Alumnus found guilty in SUV sabotage

By Daniel Gilbert

A recent University alumnus and doctoral candidate in physics at Caltech was convicted last Friday of participation in a series of fire bombings of sport utility vehicles that took place last year in California’s San Gabriel Valley.

William Jensen Cottrell, A.B. ’02, was found guilty by a federal court jury of seven counts of arson and one count of conspiracy. Following Friday’s conviction, Cottrell faces at least five years in prison for a spree vandalism targeting SUVs that included the use of Molotov cocktails.

Cottrell was acquitted of the charge of using a destructive device in a crime of violence, which carried a mandatory sentence of 30 years.

Investigators are still looking for the two other suspects who executed the destructive acts, which took place on August 22, 2003. They are believed to have fled the country. The Earth Liberation Front—a group advocating militant environmentalism—claimed responsibility for the destruction of some 125 vehicles and a building, at an estimated cost of $5 million in property damage. No evidence linking Cottrell and the other two suspects to the ELF was presented in the recent hearings.

Cottrell’s defense attorneys argued that he suffers from a form of autism known as Asperger’s disease, which makes it difficult to recognize the intentions of others. Their case was that Cottrell was duped into the fire-bombings—and that he wanted no part of them. The judge in the case ruled a psychologist’s testimony irrelevant, and barred the defense from presenting it in the case. The defense attorneys said they will appeal for a new trial.

Cottrell admitted his presence in the string of bombings, though he claimed to have been surprised and upset by the violence. Prosecutors used anonymous e-mails traced to Cottrell that boasted of the fire bombings to prove his guilt.

Here at the University, Cottrell was known as much for his brilliance as for his eccentricities, and pieces of Cottrell’s testimony were true to his undergraduate form. Cottrell acknowledged during the trial that he offered to marry a friend whom he had told about the vandalism so that she would not have to testify against him. The student did in fact present testimony at the trial. Cottrell also admitted to leaving a signature of sorts at a Mitsubishi lot in which he scrawled a mathematical formula on SUVs known as Euler’s Theorem.

Cottrell’s friends at the University have been avidly following progress on his case since his arrest last March. Joe Tonna, a fourth-year in the College and teammate of Cottrell’s during the 2001 Cross-Country season, said he thought that Cottrell probably took the whole thing more lightly than those who judged him.

“In general, Billy was good at doing those things that existentially or principally should be done. Sadly, many of these things are at least legally questionable,” Tonna said, adding that Cottrell staged three such acts, albeit without violence, during the time Tonna knew him. “In retrospect, I regret I was only involved in two of them.”

A member of Cottrell’s graduating class, Jerome Tharaud, now a first-year doctoral student in English at the University, said he was relieved to learn of the trial’s outcome. “We were all afraid that the sentence would end up disproportionately punishing Billy, due to the current hysteria surrounding terrorist acts,” said Tharaud, who was originally surprised by Cottrell’s arrest. “My understanding was that the acts were environmentally related, and as I knew Billy, it didn’t seem to fit with his personality.”

Cottrell will face sentencing in March.