Student Denies Torching SUVs

Times Staff Writer

A Caltech graduate student testified Wednesday that he was surprised when his friend began throwing Molotov cocktails while they were supposed to be painting environmental protest slogans on sport utility vehicles in the San Gabriel Valley.

William Jensen Cottrell, a 24-year-old doctoral candidate in physics, denied planning or participating in the firebombing of eight SUVs at a West Covina auto dealership and another parked on a residential street in Monrovia last year.

“I plead guilty to spray painting but not to arson,” Cottrell testified in his federal court trial.


Cottrell, who faces a minimum 35-year prison term if convicted, told jurors that the arson was committed by Tyler Johnson, a Caltech graduate identified by authorities as an unindicted conspirator in the case and a fugitive.

Cottrell testified that he and Johnson had planned to plaster cars with stickers reading, “My SUV Supports Terrorism.”

Johnson had advanced him $200 to order the stickers, but they failed to arrive in time for the foray, set for the morning of Aug. 22, 2003.

Cottrell said he was awakened about 1 a.m. that day at his apartment by Johnson and Johnson’s girlfriend, Michie Oe, also an unindicted conspirator in the case and a fugitive.

“Tyler was kind of mad because the bumper stickers didn’t arrive,” Cottrell recalled. “He said I owed him $200 and that if I went spray painting with him, the debt would be cleared.”

Reluctantly, Cottrell said, he agreed to go along because he did not have the money.

Cottrell said Johnson and Oe loaded two large paper bags into the trunk of his car. The bags apparently contained the Molotov cocktails, but Cottrell said he only saw cans of spray paint heaped at the top.

They struck first at a Mercedes-Benz dealership lot in Arcadia, painting messages on SUVS, including “Killer,” “Terrorist” and “ELF,” the initials of the militant Earth Liberation Front, Cottrell said.

Oe then drove them to Monrovia, stopping on a residential street when they noticed a number of sport utility vehicles. As Cottrell was tagging one SUV, he said, he heard glass shattering and watched as Johnson tossed a Molotov cocktail into a vehicle.

“I was kind of shocked and upset when he did this,” Cottrell testified. “As we were leaving, we had a debate about it. I told him it was a bad idea. He basically agreed with me and said it wouldn’t happen again.”

At that point, Cottrell said, he wanted to call it a night but Johnson insisted on going on, saying: “You still owe me $200.”

Driving to Duarte, they tagged more SUVS at Ford and Mitsubishi dealerships across the street from each other. At the Mitsubishi lot, Cottrell testified, he left a personal mark of sorts, a mathematical formula known as Euler’s Theorem.

The next and last stop was a Hummer dealership in West Covina, where eight SUVs and a parts building were set ablaze, causing more than $2.3 million in damage. Cottrell said he was spray painting slogans on SUVs in the lot when he again heard glass shattering and watched as Johnson tried to fling a Molotov cocktail into a Hummer side window. He said the device hit the remaining window glass and bounced back.

“I was mad,” Cottrell said. He said he immediately went back to his car, waiting for Johnson and Oe to return as other vehicles went up in flames.

Under questioning by lead defense lawyer Michael Mayock, Cottrell also disputed a key prosecution claim -- that he had helped Johnson and Oe fill bottles of gasoline at a service station before the attacks.

Cottrell said that Oe’s car had run out of gas a short distance from his apartment and that he drove them to the station where they filled an empty detergent container with fuel that Johnson then poured into Oe’s tank.