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Blaze a possible diversion to free pit bull

Esperanza fire suspect was upset his dog was impounded, a cousin says. He may face murder charges in the 2006 fire that killed five.

March 15, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

A relative of arson suspect Raymond Lee Oyler, accused of setting a Riverside County wildfire that killed five federal firefighters in October, told investigators that Oyler had said he wanted to set the mountain on fire as a diversion to break his family's pit bull out of a nearby pound, according to investigative reports.

The statement from Oyler's cousin Jill Frame is likely to come up when Oyler appears Monday in a Riverside courtroom for a hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed with his first-degree murder trial.

Oyler's attorney, Mark R. McDonald, said Frame was "without any credibility," in part because her side of the family has had a feud with Oyler and his closest relatives.

The Riverside County district attorney's office has charged Oyler with the deaths of the five federal firefighters killed Oct. 26 in the Esperanza fire, which burned 40,000 acres west of Palm Springs. He is also charged with arson in 10 other fires set between June and October in the Banning area.

Tom Freeman, executive officer of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, said he could not comment on investigative reports or evidence collected in the case. Officials from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also participated in the investigation.

The prosecutor handling Oyler's case could not be reached for comment.

When Oyler was first questioned about the night the deadly fire started, the 36-year-old car mechanic told investigators that he went to sleep early at his Beaumont apartment and stayed home all night, according to a sheriff's report reviewed by The Times.

But in a second interview, records show, he told authorities he left his home in the middle of the night to gamble at the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, which is just north of the fire's origin, and later drove to a gas station to buy cigarettes and to another area to watch the fire.

Investigators who reviewed videotapes of the fifth floor of the casino's parking structure -- where Oyler told investigators he parks for luck -- did not see Oyler enter or exit between the late hours of Oct. 25 and 4 a.m. the next day, when the Esperanza fire started, the records stated.

McDonald said his client had mixed up the times, but that he was home with his baby when the fire began. McDonald said he was still seeking other video from the casino that will show Oyler was there, and that security tapes verify his client did drive to the gas station for cigarettes.

Investigators focused on Oyler as a suspect in the Esperanza fire after surveillance camera footage showed his Ford Taurus near the origin of an arson fire in the Mias Canyon area four days earlier, according a report filed by investigators who first interviewed him.

When first questioned about his whereabouts during the Mias Canyon fire, Oyler told investigators that he had not had his car that day, according to a sheriff's report. Later he said he had lent the car to a transient during the afternoon, when the Mias Canyon fire was set.

The transient denied ever driving Oyler's car, though he did say he slept in it occasionally, according to sheriff's reports.

Detectives also got a tip that the Esperanza fire might be linked to the family's pit bull being quarantined less than a week before the Esperanza fire, according to Banning police records.

In early October, the family's two pit bulls attacked a woman and her dog near Oyler's parents' house, police records state. Police found one dog at the house of a friend of Oyler's sister and took it to a shelter Oct. 21.

Frame, Oyler's cousin, told investigators that she visited Oyler and his girlfriend soon after the dog was impounded. During that visit, Oyler allegedly told her he had set fires that day in the Banning area as a diversion so he could break his dog out of the pound, according to a sheriff's report describing the interview.

Frame told investigators that Oyler had said he was driving around late the previous night, casing the area trying to figure out how to set the mountain on fire, according to the report.

Records show that Joanna Oyler told investigators in one interview that her brother was angry that animal control had taken the dog and made statements about getting the dog out by "burning the place down," but he would not have done that, she said.

McDonald, Oyler's attorney, said he found the sheriff's investigators' line of questioning about the pit bull "humorous."

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