By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
First, prison officials claimed they had “lost” his calculus syllabus — twice, Cottrell says. He resubmitted it, patiently handwritten, three more times. Then, Cottrell got the news that no one would be studying math with him in prison at all. As with the mowing job and the boiler-room work, he says the prison administration created special rules for their unusual new prisoner who came with the word “terrorist” attached. They feared, they told him, he would teach other inmates how to make bombs — “something,” Cottrell wrote to the Weekly, “that I know absolutely nothing about.”
In court, Cottrell had come off as obnoxious and weird, which did not endear him to the jury. “Objection!” he’d yell. “Irrelevant!” When prosecutor Beverly Reid O’Connell, then an assistant U.S. attorney, cut him off once, he shouted, “But I know this one! I know this one!” (Interestingly, Reid O’Connell today insists she recalls none of his inappropriate courtroom antics.)
In prison, he was regarded as downright freakish. His mother believes that prison guards took an early dislike to him because he wasn’t able to play their games. “He can’t play the subordinate,” she says. “He’d die first.” Cottrell himself thinks the guards were jealous of his intelligence. Whatever the truth, Cottrell has been hardly more popular with the prison guards than he was with the jury.
Next, Cottrell told friends and family on the outside, the guards assigned him a new cellmate, an especially tough bad actor known around prison for starting fights. In the summer of 2005, that man at first tried to tear apart Cottrell’s books, then tried to poke his eyes out with a broom, according to Cottrell. Cottrell fought him off and, he says, got blamed for the fight.
In his letters to the Weekly, he says one prison official took away his physics papers, telling him that the science he was studying conflicted with the teachings of Jesus. Another forbade his Chinese studies, even after he had learned Mandarin so well that, he says, he served as a translator between guards and a Chinese-speaking prisoner.
But his worst months in prison came late last year. Shortly after the Bureau of Prisons Office of Inspector General released a report suggesting that federal prisons — including Lompoc — were not dealing harshly enough with convicted international terrorists inside the prisons, Cottrell was told he would have to serve as a witness in a bizarre “investigation.”
The probe focused on Lompoc’s Department of Corrections education coordinator, who procured the Chinese-language study materials for Cottrell. Cottrell says that when he refused to testify against the education coordinator, he was thrown into the Hole at Lompoc, and denied visitors and phone calls.
Cottrell says he was not given a clear explanation for his detention. “I haven’t been given any formal sanctions, no lock-up order from the Captain [of the prison guards], no rationale, no date of release, no anything,” wrote Cottrell in a December 18 letter to the Weekly. “They’ve taken every single physics text, Chinese story and piece of literature I’ve accumulated . . . and told me it’s all going to be burned.
“As far as I know,” he concluded, “I’m in the Hole for studying Chinese.”
Prison officials refuse to comment on many of his allegations, but concede that some of what Cottrell claims may have indeed occurred.
Bruce Kates first alerted the Weekly to Cottrell’s situation. A musician and professional piano tuner, Kates also attended Caltech as a math student. (“I didn’t have the goods,” he said, “but I could recognize people who did.”)
Kates is solemn, earnest and scholarly-looking. He is balding, wears glasses and speaks gently, in carefully punctuated syllables. It was clear that he cared deeply about Cottrell. Several times, as his voice rose with emotion, I thought he might weep. “If Billy loses his mind in prison,” he said, “we have lost a great resource in the world of science.”
I met with Kates the first time the day before Thanksgiving last year, along with Cottrell’s mother, who had cobbled together frequent-flier miles to come to Los Angeles in hopes that she could visit her son on Thanksgiving, even though the prison administrators had warned her that she couldn’t.
Schwiebert didn’t have any illusions that her son deserved special sympathy; she didn’t think it was newsworthy that her son was in prison. She just wanted the prison to follow its own rules. “You’re not supposed to be denied privileges unless you’re doing something wrong,” she said. “And they don’t tell us what he’s done wrong.”
She also wanted to get clear information about his well-being and whereabouts. Cottrell had been in the Hole since early November, and communication since then had been almost nonexistent. “At this point,” she said, “we don’t even know whether he’s dead.”
Schwiebert did manage to get through the gates on Thanksgiving Day, when holiday substitutes were on duty. But the next day, with the regular prison staff back in force, she was once again told her son would not be allowed visitors for months.