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Attorney Denies Student Started SUV Fires

Lawyer says e-mails cited by the FBI can't be tied to his client. William Cottrell is accused of arsons that caused $3.5 million in damage.

March 11, 2004|Kevin Pang | Times Staff Writer

The attorney for a Caltech graduate student accused of setting SUVs on fire last year in an environmental protest said Wednesday that his client was innocent and that he would be exonerated.

"I haven't seen evidence linking him to the incident," attorney Stephen J. Alexander said of William Jensen Cottrell. "We maintain his innocence, and we think he'll be vindicated."

FBI agents arrested the 23-year-old early Tuesday at his girlfriend's Pasadena home on a warrant charging him with arson. He is being held without bail at a San Bernardino County jail, and his next court hearing is scheduled March 17.

Cottrell, known to friends as "Billy," is accused in connection with the August 2003 arson attacks at four San Gabriel Valley auto dealerships.

The attacks, which caused $3.5 million in damage, targeted sport utility vehicles. An eco-terrorism group called the Environmental Liberation Front later took responsibility for the attacks.

The FBI focused on Cottrell after tracing e-mails claiming responsibility that were sent to the Los Angeles Times. The e-mails were tracked to a Caltech library, and an FBI affidavit this week alleged that they were sent by Cottrell. FBI officials said the person who sent the e-mails had key details about the fire that had not been made public.

But Alexander said the e-mails did not prove that Cottrell had anything to do with the fires.

Cottrell is a graduate student studying physics. He also has been a teacher's assistant in a quantum physics course.

His father, William Milnes Cottrell of Concord, N.C., said Tuesday that he did not believe that his son was responsible for all the crimes. "I think he denies any actual physical activity," he said.

The relationship between Cottrell and his father was highlighted in a September 2001, article in the New York Times about rehabilitation schools for at-risk youths.

Cottrell's parents divorced when he was 9, and soon after, he moved to Gainesville, Fla. to live with his mother, according to the article. He was described as an "exceptionally bright boy" who had developed behavioral problems.

Cottrell was expelled from two public schools, and later from a military academy when he burned a dollar bill in front of a captain, the article said. Cottrell, according to the paper, said he was bored in the classroom and was picked on by bullies.

"I found that getting in trouble, and rebelling, all of a sudden instead of getting beat up, you're admired by people," Cottrell said in the article. "You're also fighting the school system, which you despise."

When he was 14, Cottrell was sent to a "wilderness therapy program" in Idaho. When he tried to run away from that school, his father hired an escort to accompany his son to another program in Provo, Utah, the article said. There, his behavior improved. Cottrell eventually enrolled in the University of Chicago, where he received a double major in mathematics and physics.

He was a member of the cross-country squad, and was part of a 4 x 1,600-meter relay team that recorded the third fastest time in school history, according to the university's website.

At Caltech, he shared a house with four roommates in a quiet residential area in Pasadena, east of the campus. One roommate, Rob Moncure, said Cottrell spent most nights at his girlfriend's apartment.

"We had known that he was being investigated, so we had an idea it might be coming," Moncure said.

"We talked about [the SUV fires], but I never came out and asked [if he did it]. He certainly never admitted guilt."

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