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Student Gets Eight Years for Eco-Vandalism

A Caltech graduate student convicted of helping to firebomb scores of sport utility vehicles was sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison and ordered to pay $3.5 million in restitution.

A federal judge Monday rejected William Jensen Cottrell's (search) plea for leniency.

"There's no way I'd ever be involved in anything like this again," Cottrell said. "I won't ever even jaywalk again."

However, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner said Cottrell had engaged in domestic terrorism and "we're very, very lucky" that no one was killed in the arson attacks.

Cottrell, 24, was convicted in November of conspiracy to commit arson and seven counts of arson for an August 2003 vandalism spree that damaged and destroyed about 125 SUVs at dealerships and homes in the San Gabriel Val (search)ley east of Los Angeles.

Cottrell was acquitted of using a destructive device — Molotov cocktails (search) — in a crime of violence. That was the most serious charge he faced and it carried a sentence of at least 30 years in prison.

At his trial, the prosecution had accused Cottrell of "arrogance" and a "towering superiority" toward people who did not share his environmental views. Cottrell had testified that SUV dealers were evil.

The judge said he felt sorry for Cottrell, a doctoral candidate in the physics department at the California Institute of Technology (search) in Pasadena, but he had only himself to blame.

"What a talent to have wasted," Klausner said.

Vandals used spray-paint to deface the vehicles with slogans such as "Fat, Lazy Americans," "polluter" and "ELF," for Earth Liberation Front (search), a radical environmental group.

Prosecutors estimated the total damage at $2.3 million.

Defense lawyers argued that Cottrell had agreed with two friends to spray-paint vehicles, but was surprised when they began to hurl Molotov cocktails.

Federal prosecutors have identified former Caltech students Tyler Johnson (search) and Michie Oe (search) as "fugitive co-conspirators" in the case. It is believed that both have fled the country.

Cottrell was arrested in March 2004 after authorities tracked e-mails sent to the Los Angeles Times. The sender said he was involved in the SUV attacks and affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front.