Caltech graduate student William Jensen Cottrell suffers from a form of autism that made him an unwitting dupe in an arson rampage that destroyed or damaged 125 sport utility vehicles in the San Gabriel Valley last year, his defense lawyer told federal court jurors Tuesday.
In stark contrast, the prosecution portrayed the boyish-looking, 24-year-old physics student as not just a willing participant, but as the boastful leader of a gang of three that carried out the attacks in the name of a radical environmental group.
Those were the battle lines drawn as both sides delivered opening statements in Cottrell’s trial on charges of conspiracy, arson and using a destructive device. If convicted, he would face at least 35 years in prison.
In her remarks to the jury, Assistant U.S. Atty. Beverly Reid O’Connell outlined a chronology of events that, she said, began in the early-morning hours of Aug. 22, 2003, when Cottrell and two friends drove to a service station in Pasadena and filled plastic bottles with gasoline for use as Molotov cocktails.
She said the attackers first struck a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Arcadia where they spray-painted phrases such as “SUV = Terrorism” and “ELF,” allegedly a reference to the militant Earth Liberation Front, on the sides of SUVs.
Over the next few hours, she said, they hit dealerships in Monrovia, Duarte and West Covina, vandalizing scores of sport utility vehicles and setting fire to at least eight SUVs and a small building at one business.
According to O’Connell, Cottrell bragged about his exploits later to friends at Caltech, who will testify for the prosecution.
Cottrell was arrested after investigators linked him to a series of e-mails he admitted sending under a pseudonym to the Los Angeles Times, claiming responsibility for the attacks.
Michael Mayock, Cottrell’s lead defense attorney, disputed the prosecution’s account and said his client had been “duped” by his two friends -- Tyler Johnson and Michie Oe -- into thinking they would do nothing more than spray-paint slogans on the cars. Johnson and Oe are listed as fugitives, though no charges have been brought against them.
Though Cottrell is described by colleagues as brilliant, Mayock said he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that makes it difficult to read people’s intentions.
Despite prosecution objections, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner agreed to allow the defense to present testimony from a University of North Carolina psychologist that Cottrell has the illness.