William “Billy” Cottrell, 27, was described by his University of Chicago professors as something of an eccentric genius, says the Chicago Tribune. Two years after his 2002 graduation with honors as a double major in physics and math, he was convicted as one of the nation’s first ecoterrorists of the post-Sept. 11 era. He was found guilty of conspiracy and arson in the firebombings of sport-utility vehicle dealerships in the Los Angeles area to advocate radical environmentalism. Cottrell is appealing his conviction. One mitigating factor, his supporters argue, is that he has Asperger syndrome, which can make his behavior at times inappropriate.
His case is now a cause celebre for prominent physicists, including Stephen Hawking, who have urged better treatment for Cottrell in prison so he could continue his study and research. As the man labeled a domestic terrorist by authorities serves an 8-year sentence in a medium-security prison in Victorville, Cottrell’s case has been taken up by relatives, friends and the scientists. Hawking and seven other physicists want federal officials to remove Cottrell from “nightmarish” violent inmates and ease restrictions so the physics graduate student can work on “his promise for an outstanding career in theoretical physics, a career in which he could make major contributions to society, through science.” Said a federal prison spokeswoman: “All of the inmates are restricted by the policies and practices, and we don’t make any exceptions for any particular inmate.”