while it built the case against Mason, which is why he received a significantly reduced sentence. Frank said Mason was offered a similar deal to cooperate with investigators, and she repeatedly refused.
John Minock, who represented Mason, said the sentence is unheard of for an arson that was not set with the intent to commit murder. He said the defense plans to appeal the decision.
“Asking for a 20-year sentence for someone like Marie Mason is like using a cannon to shoot a mouse,” Minock said.
Andrew Arena, the special agent in charge of the FBI Detroit division, said ELF and its sister group, the Animal Liberation Front, or ALF, are simply domestic terrorist groups.
“They are nothing more than spoiled children who stamp their feet and sit in the corner to get their way,” Arena said. “They are increasingly turning to violence.”
He thanked MSU President Lou Ann K. Simon and MSU police Chief Jim Dunlap for their roles in the investigation, saying the FBI viewed it as a personal attack on MSU.
Frank pointed to Mason’s willingness to flaunt her exploits on the Internet as one of the reasons her sentence was higher than the requested 20 years. Though Mason expressed regret in court Thursday, she had previously recounted stories of the arson on her MySpace account, even after her arrest, Frank said.
Minock said the sentence was comparable to the average murder sentence, which is about 22.6 years. Chief U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney, who sentenced Mason, applied a terrorism enhancement to the sentence, causing it to escalate in severity. Minock said Maloney’s is a harsh sentencer, and the sentence was above and beyond what he thought was appropriate.
“I always hoped common sense would prevail,” Minock said. “I didn’t suggest a particular sentence, but a sentence of 12 years would have been more than enough.”
Also sentenced on Thursday for their roles in the arson were Stephanie Fultz and Aren Burthwick, both 28 years old and from Detroit. Frank said the two negotiated deals with the Justice Department, agreeing to help in the investigation of Mason. Both pleaded guilty to less serious charges of helping cover up the arson.
Frank said he believed these sentences were fair, based on Fultz and Burthwick’s roles in the arson.
“They were minor, minor players in this,” Frank said. “They were pulled in by Frank Ambrose and Marie Mason … they were basically with the wrong people on the wrong weekend.”
Staff writer Jacob Carpenter contributed to this report.