It was late August 2003 in the Los Angeles area when more than 125 SUVs were vandalized with graffiti and a Hummer dealership was attacked with Molotov cocktails. Total damage was put at $5 million. Back then gas was cheap and the economy was starting to climb out of the depths of the dot-com bust. That was also the year the Hummer H2 was introduced, and the behemoth SUV quickly became the lightning rod for media attacks from environmentalists who saw them as gas hogs and consumer advocates who feared the vehicle's massive bulk would be a danger to smaller cars on the road.

The SUV vandals spray painted "ELF" on many vehicles that night. Standing for Earth Liberattion Front, that calling card struck fear into the owners of many SUVs, especially those who just plucked down $45,000 for a Hummer and spent another $20,000 on wheels, tires and audio. The ELF gained plenty of media attention but underground or not, there never seemed to be any recognizable leadership, organization or even spokesperson. That uncertainty and stealth-like attacks led to even more fear.

More following the break.
I used to take my morning walks along the boardwalk in front of multi-million-dollar homes in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. One day I noticed when one resident purchased a bright yellow Hummer H2. He always parked it on an uncovered carport next to his home since garage space is at premium on the waterfront. Right after the vandal attacks, the homeowner had outside security cameras installed. But instead of pointing them toward the front porch that butts up against the boardwalk to deter beachgoers from entering private property, the cameras were pointed on his Hummer's parking space.

The only person tried and convicted of the crime is William "Billy" Cottrell, a brilliant theoretical physicist from Cal Tech. Part of his defense was that he was just along for the ride and that a friend and his girlfriend were responsible for the firebombings. Cottrell was sentenced to eight years in prison while the other two were never found. This week the LA Weekly ran a lengthy story that focused on Cottrell's incarceration at two California facilities.

Cottrell, who has absolutely no ties to any radical movement, suffers from a high-fuctioning form of autism called Asperger's syndrome. He's great at math but lousy at social skills. Based on interviews with those close to the situation and letters with Cottrell, writer Judith Lewis paints a picture of prison life that is hardly conducive to rehabilitation or even punishment. Cottrell has had educational materials taken away from him. Authorities won't let him work near a water heater or a lawn mower for fear he'll fabricate a bomb. He tried to organize calculus classes for the inmates but was rebuffed. The guards and prison authorities have pinned the "terrorist" label on him. According to those close to Cottrell, he gets threats and taunts by officials as well other inmates. He has been banished to solitary and receives few privileges. Life is so bad for Cottrell, that he might be now forming the radical attitude for which he has been accused.

Cottrell's case is under two appeals; one because the jury did not hear of his autism and the other for a sentencing irregularity. Meanwhile his brilliant mind isn't allowed to cultivate new ideas or even be nourished with reading materials suited for his intellect. This story, as well as the letters that Cottrell wrote to the LA Weekly and links to other stories with significant background information, provide a keen insight into Cottrell but also into a penal system that still has trouble understanding its function in society.

[Source: Judith Lewis / LA Weekly]

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