Standard Deviation is the story of the troubled but brilliant young physicist Billy Cottrell and the events leading to his incarceration as an Eco-terrorist.

A tall, athletic, and good-looking young man Billy was in the prime of his life in 2003. While doing research at the California Institute of Technology he was one of the most promising PhD candidates of theoretical physics in the world before the FBI arrested him for involvement in the fire bombings and vandalism of over 130 SUVs.

From an early age Billy had socialization problems, often finding his books of math and science to be better friends than other children at school. His mother, Heidi, describes Billy as always being odd. She remembers that at age 10 Billy said, “there’s only room for 9 great physicists in the world” and he was determined to be one of them.

In school Billy was an awkward child often times bored and discouraged. Billy began acting out and he was kicked out of numerous schools. After a turbulent adolescence Billy was accepted to the University of Chicago physics program based upon an essay explaining his poor academic performance but off the chart test scores.

“If there's one thing that trouble does, it allows one the freedom to question the standards and purposes of the institution by which one's status is defined. It has thereby instilled within me a firm resolution to live by my own set of impermeable standards."

Billy went on to win Chicago’s top awards for undergraduate students in physics and math and won the top doctoral spot in string theory at the nations best theoretical physics institution, Cal Tech.

Billy’s life would begin to unravel on September 11th, 2003 when the FBI arrested a young environmental activist, Josh Connole. After Connole’s arrest the LA Times begins receiving anonymous e-mails from the “true culprits” that proclaim Connole had no connection to the arsons.

In early 2004, the police trace Billy through computer and video records at Cal Tech. He is arrested and faces arson charges carrying a minimum of 35 years in prison.  On November 19th, 2004 Billy is sentenced as a terrorist to eight years and four months in a federal prison as well as 3.5 million dollars in restitution.

By examining Billy’s past his family and colleagues try to understand how someone with as much intelligence and promise as Billy could end up behind bars for something so foolish.


Standard Deviation is told through those people who know Billy best: his family and colleagues. The events of Billy’s childhood and adolescence will be examined to shed light on his perspective and possible motivations as a physicist and provocateur.


Billy’s story is a universal story about the need for acceptance. Billy was an outcast in school as a child: first as an antisocial nerd and later as a rebellious troublemaker. In the loneliness of his childhood he found certainty and purpose through the rational world of physics. His story illustrates that advanced knowledge of quantum mechanics cannot help save one from the complexities of human relationships.


Standard Deviation incorporates home movies, still photos, news clips surveillance video, and the metaphorical use of archival footage in the execution of its visual style. All interviews are shot in tight close-up in 16x9 widescreen format to lend a deeper connection with the interview subjects.

The musical score incorporates a minimalist style heavy on percussion, piano and string instruments. 


Standard Deviation was shot on 24p standard definition digital video in native 16x9 widescreen format. Available print formats are BetaSP, DVCam, Mini DV, and DVD.