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Cigarette-match devices betray serial arsonist, prosecutors say

Riverside County judge hears preliminary evidence in case of five Esperanza fire deaths.

March 20, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

In the five months leading up to the 40,000-acre Esperanza fire that killed five federal firefighters in October, investigators in Riverside County were on the hunt for a serial arsonist they believed was responsible for more than 50 fires in the San Gorgonio Pass.

They posted surveillance cameras on telephone poles in remote areas and strategized about how to catch the person. They also came to believe the arsonist was becoming increasingly sophisticated -- refining arson devices and choosing terrain where a wild fire could spread quickly across the mountains.

Raymond Lee Oyler, a 36-year-old Beaumont mechanic, was that person, Riverside County prosecutors alleged in a preliminary hearing Monday.

Oyler's DNA has been linked to two fires ignited in June in the San Gorgonio Pass, authorities say, and an investigator testified Monday that a Ford Taurus -- later traced to Oyler -- was the only vehicle captured on tape entering the remote Mias Canyon area within minutes of an arson there and just four days before the Esperanza fire.

The Riverside County district attorney's office has charged Oyler with five counts of first-degree murder, 23 counts of arson and 17 counts of possession of materials to commit arson. He pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted on the murder charges, he could face the death penalty.

This week, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Prevost will determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.

As Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin spent hours Monday detailing each of the 23 fires, he showed photographs that he said illustrated that many of the fires were ignited with red-tipped wooden matches, often arranged on or around a Marlboro cigarette.

"We believe the evidence will show all of the fires were committed by one person, and it's a serial arsonist that did it," Hestrin said. "The devices Mr. Oyler used have distinct similarities ... and you can see how the devices change over time and how there's an evolution in the thinking of the defendant."

Despite the details from prosecutors, Oyler's lawyer, Mark McDonald, said he still did not see any "rhyme or reason" to the fires or a strong linkage between them.

"There is, to me, a big difference between an arsonist who throws a match out the window ... and someone who takes the time to skillfully put together a device," McDonald said.

"One is artistic and creative in a bad way ... the other one is just throwing a match out the window.... It points to different people. I don't see the commonality."

A number of fire investigators said in testimony Monday that the arsonist appeared to be trying out different techniques -- open-flame devices, cigarette-and-match devices, and matches thrown into the brush.

Hestrin showed photographs of the point of origin of the first three fires Oyler is charged with -- all ignited May 16 within a 1-mile radius, and within about 20 to 30 minutes -- including the intact devices, which were made with red-tipped matches wrapped around a Marlboro Light cigarette with a thick, green rubber band.

Capt. Charlie DeHart, an investigator with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the May 16 fires had a signature. In two fires, the cigarette was wrapped with 31 matches. In the third, it was wrapped with 33 matches.

In all three, the device was originally held together with the rubber band, he said.

As the summer progressed, fewer matches were used to start the fires. "It's my opinion that it was experimentation ... to see which one works the best," DeHart said.

The Esperanza fire was started at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 26.

As they tried to protect a house in Twin Palms, flames swept over U.S. Forest Service firefighters: Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, the team's captain; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; and Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley. Cerda was taken to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton with burns over 90% of his body. He died several days later.

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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