It’s a story Billy Cottrell’s mother tells proudly when the LA Weekly reporter asks about her son’s childhood: When he was 10, a school questionnaire asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wrote “astro- or nuclear physicist.” Another question asked what frustrated him. He responded, “trying to explain relativity to people.”
It’s the kind of story many students at the U of C are familiar with, an embarrassing parental anecdote meant to prove that a child’s prodigal credentials were established at the cutting of his umbilical cord.
And indeed, when he graduated from the University of Chicago in 2002, a double major in physics and mathematics, Billy was exactly the kind of distinguished alumnus so many entering first-years aspire to become. He was the winner of the $10,000 John Haeseler Lewis Senior Thesis Prize for a precocious essay on string theory and had been accepted for graduate study at the California Institute of Technology. A marathon runner and member of the cross-country team, he was fondly remembered in a Maroon article-—which called him the “team genius”—for being the first runner brave enough to remove his pants for the annual Regenstein streak.
This playful side of Billy found outlet in the harmless pranks he became famous for—like painting Euler’s equation (eiπ + 1 = 0) high on the side of Ryerson Observatory. “He was a completely charming, happy-go-lucky kind of guy,” remembers Peter Freund, professor emeritus in the physics department and Cottrell’s thesis adviser.
Today, five years after his graduation, Cottrell has been the recipient of more media attention than any ambitious physicist might dream of attaining, the subject of a Wikipedia page, and a Chicago Tribune feature and LA Weekly cover story earlier this year.
Wherever Cottrell is discussed, two epithets are sure to appear. The first of these, genius, is not the reason for his sudden fame. It’s the second title, the one best known to his fellow inmates at the California prison where he is held, that has put him in the papers. That title is terrorist.
According to his own testimony, on August 22, 2003, Cottrell drove two friends—now presumed to have fled the country—on a tour of automobile dealerships in East Los Angeles, spray-painting SUVs and Hummers with derisive tags: “I <3 Pollution,” “Fat Lazy Americans,” “Is Your Penis Really That Small?” And on one vehicle: “eiπ + 1 = 0.”
At some point in the night, vandalism turned into arson as someone began hurling Molotov cocktails at Hummers, torching more than 20 vehicles and a warehouse, causing millions in damages. The Earth Liberation Front, an environmental extremist group, claimed responsibility, and the spree was called one of the millennium’s worst cases of eco-terrorism.
Cottrell, never known for violence, testified that he only intended to vandalize, and was surprised when his friends began throwing bombs. But in e-mails sent to the Los Angeles Times shortly after the incident and recorded in an FBI affidavit, Cottrell was not so conciliatory. The e-mails mocked the Bureau for arresting an innocent man in Cottrell’s place. “He doesn’t even look like the image on the surveillance cameras,” Cottrell wrote, under a pseudonym. “I am much better looking, and my hair and beard are much shorter.”
In another e-mail to the Times, Cottrell took a martial tone. “The SUV is a symbol of American wastefulness which to a large extent is why terrorists might want to target us…. While innocent life will never be harmed in any action we undertake, we will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice, and provide needed protection for our planet that decades of legal battles, pleading, protest and economic sabotage have failed so drastically to achieve.”
Cottrell was fingered after the e-mails’ Internet Protocol origin was traced to a computer at the Cal Tech library. The FBI placed a tracking device on Cottrell’s car, and an arrest followed. Cottrell was found guilty of conspiracy and arson, and is currently serving an eight-year sentence—increased from five because of his collaboration with a terrorist group—which he is appealing.
Friends and family seem to agree that whatever Cottrell’s motivation, it was probably not environmental conviction. He was known as a fan of conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly, and Freund, his thesis adviser, does not remember Cottrell as being political at all. “It’s possible that his friends simply misled him,” Freund said in a phone interview.
Cottrell has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a fact on which his appeal is built, and appears to have always been susceptible to peer pressure. In a 2001 article in The New York Times on troubled students, Cottrell described how he turned to pranks as a way of shedding a loser image: “I found that getting in trouble, and rebelling, all of a sudden instead of getting beat up, you’re admired by people.”
Cottrell was expelled from two public high schools and a military academy but was admitted to the University of Chicago on the strength of his application essay.
As reported in the Chicago Tribune, though, Cottrell’s case has recently brightened, becoming something of a cause célèbre for the scientific community, which is arguing that incarceration deprives society of the theoretical advancements only a person of Cottrell’s intellect can make. Earlier this year, Cottrell was transferred to a new prison after a letter from Freund warned that “nightmarish” conditions were turning his former student into a “human wreck.” The letter was co-signed by several of the world’s preeminent physicists, including Stephen Hawking.
And that’s recognition many Chicago students might be willing to do time for.