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A Terrible Thing to Waste 

Convicted as an ecoterrorist, a brilliant young scholar nose-dives in prison Also, excerpts of Billy Cottrell's letters from prison

Wednesday, Feb 28 2007
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When Billy Cottrell was first sent up to Lompoc Federal Penitentiary, he thought he had landed the perfect job. A brilliant student of theoretical physics at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Cottrell has a high-functioning form of autism that makes it difficult for him to pick up on people’s emotions, but also gives him a grave appreciation for detail. At Lompoc, he thought, he would do secretarial duty in the “boiler-room office,” spending many hours alone, filing, sorting, typing and proofreading. He could be useful.

Before his first day, however, prison officials got nervous. They knew Cottrell was smart; they’d seen his physics textbooks and writings. And wasn’t this the kid who’d been convicted of blowing up Hummers somewhere in Los Angeles? Thinking he might find a way to rig the water heaters to blow up the prison, Cottrell says, they denied him the job.

Next, Cottrell was offered a job mowing Lompoc’s copious lawn. This appealed to Cottrell’s jittery need for physical exertion. Before he was arrested, he could run a marathon in under three hours, even sleep-deprived and hopped up on Rockstar energy drink. Once again, however, the penitentiary’s guardians said no: Cottrell says prison guards worried that he might use the gasoline in the lawn mower to make a bomb.

click to flip through (2) Billy Cottrell in kindergarten.
  • Billy Cottrell in kindergarten.
 
 

Finally, Billy Cottrell — who got kicked out of high school a few times yet wrote an essay to the University of Chicago so impressive he was accepted into its competitive math-and-science program, who snagged an appointment at Caltech to study the arcane complexities of string theory, and who many prominent scientists consider a genius — found a job he could keep. He stood up to his knees in filth, sorting through his fellow inmates’ putrid detritus in the prison dumpsters.

It’s a job most prisoners get as a single day’s punishment. Cottrell did it for three and a half months.

Since the day he arrived at Lompoc, 18 months ago, say his lawyers, family and friends, Cottrell has been harassed, threatened and taunted by the prison population and, in some cases, also by the guards and the administration. Because in the rigid world of prison, Cottrell has been labeled a terrorist.

Lompoc guards whispered the word at him as he passed. Visitors heard guards refer to him as their “very own ecoterrorist.” Cottrell later learned he had been used as an example in a training video on how to deal with terrorists in prison, “so now every prison guard in the country recognizes me as a terrorist on sight,” he wrote in a January 10 letter to the L.A. Weekly. He has been denied common privileges such as exercise, visitors and phone calls. Ultimately, he was banished to solitary confinement — the Hole, in prison parlance — like a violent thug.

And all because of one night in the summer of 2003, when Cottrell helped two friends deface and destroy dozens of sport utility vehicles in the name of the environment. Those who know of Cottrell and his tough prison sentence stretching to 2010 — the judge piled on an additional three years, without benefit of a jury rendering — say Cottrell is being mishandled, persecuted and, within the prison walls, compelled to become the very radical his prosecutors argued he was in court.

Meanwhile, he awaits word on two legal fronts: first, whether the California 9th Circuit believes jurors should have heard about his autism, and second, whether the federal courts will mirror the California Supreme Court in declaring judge-rendered sentence enhancements unconstitutional.

Back when he was sentenced in April 2005 to eight and a half years in prison, the judge, an ex-Marine named R. Gary Klausner, didn’t think Cottrell’s intellect or his autism should have justified leniency. But a great many scientists around the world, including Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, have publicly objected to the apparent fact that his intellect and psychological quirks, combined with the “terrorism” label attached to his crime, have provoked prison guards to single him out.

“Billy has been selected for the especially harsh treatment reserved for ‘a terrorist,’ ” reads a letter in Cottrell’s defense signed by Hawking and seven other prominent scientists. “[His] treatment in prison, far from being rehabilitative, is nothing short of nightmarish.”

The letter was distributed to prison authorities and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals at Cottrell’s October 18 hearing, held to determine whether the jury should have understood his psychiatric diagnosis — which the judge barred from the trial. But instead of helping him in prison, the letter seemed only to make things worse: Two weeks after the hearing, Cottrell was mysteriously thrown in the Hole.

University of Chicago professor Peter Freund, who drafted the letter his colleagues, including Hawking, later edited and signed, calls Cottrell’s ordeal “a tragedy.” One of the world’s pre-eminent authorities on theoretical physics, Freund supervised Cottrell’s senior thesis on string theory, the work that landed him a coveted spot working with Hiroshi Ooguri in Caltech’s physics department.

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