A man who was a graduate physics student at the California Institute of Technology was sentenced this week to 100 months in federal prison for his conviction last year on a series of arson charges related to firebomb attacks on sport utility vehicles in the San Gabriel Valley.
William Jensen Cottrell, 24, who most recently lived in Pasadena, was sentenced by United States District Judge Gary Klausner. In addition to the prison term, Judge Klausner ordered Cottrell to pay $3.5 million in restitution to the victims of the arson, including Ziad Al Hassen, the owner of Clippinger Hummer in West Covina.
During the sentencing hearing, Judge Klausner enhanced Cottrell’s sentence, finding that the defendant was subject to a federal sentencing provision relating to domestic terrorism. Judge Klausner said there was “no question” that the attacks were designed to intimidate and influence decisions of American consumers.
Cottrell was convicted in November 2004 by a federal jury that deliberated for less than one day before returning guilty verdicts on one count of conspiracy and seven counts of arson.
The jury determined that Cottrell participated in a series of attacks during the early morning hours of August 22, 2003. Cottrell and two as-yet-uncharged co-conspirators struck four car dealerships and several privately owned vehicles. Approximately 125 vehicles and one commercial building were damaged or destroyed by paint and fire.
Approximately one month after the attacks, Cottrell, using an alias, reportedly sent several e-mails to the Los Angeles Times that claimed responsibility for the SUV firebombings and stated his affiliation with the Earth Liberation Front.
In the messages, Cottrell reportedly offered specific details of the attacks to prove his involvement and emphasized his support of ELF actions. These e-mails led investigators to Cottrell.
Cottrell has reportedly claimed that he suffered from a mild form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome. During the sentencing hearing, prosecutors played a tape recording of a jail house conversation Cottrell had with his mother, in which he reportedly says “the whole field of psychology is a myth” and that he could not possess books on Asperger’s Syndrome because that would suggest that he was “faking it, whereas my attorney seems to think I am doing a pretty good job without that.”
This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the West Covina Police Department; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
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