A Caltech graduate student was convicted Friday of firebombing sport utility vehicles at a Hummer dealership last year to protest the American auto industry’s contribution to environmental pollution.
After deliberating less than a day, a federal court jury found William Jensen Cottrell, a 24-year-old doctoral candidate in physics, guilty of seven counts of arson and one count of conspiracy.
Cottrell, who testified that SUV dealers were “evil,” faces at least five years in prison when he is sentenced in March.
But he was spared an additional 30 years behind bars, mandatory under federal law, when the jury acquitted him of the most serious charge of using a destructive device during a crime of violence.
Two other suspects in the Aug. 22, 2003, string of arsons and vandalism are fugitives. Tyler Johnson, a Caltech graduate, and his girlfriend, Michie Oe, have been named as unindicted co-conspirators. They are believed to have fled the country.
“The U.S. attorney’s office is pleased that justice has been served,” said Beverly Reid O’Connell, the lead prosecutor, after Friday’s verdict. The hunt for the other two suspects is continuing, she said.
Cottrell, Johnson and Oe are blamed for causing nearly $5 million in property damage during a nighttime escapade in which about 125 vehicles and a building were damaged or destroyed at four auto dealerships in the San Gabriel Valley.
The case attracted wide attention after the Earth Liberation Front, a loose association of militant environmentalists, claimed responsibility.
Prosecutors offered no evidence during the eight-day trial that Cottrell was connected to the ELF, although his lawyer suggested that Johnson and Oe were tied to the group.
The defense contended that Johnson and Oe duped Cottrell into joining them on what was supposed to be a foray to spray-paint environmental protest slogans on gas-guzzling SUVs.
Defense attorneys Michael Mayock and Marvin Rudnick had intended to call a psychologist to testify that Cottrell suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism marked by impaired ability to understand social situations.
U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled such testimony irrelevant and barred the defense from raising the issue before the jury.
Mayock said he planned to ask for a new trial based on the contention that Cottrell was unable to adequately explain his behavior because of the judge’s refusal to allow evidence of Asperger’s disorder.
“A person with Asperger’s is like a person operating with a slow computer,” Mayock said. “He eventually can figure out what’s going on, but it takes a long time. That’s what happened to” Cottrell.
Testifying in his own defense, Cottrell said he was surprised and upset when Johnson shattered the side window of an SUV parked on a residential street in Monrovia and hurled a Molotov cocktail inside, setting the vehicle ablaze.
As they left the scene, Cottrell said, he argued with Johnson about the firebombing. His friend promised not to do it again, he said.
But as he was painting slogans on Hummers at a West Covina dealership, Cottrell said, Johnson resumed firebombing vehicles.
Cottrell said he was “mad” and left the lot immediately after Johnson threw the first of at least seven Molotov cocktails into SUVs. About 15 vehicles and a parts building were set ablaze as the fire spread.
Federal prosecutors accused Cottrell of trying to “write himself out of the script” by placing all of the blame on Johnson and Oe. They said he had been actively involved in planning and carrying out the arsons.
Among the 42 witnesses called by the government were three fellow Caltech graduate students who testified about Cottrell’s behavior and comments after the arson attacks.
One friend, Daniel Feldman, said Cottrell had told him he was concerned about possibly having been caught on a surveillance videotape as he helped Johnson and Oe fill bottles with gasoline at a Pasadena service station. Cottrell denied saying that.
Claire Jacobs, another Caltech friend and confidant, said that Cottrell had asked her to provide an alibi for him on the morning after the arsons. She also disclosed that he later offered to marry her so she would not have to testify against him.
None of Cottrell’s friends testified that he had admitted taking part in the actual arsons.
Three weeks after the fires, the FBI and West Covina police arrested the wrong man. Josh Connole, a 25-year-old peace activist who lived in a commune in Pomona, was released after four days in jail.
Connole later received a public apology from the West Covina police chief and $20,000 from the city to cover his legal expenses. He recently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the FBI for unspecified damages.
Connole’s arrest eventually led the FBI to Cottrell. Upset that the wrong man was in custody, Cottrell sent a series of e-mails to the Los Angeles Times chiding the FBI for ineptitude and including some incriminating information known only to the arsonists and investigators.
Among the tidbits was a mathematical formula, known as Euler’s theorem, that Cottrell had painted on a couple of SUVs.
The FBI traced the e-mails to computers at Pasadena City College and Caltech and ultimately to Cottrell.
He was arrested in March and has been in custody since then.