Hard Cell

To some it was the hate crime of the century, a heinous blow struck, on August 22, 2003, against the foundations of civilization.

“The U.S. has its 9/11, we have our 8/22 here,” lamented Ziad Alhassen.

Alhassen, speaking to an auto-industry writer, was the owner of one of several San Gabriel Valley SUV and Hummer dealerships allegedly attacked by the Earth Liberation Front, in which 125 vehicles were burned or vandalized in the dead of night. The crime was analyzed on TV and condemned on op-ed pages; an Indiana congressman, Representative Chris Chocola, introduced a bill making arson or other sabotage committed by militant environmentalists a federal crime, punishable by life sentences.

Nearly seven months after the attacks, one lone suspect sits in jail awaiting trial and facing a minimum of 30 years in federal prison, while two co-conspirators have allegedly fled the country. William Jensen Cottrell, 23, was a physics doctoral student doing string-theory research and teaching at Caltech until March 9:

“I was in bed with my girlfriend at 6 a.m. when the FBI barged in with guns and handcuffed us both. Within 24 hours I was here.”

“Here” is the San Bernardino County Central Detention Center, where Cottrell is held without bail in a separate section for federal suspects. The jail sits along a lonely stretch of Rialto Avenue, a full hour’s drive from Pasadena, where Cottrell was arrested. It was here I visited him last week for an unsupervised interview.

“I don’t get any sleep here,” he says. “The lights dim at night, but they’re still on. People are screaming all night, and there’s always the sound of people playing dominoes.”

Even through a steel screen and a set of bars, Cottrell epitomizes the phrase “good-looking kid,” appearing slender yet athletic, like the runner and rock climber that he was until recently. His brown hair is cut short, and he wears a bit of stubble on his face. If it weren’t for the orange jumpsuit and county-stenciled white T-shirt, he’d look like any young REI shopper.

“The first night was really bad,” Cottrell said of his introduction to Berdoo. “I was in a holding cell with over 20 people that was designed for about five, and forced to sleep in a puddle of toilet water that had leaked onto the floor.”

The FBI affidavit that led to Cottrell’s arrest was filed by one of the bureau’s domestic-terrorism squads and appears to be a formidable document. Its main contention is that pseudonymous, post-“8/22” e-mail communiqués from an Earth Liberation Front Hotmail account to the L.A. Times were sent from the Caltech library on a computer using Cottrell’s assigned login and password; and, when the computer was used after-hours, it was within minutes of Cottrell’s magnetic entry card having been swiped.

The affidavit also claims that, when she was interviewed by agents, Caltech grad student Claire Jacobs, described as an ex-girlfriend, said, “Cottrell admitted to setting the arsons and that he and two other individuals were involved.” Cottrell allegedly told Jacobs he planned to flee the U.S. and, according to the affidavit, asked her to marry him to head off her having to testify against him before a grand jury. Another Caltech friend, Dan Feldman, told the FBI that Cottrell had confided in him that he might flee and then set up a “communications system” with Feldman to facilitate such a flight.

 

Five days after our interview, Cottrell was arraigned in Room 341 of Los Angeles' Roybal Building. A row of supporters, including his students, sat quietly, some reading math texts, through a long morning until Cottrell’s case was called and a May 11 trial date set. None of his supporters would speak to the media.

Cottrell’s first lawyer claimed in an affidavit that his client was being “Guantanámized,” meaning that by holding Cottrell in San Bernardino instead of Los Angeles, the government was making it more difficult for his client to help in his own defense.

Cottrell claims he is innocent of all charges and feels like an accused terrorist.

“I’m not an alleged arsonist. An alleged arsonist would get bail. An accused terrorist is denied bail. An accused terrorist gets sent far away so he cannot defend his case.”

Cottrell complains about San Bernardino’s lack of a law library, but seems more consumed with statements the FBI affidavit claims his friends made during interviews — false admissions, Cottrell believes, that were made under the threat of arrest.

“Claire is not my ‘ex-girlfriend,’” he said. “I’ve known her for six years, Dan Feldman for a year and a half. These are my friends, people I’ve trusted. I’ve been tossing and turning all night wondering why they would say those things to the FBI or if they’d said them. Not only are they not helping me, they’ve lied to the FBI by saying I’d planned on running. Even if I had asked them to help me, as a friend I’d expect that they not tell the FBI. It just baffles me.”

(Neither Claire Jacobs nor Dan Feldman responded to interview requests for this article and efforts to reach Cottrell’s mother were unsuccessful.)

There is yet another angle to the case. The FBI learned that Cottrell had hatched a prank in which he and some friends would slap SUVs with bumper stickers reading “My SUV Supports Terrorism.” The plan unraveled when the 5,000 stickers Cottrell received from a printing company had the slogan misspelled: “My SUV Supports Terriorism.”

Didn’t he, I asked, worry that someone would complain to the police about being stickered and that they would eventually trace him through his printer?

Cottrell grinned sheepishly and said, “Actually it was my mom who printed them at her stamp and sign shop. She misspelled it. She typed it in once wrong and didn’t check it and pressed the button. She never noticed it. Maybe she did it on purpose so I wouldn’t get in trouble.”

It’s obvious that Cottrell understands that for at least the next 30 years he could spend nights listening to inmate screams and the slapping of dominoes.

“You go between your cell and cafeteria, cell and cafeteria, cell and cafeteria,” he said of his new routine with a grim smile.

Still, I feel I have to ask him how he feels about SUVs.

“Anyone who drives a Hummer,” he says, the smile fading, “has no respect for humanity.”


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