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Prosecutors search for man charged with jury tampering

The brother-in-law of Raymond Oyler, who was convicted of starting the 2006 Esperanza blaze that killed five firefighters, allegedly put newspaper articles on jurors' windshields during the trial.

August 20, 2009|David Kelly

Riverside County prosecutors have filed jury tampering charges against the brother-in-law of Raymond Lee Oyler, who was convicted and sentenced to death this summer for setting the 2006 Esperanza fire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters.

Christopher Vaughn Hillman, 46, is charged with seven counts of jury tampering and remains at large, investigators said Wednesday. A warrant has been issued and a $10,000 reward has been offered for information leading to his arrest.

During Oyler's trial, Hillman allegedly put fliers of newspaper articles on the windows of jurors' cars that described defense evidence the judge had excluded.

Oyler, a Beaumont mechanic, was sentenced to death in June for setting the Esperanza fire near Cabazon, Calif., which burned more than 41,000 acres and destroyed 34 homes.

The five Forest Service firefighters -- Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Jess McLean, 27; Pablo Cerda, 23; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; and Jason McKay, 27 -- were trying to save a house in a canyon when they were overwhelmed by a wall of flames and died.

According to the district attorney's office, Hillman put fliers on all the vehicles in the juror parking lots sometime around Feb. 26. Three jurors found the material during a noon recess and sheriff's deputies located four more.

The stories were about a Forest Service investigator suspected of starting fires in the same vicinity at about the same time as Oyler.

But Judge W. Charles Morgan did not admit this information as evidence.

After discovering the fliers, Morgan questioned each juror but didn't remove any from the panel.

Investigators found Hillman's fingerprints on the material and went to his Hesperia home earlier this month with a search warrant. The suspect fled when they arrived and hasn't been seen since.

Michael Jeandron, spokesman for the district attorney's office, said strong evidence linking Hillman to the crime was found in the home.

But finding him has been difficult.

"We have been talking to his family in an effort to negotiate a surrender, but we have not been successful," Jeandron said.

He said the conviction of Oyler is the strongest evidence that the tampering didn't work.

"We were able to achieve justice in this case despite his efforts to derail it," he said.

Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco issued a statement calling jury tampering "one of the single greatest threats to our system."

If convicted, Hillman faces up to seven years in prison.

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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