There are a lot of stories about Billy Cottrell.
They're pretty much all true, though the details sometimes get a bit exaggerated.
Cottrell himself, now 24, likes to tell the one about how he escaped from the juvenile boot camp where his exasperated parents sent him when he was 14. It was way out in the Idaho desert, in the middle of winter, and the staff took away the teenagers' boots at night. One counselor bragged that the place was as escape-proof as prison. Just to prove him wrong, Cottrell bolted. Wearing only boot liners, he walked through 17 miles of rock and scrub in the freezing cold to the nearest town.
His mother prefers to tell how Cottrell, after finally scraping together the credits to finish high school with a dismal GPA, wrote an application essay so compelling that the elite University of Chicago accepted him--and later awarded him its top math and physics honors.
Beverly Reid O'Connell, a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, has a story about Cottrell, too. In November, she told a jury that on the night of Aug. 22, 2003, Cottrell set fire to a small fleet of SUVs and Hummers, destroying millions of dollars' worth of property.
There's a critical piece of Cottrell's life story, though, that no one--including Cottrell--knew until his trial. He has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that almost certainly is part of what makes him so brilliant and so erratic. But the jury never heard that piece. And now facing an April 18 sentencing, Cottrell's future hangs in the balance.
Asperger's syndrome--a neurologically based developmental disorder named after the Austrian pediatrician who first recognized it in 1944--often is a strange sort of double-edged sword. It impairs a person's ability to interact with others, but often comes coupled with powerful, if narrowly focused, intellectual gifts. People who are born with it generally just seem odd, not obviously impaired. As a result, it often goes undiagnosed. Estimates of its prevalence in America range from two in every 10,000 people to one in 250.
Its most obvious symptoms crop up in social interactions. People with Asperger's tend to not understand facial expressions, body language and other nonverbal communications, and thus take statements literally, missing implied meanings and subtexts. They often lack empathy, blurting out truthful but unvarnished statements. Once set in a course of action, they are slow to process new information that suggests they should change what they are doing. And they typically fixate on very specific interests--anything from baseball stats to movies to refrigerators. For the main character in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," Mark Haddon's 2003 hit novel, it was mathematics, especially prime numbers.
"You look at a picture of Billy in the first grade, and you just say to yourself, 'This kid is going to get beat up,' " says Michael Mayock, one of Cottrell's lawyers. Peering out at the world through thick glasses that eclipsed half his face, Cottrell never fit in with the other kids growing up in Concord, N.C. He was too smart, for one thing. He started reading Carl Sagan's books about the universe at age 7, recalls his mother, Heidi Schwiebert. She and her then-husband, anesthesiologist William Cottrell, bought their son as many science books as they did toys.
Cottrell also never understood how to behave with other kids--or anyone, for that matter. He spoke too loudly, interrupted conversations with fact-laden monologues and talked back to teachers whenever he thought he knew more than they did, which was often. "He was a social retard," Schwiebert sighs. As a result, Cottrell was shunned and picked on as a child. Other kids would grab his books and throw them around the cafeteria as he sat reading alone at lunchtime. When his mother picked him up after school, she would find him sitting alone on the monkey bars, watching the other kids play.
Things got no better when Cottrell moved to Gainesville, Fla., with his mother and two younger siblings after his parents split up. "I'd always get into arguments with the teachers. They would be complete idiots about it, and I'd get in trouble," Cottrell says over a visiting room phone in the San Bernardino County Jail, a hulking pile of gray concrete where he is being held until his sentencing.
Handsome, fit and white, with big, long-lashed eyes, Cottrell looks almost comically out of place in his orange jumpsuit among the shaved-head gangbangers and weathered jailbirds flanking him behind a shatterproof window. The din of phone conversations, overlaid with the relentless squalling of visiting infants, reverberates off the ceiling. Cottrell doesn't seem especially troubled, though. He answers questions straightforwardly and in detail, his brow occasionally furrowing in concentration.