William Cottrell's father says his 23-year-old son is bright and eccentric but not an eco-terrorist who torched vehicles at California dealerships.
The FBI arrested the young man in connection with arsons and vandalism of 125 SUVs at four dealerships, causing about $2.5 million in damages in August.
He's a physics graduate student at California Institute of Technology. The FBI says he used an alias in boastful e-mails, saying the FBI was clueless and claiming membership in the Earth Liberation Front, a radical group that thinks starting arson fires stops pollution.
Authorities traced the e-mails to Cottrell and Caltech, where six computers were seized. A Caltech spokesman says the school is dismayed.
Cottrell is held without bond. “We are still reasonably sure he wasn't a primary agent in this deed,” says his father, a doctor in Concord, NC.