The Accidental Ecoterrorist

How after a night of vandalizing SUVs a gifted Caltech student became a threat to homeland security

BILLY COTTRELL WOULD TELL YOU THAT THE MOST logical place to begin this story is 17 years ago at Beverly Hills Elementary School—which happens to be in Concord, North Carolina, not Southern California. Most students lucky enough to have gone there would remember the campus for its lovely midcentury modern main building, its gentle hills and dogwood trees, its shady paths and manicured lawns. For Cottrell, Beverly Hills Elementary was a miserable experience—a hothouse of isolation and dread. “Though the teachers and students may have been on opposite sides, it seemed they at least shared a mutual enemy,” he says. “I felt as if I was entering a was zone with no allies.”

A scrawny, blond-haired first grader with huge tortoise-shell glasses, Cottrell was infatuated with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I was immediately hooked,” he says. “The subject is so interesting, pure, and to me, spiritual.” Cottrell was considerably smarter than everybody else and took no pains to conceal his superiority, however much kids picked on him for it. At recess he could be found sitting on the monkey bars, lost in quasars, quarks, and gravitational irregularities, safe for a while from his almost daily pummelings and the exasperation of his teacher, who nicknamed him “space cadet.”

When he was ten, he filled in the blanks of a test designed to get him in touch with his feelings: “I feel misunderstood when … I try to explain relativity.” “When I grow up, I want to be … an astro- or nuclear physicist.” “I don’t like … pollution.” “I feel afraid … when I think that in four billion years the sun will destroy the earth.”

By the summer of 2003, Cottrell was a doctoral candidate in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. Almost blind through his youth without his glasses, he had grown out of his farsightedness. No longer the shrimp of elementary school, he was over six feet, powerfully if leanly built, with a club kid’s thatch of flaxen hair. Cottrell was studying god-awful hours, forgoing parties, missing a lot of sleep, nonetheless leading what he’d call a rather perfect life in Pasadena. Even at Caltech, one of the great research institutes of the United States, Cottrell’s intellect set him apart. He was one of seven incoming students who had hoped to earn their Ph.D.s in string theory, an esoteric branch of theoretical physics that may eventually explain away all matter and energy as one vast subatomic symphony. During his first semester, only Cottrell had shown enough promise to secure a faculty sponsor in the field.

Perhaps in a slightly different universe, Cottrell’s story, begun in such sorrow, might have ended with his vindication as a Nobel Prize winner, or at least as one of the more formidable young scientific minds of our day. But that is not what this story is about. Last November, in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, he was found guilty of eight counts of arson and arson conspiracy for the torching of an SUV dealership in West Covina—the culmination of a night of mayhem in which more than a hundred sport utility vehicles were vandalized with spray paint and 26 others went up in flames.

As he faced arson, conspiracy, and weapons charges, Cottrell denied not only starting any of the fires but having any inkling of what was in store that night until the first firebomb was lit. The worst offense Cottrell would admit to was spray painting. Under federal law, tagging is not a crime. But for the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI, three letters that Cottrell and his fellow vandals spelled out over and over again that night would prove more incendiary than any of the arsons. In red, white, and blue spray paint, ELF appeared on dozens of hoods, doors, fenders, and windows. It was a signature federal prosecutors and investigators knew well, a signature that would bring the machinery of the U.S. justice system bearing down on whoever scrawled it. For the past seven years, the loose association of environmental radicals known as the Earth Liberation Front had burned and broken more than $100 million in private property belonging to timber companies, suburban subdividers, and others whom they had identified as destroyers of the earth. Despite the work of 84 FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces, despite the identification of the ELF as a major domestic terrorism threat in the months following the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, ELF activists operated with near impunity.

While his coconspirators managed to evade capture, Billy Cottrell would distinguish himself not as a scientist but as the first ELF-affiliated criminal found guilty by a federal jury. He currently occupies a cell in the San Bernardino County central jail, where he awaits a sentence of 5 to 19 years. His fate will be determined a few days before this magazine reaches the newsstands.

CALTECH STUDENTS HAVE A LONG HISTORY OF pulling pranks. In 1984, the scoreboard at the Rose Bowl was rewired to display CALTECH 38, MIT 9, although neither team was competing there. For Hollywood’s centennial, the Hollywood sign was altered to read CALTECH. As the Voyager space probes made their journeys past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, both carried inscriptions that were inside jokes about the school’s dining clubs. In the summer of 2003, Cottrell and his friend Tyler Johnson, a slim Pennsylvanian finishing up his last year at Caltech as an undergraduate, made some minor contributions to this heritage. One evening they sealed a Pasadena Starbucks and altered the B to an F. They also plastered GO METRIC! bumper stickers around campus. 

There is a photo of Cottrell in a national park perched at the edge of a precipice that makes the stomach drop just to look at it; in another outdoor shot, he’s stripped to the wrest and pointing to a freshly wounded forearm missing half its skin. Cottrell had met Johnson in a quantum-optics class and realized that here was someone who shared his love for physical risk. Together they climbed boulders and multistory buildings and haunted construction sites at night. According to what Johnson told his friends, Cottrell usually took the lead. “I went to Joshua Tree with Billy,” one friend remembers Johnson telling him. “I wanted to climb a rock that was this tall and this steep, and Billy found a rock that was three times as tall and twice as steep. You had to be suicidal even to think about climbing it. Billy would say, ‘I’m going to climb it, and you’re going to climb it, too.'” In the early morning hours of August 22, 2003, their high jinks escalated into the most serious ecoterror attack in the history of L.A. County.

Having fled, Johnson is unavailable to explain what transpired the night of the arsons. And Cottrell is an imperfect narrator of their crimes, not just in light of the seriousness of the charges lodged against him. He’s had this lifelong tendency to exaggerate, and he’s been diagnosed with a psychological disorder that may impair his judgment of other people’s motives. In Cottrell’s version of events, Johnson displays all the cunning, initiative, and daring, and Cottrell a sleepwalker’s passivity and a child’s naivete.

On the afternoon of August 21, Cottrell says, he was in his office at Caltech, dividing his time between his own research and preparation for an undergraduate course he was teaching. He was expecting a call from Johnson. His friend had left Pasadena as he prepared to begin graduate work in quantum information at the University of New Mexico, but he was due back in town that day for their next stunt. Johnson, Cottrell says, had given him $200 to order a couple hundred stickers proclaiming MY SUV SUPPORTS TERRORISM from Cottrelrs mom, who owned a sign shop at the time. Cottrell had sent out e-mails to his Caltech friends, trying to enlist them in a scheme in which they’d slap the stickers on SUVs. As it turned out, the stickers hadn’t arrived in time for Johnson’s visit, but Cottrell was still expecting to hear from him. “I assumed,” Cottrell says, “that he’d want to hang out and do something.”

Cottrell hardly considered himself an environmental extremist. He knew people who were passionate about what the Earth Liberation Front was doing and others who were against it. He would say he was somewhere in the middle. Actually, he hadn’t concerned himself much with the ecosystem until he got to Caltech, where many students were interested in such things. Researching climate change, Cottrell says, “I came to fear global environmental catastrophe the way I fear death. Perhaps I fear it even more, for whereas death brings merely a cessation to living, the end of civilization would destroy the only context in which human life could have any meaning.”

Johnson never did call. At twelve-thirty in the morning, Cottrell went to sleep, only to be roused half an hour later by a knock on the door. It was Johnson and his girlfriend, Michie Oe, who said that they had run out of gas. Cottrell drove them to a service station, where they filled up a detergent bottle with gas, and then to Oe’s car. Somewhere along the way Johnson said that, although he was owed $200 for the absent stickers, he’d erase the debt if Cottrell would come along and spray paint SUVs with them. For their mission they chose Cottrell’s burgundy Toyota. The couple took some shopping bags stuffed with dirty clothes and spray paint cans out of their trunk and dumped them in his. Cottrell, a horrible driver, ceded the wheel to Oe; Johnson rode shotgun, and Cottrell sat in the back.

At two in the morning, the surveillance camera at the Rusnak Mercedes dealership in Arcadia caught the blurry figures of two young men strolling down a row of midsize luxury SUVs. Every few feet they crouched to deface the inventory with spray paint. Illegible on the footage, their doodles would appear plain enough in the morning light on the fenders, hoods, and doors of eight vehicles: I love POLLUTION, FUCK SUVS, SUV = TERRORISM, and ELF.

After their first strike, they took a wrong exit on the freeway and wound up in Monrovia, where Johnson suggested they tackle some light trucks on the street. Cottrell says he wasn’t too crazy about messing with private citizens’ SUVs, but that didn’t stop him from joining in. As he was tagging, he heard a window shatter and saw Johnson tossing a flaming bottle into the backseat of a 1998 Ford Expedition. “I was shocked,” Cottrell says. Earlier, he had watched as gas was poured into Oe’s tank, not—as the government would con tend—into empty beer bottles for the making of Molotov cocktails. His friends, he surmised, must have hidden the firebombs underneath the dirty clothes and spray-paint cans in those paper bags. He says he argued with Johnson, who told him he wouldn’t do it again. They were long gone when an MTA security guard named Boston Kareem Fields found his sport utility smoldering at the curb. A burned wick and glass fragments of a Molotov cocktail remained on the charred upholstery of the backseat. POLLUTER was scribbled across the hood. A bright red smiley face and the ELF acronym covered the driver’s side windows. Two other cars were tagged.

By 3:35 a.m., the trio arrived at the Advantage Ford Lincoln-Mercury dealership in the town of Duarte. They inflicted their damage on 21 SUVs, most of them elephantine Lincoln Navigators and less weighty Aviators, branding them GAS GUZZLER, KILLER, and SMOG MACHINE. They crossed the boulevard to Duarte Mitsubishi, tagging 26 more. Cottrell left a lone personal flourish, which would contribute to his downfall. On the flank of a Mitsubishi Montero he drew a mathematical equation reading [e.sup.i[pi]]+1 = o, which the FBI would identify as the work of 18th-century Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler. It is a mystifying formula in which rational and irrational numbers total exactly zero. The equation, Cottrell says, “just popped into my head.”

Clippinger Hummer of West Covina would be their last stop. Cottrell had gone back to environmental sloganeering when he heard more shattering glass. He says he ran over to check on his friend, arriving just in time to see Johnson throw a Molotov at an H2’s windshield. It ricocheted, hit him, and set his clothes on fire. He removed his shirt, losing the blue headband he was wearing in the process.

Cottrell can’t say exactly what happened after that. He claims to have left the lot, sequestering himself in the backseat of his car while the worst of the crimes were committed, fie heard more glass breaking, watched the flames, and grew jittery as the neighbors came out to take a look, all the while waiting for Johnson and Oe to climb back over the wall. “Honestly, I was kind of like, well, I didn’t see what they were doing as morally wrong,” he says, “just as dangerous, and likely to get us in trouble.” However strongly he worried about the depredations of global climate change, and the smog-spewing SUVs that contributed so needlessly to it, Cottrell wasn’t about to jeopardize his future in physics. That he couldn’t go to jail for something he didn’t do was axiomatic. “Okay, maybe I’ll get arrested,” he remembers thinking. “Maybe I’ll have to go to trial for this. But I know what I did, and I know that they can’t prove something that didn’t happen. It’s like when you’re doing math. You can’t prove a theorem that’s false. It’s impossible.”

Cottrell, Johnson, and Oe were on their way home when Ziad Alhassen, a Syrian emigre who is West Covina’s most successful auto dealer and real estate developer, awoke to calamity. News and police helicopters jostling overhead, he rushed down to his Clippinger Hummer lot and ducked under the yellow crime-scene tape. Twenty Hummer H2s had been gut ted. The fire from one of the vehicles had drifted to his parts building and customer lounge, collapsing the roof. Alhassen sloshed around the wreckage in his sandals, dreading the idea that he’d been targeted as an Arab in post-9/11 Los Angeles. Then he spotted ELF on one of his stricken Hummers. I laving heard about the Earth Liberation Front after the group vandalized a dealership on the East Coast, he could assure himself the attack was nothing personal. “It was an ironic relief to me,” he’d say, “that it wasn’t because of my ethnicity.”

One of the dozens of FBI agents combing Alhassen’s lot that morning would recover the blue headband and a few dirty-blond hairs containing Billy Cottrell’s DNA.

IN OCTOBER OF LAST YEAR, BILLY COTTRELL’S MOTHER, Heidi Schweibert, left the emus and chickens on her farm outside Gainesville, Florida. She rented a bare room in one of Bunker Hill’s bleaker high-rises and fell into a routine of visits with her son at the downtown federal lockup, where he was held without bail pending trial, and consulting with his defense attorneys in Pasadena. She also e-mailed “Free Billy” press releases, hand out shirts silk-screened with her son’s smiling face and the words DON’T WASTE A BEAUTIFUL MIND, and read books about Asperger’s syndrome. A medical expert hired by the defense had diagnosed her son as a sufferer. A high-functioning form of autism, Asperger’s is a neurological disorder that impairs social interaction and language development, and often causes the afflicted to drift into a pedantic monotone about arcane topics. For Cottrell’s mother, Asperger’s is the Rosetta stone. It explains not only his strange behavior that August night but also a lifetime of psychological self-torture and alienation, to say nothing of his compulsion to argue absolutely everything.

“There’s nothing more vicious than a warrior mania,” Schweibert said over lunch at an outdoor restaurant not far from her son’s cell. “And I’ve had to become a warrior for Billy since he was born.” Schweibert mustered a smile beneath a creased brow, her blue eyes clouding up in the sunlight. For more than 20 years she’d been a soldier in her firstborn’s futile fight, bearing more than her share of the wounds.

“Billy was a 26-hour labor and came out with a broken shoulder,” Schweibert said. “I think that was probably the easiest day of his life.” Cottrell’s father, Bill, was the hospital’s sole anesthesiologist that day, and although he managed to give his wife an epidural, he was in and out of the delivery room to supervise as other patients were put under. “That sort of symbolizes the whole problem,” Bill Cottrell would explain. “I was torn between my work, being at the time extremely busy; and trying to be a father.” The Cottrells had two more children. Dustin, the middle brother, is a jazz musician and composer. Corey is a dancer who taught herself Portuguese and is in Rio de Janeiro studying martial arts.

Billy was the family’s troubled genius. Though his father has done enough research to believe his son has Asperger’s, he thinks the trauma of the divorce in 1989 accelerated Cottrell’s revolt and his retreat into the intellectual cocoon of math and science. After the separation, Schweibert and her children moved in with her parents in Gainesville, where Cottrell began reassigning blame for his torment. “My problems with the students I merely accepted as a product of their insecurity,” he says, “while my problems with the teachers I took to be a very troubling symptom of a much deeper sickness. Indeed, from a very early age, I have not only blamed my teachers but the school system which hired them, the government which organized that school system, and the society which had elected that government.” Cottrell became convinced that civilization was held together by so many “meaningless conventions which we follow for the convenience of not being punished.”

While Cottrell credits Hamlet and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche with informing his sense of himself as an individualist straddling the abyss, his brother offers a more mundane explanation. “When he was n or 12, he started learning ways to win other kids’ favor,” Dustin Cottrell says. “He learned that if he was outrageous and provocative and defied authority, he might get some appreciation, or at least some attention.” When a group of students at his private school published an obscene underground paper, Cottrell alone claimed responsibility. He was expelled. Moving on to a public middle school, he tagged the physical education building, signing his graffiti B.C., which was soon enough identified as “Billy Cottrell.” Having exhausted his options in Florida and his mother’s endurance, he went back to North Carolina. His father put him in a military academy Within a week he was kicked out after demonstrating to a lieutenant that he could dip a dollar in alcohol and burn off the fuel without harming the bill.

On the advice of an educational consultant, Cottrell was enrolled in a two-week survival program in the mountains of Idaho. Living off the frozen land, campers were supposed to learn the value of depending on others, but the expedition turned into a showcase for Cottrell’s individualism. He built the best rabbit traps, started the quickest fires, hiked the longest without complaint, and was failed for his refusal to embrace teamwork. From there he went to the Provo Canyon School, a for-profit facility for troubled teens, where basic freedoms were to be earned by strict compliance. He remembers being miserable until he got the notion in his head that freedom was a state of mind. “If I can think whatever I want,” he told himself, “no matter what they do to me, I’m still free.” He began whistling and wouldn’t stop, not even after he was ordered to face a wall. He says he spent maybe the next 17 days in forced isolation. Cottrell’s in-house therapist didn’t return calls from Los Angeles to obtain his version of events, and Ken Huey, Provo Canyon’s current director of business development and a former therapist there, says that for reasons of confidentiality, he can’t talk specifically about students. However, he adds, he’s never heard of anyone remaining nearly so long in what he calls the “time-out room”—an enclosure without furniture or even floor tiles, where a student can yell and scream and act out all he wants without hurting himself or anybody else. “I guess I’ve seen kids stay in there for four or five hours.” Nor has Huey heard anything like Cottrell’s account of being overpowered and given a shot that made him paranoid and delusional. Cottrell says he was so scared, he agreed to do anything they demanded, if they would just get him out of there. Whatever their methodology, they had broken him. For the longest time Cottrell couldn’t forgive himself.

The defeat would seem more like a victory to his father and teachers, who would henceforth see more brilliance in Cottrell than anger. “Billy,” his Provo therapist wrote his mother, “is self-motivated to do well—actually compulsive.” He spent his sophomore and junior years at a religious boarding school in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, where he won most of the academic awards. For his senior year, he returned to his mother’s house and took classes at the local high school and the University of Florida at Gainesville. He scored second in the state in Florida’s college-level math exam and twice got perfect scores on the math section of the SATs. “Not that this is an accomplishment,” he would say “It’s geared for a fourth-grade level.”

Lacking a high school diploma, his record marred by expulsions and Fs and incompletes but with hints of greater potential than straight-A students, he was accepted into the University of Chicago, which has one of the most rigorous undergraduate programs in the country. Here’s an excerpt from his application letter: “While it is true that I still hold basically the same beliefs that I did as a rebel against the system which sought to destroy freedom and individual thought, I am, in my present situation being offered a wonderful opportunity—hopefully—to explore these goals and I would do anything to make this possible.”

At Chicago, Cottrell met his first serious girlfriend, ran cross-country track, and struck some of his classmates as a genius. “He was way above everyone else I’ve ever met,” says Mike Schmitt, Cottrell’s college roommate, who’s pursuing a medical degree and a biochemistry doctorate at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Something that I worked on three or four hours a day for an entire week, Billy would look at the problem and solve it in his head in five seconds.”

Cottrell wasn’t entirely through with rebellion. Asked to submit a five-page paper on a particular topic, he turned in a nine-page paper about why he shouldn’t have been asked to write about that topic. “He once told me he wanted not to have either a high school diploma or a college diploma, and then he’d get two Ph.D.s,” Schmitt says. The university thwarted him, though, graduating Cottrell with its top math and science prizes.

“I expected great things from him,” says Peter Freund, professor emeritus of theoretical physics. During Freund’s career heading the Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago, Cottrell’s paper on p-adic strings was the only undergraduate thesis he supervised. “There is an intangible to becoming a really good researcher,” Freund says. “I mean, you have to be a man of ideas, or a woman of ideas. Nobody has figured how ideas pop in your head and what the process is.” Told about what has become of Cottrell, the professor is dumbfounded. “This man had a career in front of him,” Freund says. “He should have been excited about doing physics at this stage, and he ended up doing this. My gut reaction to everything you’re telling me is that it’s suicide.” 

FOUR YEARS AFTER its founding in England in 1992, the ELF began its U.S. operation modestly One fall morning the managers of three Oregon McDonald’s franchises reported to work to find their front doors glued shut and the ELF’s spray-painted signature. An ELF communique posted on the Internet some months after hinted at greater ambitions: “Welcome to the struggle of all species to be free. We are the burning rage of this dying planet. The war of greed ravages the earth and species die out every day. The ELF works to speed up the collapse of industry,, scare the rich, and to undermine the foundations of the state. Together, we have teeth and claws to match our dreams.”

In its current formlessness, the ELF is a creature of the Internet. It lacks any chain of command, has no avowed leaders or even a post office box. It may be made up of dedicated cells, or not. Its adherents commit acts in its name the way pro-life extremists invoke the Almighty. Bron Taylor, a professor of religion at the University of Florida at Gainesville who has had contact with ELF activists, speculates that most ELF crimes have been carried out by a few dozen disciplined and committed individuals. “I think the tendency of observers is to get a very skewed view of who’s doing this,” Taylor says, “because they’re focusing their attention on who’s caught, and those who are caught would be the most cavalier about it, and the most impulsive.” In 2001, three Long Island teenagers pleaded guilty to setting some half-built local luxury homes on fire. They testified against the alleged ringleader at the first ELF case ever to make it into a federal courtroom, but he was acquitted.

Unlike the radical leftist Weather Underground, who robbed a Brinks truck with guns blazing, or survivalist patriots of the Timothy McVeigh stripe, who can justify exploding a truck bomb at a day care center because it happens to share space with a federal office building—and unlike Al Qaeda—the Earth Liberation Front denounces violence against all biological life in furtherance of its aims. So far the group has managed to wreak its havoc without causing death or great bodily harm. The FBI doesn’t recognize such distinctions. “I think it can be seen as nothing but disingenuous that you’re not going to endanger lives but you’re going to burn things down,” says Randy Parsons, special agent in charge of the L.A. bureau’s counterterrorism division. “Nobody can control where fire goes.” During congressional testimony four months after 9/11, James Jarboe, domestic section chief of the bureau’s counterterrorism division, reported that the ELF had emerged as “a serious terrorist threat.”

At $2.3 million, the damage caused by the Hummer arsons wasn’t overwhelming by ELF standards. In October of 1998, Vail Resorts Inc. of Colorado began expanding its ski complex onto land inhabited by the endangered Canadian lynx. Seven ELF fires broke out simultaneously, causing $12 million in damage. The most catastrophic ELF crime was pulled off in San Diego three weeks before the SUV fires, when activists burned down a condominium complex under construction—a $50 million loss. But the sight of H2s ablaze in the summer of 2003 was more symbolically loaded. That spring Arianna Huffington and a handful of Hollywood insiders had cosponsored commercials taking SUV owners to task for propping up Middle East oil regimes. As a candidate in the California gubernatorial recall race, Huffington was about to make the low fuel efficiency of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hummer fleet a campaign issue. In the debate over high-emission SUVs, the Hummer—the largest vehicle in its class—was paraded out as the most egregious example.

On the morning of August 22, the ELF Web site posted a photo of the Clippinger wreckage above the slogan EVERY NIGHT IS EARTH NIGHT! Cottrell saw it and learned how wildly the Hummer fires had raged out of control. The day’s L.A. Times reported that the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had joined the investigation, and that federal prosecutors were already invoking possible life terms for the perpetrators.

Around 9:30 a.m., Cottrell got a call from Jesse Bloom, who ran cross-country with him at Chicago and was now studying chemistry at Caltech. Bloom had decided not to join Cottrell’s anti-SUV bumper-stickering campaign, but he knew it had been scheduled for the previous night and was curious to know if Cottrell had gone through with it. “He said the bumper stickers hadn’t come,” Bloom would testify. “He was very nervous, and I asked if he had vandalized cars instead. He said, ‘I guess you could call it that.’ He said they had destroyed Hummers.” Cottrell denies getting that specific with Bloom. He says he shared his most detailed postmortem with Bloom’s ex-girlfriend, Claire Jacobs, another Caltech grad student he’d known at Chicago. She would testify at his trial that Cottrell had called up to see if she’d been alone the night before. When she told him no, Cottrell said that it was “too bad,” because he needed an alibi. Later that day, at Caltech’s Fairchild Library, Cottrell led Jacobs to a computer whose screen showed the half-collapsed parts build ing at Clippinger Hummer. “He said, ‘I can’t believe it got this big,'” Jacobs testified. “‘I can’t believe this happened.’ I assumed he meant the fire in the building.”

A week or two after the arsons, Cottrell joined Bloom and a few other friends for a jog through Griffith Park. Cottrell announced that the bumper stickers had finally arrived and that he was rescheduling his campaign for the night of September 10. That way, on the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, the sport utility owners would wake up to read MY suv SUPPORTS TERRORISM on their fenders. “I was pretty floored by how stupid it seemed,” Bloom recalls. “I tried to talk him out of it.” Cottrell believed that after e-mailing his friends about the bumper stickering, it would look more suspicious for him not to go through with it. Besides, he just didn’t see how anyone could make a connection between what he had already done and what he was about to do. Cottrell was deterred only when he returned home for a closer look at the stickers mad realized they said MY SUV SUPPORTS TERRIORISM. The spelling error was too embarrassing. 

On September 12, the FBI apprehended a suspect, Josh Connole, a 26-year-old peace activist. A gangly vegetarian solar-panel salesman, Connole drove an electric vehicle and lived at a commune in Pomona. He was also in possession of a sign that proclaimed GEORGE BUSH IS A NAZI FASCIST CORPORATE PIG, which he says “is all true, except for the pig part.”

Reading about the arrest in the L.A. Times, Cottrell says he called up Johnson, insisting that they issue an anonymous statement to exonerate Connole. The first e-mail—sent by a fictitious Tony Marsden through a Web-based account—reached L.A. Times reporter Jessica Garrison a couple of hours alter Connole was freed. “Hello,” the writer said. “The police have the wrong man here. I was amongst those responsible for the SUV attacks.” He mentioned Euler’s theorem to prove his bona fides, a detail that wasn’t yet public information, and criticized the reds’ shabby work. “We left plenty of clues, none of them pointing to Josh. The FBI hasn’t seemed to pick up on any of them, which makes the whole ordeal very boring for us, the true culprits.”

Cottrell would admit to sending just one of the e-mails, suggesting a complex scenario in which Johnson might have sent others from a Caltech library computer via remote access. Cottrell wasn’t going to waste his time driving to an Internet cafe or somewhere else off-campus to correspond with the newspaper. If investigators had gone so far afield as to arrest Josh Connole, he didn’t know what he should be so worried about. “I think I was being very lazy and overly confident,” Cottrell says. “The FBI seemed like a bunch of idiots to me.” Besides, he believed that the Times couldn’t contribute to his unmasking. “You hear all these things about these chivalrous press agents who keep their sources secret under torture,” Cottrell says.

In a follow-up article, the Times reported the results of an in-house analysis: The Marsden e-mails had been sent from computers at Caltech and Pasadena City College. “The Times,” the article stated, “notified the schools.” The systems administrator for Caltech’s libraries contacted the head of campus security. By late September federal agents had seized the computers at Fairchild Library, and forensic investigators found a ghost of the Marsden e-mails in the cache of one terminal, sent soon after Billy Cottrell had checked his messages there.

In January, federal investigators returned to Caltech to question Cottrell and his friends. While interrogating Claire Jacobs, FBI agents told her that President Bush himself was interested in the outcome of this case, and that FBI director Robert Mueller was, for a time, briefed on it every day After admitting that she’d told Cottrell to dispose of some evidence, Jacobs chose to cooperate under a grant of immunity. Bloom also began talking to the FBI while urging Cottrell to inform on Johnson. On a trip the three took together earlier in the summer, Bloom had listened as Johnson talked about environmentally motivated arson. Bloom didn’t consider Cottrell a mild progressive, let ,alone an extremist. Cottrell was a booster of Schwarzenegger’s campaign and didn’t seem to like unions much. Besides, he was incapable of keeping his mouth shut. “I certainly don’t think that Billy was the mastermind,” Bloom says. “This whole thing seems to require more quiet planning than I think Billy was capable of.” One of Johnson’s friends suspects the opposite. “Billy was a grad student,” this friend says. “He knew more math than Tyler. He knew more physics and was better at climbing rocks. I don’t think Tyler himself was a driving force behind any of this.” As for Cottrell, federal agents told him that he’d broken the cardinal rule of crime by blabbing about it. Nevertheless, they said, what they really wanted was to get the other guys. Cottrell replied that even if he was involved, he’d in no way implicate anyone else who was.

In early February, about a week after that interview, Johnson notified his fellow physics students at the University of New Mexico that his lather had had a stroke and he would be taking a leave of absence. Later they heard that Johnson’s father was in fine health and Johnson had fled the country. Oe, too, had vanished. She left be hind a note in her San Fernando Valley apartment for her three best friends: ALWIN, AKIRA AND MIKE. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH. PLEASE HATE ME—MICHIE.

IN THE SPRING of 2004, John E. Lewis, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, reported to the Senate Judiciary Committee that progress had been made in the battle against ecoterrorism, with the apprehension of an “accused ELI: arsonist.” “William Cottrell,” he informed its chairman, Senator Orrin Hatch, “was arrested by the FBI’s Los Angeles Division on March 9, 2004, and indicted by a federal grand jury on March 16, 2004, for the role he played in a series of arsons and vandalism of more than 120 sport utility vehicles.” The charges against Cottrell included eight counts of arson and arson conspiracy for torching the Hummers, which would give him a concurrent sentence of 5 to 19 years. He was also charged with use of a destructive device during the commission of a felony in connection with the firebombing of Boston Fields’s Ford Expedition, the sole vehicle in which a Molotov cocktail had survived as evidence. The ninth count would yield an additional 30 years to life.

The decade before Cottrell’s indictment, the Southern district of the U.S. Attorney’s office, which stretches from Los Angeles to Riverside to San Diego, had pursued just two arson prosecutions. Only because the H2s were manufactured in Indiana and transported for sale in California did the federal government have jurisdiction under interstate commerce law.

To bring Cottrell to justice, the United States enlisted three prosecutors from its counterterrorism and organized crime divisions, and a Joint Terrorism Task Force spear headed by the FBI. Cottrell’s attorneys, Marvin Rudnick and Michael Mayock, crafted their defense around Asperger’s syndrome. Both their own expert and the prosecution’s concluded that Cottrell had some symptoms of the disease. Cottrell alone was skeptical of the diagnosis. “I distrust most psychologists, and I think that labeling people does no good,” he says. “As to whether or not I actually have Asperger’s, my attitude is that if a bunch of psychologists make up a word, then I guess they have the right to apply it however they wish.”

Asperger’s was at the core of Mayock’s opening statement to the jury last November. The defense lawyer likened his client’s brain to “a slow computer” with a dial-up Internet connection when it came to assessing the motives of his so-called friends,Johnson and Oe, that night. “Because he has Asperget’s, he was an easy dupe,” Mayock said. “Because he has Asperger’s, he actually became a victim in this case.” Mayock also made clear that whatever Cottrell’s mental condition, he had stopped short of committing arson—omitting that under federal conspiracy statutes, Cottrell could be found just as guilty as if he had.

Only when the prosecution was well on its way to resting its case did U.S. district judge Gary Klausner hand down his ruling that Asperger’s would be inadmissible. The decision gutted the defense. Without Asperger’s, Cottrell hardly seemed credible when he testified to taking Johnson at his word that, having set one SUV on fire, his friend was sorry, and wouldn’t do it again. He was a disastrous witness, fidgeting nonstop on the stand, his attitude toward judge, jury,, even his own attorneys, superior, aloof, and—classic Asperger’s?—pedantic.

Yes, he testified, he was the one who wrote Euler’s theorem on the Montero. “I think I’ve known Euler’s theorem since I was five,” he added. “Everyone should know Euler’s theorem.” In vain did he try to explain to the court his academic specialty.

“String theory,” the judge clarified. “It’s an area of physics.”

“It’s the area of physics,” Cottrell corrected him.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Riordan rose to give the government’s closing argument. “This is not a popularity contest,” he said, “nor is it a political arena in any way. The politics in this case do not exist.” Nor, he told the jury should Cottrell receive any favorable treatment or sympathy, even if he was a whiz at math. “He has to be treated no differently than you’d treat a homeboy on trial,” Riordan said. “You treat them the same.”

The prosecution had introduced no testimony or physical evidence that placed a firebomb in Cottrell’s hand. But that didn’t mean the defendant wasn’t himself dangerously flammable. “Mr. Cottrell’s volatile mix,” Riordan said, “isn’t that different from a Molotov cocktail—a dripping contempt for authority. A self-belief over all others.”

That evening the jury agreed that Cottrell was guilty of all the arsons. The next morning it decided to acquit him of the charge of using the explosive device. One of the jurors would say that, giving Cottrell every benefit of the doubt, a few of them reasoned that he did not become a knowing member of an arson conspiracy until after that first Molotov was launched.

Immaterial to the prosecution’s case was any determination as to whether Cottrell was an Earth Liberation Front terrorist. Jason De Bretteville, another of Cottrell’s prosecutors, says that neither he nor his colleagues discussed it. “Certainly, it was an ELF investigation,” he says of the case, “but the trial was about an arson committed by Billy Cottrell. ELF was not charged in the indictment.”

In Judge Klausner’s courtroom Cottrell may have been regarded as just another defendant, but powerful outside forces had singled him out for the kind of extraordinary investigation and prosecution that few other accused arsonists will ever have to face. There was the ELF’s eight-year war against the despoilers of the environment; the federal government’s war against the ELF which after 9/11 became a war against terror; and Cottrell’s own hopeless war that began with his teachers, then expanded to include the school system that hired them, the government that organized that system, and the society that supported that government.

IN THE VISITATION cubicle at the San Bernardino jail, Cottrell is reeling from sleeplessness and a case of the flu, but his mind is limber as he debates the merit of taking extreme action. “You can’t say it is always wrong to use quote-unquote violence for political ends,” he says. “I mean, if you apply that rule to Nazi Germany, you would say, ‘Okay, let’s let things go their way.’ We wouldn’t have had the Boston Tea Party or the American Revolution.” Notwithstanding his conviction, Cottrell believes the ultimate verdict on his actions will be handed down when humanity finally discovers whether global warming is going to destroy the earth. “If there’s the worst-case disaster scenario that some scientists say is likely to occur, people might look back and say, ‘Oh, more people should have been doing that.’ Then again, if there’s no environmental catastrophe, and all of a sudden the polar ice caps start rebuilding themselves, they’ll say, ‘Oh, he was crazy.'”

Cottrell revisits the many blunders he made in the days following the arsons. He struggles to explain why he just didn’t take a half an hour to dart off campus and send those L.A. Times e-mails from someplace where he couldn’t be so easily detected. All he can say is that he saw the entire business as a distraction from his main focus, theoretical physics. “You know,” Cottrell says, “as stupid as it sounds, because I’m going to spend five years in here or whatever, I just thought it would be quicker to send it from Caltech so I could get back to the work I was doing.”

Maybe he didn’t want to get back to what he was doing. After the school-yard beatings, after the expulsions, reform school, and physical and psychological deprivation, after suffering through a youth in which his genius hung on him like a hair shirt, Cottrell had, incredibly, achieved the goal he set out for himself when he picked up Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in elementary school. At Caltech he had a chance to become one of the great physicists of his generation. Having somehow leaped onto firm ground, his future secure, perhaps he was more uncomfortable than when he had straddled the abyss.

“There’s something I think that’s scary about being in a situation where you know exactly what the rest of your life is going to be like,” Billy Cottrell says. “Because at that point, your life becomes meaningless. There’s nothing left to do or conquer—when all of a sudden, it’s going to be so easy.”

Illustration by Ralph Steadman 

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