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.
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.
“If you told me John Doe was treated this way, someone I didn’t know at all, I’d feel revulsion at this systematic way the prison system is destroying a human being,” Freund says. “It’s horrible and it’s unfair. But with Billy, it’s also a loss to science. It’s too painful to watch without doing everything you can to stop it.”
There was a time, not too long ago, when Billy Cottrell was an eccentric but amiable Ph.D. candidate at Caltech, “a few degrees removed from reality,” according to Freund, but harmless. He had not yet been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, the peculiar form of autism whose sufferers typically excel at advanced math and fail miserably at social skills.
But looking back, the signs were there: You might imagine him similar to Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, only less eccentric, much smarter and, as he would tell you, much better-looking. “He always talked kind of fast, like a robot,” says his mother, Heidi Schwiebert. “I used to call him my little Mr. Spock.”
Cottrell disliked silly, institutional rules: At the University of Chicago, he once refused to complete an assignment and instead turned in a lengthy and detailed essay on why the assignment was dumb. And he displayed bad judgment sometimes, says his friend Jesse Bloom, who has known him since the two were undergraduates at the University of Chicago. “When we had [David] Letterman on campus at Caltech,” Bloom remembers, “Billy ‘streaked’ [naked] across campus because people were daring him to do that.”
But he was not much of an environmentalist, or even all that liberal. In fact, in his 2004 trial, covered by Newsweek and CNN, no evidence ever emerged — and the prosecutors never suggested — that Cottrell was involved in the environmental movement at all. He watched Bill O’Reilly as regularly as he read The Nation. He voted for Schwarzenegger. He did not rebel against society so much as hold accountable the lazy people running it.
“Billy believed that most problems could be traced to lazy people who would rather complain than put in a little hard work, and he thought they should show more determination and stop making excuses,” says Bloom. “But I never saw him be mean or hostile to anyone.”
On the night of August 22, 2003, Cottrell would later testify, he had only intended to tour around Southern California with his friends Tyler Johnson and Michie Oe, plastering SUVs with bumper stickers. Going in, the plan was so innocuous, rising only to the level of a graffiti prank, that even Cottrell’s mom, Heidi, was involved.
An attractive blonde in her 50s, with big blue eyes and a curly bob haircut, Schwiebert is a horsewoman, although that’s where her interest in environmentalism ends. But she was fed up enough with polluting road hogs that she volunteered to print up bumper stickers for the three young people that would say “SUV = TERRORISM.” “I told the printer I didn’t particularly agree with the slogan myself, but I supported their right to free speech,” she recalled. At the printer’s, another “I” slipped in, and the stickers came out condemning “TERRIORISM.”
In the defense account of that night, Tyler Johnson, angry about the misspelling, demanded that Cottrell pay him back the $200 he’d spent on materials. Johnson offered to forgo the $200 if Cottrell would use his own car to chauffeur Johnson and his girlfriend, Michie Oe, around town while they spray-painted the offending gas-guzzlers.
Johnson and Oe, say Cottrell and his lawyers, had run out of gas. Cottrell agreed to take his car instead. On the way, Cottrell stopped at a gas station, and they filled several containers with gasoline.
At a Mercedes lot in Arcadia, Johnson, Cottrell and Oe sprayed seven or eight $30,000-to-$40,000 vehicles with slogans like “Fat, Lazy Americans” and “I [heart] Pollution.” In nearby Monrovia, they sprayed a Toyota Tundra and a Honda Passport with “Polluter” and “Killer.” At one car lot in Duarte, they painted 21 SUVs with the words “SUV’S Suck Hi,” and “Smog Machine.” At another Duarte lot, they hit 26 more. And on several vehicles they scrawled the initials ELF, the acronym for Earth Liberation Front.
As far as anyone knows, no ELF really exists; its Web site, www.earth?liberationfront.com, is no more than a front for Viagra and repo ads (and now it’s for sale). But in April of 2003, a few months before the SUV vandalism spree and five months before Cottrell’s arrest, the FBI’s assistant deputy director for counterterrorism, John Lewis, had gone before a Senate committee claiming that ELF and like-minded groups were America’s greatest domestic-terrorist threat. The feds were eagerly prosecuting a number of alleged environmental saboteurs who fit that view.
Because of the acronym spray-painted on the vehicles, says one of Cottrell’s lawyers, Michael Mayock. “They were watching this case at the highest levels in Washington.”
Against this tense national backdrop, Cottrell’s lawyers, Mayock and Marvin Rudnick, had asked the jury to believe that Cottrell was shocked when Johnson, without warning, stuck a rag in one of the just-filled gas containers, lit it and lobbed the homemade Molotov cocktail at a red 2003 Hummer H2 at the Clippinger Hummer dealership in West Covina. Cottrell’s defense relied on his claim that he was not part of that plan, that he insisted Johnson stop, and that he believed that Johnson would not lob another device.
But Johnson pulled out another Molotov cocktail, and then another, and another. He pummeled the Clippinger Hummer lot with so many of the minibombs, in fact, that the fires lit up 14 vehicles. All told, on that August night, after several hours of cruising, defiling and burning, 125 SUVs and other vehicles were damaged and destroyed, racking up $5 million in damage to vehicles that had traveled between states — a technicality that invoked the Interstate Commerce clause and made Cottrell’s a federal case.
The jury didn’t buy Cottrell’s defense, and no wonder. Both Johnson and Oe had disappeared before Cottrell’s arrest, and are still at large. There was no extracting their story about their night of arson. The jury had plenty of evidence to place Cottrell at the crime, including the use of his red Toyota Camry and his image on one dealership’s surveillance video.
Most important of all, Judge Klausner allowed no discussion on how Asperger’s might have affected Billy Cottrell’s judgment.
One of the most incriminating pieces of evidence left behind in Duarte that night was the carefully scrawled equation ei????? + 1 = 0, a magical formula discovered by Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler in the 18th century. It was also the very formula Cottrell and a friend had painted on the University of Chicago’s astronomy-building tower years ago, climbing up to write it in large print near the roof. The presence of the equation on the SUVs made it easier to connect the crime to Cottrell. In effect, Cottrell had left a calling card.
It takes a certain mastery of mathematics to appreciate the beauty of this equation, known as “Euler’s identity,” a simple, elegant line of code that employs five fundamental mathematical constants. If you can’t quite grasp that — most people can’t — you might be able to understand why Cottrell seems an oddball to so many people.
This strange line of symbols was a mark of his identity; a thing he celebrated in spray paint, breaking laws as he did so. It is a symptom consistent with Asperger’s syndrome, of a mind that can focus narrowly and cleanly on abstract hypotheses about the origins of the universe like string theory, but cannot detect ordinary nuances and gestures that signal when behavior might be questionable or when, as Cottrell still claims, a good friend holding a spray can assures him there will be no more violent explosions — and then there are many, many more.
Lead prosecutor Beverly Reid O’Connell, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, when asked by the Weekly whether she believed at the time of the trial that she was prosecuting Cottrell for an act of terrorism, as the prison system seems to see it, responded, “I’m not going to comment on that.”
Was there an effort, from higher levels in Washington, to prosecute someone for “ecoterrorism” at the time? Reid O’Connell responded, “I can’t comment on that.” Her co-prosecutor, Jason De Bretteville, laughed out loud at the suggestion, denying that the feds were involved. In 2004, neither prosecutor had any trouble portraying Cottrell as Reid O’Connell described him to the jury: “A scheming, arrogant person who is disdainful of the law.”
His friend Jesse Bloom readily concedes, “Billy made a bad impression at his very first hearing. The newspapers were accurate when they described how he shook his head and ‘smirked’ at the judge. But they didn’t know Billy.”
In November of 2004, Billy Cottrell was convicted on one count of conspiracy and seven counts of arson, carrying a minimum sentence of five years. In April 2005, Klausner sentenced Cottrell to five years, plus three and a half years — on the grounds that his acts could be defined as terrorism.
A California Supreme Court ruling on January 22 declared that such “determinate sentencing” violates the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a trial by an impartial jury by “placing sentence-elevating fact-finding within a judge’s province.” But that doesn’t directly help Cottrell, who was convicted in federal court. Even though no evidence emerged during the trial that Cottrell was a “terrorist,” the judge decided he was, and sentenced him accordingly.
Friends watched from the outside as Cottrell struggled to make something of his time in prison. They ordered him physics books and newly published papers from science journals so he could continue his physics studies. Cottrell even persuaded the Lompoc education coordinator to order Chinese-language tapes and textbooks for the library, because he wanted to study Mandarin. On Saturdays, Cottrell organized relay races on the prison track.
The majority of prison inmates read below the ninth-grade level. The prison system encourages them to get GEDs and, on paper at least, encourages earning higher degrees. Cottrell thought he could help. In the fall of 2005, he submitted proposals to prison officials for a calculus class, “complete with four months’ worth of homework, quizzes and tests” that Cottrell had written out from scratch on yellow legal pads in his cell.
He may not have been popular with the guards, but his fellow inmates knew a good thing when they saw one: One hundred hardened criminals signed up to study calculus, according to Cottrell. Cottrell would be Jaime Escalante, teaching tough math to the underprivileged.
But Cottrell was a very rare item in the federal prison system — a real, homegrown environmental “terrorist” in the eyes of prison officials. After all, even though prosecutors did not present a single piece of evidence linking the strange genius Cottrell to any radical movements — either before or after that night in the Los Angeles suburbs — hadn’t a judge convicted him?
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.
Cottrell went into the Hole on November 3 and stayed there until early January. It was cold. When Kates visited him, he found the temperature in Cottrell’s cell was at a chilly 68 degrees, and Cottrell was wearing only a T-shirt.
Intermittently, his books were confiscated, returned and taken away again. Once, he says, his physics study papers were snatched up because they were a “fire hazard” — one of the few claims made to the Weekly by Cottrell that Lompoc spokesperson Erwin Meinberg obliquely confirms. “They might take papers away if they’re a fire hazard,” Meinberg says, an echo of Cottrell’s account. Another time, Cottrell wrote in a letter to the Weekly dated January 10, his books were taken because he didn’t have the receipts to prove he owned them.
Again, Meinberg doesn’t dispute that this might have happened. “Sometimes [inmates] have to have proof that something belongs to them,” he says. “[The guards] might take things away if they think that they’re stolen.”
To which Cottrell replied in a letter, “How could I have that proof? I’m in the Hole.”
Meinberg does deny that any prison official swiped Cottrell’s physics texts on religious grounds. “I’ve never heard of something like that happening,” he says.
Both Schwiebert and Kates believed that Cottrell’s situation in prison had grown worse since October 18, when his appeal was heard before the 9th Circuit.
The hearing had gone extremely well, according to Cottrell’s lawyers, who argued before the court that Cottrell’s Asperger’s diagnosis should have been heard during his trial. “There’s a precedent in California,” says Rudnick, “that if you have a ‘gross and identifiable disability,’ it can be used to explain the actions of the defendant. But we weren’t allowed to do that. It was as if [Billy] was blind, and the jury was extra hard on him because he could not answer the question ‘What did you see?’ ”
Psychiatrist Gary Mesibov, retained by the defense, had diagnosed Cottrell with Asperger’s. The psychiatrist working for the prosecution did not dispute it. But while Judge Klausner allowed Cottrell’s lawyers to discuss his condition in their opening statements, Klausner changed his mind soon after. The jury never heard another word about it.
There is some reason to believe the 9th Circuit appeals court might view Cottrell’s Asperger’s and its influence on his behavior as relevant to how he behaved the night of the SUV arsons. In contrast to Judge Klausner, 9th Circuit Judge Harry Pregerson last October seemed to indicate some knowledge about what it means to suffer from Asperger’s. Pregerson asked Mayock and Rudnick how their client was doing in jail. The lawyers remain hopeful that the court will reverse the conviction and send it back for a new trial, or change his sentencing.
“I have not seen such interest by judges in a criminal defendant’s case,” Rudnick says of Pregerson. “We’ve come a long way since the conviction. The judges seemed very, very concerned about his case and his welfare in prison. It looks to me like they wanted to do something.”
But they have not acted yet, and with each day that passes, Rudnick’s optimism seems to flag. “I am puzzled about the failure of the 9th Circuit to follow up on its seemingly supportive position,” he wrote to the Weekly in January. “Since the applicability of Asperger’s is new to the criminal law, and this is a terrorist case, the only thing I can think of is that they may be waiting for another decision from another panel. Or they may be fighting over language in the decision in order to get a 3-0 vote instead of what looked like a 2-1 vote.”
Shortly after the Weekly sent a Freedom of Information Request to the Bureau of Prisons, the slow-talking and personable Meinberg sent over a letter, by e-mail on January 5, stating that Cottrell’s phone and visiting privileges had suddenly been restored, and explaining that Cottrell had been placed in “administrative detention” following a “security breach.” In other words, he had been thrown in the Hole — but for what, neither Meinberg nor the Bureau of Prisons was saying.
When asked by the Weekly to describe the security breach involving Cottrell, Meinberg remarked, “It’s in the realm of the secret squirrels” — conjuring up images of tiny creatures scurrying about the penitentiary halls, making decisions about the prisoners’ future in cackling little confabs. Meinberg insisted the details of the security breach were no secret to Cottrell, however: “Oh, he knows. He knows,” Meinberg intoned.
I requested a visit with Cottrell, but just before the request was reviewed, Cottrell was transferred to Victorville Federal Correctional Institution in the high-desert town of Adelanto, California. Again, I faxed over a request to visit. A few days later, Victorville’s spokesman, Ed Gaunder, told me, “We’re unable to have you conduct an interview because the warden, Joe Norwood, deems that there could be a security issue involved with this inmate. There’s some history there.”
When asked what that history was, Gaunder said he couldn’t talk about it. But his response seemed to suggest that prison officials see Cottrell as a true-blue terrorist, given their literal reading of his conviction. “You pretty much have to just read between the lines of his sentence,” he said.
When I asked him to confirm that he meant the nature of Cottrell’s crimes made him a security risk, even in a prison that holds Aryan Brotherhood murderers and Mexican Mafia hit men, Gaunder backed down, saying, “You’re taking that out of context . . . I guess I wish you wouldn’t have heard that.” Gaunder finally said, “Basically, the reason this interview won’t be conducted is because the security and safety of this institution is at stake. Therefore you will have to manufacture your story from what the inmate says.
“But I can tell you this,” he added before he hung up. “Prisons are run pretty similar through the federal system. We do not tolerate misconduct from staff members in the federal prison system. So I’m going to say that some of those [Lompoc] incidents did not happen . . . We don’t mistreat inmates in the federal prison system.”
Cottrell is not unaffected by his unusual treatment. Evidence in his letters implies that he is becoming increasingly radicalized — mimicking in some ways the kind of person the prosecutors tried to paint two years ago, when he was still a theoretical-physics scholar at Caltech.
In a letter to the Weekly in December, he worried that media coverage of his situation in prison might make his story “seem rare and unusual . . . But although my case is unique in its details, there are many, many good, productive people in prison for no apparent reason. The majority of people are here for victimless crimes and were supporting families at the time of their arrest.”
By the end of December, in a letter to Bruce Kates, he sounded more bitter and focused in his anger: “Many people in prison speak openly about revolution. How many of these people can our government produce through its abusive penal system before we have one on our hands?”
The mind that should have been dialed into exploring the great problems of our scientific age instead wanders idly inside a federal prison, examining the social order in all its perverse detail. While stewing in the Hole, Cottrell began to compare his situation, and the situation of other prisoners like him, to the situation of the Jews in Nazi Germany.
“Focusing too much on the artificial constructs of our government lends credence to the idea that they somehow represent the morality which we really value,” he wrote to the Weekly, in urging the paper not to focus on his imprisonment when, he now argues, much greater issues are at stake. “It’s as if the SS were to execute a Jew for not wearing his armband, and an underground newspaper were to indignantly report that the SS was wrong since the armband was merely too dirty to see.”
When scientist Peter Freund drafted the letter protesting Cottrell’s mistreatment in prison, he initially included language about rehabilitation. “Then I had a lawyer read it, and he said, ‘Oh, you are so naive! Their stated purpose is not to rehabilitate. It is to punish.’?”
But in fact, the Bureau of Prisons Web site states that the bureau exists to “reduce the potential for future criminal activity by encouraging inmates to participate in a range of programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism.”
In practice, Freund is right. None of what’s allegedly being done to Cottrell is reducing his potential for criminal activity in the future.
Rehabilitating somebody with Asperger’s syndrome like Billy Cottrell would mean doing something the federal system is not set up to do: plying him with so many physics texts that he wouldn’t have time to socialize, and allowing him to work out his anxiety and energy on the prison track. It would also mean letting him use his overachieving brain to teach physics and calculus (it arguably would help other prisoners too).
Heidi Schwiebert says that life has improved for her son at Victorville, especially now that he has been released from his horrific months in the Hole.
“He’s allowed to go outside now,” she says, “and he gets exercise.” But the many books she’s sent him on string theory and theoretical physics remain missing, she says, and new ones she sends don’t arrive. Deprived of those books, Cottrell’s mind goes without the stimulation of the scientific studies that have focused and calmed him ever since high school, when he went without sleep poring over Einstein.
From the inside, he watches the judicial system spend a small fortune in taxpayer dollars prosecuting, imprisoning, and then drumming up paranoia among prison guards and prisoners over a college kid who went on a vandalism spree against Hummers.
“Here we have [our] politicians, who are not charged with crimes, setting this planet on a disaster course for some fleeting political advantage, while others are sent to prison for taking a stance against this,” Cottrell wrote in his last, much more angry letter from Lompoc.
“The harsh sentence in my case was designed to both distract attention from the policies which motivated my friends’ actions, and to deter more people from supporting what is essentially a just cause.”
His arguments may contain the seeds of truth, but at this moment they can do him nothing but harm.