Caltech Grad Student Held in Arson Fires of 125 SUVs

Times Staff Writers

FBI agents arrested a 23-year-old Caltech graduate student Tuesday and charged him in connection with a brazen string of environmentally motivated attacks last summer that caused more than $3.5 million in damage to four auto dealerships in the San Gabriel Valley.

Authorities said they caught William Jensen Cottrell after tracing a series of e-mail he allegedly sent boasting of the crimes and taunting the FBI.

With more arrests expected, agents took Cottrell into custody at the Pasadena apartment of his girlfriend just before sunrise, serving a warrant that charges the lanky physics student with arson and vandalism. He was ordered held without bail on charges punishable by five to 20 years in prison.


“Obviously we’re not happy,” his father, William Milnes Cottrell, said in a telephone interview from his home in Concord, N.C. “We all feel unhappy. We’re optimistic that the most serious implications are not valid and when it all gets sorted that everything will be OK. The charges are very nonspecific. I think he denies any actual physical activity.”

Cottrell’s arrest came more than six months after authorities arrested and then released a 25-year-old antiwar activist in connection with the arson attacks on SUVs.

It represented a significant advance in a case that had frustrated and angered authorities who say eco-terrorists are waging campaigns that pose increasing dangers for the public. Last August’s early morning fire bombings, carried out in less than three hours, damaged or destroyed about 125 vehicles and one commercial building.

“Those who set fires [like those in San Gabriel] are misguided zealots,” said FBI Assistant Director Richard Garcia, who heads the bureau’s Los Angeles division. “The FBI respects, encourages and protects people who peacefully exercise their right to free speech. However, when extremists resort to arson attacks, which inevitably will lead to a loss of life, they have gone too far, and the FBI will investigate aggressively and relentlessly to bring those who set such fires to justice.”

Others are under investigation, but sources close to the inquiry discounted the notion that an extremist cell might be operating on the campus.

University officials expressed dismay that the crime may have had a connection to one of the nation’s preeminent schools of science.

“We have been aware that the FBI has been pursuing its investigation of these incidents, and the institute has been cooperating fully,” Caltech officials said in a prepared statement. “In doing so, we have been mindful of the rights of our students as well as our legal obligations. There should be no question, however, that these acts of vandalism are neither supported nor endorsed by Caltech and are directly contrary to our mission.”

From the moment the San Gabriel arson fires were extinguished Aug. 22, federal authorities worried that a pattern of terrorism by environmental extremists and animal rights activists was about to enter a new phase in California. Some militants have targeted SUVs as symbols of environmental degradation.

Three weeks after the fires, the FBI arrested Josh Connole, an outspoken environmentalist and antiwar activist who matched the general appearance of one of two men caught on a security videotape at one of the car dealerships. Interviews and court records show that authorities were led to suspect Connole’s involvement when a bloodhound matched the scent of a lighter found at one dealership with a scent found at Connole’s residence.

But four days after his arrest, Connole, who had always maintained his innocence, was released without charges.

On Tuesday, Connole said he hoped that the arrest would put an end to lingering doubts about his innocence. “It shows me obviously they’re pursuing other avenues,” he said. “I can’t see why they can’t exonerate me.... They came after me with no evidence except for the bloodhound evidence, which is pretty shoddy.”

As outlined in a 40-page affidavit by FBI Counterterrorism Agent Richard D. Smith, Cottrell allegedly began a correspondence with the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 15 in which he took the FBI to task for Connole’s arrest.

“Hello, the police have the wrong man here -- I was amongst those responsible for the SUV attacks,” read the first e-mail sent to The Times.

In investigating the authenticity of the e-mail, the newspaper was told by the FBI that it included details of the crime that could have been known only to someone involved in the attacks. The Times, in researching the route of the e-mail, learned it might have been sent from a computer at Caltech.

Three days later, computer specialists at the university confirmed that the e-mail sent to The Times -- the first of several received by the newspaper -- had an Internet address assigned to a computer at Caltech’s library. And in examining the computer, the university quickly determined it had been used to send the e-mail.

Caltech passed that information to federal authorities, and it proved to be an enormous break for the FBI.

By October, days after Connole was released, FBI agents were zeroing in on Cottrell.

His car, a red Toyota similar in color and size to one photographed by the security camera at one of the car dealerships, was seen outside his girlfriend’s apartment -- thanks to a tracking device that had been placed inside the car, according to the affidavit.

In addition, authorities say, they believe that Cottrell is one of two “thin looking” men captured on a security camera at the dealership. Cottrell, at 6-feet and 155 pounds, is 5 inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than Connole, according to authorities, though both are thin and have brown hair.

Six Caltech computers in two libraries had been used to send e-mail to The Times, investigators learned. Cottrell’s personal library access card was used to enter the libraries within eight minutes of when the messages were sent to the newspaper, records showed.

Records also showed that on 11 occasions, someone using Cottrell’s student account was logged on to a Caltech computer about the same time it was used to access the e-mail account that appeared on the messages to The Times, authorities said.

A security camera videotaped a person resembling Cottrell entering the library Sept. 17, a few minutes before someone accessed the account used to send e-mail to The Times, according to the affidavit.

On Jan. 23, according to the affidavit, FBI agents interviewed Cottrell at the Pasadena police station, and he denied involvement in the attacks, the e-mail to the newspaper or any environmental groups.

But before leaving the station, the affidavit says, Cottrell asked Smith, “What happens next? Does it go to trial?”

Smith stated he told Cottrell that he was not being arrested at the time but that authorities were offering him an opportunity to cooperate. Smith also said in his affidavit that he gave Cottrell a hypothetical example of how authorities would offer assistance in a plea bargain if, for example, Cottrell had been charged with a crime such as “stealing 20 cars.”

“In my case, it was only 10,” Cottrell responded, according to the affidavit. The number, the FBI agent said, was viewed as significant because there were 10 incendiary devices used during last August’s attacks.

The day agents interviewed Cottrell, they also interviewed Adeline Shu Ping Seah, his girlfriend, who is also a Caltech graduate student. She allegedly told FBI agents that when discussing the arson fires, Cottrell told her, “I did it” -- a comment that she always had believed to be a joke.

On Tuesday morning, Cottrell was at his girlfriend’s apartment, a loft above a residential garage in Pasadena, when seven FBI agents, two West Covina detectives and an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived with an arrest warrant.

After a brief hearing Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Turchin ordered Cottrell held without bail as a potential flight risk and danger to the community. But Turchin said she would be willing to reconsider her decision after she heard from Cottrell’s father, who was expected in Los Angeles today.

Cottrell’s lawyer, Stephen J. Alexander, said he intended to seek a review of the bail denial this week.

In requesting Cottrell’s detention, Assistant U.S. Atty. Beverly Reid O’Connell told Turchin that Cottrell might be tempted to flee because if he is convicted, he will face up to 20 years in prison. She also said that a friend of Cottrell, Danny Feldman, had quoted the defendant as saying: “If the cops ever pull me over, I’m going to run.”

But Alexander countered that Cottrell had known about the investigation since January when he was interviewed by FBI agents and that he had made no attempt to flee. “He’s cooperated with every request of the prosecutor’s office,” the defense lawyer said.

Cottrell appeared animated throughout the proceeding, occasionally whispering into the ear of his defense lawyer. At one point, it appeared that he was about to address the judge directly on some matter. But Turchin cut him off before he could speak, reminding him that anything he said could be used against him.

In the end, Turchin sided with the prosecution, asserting that Cottrell had “a powerful motive to flee.” She also found that he was a potential danger to the community, noting that “the very nature of these offenses put human life at risk.”

Outside the apartment where Cottrell was arrested, the building’s owner, Dana Spaulding, 44, said that she heard authorities knock on the door but that the arrest occurred without incident. “It sounds cliche but he was quiet,” she said. “It is very disconcerting. I was very surprised.... I never talked politics with him. They kept to themselves a lot.”

One of Cottrell’s four roommates, Rob Moncure, also said he did not know much about Cottrell’s politics. “I know very little. It is not something that comes up all the time,” said Moncure, a 24-year-old Caltech grad student in chemistry who moved into the apartment 10 months ago.

A former cross-country runner at the University of Chicago, Cottrell was known by his roommate and others as someone who frequently went jogging.

“He’s a runner. He always has been,” Moncure said. “He does enjoy the outdoors, you know, rock climbing.”

At Caltech, Cottrell shares a third-floor office at the Lauritsen Laboratory with five other grad students.

On his desk Tuesday morning were piles of homework assignments, empty foam food containers, a plastic cup and two boxes of candy. Also on the desk was a little yellow legal pad with mathematical equations. On the bookshelf were several books on mathematics as well as a handbook on criminal law.

Times staff writers David Rosenzweig, Andrew Blankstein and Kevin Pang contributed to this report.