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Man Indicted in Attacks on SUV Dealers

William Cottrell, a Caltech student accused in firebombings that caused $3.5 million in damage, could face at least 35 years in prison.

March 18, 2004|David Rosenzweig | Times Staff Writer

A Caltech graduate student accused of firebombing sport utility vehicles at San Gabriel Valley auto dealerships last summer has been indicted on federal charges that could send him to prison for at least 35 years, prosecutors disclosed in court Wednesday.

William Jensen Cottrell, 23, appeared stunned and shaken when he learned of the indictment and the possible penalty during a bail review hearing before a federal magistrate judge in Los Angeles.

Cottrell, who had been studying for a doctorate in physics, was arrested by FBI agents last week in connection with the arson attacks on four auto dealerships. The arsons caused more than $3.5 million in damage. Two other people are suspected in the attacks, and both have fled the country, prosecutors said Wednesday.

After hearing testimony from the defendant's father, Dr. William M. Cottrell, a North Carolina physician, and listening to arguments by lawyers, U.S. Magistrate Carolyn Turchin stood by her ruling made last week, ordering that the younger Cottrell continue to be held without bond as a flight risk and a danger to the public.

Turchin said Cottrell might be tempted to flee because of the severity of the sentence awaiting him if he is convicted. She also chastised him for what she called "smirking" while the prosecutor was speaking. She said it confirmed the government's charge that he regarded the legal system with arrogance and disdain.

Outside the courtroom, defense lawyer Stephen J. Alexander said he planned to appeal. He said the judge's refusal to grant bail was outrageous.

Wednesday's hearing produced some new disclosures about the case. Assistant U.S. Atty. Beverly Reid O'Connell, the lead prosecutor, said Cottrell had two suspected accomplices. She said both are believed to have fled the country. They were not identified.

O'Connell also alleged that Cottrell had proposed marriage to a friend who knew of his involvement in the firebombings so she would not have to testify against him in court. In addition, the prosecution submitted a written declaration by the FBI agent heading the investigation, charging that Cottrell had devised an elaborate plan to flee to Mexico if he got wind that the FBI was about to arrest him.

FBI Agent Richard D. Smith quoted Claire Jacobs, a friend of Cottrell's and a fellow graduate student at Caltech, as saying that Cottrell had admitted setting the Aug. 22 fires with two others, a man and a woman, who were not further identified.

Jacobs allegedly told the agent that Cottrell was planning to use her apartment as a temporary hide-out if he thought the FBI was closing in on him. He then planned to flee to Mexico, become a citizen there and travel to London to pursue his studies, according to the woman's account.

The FBI agent wrote that, after Jacobs was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, Cottrell approached her and proposed marriage so she would not have to testify against him at a trial. Jacobs declined. She said that Cottrell had told her that he had considered marrying his then-girlfriend, Adeline Seah, but realized that Jacobs knew more than Seah. Seah has told authorities that Cottrell had admitted carrying out the attacks, but she said she had thought he was joking.

In court Wednesday, Alexander argued that his client had never had any intention of fleeing. Cottrell, he said, had known since January, when FBI agents interviewed him, that he was a suspect in the firebombings.

To support the bail motion, the defense called Cottrell's father, who testified that he was prepared to turn over the deed to his home in Concord, N.C., valued at $415,000, and post an additional cash bond on $200,000 to secure his son's release.

Turchin found that there were no conditions that would reasonably ensure Cottrell's appearance at trial or the public's safety if he were released on bond.

Cottrell, who is being housed at the San Bernardino County Jail, is scheduled to be arraigned on the nine-count indictment March 29. It alleges one count of conspiracy to commit arson, seven counts of arson and one count of using a destructive device during a violent crime. Each of the first eight counts carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison upon conviction. However, a judge could permit those terms to be served concurrently. That is not the case for the last count, which has a 30-year mandatory minimum term.

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