'Eco-terrorist' convicted of torching SUVs

San Mateo Daily Journal/November 20, 2004

Los Angeles -- A graduate student was convicted Friday of firebombing dozens of sport utility vehicles and causing more than $2 million in damage in an eco-vandalism rampage, but was cleared of the most serious charge against him.

William Jensen Cottrell, 24, was found guilty in U.S. District Court of conspiracy to commit arson and seven counts of arson. But the jury acquitted him of attempting to use a destructive device - Molotov cocktails - in a crime of violence. That charge carried a sentence of at least 30 years in prison.

Cottrell, who is being held without bail, will be sentenced March 7. He faces at least five years in prison, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

The charges against Cottrell, a doctoral candidate at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, stemmed from a series of firebombings in August 2003 at dealerships and homes in San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles.

About 125 vehicles were damaged or destroyed, causing an estimated $2.3 million damage. Some vehicles were spray-painted with "polluter," "smog machine" and "ELF," an acronym for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group.

Defense lawyers argued that Cottrell had agreed with two friends to spray-paint vehicles but was shocked when they began hurling Molotov cocktails. Federal prosecutors have identified former Caltech students Tyler Johnson and Michie Oe as "fugitive co-conspirators" in the case. Both are believed to have fled the country.

But prosecutors said Cottrell was trying to minimize his role while placing blame on Johnson and Oe. Cottrell testified that SUV dealers were evil and that he had no "problem at a moral level" with spray-painting vehicles at dealerships. He also acknowledged that he had asked a friend he told about the vandalism to marry him "on paper" in order to prevent her from testifying against him.

Cottrell was arrested in March after authorities said they linked him to anonymous e-mails that taunted the FBI and boasted about the firebombings.

Cottrell's co-counsel, Marvin Rudnick, said the defense was pleased because Cottrell was cleared of the most serious count.

"We're very happy that the jury threw out the 30-year mandatory minimum to life count, so Billy has a future in his profession of physics," Rudnick said.

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