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Student Gets 8 Years for SUV Arsons

Man is ordered to pay $3.5 million restitution. Federal judge rejects plea for leniency, saying it would show favoritism based on intelligence.

April 19, 2005|David Rosenzweig | Times Staff Writer

A Caltech graduate student convicted of taking part in a string of arson attacks on SUVs was sentenced to eight years and four months in federal prison Monday and ordered to pay $3.5 million restitution.

Appealing for leniency, 24-year-old William Cottrell told U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner that he wanted nothing more than a chance to return to a promising career in physics. Testimonials from professors described him as incredibly brilliant.

"There's no way I'd ever be involved in anything like this again," Cottrell said as he stood before the judge, handcuffed and clad in an orange prison jumpsuit. "I won't ever even jaywalk again."

But Klausner said he was disinclined to grant any favors because of the defendant's intellectual prowess. To do so, he said, would send a wrong message that "we're going to punish some people harder because they're stupid."

Cottrell's defense lawyers had been hoping for a five-year sentence after his conviction in November on seven counts of arson and one count of conspiracy. Klausner tacked on the additional time, saying that he engaged in domestic terrorism by trying to intimidate potential SUV buyers.

The judge also said "we're very, very lucky" that the arson attacks did not result in any deaths.

Federal prosecutors had sought a sentencing enhancement that would have made Cottrell eligible for a term of 30 years to life.

According to prosecution testimony, Cottrell carried out the Aug. 22, 2003, arson attacks with Tyler Johnson, a Caltech graduate, and Johnson's girlfriend, Michie Oe, both of whom fled the country. They are still considered unindicted co-conspirators, Assistant U.S. Atty. Beverly Reid O'Connell said Monday.

Defense lawyers Michael Mayock and Marvin Rudnick insisted during the trial that Cottrell was duped into taking part in the crime rampage because he has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that makes it difficult for people to comprehend social situations.

Klausner refused to allow the issue to be raised during the trial, saying that it was irrelevant.

The defense attorneys plan to cite the judge's refusal when they appeal Cottrell's conviction to a higher court.

At the trial, Cottrell testified that the violent events stemmed from an otherwise innocent plan he and some friends hatched to paste bumper stickers reading "My SUV Supports Terrorism" on gas-guzzling vehicles. It fell to Cottrell to order the stickers. Unfortunately, they arrived with "terrorism" misspelled as "terriorism," forcing him to call off the plan.

After midnight Aug. 22, Cottrell said, he was awakened at his apartment by Johnson and Oe, who told him their car had run out of gas nearby.

Johnson, who had advanced $200 for printing the bumper stickers, became angry when he learned of the spelling error, according to Cottrell.

He said Johnson offered to forget about the $200 if Cottrell would help them spray-paint slogans on SUVs in the San Gabriel Valley. He said he reluctantly agreed.

Johnson and Oe loaded two large paper bags from their vehicle into his car, he said, and the three set off.

After spray-painting SUVs at a Mercedes dealership in Arcadia, they drove to Monrovia, where they saw several SUVs parked on a dark street, Cottrell testified. He said he was painting a slogan on one vehicle when he heard glass shattering and saw Johnson lob a Molotov cocktail into the cab of a Ford Expedition. The SUV burst into flames.

Cottrell said he was surprised and upset. "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."

He said they drove to Duarte, where they spray-painted dozens of SUVs at two dealerships. Their last stop was a Hummer dealership in West Covina. While he was painting an anti-pollution slogan on one vehicle, Cottrell said, he came upon Johnson about to hurl another Molotov cocktail into an SUV cab.

The bottle hit the door, bounced back and struck Cottrell, scorching his shirt, he testified. Angry, he said, he went back to his car parked on a side street and waited for Johnson and Oe. In the meantime, fires erupted across the car lot. Fourteen SUVs and a parts building were destroyed and a nearby apartment building was threatened during the fire.

Prosecutor O'Connell disputed Cottrell's account. She told the judge Monday that he lied on the witness stand, and that he played an active role in planning the attacks and even helped fill the gasoline containers used as Molotov cocktails.

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