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Alleged conspirator in San Gabriel Valley arson attacks dies in France [Updated]

February 5, 2010 | 10:44 am

Tyler James Johnson, a Caltech graduate student who fled the U.S. after authorities identified him as an alleged conspirator in a case involving arson attacks at several San Gabriel Valley car dealerships six years ago, has died.

He was 30. According to an obituary posted on the website of the Michigan-based Staffan-Mitchell Funeral Home, Johnson was “killed from a fall due to an avalanche” on Dec. 26 during a solo expedition in the Corsican mountains of France.

Johnson became a fugitive after being named as a co-conspirator in the August 2003 firebombing of eight sport-utility vehicles at a West Covina auto dealership and another SUV parked on a residential street in Monrovia.

William Jensen Cottrell, then 24 and a doctoral candidate in physics, implicated Johnson in the bombing rampage, alleging that Johnson and another conspirator threw the Molotov cocktails that damaged or destroyed the cars.

During his trial, Cottrell told the court that he and Johnson painted messages on SUVs, including “Killer,” “Terrorist” and ELF, the initials of the Earth Liberation Front, a militant environmental group.

Cottrell was convicted of conspiracy and arson in November 2004 for his part in vandalizing about 125 SUVs in the San Gabriel Valley. He was sentenced in April 2005 to eight years in federal prison. Although his arson convictions were overturned last year and his sentence vacated by a federal appeals court, a district judge reimposed Cottrell's original sentence in November. [Updated 2:01 p.m. Feb. 9: An earlier version of this post said Cottrell's arson convictions were overturned but failed to report on the subsequent ruling in November.]

According to Johnson’s online obituary, he spent the last six years in Corsica, where he “befriended dozens of people, hiked nearly all 214 summits greater than 2,000 meters and co-founded Solaria, a nonprofit association that designs solar technology.”

Described as a mathematician, physicist, photographer and mountaineer, Johnson was born in Ingham County, Mich. He earned a bachelor's degree in physics from Caltech in Pasadena, spoke fluent Chinese and French, and traveled extensively throughout the U.S., China and Australia.

“Tyler will be remembered for his kind and friendly nature, leadership, creative passion, independence, optimism, and idealistic vision of how things should, and could, be,” the obituary read.

He is survived by his parents, James and Patrice Johnson of Dansville, Mich., sister Kelsey Johnson,  grandmother Winnifred Johnson and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, according to the funeral home website.

-- Ann M. Simmons

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