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Esperanza suspect faces murder trial

Riverside County judge rules there's enough evidence against the man accused of setting 40,000-acre blaze that killed five firefighters.

March 21, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

After a two-day hearing in which prosecutors previewed their case against the man accused of lighting the 40,000-acre Esperanza fire in October, a Riverside County judge ruled that suspected arsonist Raymond Lee Oyler would stand trial for murder in the deaths of five firefighters killed in the blaze.

He also will be tried on 22 counts of arson and 17 counts of possession of materials to commit arson, Judge Jeffrey Prevost ruled.

Family members of the firefighters, who filled three rows in the Riverside courtroom, sobbed quietly as Prevost said he had seen enough evidence to try Oyler, a 36-year-old mechanic from Beaumont, on arson charges in the Esperanza fire and 21 others in the San Gorgonio Pass between May and October of last year.

Riverside County prosecutor Michael Hestrin acknowledged in his closing statement that he had laid out "a circumstantial case" against Oyler.

But Hestrin argued that the circumstantial evidence was strong, including DNA said to be Oyler's found on cigarette-and-match devices used to light two fires in June, the discovery that similar devices were used to light many of the fires, and testimony from Oyler's relatives that he had set arson fires in the San Gorgonio Pass and said he wanted to "set the mountain on fire" to free a family dog a week before the Esperanza fire.

"We have the defendant directly tied to five of these arsons; we have got him tied by DNA to two arsons," Hestrin said.

Hestrin added that since Oyler was arrested Oct. 31 there had been no arson fires in the pass -- after more than 50 of them last year.

Oyler's attorney, Mark McDonald, told the judge "the evidence fell short" and that investigators had failed to establish a strong case against his client.

"What we're going to be able to show [at trial] is that the devices used in all these various 23 fires are by no means unique," McDonald said in an interview after the hearing.

Earlier in the hearing, when the chief Esperanza arson investigator laid out the prosecution's case alleging that Oyler had used half a dozen types of devices -- including matches laid across a cigarette and cigarette-and-match devices affixed with duct tape because he was looking for the most effective one -- McDonald challenged him vigorously.

"You're just guessing. You're just speculating," he told James Engel in court.

The most potentially damaging testimony came from Oyler's fiancee, Crystal Breazile, and his cousin Jill Frame.

Breazile, who was subpoenaed by prosecutors, told the court that Oyler had admitted lighting fires in the Banning-Beaumont area in 2006 and that she threatened to leave him if he didn't stop.

Frame testified that Oyler was upset about the impounded dog, which had attacked a woman. Frame testified that when she visited Oyler's apartment four days before the fire began he said he had been out the entire previous night looking for a location to set a fire.

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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