Ecoterrorist Will Spend Seven Years in Federal Prison

Published May 1, 2005

A federal judge ruled on April 18 that 24-year-old William Jensen Cottrell should serve more than seven years in federal prison and pay more than $3.5 million in restitution for an August 2003 firebombing spree that damaged or destroyed some 125 sport utility vehicles at dealerships and homes outside Los Angeles.

Cottrell will be required to serve at least 85 percent of the eight-year, four-month sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner. Cottrell was convicted in November 2004 of seven counts of arson and one of conspiracy. He was acquitted of the most serious charge, using a destructive device in a crime of violence, which would have carried a sentence of at least 30 years in prison.

Cottrell, a Ph.D. candidate in physics at the California Institute of Technology, and two former Caltech students threw Molotov cocktails at Hummers and other SUVs after spray-painting them with such slogans as “Fat, Lazy Americans” and “ELF,” for the environmental terrorist group Earth Liberation Front. Cottrell said at trial that he was a member of ELF, and the group claimed responsibility for the firebomings.

Warrants have been issued for the arrest of Cottrell’s co-conspirators, Tyler Johnson and his girlfriend, Michie Oe, who are believed to have fled the country.

“Acts of ecoterrorism have been on the rise over the past four years,” commented Sandy Liddy Bourne, director of legislation and policy for the American Legislative Exchange Council, “causing millions of dollars in damage to private property and research facilities. It is heartening to see a conviction with a stiff sentence that will send a message to radical environmental activists and animal rights zealots. They consider violence a means to advance a political agenda, but that will not be tolerated in the United States.”

“An attitude seems to pervade much of the environmental and animal rights movement today,” noted Paul Driessen, author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death. “If they can’t achieve their goals through debate and persuasion, through our legislatures and courts–then they have a right to resort to harassment, intimidation, and even violence.

“Fire bombs are just part of it,” Driessen continued. “A spokesman for the radical Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine openly advocates murdering other doctors, as a way of discouraging animal research to find cures for human disease.”

Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, noted the Cottrell case “may turn out to be more important than the simple fact of catching, convicting, and imprisoning an ideological arsonist. It may provide information that could eventually be used to predict and interdict similar ecoterror crimes.”

Arnold is involved in a study for the National Institute of Justice aimed at finding “pre-incident indicators” for terrorist acts–“things law enforcement can use to see the crimes coming and possibly prevent them,” he explained.

“These indicators include, among other patterns, ‘recruiters and perpetrators’ events, which is where the Cottrell case comes in,” said Arnold. “Billy Cottrell has all the earmarks of a ‘recruit’ and the two others appear to fit the ‘recruiter’ pattern.

“If this turns out to be true,” Arnold noted, “study of the case could reveal time and location patterns that would help predict future ecoterror crimes–a boon to all potential targets and to the safety and freedom of the nation.”

Diane Carol Bast ([email protected]) is executive editor of Environment & Climate News.