A Caltech graduate student being tried on charges of firebombing sport utility vehicles at a San Gabriel Valley dealership cannot claim as a defense that he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, a federal judge ruled Friday.
In opening remarks to jurors earlier this week, William Jensen Cottrell’s lawyer contended that his client was duped into taking part in the attacks because of the disorder, which is characterized by impaired social awareness and functioning.
But U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner set back the defense plans Friday, saying that how Cottrell “processed” information was not relevant to the charges against him.
The 24-year-old physics student, who is charged with conspiracy, arson and using a destructive device, faces at least 35 years in prison if he is convicted on all counts.
Michael Mayock, the lead defense lawyer, contends that Cottrell did nothing more than spray-paint environmental protest slogans on SUVs at four dealerships during the early morning hours of Aug. 22, 2003.
Mayock said the arsons were carried out by two acquaintances despite Cottrell’s objections. Federal authorities have identified the other two suspects as Tyler Johnson and Michie Oe. Both are listed as unindicted co-conspirators and are believed by federal authorities to have fled the country.
Challenging the defense version of events, prosecutors on Friday called two Caltech graduate students to whom Cottrell allegedly confided following the arson attacks.
Claire Jacobs, a graduate student in chemistry and former classmate of Cottrell’s at the University of Chicago, testified that he telephoned her on the morning after the arsons. He asked if she had spent the previous night alone, Jacobs testified.
When she explained that she was with her boyfriend all night, Cottrell responded: “ ‘That’s too bad because I need an alibi,’ ” Jacobs told the jury.
Later, at the Caltech library, she said, Cottrell logged on to a computer website and showed her video footage taken at Clippinger Motors in West Covina, where eight SUVs and a parts building were burned.
Under cross-examination, she said Cottrell never specified what role he played in the attacks, whether he set any of the fires, or whether his actions were confined to spray-painting slogans.
Jacobs, testifying under a limited grant of immunity, admitted having advised Cottrell to get rid of various items that might link him to the crime, including some area maps, his clothing, aviation sunglasses and walkie-talkies.
She said Cottrell became visibly upset some weeks later when authorities mistakenly arrested Josh Connole, an environmental activist from Pomona, as a suspect. In an attempt to help exonerate Connole, Jacobs said, Cottrell sent a series of anonymous e-mails to the Los Angeles Times, chiding the FBI for arresting the wrong man and dropping tidbits of information that could have been known only to the real perpetrators.
Investigators traced some of e-mails to computers at Caltech’s library and eventually to Cottrell. They also began questioning his friends and acquaintances, including Jacobs.
Jacobs said she told Cottrell that she had been questioned and would probably be called to testify before a grand jury.
“ ‘I have an idea that can get you out of that situation,’ ” she recalled him saying: “ ‘Let’s get married, and you won’t have to testify.’ ” Jacobs said she rejected the idea.
Also testifying Friday was Daniel Feldman, a Caltech graduate student in environmental science, who described himself as a “good friend” of Cottrell. Feldman said that while they were hiking in Ventura County, Cottrell confided that he was involved in the SUV attacks and expressed concern that he might have been caught by a video surveillance camera while filling bottles with gasoline at a Pasadena service station.