FBI arrests Caltech student in anti-SUV arson, vandalism spree

Associated Press/March 10, 2004
By Greg Risling

Los Angeles -- A California Institute of Technology student arrested by federal agents for investigation of arson and vandalism has denied involvement in the damaging and destruction of 125 sport utility vehicles last year, according to an affidavit.

William Cottrell, 23, of Pasadena shook his head in disagreement when prosecutors talked about some of the charges against him during a court appearance Tuesday in which he was ordered held without bail.

"The charges are unfounded," defense attorney Stephen Alexander said outside court.

The FBI arrested Cottrell in connection with the arson and vandalism of 125 sport utility vehicles at San Gabriel Valley car dealerships and homes last year in apparent support of radical environmentalism.

If convicted, he faces a maximum of 40 years in prison, the U.S. attorney's office said.

Cottrell, a second-year graduate student in the physics department at Caltech, used an alias when he contacted the Los Angeles Times by e-mail and informed the newspaper he was involved in the SUV firebombings, the FBI alleged in an affidavit.

In messages sent to the newspaper, Cottrell confirmed he was affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front, a radical group of environmentalists that has claimed responsibility for other acts of arson and vandalism, the affidavit said.

In one e-mail, Cottrell, using the name Tony Marsden, wrote "I was amongst those responsible for the SUV attacks ... The FBI hasn't seemed to pick up on any of them (clues), which makes this whole ordeal rather boring for us, the true culprits," the affidavit alleged.

Cottrell offered details of the attacks to the newspaper to prove his involvement, the FBI said.

Cottrell was interviewed by authorities in January and denied being an ELF member or contacting the Times, the affidavit said.

It also stated Cottrell's 23-year-old girlfriend was interviewed and told authorities that Cottrell admitted he was responsible for the vandalism but she believed he was joking about it. When pressed, she said one of the men seen in a surveillance videotape at one of the dealerships looked like Cottrell.

Cottrell's father told The Associated Press that his son told him he was being watched by the FBI.

"He said he didn't actually do anything physically," Dr. William Milnes Cottrell said from his Concord, N.C., home.

He described his son as bright, hardworking and somewhat eccentric but incapable of the acts alleged by the government. Cottrell graduated with a double major in mathematics and physics from the University of Chicago before attending Caltech, his father said.

"We were hopeful he wouldn't be charged," he said. "We are very unhappy about it. We are still reasonably sure he wasn't a primary agent in this deed."

Caltech officials said they were aware of the investigation and were cooperating. Authorities searched campus classrooms in January and seized six computers. They were also able to track the e-mails to Cottrell, according to the affidavit.

Records also showed that on 11 occasions, someone using Cottrell's student account was logged on to a Caltech computer about the same time it was used to access the e-mail account that appeared on the messages to the Times, authorities said.

A security camera videotaped a person resembling Cottrell entering the library Sept. 17, a few minutes before someone accessed the account used to send e-mail to the newspaper, according to the affidavit.

Robert O'Rourke, Caltech's vice president for public relations, said officials are dismayed that one of their students could be involved in the incidents. He said the acts of vandalism "are directly contrary to our mission."

The August spree hit car dealerships in West Covina, Duarte and Arcadia, as well as at least four privately owned vehicles in Monrovia. The communities are all just east of Pasadena, where Caltech is located and where Cottrell was arrested. Prosecutors estimate the total damage was about $2.3 million.

Authorities initially arrested Josh Connole, 25, of Pomona who was later released because of lack of evidence and has denied involvement in the attacks and denounced the ELF actions. Connole was arrested because an FBI agent said a person in a videotape from one dealership looked like him.

Connole told AP that he deserves an apology from authorities. "And whoever this other person is, I hope his civil rights are being respected," he said.

The ELF has claimed responsibility for a string of arsons in Detroit, Philadelphia and San Diego, where last year fire destroyed a 206-unit apartment complex under construction.

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