William Cottrell

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William "Billy" Cottrell
Born 1980 (age 34–35)
Concord, North Carolina
Occupation Graduate Research assistant at the University of Wisconsin–Madison
Criminal charge conspiracy to arson.
Criminal penalty eight years.
Criminal status Released.
Children none
Parent(s) William Cottrell and Heidi Schwiebert

William "Billy" Jensen Cottrell (born 1980) is a former Ph.D. candidate at the California Institute of Technology who was convicted in April 2005 of conspiracy and arson, associated with the destruction of eight sport utility vehicles and a Hummer dealership in the name of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). He was sentenced to eight years in federal prison on arson charges and ordered to pay $3.5 million in restitution. His lawyers, however, have appealed the verdict and sentence. He was released August 16, 2011.

Life prior to summer 2003[edit]

Cottrell grew up in Concord, North Carolina and Gainesville, Florida, with two younger siblings, a brother and a sister. His parents, who later divorced, are William Cottrell, an anesthesiologist, and Heidi Schwiebert. According to his mother, who referred to her son as being socially retarded, and other sources, Cottrell had trouble fitting in with his peers during his childhood and adolescence. From a young age, he was fascinated with science, especially math and physics. As a sixth-grader, he submitted a report on quantum mechanics for extra credit. The teacher suspected that he had plagiarized the work and gave him an "F" grade for the assignment. This event caused Cottrell to stop excelling in school, and led him to a life as rebel and class troublemaker. However, his love for math and physics never waned, and in high school, he began taking college-level math and physics courses at colleges near home.[citation needed]

Despite his poor high school academic performance, he wrote a convincing college application essay that compelled the University of Chicago to accept his admittance as part of its class of 2002. In college, he excelled academically and received many honors from the math and physics departments, and earned his bachelor's in physics. It was also the first time he found acceptance from his peers, who considered him a "genius" at the time; a member of the Cross-Country team, he was also noted for being the first member of the team to "go commando" at its annual library streak.[1] After graduating from college, he was accepted to the graduate physics program at Caltech, where he would meet Tyler Johnson,[2] who was also studying physics and finishing up his undergraduate work. Besides physics, the two young men shared an interest in pulling adrenaline-inducing pranks. Among the pranks they pulled around Pasadena were doctoring a Starbucks sign to read "Starfucks" and pasting "Go Metric" stickers all over buildings, including the "hard-to-reach" areas.[3]

Summer 2003 and SUV arsons[edit]

In August 2003, Cottrell and Tyler Johnson developed a plan to place bumper stickers on SUVs reading "SUV = TERRORISM."[4] In a series of emails that were later recovered by the FBI, Cottrell attempted to recruit his friends to help him purchase the bumper stickers. Cottrell, Johnson, and Johnson's girlfriend Michie Oe were alleged to have vandalized several SUV dealerships with spray paint. At the final dealership, Clippinger Hummer, a number of SUVs were destroyed by fires started by Molotov cocktails. The initials ELF were left on the destroyed vehicles, signifying an allegiance to the Earth Liberation Front. Cottrell and his attorneys allege that the fires were started by Johnson, while the FBI alleged that Cottrell was also directly involved.

After the arsons, the FBI initially arrested Josh Connole, an activist from Pomona, California. They were eventually forced to release Connole, although they refused for over a year to acknowledge his innocence. After Connole's arrest, the Los Angeles Times received an email from a Caltech computer. The mystery emailer claimed responsibility for the arsons, mocked the FBI, and mentioned the previously undisclosed detail that Euler's Identity had been spray-painted on several vehicles. The FBI traced the email to Caltech, and in the early months of 2004, they interviewed numerous witnesses at Caltech and eventually arrested Cottrell. The FBI investigation, led by Special Agent Richard Smith, failed to apprehend Johnson and Oe, who are believed to have fled the country.

It was reported[5] that on December 26, 2009, Johnson was killed when he was struck by an avalanche in France. He had been hiking in the Corsican mountains when this occurred. According to Johnson's father, his body was found by a rescue team and the French consulate notified the Johnson family about his death. Johnson's father also confirmed that Johnson had been a fugitive for six years, and corresponded with his family only through a legal representative.


He was arrested in March 2004 after law enforcement tracked him sending emails to the Los Angeles Times. The e-mails signed by "Tony Marsden" speak about what the ELF cell had done, vandalizing more than 130 SUVs parked at dealerships or residential homes, claiming they were damaging the environment. Cottrell was not charged under the PATRIOT Act as a terrorist as is often reported[citation needed]. Rather, he was charged with conspiracy to commit arson, arson, and one count of using a destructive device (molotov cocktails) during a crime of violence, in an October 24, 2004 Federal grand jury indictment. Cottrell's lawyers stated that he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. However, Judge Gary Klausner would not allow a defense based upon the claim that Cottrell was suffering from Asperger syndrome.[6]

At his trial, Cottrell admitted being present, but denied involvement in throwing Molotov cocktails, saying Johnson was the mastermind.

An informal network of Cottrell supporters formed, led by the Earth Liberation Front Prisoner's Network and the Free Billy Cottrell organization. These supporters claimed that Cottrell was the innocent victim of government persecution. However, when Cottrell named Johnson as the mastermind, it prompted his Free Billy Cottrell supporters to brand him as a traitor, issue an apology to those who supported Cottrell,[7][8] and end all support.[9]


An article in the LA Weekly [4] reports that Billy was being mistreated by prison guards who have labeled him a "terrorist". According to the article, he is not permitted to study physics or Mandarin Chinese, is not permitted to teach the other prisoners calculus, and had had his books and papers removed without being given a reason.

A letter in Cottrell’s defense, signed by Stephen Hawking and other prominent scientists, was distributed to prison authorities and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals at Cottrell’s October 18, 2006 hearing. "But instead of helping him in prison," the Weekly writes, "the letter seemed only to make things worse: Two weeks after the hearing, Cottrell was mysteriously thrown in the Hole."[4] He was then transferred into another federal prison with less violent prisoners.[10] He, according to his father, has seen improvements. Cottrell is now allowed to study subjects that he was denied at the last prison he was at and no longer has a roommate.[11]

Documentary film[edit]

A documentary film on Cottrell, titled Standard Deviation, was written and directed by David Randag and Chris Brannan in 2008.[12][13] In 2009, it won the Emmy for best student documentary at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation's 30th College Television Awards.[14]

Decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit[edit]

On 8 September 2009, Cottrell's convictions and sentences for arson were overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.[15][16] However, the conspiracy conviction and sentence were affirmed. According to the Times, the omission of Cottrell's diagnosis of Asperger syndrome during his 2004 trial played a key role in the decision. Cottrell was released on August 16, 2011.