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Calif. student gets 8 years for SUV vandalism

An aspiring California physicist was sentenced to more than eight years in prison on Monday and ordered to pay $3.5 million for his role in an arson spree that targeted gas-guzzling Hummers and other SUVs.
/ Source: Reuters

An aspiring physicist was sentenced to more than eight years in prison on Monday and ordered to pay $3.5 million for his role in a spree of arson and vandalism that targeted gas-guzzling Hummers and other sports utility vehicles.

Rejecting pleas for clemency from William Cottrell, a 24-year-old doctoral candidate in physics at the California Institute of Technology, U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner added more time to the sentence after finding that Cottrell was trying to sway consumers with his anti-SUV message.

The slogans Cottrell spray-painted onto vehicles included “Fat Lazy Americans,” “No Respect for Earth” and “SUV = Terrorism.”

Cottrell, who admitted only spray-painting and testified he did not know that two friends were bringing Molotov cocktails, promised he would never break the law again. The two friends have fled the country to avoid prosecution, authorities said.

“I want nothing more than to be a physicist,” Cottrell said. “I would do anything to earn any leniency the court could show in this matter.”

Cottrell was convicted last November on seven counts of arson and one count of conspiracy related to a 2003 vandalism and firebombing spree that targeted about 125 large sports utility vehicles at four Southern California dealerships and a few homes.

Lawyers mount autism defense
Cottrell’s attorneys asked for the five-year mandatory minimum sentence saying that their client has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism marked by impaired ability to understand social situations.

They said it affected his judgment and kept him from backing out when his two friends started lighting Molotov cocktails.

But Judge Klausner said high intelligence should work against a defendant, not in his favor. “What a talent to have wasted,” Klausner said. “There’s only one person to blame for that, and I’m sure Mr. Cottrell understands that it’s him.”

Attorneys estimated that Cottrell, who had faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, could spend six years in jail, including credit for time served.

“The defendant engaged in conduct to send a political message,” said federal prosecutor Beverly Reid O’Connell. “He’s a scheming, arrogant person who is disdainful of the law and the justice system.”